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A slide deck discussing Chapter 3 of my book Network.

A slide deck discussing Chapter 3 of my book Network.

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  • Thanks for tuning again. Once again, I’m Clay Spinuzzi, associate professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas. And we’re about to discuss Chapter 3 of my book, Network. This chapter is the thickest, densest part of the book because it tries to explain two dense, thick theories. We hinted at these theories and their differences in Chapter 2. But now we’re going to spend some substantial time on them, including how we can apply them to social media. So let’s get started.
  • By the end of this slide deck, you should have a basic grounding in activity theory and actor-network theory, including a bit of their history, their assumptions, and their applications. You’ll also be able to articulate the strengths of each theory – what they do, how that can apply to your work. You’ll also know the differences between them, so you’ll know when one might be more applicable to a given situation.KEY TAKEAWAY: Building activity systems and activity neworks.
  • So let’s get to it. As the book discusses, these two theories are fighting over how to make sense of sociotechnical activities, particularly in the sense of sociotechnical networks. As we discussed in the last slide deck, we can find some common ground in how they treat networks, but there’s also plenty of disagreements.
  • So the tendency is tosee these as warring theories fighting over the same area. To judge the fight and declare a winner. Especially because these are being applied, suddenly, in similar areas.But even though they’re being applied in similar places, these theories are really after different things.Activity theory is a theory of distributed cognition. It focuses on how people learn, solve problems, and develop competence, both individually and collectively. And as we learned in the last slide deck, it’s developmental.On the other hand, actor-network theory is an ontology, an account of existence. It’s actually agnostic about cognition and competence. Instead, it focuses on how different elements become defined as part of an activity. As we saw in the last slide deck, it’s not developmental but rather associational. But here, they’ve invaded the same space and are fighting over it.Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maha-online/2163831851/
  • In fact, people criticize ANT because it has a poor theory of cognition, and they criticize AT for not handling issues of politics well. That’s like criticizing a hammer because it makes a poor spatula. They’re different tools, even if they’re applied in the same space.So rather than fighting over these differences, let’s see what these tools are and how they work.http://www.flickr.com/photos/58534808@N00/323527110/http://www.flickr.com/photos/a_mason/7251819/
  • Let’s start with the idea of weaving (development) and splicing (alliance) from Chapter 2. This distinction is perhaps a bit facile, but is a starting point for describing differences. Although both theories can account for weaving and splicing, in activity theory, the first stroke is a weave – that is, it starts with development. For actor-network theory, the first stroke is a splice: the beginning point is always the alliance.
  • So here’s the central disagreement between the theories in a nutshell. They’re both sociocultural theories, they both address sociocultural networks, but they disagree about the first stroke, the first link of a network. Does development come first? Or do interests?As I said, these are two ways of looking at the world, focusing on two different foregrounds. But they’re increasingly applied to the same phenomena – including telecommunication companies and social media.
  • With that difference in mind, let’s get to some of the basics of each theory. We’ll start with activity theory.
  • Let’s start with this fellow, Friedrich Engels. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Engels.jpg
  • Engels, as you remember, was Karl Marx’s confederate. He wrote extensively on dialectics, in which two material things passed through each other to develop a third thing that may have new properties. These things could be molecules, they could be the interaction between an organism and the environment for which it evolved, they could be thoughts and ideas.Engels described dialectics as the universally valid “laws of development of nature.” For Engelsian dialectics, development follows time’s arrow: just as you can’t unring the bell or ungrind the hamburger, you can’t undo development.Engels wrote more plainly about dialectics than Marx did, and in more formulaic ways, so his works became widely used in the early Soviet Union.
  • One of Engels’ favorite illustrations of dialectics was that of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Both are gases at room temperature, both are flammable. But when you combine them, they form a molecule with entirely different properties: the water molecule. This particular illustration – the water molecule - was used by a brilliant young psychologist in the newly formed Soviet Union. His name was Lev Vygotsky.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c6/3D_model_hydrogen_bonds_in_water.svg/2000px-3D_model_hydrogen_bonds_in_water.svg.png
  • Vygotsky was brilliant, and he wanted to develop a Marxist psychology based on dialectics. Although he died in 1934, at the young age of 37, he made great strides in doing just that. Unfortunately, after his death, his work was suppressed for a time in the Soviet Union.Vygotsky was very interested in mediation.http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/images/index.htm
  • Mediation involves how cultural artifacts could serve as external stimuli that allow human beings to control their own behavior from the outside. For instance, you might tie a string around your finger to remember something. Or if you’re an infant, you might reach for something beyond your grasp and discover that an adult will hand it to you. When an infant discovers this, their reach becomes a gesture. Adults still use that gesture – pointing – to mediate their activities. The mediator qualitatively transforms activity. http://www.flickr.com/photos/rusty_clark/6083271801/
  • Here’s how Vygotsky illustrated mediation. A and B are two related stimuli. A “natural” relation might involve keeping these two associated. For instance, you might try to remember to ask your spouse a question when you get home. But X represents an external stimulus that connects them – for instance, tying a string around your finger. X is the mediator; it allows you to control your behavior from the outside.http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/1930/instrumental.htm
  • As we saw earlier, texts often serve such mediatory functions. They allow us to mediate – and distribute – cognition in various ways. Mediation implies that there’s no hard difference between the cognitive and the social. And that in turn implies that as we learn to use mediational means that are passed down to us, we also learn the assumptions and worldviews, the social situations, to which these means respond.Photos:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ex-smith/4966648255/sizes/z/in/set-72157626903397039/http://www.flickr.com/photos/ex-smith/3797903855/sizes/z/in/set-72157626903397039/
  • Vygotsky’s colleague A.N. Leont’ev later elaborated on the Vygotskian notion of mediation in two ways. Leont’ev’s work, and the work of others at about this time, constitute what has been called the “second generation” of activity theory.Leont’ev elaborated on mediation, first, by positing levels of activity. We’ve already touched on these in the context of genre: (read). Leont’ev argued that a collective activity was made of goal-directed actions, which in turn were composed of unconscious operations. By breaking activity down into levels, he was able to describe how activities developed for individuals – and for groups as well. That is, he expanded the unit of analysis from the individual to the group.
  • The other was by positing relationships among elements in communal activity. Whereas Vygotsky worked with an individual triangle – a subject using a mediator or instrument to achieve an object – Leont’ev added communal elements such as rules, community, and division of labor. The points of the triangle are three different types of mediators (tools, rules, and division of labor). In an activity system, individual collaborators use mediational means (physical and psychological tools) to cyclically transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind. This triangle might look familiar…
  • … since the top of this triangle is based on Vygotsky’s triangle, flipped over. The mediator, the X, becomes the “instrument” at the top of the triangle. A and B become the subjects and object of the activity.But I should note that Leont’ev didn’t actually draw these triangles. Activity theory’s elaborated triangles were the invention of YrjoEngestrom. (vs. Hexagons) We’ll get to him in a minute, but…
  • … first let’s talk about what’s happening at the right side of this triangle. The object and the outcome. The object is the material that is cyclically achieved through the activity, and the outcome is the desired result.
  • For instance, the subjects or actors involved in the activity. In our farmer illustration, these might include the farmer and his or her family (since it’s a family farm).
  • The instruments or tools or mediators are what help the subjects to achieve the object. In our farm illustration, we might include farming implements such as tractors and hoes, but also information instruments such as a farmer’s almanac, a weather report, and a GPS.
  • This activity takes place within a context of a community. In this case, that might be the farming community with which the farmer interacts.
  • This community interacts with the subject partially through various rules. These might be explicit rules, such as regulations and ordinances. They might also be implicit rules such as rules of thumb.
  • And finally, the community’s relationship to the object is regulated by a division of labor. Again, this might be explicit: perhaps farmers agree that they won’t compete by growing the same crops. Or it could be implicit: when tragedy strikes one farmer, perhaps the others pitch in to help her bring her crop to market.An activity system develops over time, based on various factors. For instance, in an activity such as farming, these mediating instruments, rules, and divisions of labor do not spring up overnight. They evolve gradually as the activity of farming evolves. But how do they evolve? How do activities develop?
  • This brings us to the third generation of activity theory, which was formulated by YrjoEngestrom in the 1980s. In this third generation of activity theory, contradictionsare seen as the engines of change – what makes the activity develop. Engestrom describes contradictions as “historically accumulating structural tensions within or between activity systems” (Engeström 2001, p.137).Engestrom lifts the notion of contradiction from EvaldIlyenkov, a Soviet thinker, and names it activity theory’s central account of changes in activity. Interestingly, contradictions were not well explored in the activity theory of the Soviet Union: no one wanted to take the risk of applying it to internal Soviet matters. So although the notion of contradictions developed in previous generations of activity theory, it was not until the third generation that they became a central part of activity theory – along with these triangle diagrams introduced by Engestrom.So contradictions are the “engines of change” in third-generation activity theory. They can take four forms.
  • In capitalist formations, the primary contradiction is the inner conflict between exchange value and use value. It occurs at every point.For instance, a farmer might feel the contradiction in her object, as she both tries to sell her crop and use it to feed her family. Exchange and use are two very different things, requiring different strategies. But a farm in a capitalist society generally must satisfy both. The tension between these two objects leads to various developments.
  • Secondary contradictions are contradictions between relationships in the elements of the activity system. For instance, if you use a tool fine-tuned for one object in service of another, you may find that the tool doesn’t support the object well. For instance, suppose our family farmer uses an off-the-shelf GPS for plotting where to place her crops. Or maybe she even uses Google Maps on her iPhone. These tools aren’t really made to support farming.
  • Tertiary contradictions occur when an activity’s object and motive are replaced or brought into contact with the object and outcome of a more advanced activity. Engestrom gives the example of school, in which a student may principally go to play with other children, but over time takes on the object and outcome introduced by the teachers. Another example comes from one of my students who is part of a student organization. The organization participates in a charity to help the needy. But many members of the organization participate because it will look good on their resume, helping them to get a job. Ideally, for some of them, their self-focused object and outcome will be replaced by a more advanced, altruistic object and outcome.Tertiary contradictions often occur in larger activities in which people are at different levels of development. Examples include charitable and religious organizations. As in the example above, we sometimes interpret tertiary contradictions as hypocrisy; activity theory helps us to examine these contradictions structurally.
  • Finally, quaternary contradictions are the most relevant from the perspective of activity networks. Here, we might detect contradictions between the central activity and the neighboring activities.For instance, as we saw in the first slide deck, the activity of accident location was supported with tools originating in other activities. Those activities had different orientations, so these tools had to be transformed – and they also imported their own logic and problem orientation, causing systemic issues in the activity.This discussion naturally leads us to activity networks.
  • So finally we get to activity networks. Activities are related to each other. The farmer doesn’t labor in isolation – less so every day. He or she relies on other activities to produce the tools, practices, rules, and division of labor she uses. For instance, farmers don’t generally make their own implements – or their own GPSes – nor do they invent their own markets or regulations. These all tend to come from other activities. As this diagram illustrates, we can think of these activities as chained. In many cases, the outputs (objects) of one activity become the inputs of the next. For instance, a GPS manufacturer’s object is the GPS it manufactures; that GPS then becomes an instrument (tool) for the activity of farming. Another example might be a tool, developed for one activity, but migrated and adapted for another (ex: ALAS). Over time, activities develop and divide, becoming more distinct and specialized – that is, they weave. After all, at one point formers really did make their own implements, but now they find it cheaper and easier to buy their implements from a manufacturer.But in a chained activity network, the focus tends to be on external linkages and contradictions, not internal ones. These tend to make work boundaries too clear-cut. But as we saw in Chapter 2, these tend to overlap.
  • As we saw in the first slide deck, these contradictions between activities can manifest inside an activity, inside tools and practices, not just in external links. As Saarelma puts it, “the meaning of the links may be multiple.”For instance, in GIS-ALAS, a contradiction exists between the GIS and the underlying data, which are underpinned by different kinds of representations originating in different activities. The GIS was decontextualized from its originating activity and recontextualized in the activity of accident location and analysis.
  • But we can also examine activity networks as overlapping activities, sometimes converging on the same object, but an object construed in different ways. As we do, we move toward an account of splicing – although one that is still based within a woven network. The first stroke is a weave, but subsequent strokes may be splices as developmentally different activities intersect and change each other. So third-generation activity theorists have begun to discuss these issues in terms of polycontextuality – working on tasks from different activities or frames of work simultaneously. They have also begun discussing boundary-crossing, in which two activities are iteratively connected and a “boundary crosser” must mediate between them. Think in terms of representatives who communicate between two groups.
  • Here’s a quick example from my recent research. I’ve been studying coworking spaces in Austin: spaces where unaffiliated independent workers, workers who could choose to work at home or in other locations, can choose instead to work near each other. As I toured these spaces and interviewed the space proprietors and coworkers, I found that many of them simply disagreed on what coworking was, who they sought as coworkers, and why they coworked. Yet they were all “coworking.”If we see coworking as an isolated activity system, this doesn’t make sense. But if we analyze it in terms of networks of activity…
  • … we find that some coworkers are looking for “good neighbors.” They want a pleasant place to work on their own projects. A place where people won’t steal their laptops or talk loudly when they’re on the phone. A place where they can socialize as they work on their own projects. A nice office where they can meet clients. These people tend to be independents who do customer-facing work.But other coworkers are looking for …
  • … good partners. These coworkers tend to do business-to-business work, and often they interact with their clients online rather than in person. These people often take jobs and subcontract parts. And in the coworking site, they find other people with relevant skills, people who they can trust as partners. They might bring in a particular project, link up in a small team for the duration of the project, then disperse at the end. Although they do socialize, they focus on building partnership trust. Also, they rarely meet clients at the space.
  • Importantly, these two configurations occur at each space – two different orientations, two sets of objectives, two sets of desired outcomes, two different sets of coworkers. And some coworkers might be involved in both configurations simultaneously. By looking at the networks of activity involves in this case, we can better understand what’s going on at these spaces. And since we can focus on the contradictions they generate, we can predict new developments.
  • Notice that we always identify subjects in activity theory – human actors. In activity theory, people’s development is at center stage, even as they circulate through different activities. That is, activity theory is asymmetrical, investing agency in human beings but not in nonhumans. In activity theory, people are like astronauts, traveling through and developing as they cross these different worlds.Great Images in NASA (GRIN), public domain: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/IMAGES/MEDIUM/GPN-2000-001074.jpg
  • Or: we could start with tools and ask: what are these tools used for?)But we don’t have to read up on social objects to understand what’s going on. We can apply the heuristic of the activity system to understand people’s use of social media. Think of social media as one of the instruments in the activity system. So:-What are they using the social media to accomplish? What object do they cyclically realize, and what is their desired outcome?-Who is involved in using the social media?-What other instruments or tools are they using as they realize the object?-In what communities do they operate during this activity?-What explicit or unspoken rules do they use?-What division of labor have they established?The activity system is a powerful heuristic for pulling apart and examining these cyclical activities.
  • And we can go further. As they use social media to accomplish certain goals, how does that accomplishment link up with other activities? How do social media reflect, facilitate, or change other activities?
  • How do different, conflicting uses affect or disrupt the activity and its links to other activities? What contradictions are embedded in the social media?
  • How do overlapping activities interfere with each other?Here’s a classic example: two groups that should perhaps be mutually exclusive. Samuel M. mistakes Facebook for a back stage where he can talk to friends; his mother disrupts that conversation. Worlds collide.Activity theory provides a framework for examining how these activities are structured, link up, and conflict.http://failbook.failblog.org/2011/09/26/funny-facebook-fails-stop-2/#comments
  • So let’s sum up here. As we’ve discussed, activity theory provides a woven, developmental account of human activity. An an activity network, the nodes are activities, which develop over time. The links are the interconnections among activities and components of activities.And yes, sometimes these interconnections are spliced – often components of an activity come from another activity. But the underlying principle is weaving (development). The first stroke is a weave.
  • Actor-network theory is an entirely different animal, even though it has been deployed in some of the same contexts. Let’s get to some of these concepts.
  • With activity theory, we started with Engels. With actor-network theory,we’ll start with Machiavelli, the pragmatist whose works have (sometimes) been credited as an inspiration for actor-network theory. Machiavelli charged that other political writers had “dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist” (2003b, p.50). They relied on abstract social structures, ideals, or general laws to provide explanations. But Machiavelli examined the relations forged among actors and allowed those relations to be their own explanation (p.50).http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrcrash/85539715/
  • Bruno Latour, who more than anyone can be considered the father of actor-network theory, admired this stance and applied it to sociology. Classical sociology, he says, presumes an abstract social structure that functions as an explanatory device; it “can comment on what the patients say because it possesses metalanguage, while they have only language” (1996, p.199). But his relationist sociology doesn’t use this explanatory device: it “has no fixed reference frames, and consequently no metalanguage. It expects the actors to understand what they are and what it is” (p.200).Latour might as well have been describing…http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrunoLatour.jpg
  • … activity theory, with its systematically articulated activity systems.
  • Pragmatism amounts to – or is articulated here as – relational interactions that, unlike dialectical interactions, can always be reversed. Settlements can unravel, splices can be undone. No inertia exists that will carry these settlements forward, because at any moment these “allies” can betray each other. The focus is perpetually on alliance: “Interaction is all there is,” as John Law argues (1992, p.380). http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrcrash/85539715/
  • That focus on relationships brings us to the principle of symmetry. In this view, power is not a possession of a Prince, it is a consequence of the system: orders are followed not because the person who issued them is powerful, but because they are transformed into actions that serve the interests of those who execute them. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger_alcantara/100298354/
  • For instance, President Obama is nominally the most powerful person in the United States. But as his poll numbers dip, his own party is less likely to follow his lead or entertain his suggestions. In a practical sense, the President’s power wanes, as presidents’ powers typically do. Symmetry is an analytical stance: treating humans and nonhumans both as agents. Nonhumans are also participants in the negotiations, often resisting humans’ interpretations. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/administration-official/ao_image/President_Official_Portrait_HiRes.jpg
  • This brings us to actor-networks – and notice that we get to networks much earlier here than we did in activity theory. The notion of networks is central to actor-network theory, specifically networks as spliced. In an actor-network, actants define each other, emerging from the interplay of the network rather than defining or controlling it. Remember, actor-network theory represents a relationist sociology, so it involves examining the relationships first and how those relationships define entities.To use a more conventional example, Callon discusses how introducing cell phones enacted a new set of groups, including people who objected to cell phone towers.
  • We can also think of the Arab Spring, in which new communication technologies helped to enact new political groups and movements.http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/09/study-twitter-played-pivotal-role-in-arab-spring.php
  • In actor-network theory, an actant is less like an astronaut and more like a cyborg: decentralized, interconnected, an assemblage with constructed, confused boundaries rather than an organic unity.Rather than an individual passing through different worlds or activities, the actant is a nexus of human and nonhuman elements, reconfigured in each context.Great Images in NASA (GRIN), public domain: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/IMAGES/MEDIUM/GPN-2000-001074.jpghttp://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/4416036998/
  • Here’s a real-life cyborg: a visually impaired man with a cane. As Gregory Bateson argues in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, the assemblage – the man, his cane, and his environment – forms a molar unit that relies on the relationships of these elements to work. Take away one of these elements, and the assemblage no longer has the same capabilities.Furthermore, analytically, these units are themselves fractionally coherent: each actant is also an actor-network. When the man goes to the doctor, the doctor will examine him as a network of elements. In fact, different specialists may see him in very different ways, as Annemarie Mol illustrates beautifully in her book The Body Multiple.http://www.flickr.com/photos/welcome2bo/4337922625/
  • We saw something similar in the last slide deck, in which dogs, cables, F1 Notes, switches, telecommunications companies, data screens, and functional units all defined each other. Their relationships made each other important and caused each other to cohere ontologically. As Bateson would say, they are differences that make a difference.These are all elements in an actor-network. Without them, we don’t have reliable phone service.http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxwellgs/4267297275/
  • So this brings us to mediation, which means something different in actor-network theory. Here, mediation means creating a relationship between two actants. Such intermediations – the compromises and negotiations among actants, whether human or nonhuman – lead to their mutual adaptation.
  • Think again in terms of the genre development in ALAS that we saw in the first slide deck. Here, increasingly complex activity meant that more texts had to be brought in, texts that tended to redefine relationships among the other texts, but also among people, databases, and disciplines. Rather than thinking in terms of development, we might think in terms of assemblages. The more complex the service, the more “allies” or elements must be brought together to make it work
  • Or think of the case of Rex from slide deck 2. We call these actants “allies” in actor-network theory, but any actant can be a “traitor,” refusing to act in predicted and prescribed ways, turning away from or renegotiating the settlement. To keep them from turning away from the settlement, we enlist still more allies. A fence. The note “dog in yard.” Signs that tell people where they can’t dig. Local ordinances. The more complex the activity network, the more allies must be brought on board. In actor-network theory, agency is distributed among all these actants, human and nonhuman. That means that actants can significantly change the way the network operates. So how are these allies held in place?http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxwellgs/4267297275/
  • Think of these alliances or relationships as layers of sedimentation. Settlements on top of settlements. The more intermediated these actor-networks are, the more stable they are. As we discussed in the last slide deck, the longer an actor-network, the stronger it is; the deeper the layers, the more you have to strip away to unravel the network.New agreements are built on top of, and settle on the contours of, older ones. Think in terms of accretions, accretions of political-rhetorical agreements. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jkirkhart35/1836841937/
  • These accretions build political-rhetorical settlements. Such settlements grow stronger as their networks grow longer – as more sediment accumulates on top of them.How are such settlements formed? Actor-network theory calls this process “mediation,” but it means something quite different from activity theory’s use of the term.In actor-network theory,mediation involves four moments. [read]
  • Think of translation as power applied to change. Translation is what happens as different actants negotiate to achieve their own goals. And as they negotiate, their goals tend to drift, as they do in any compromise. Translation means transformation: cascades of intermediaries, including rerepresentations, transform actants in ways that facilitate this compromise work (Callon 1992; Latour 1999b).Translation itself involves four moments.- Translation starts with problematization: What must be accomplished or negotiated? The situation has to be turned into a problem so that the actant becomes indispensable, an obligatory passage point through which stakeholders must pass if they are to meet their own goals. - Next is interessement: What stakeholders are involved in the negotiation? Interessement involves defining the stakeholders and splicing them in (Latour 2006, p.208). - Next, enrollment: How do these stakeholders relate—how do they negotiate? Enrollment is the device by which interrelated roles are defined and attributed to actors who accept them.- Finally, mobilization: How can the stakeholders be persuaded to link up and accomplish the objectives? In mobilization, stakeholders agree on a cascade of intermediaries that reduces the number of interlocutors by providing a single representation (or a limited number of representations) of their interests (Callon 1986b, p.214; cf. Latour 1999b, p.248).
  • As we see here, translation, when successful, leads to the composition of a relatively coherent assemblage of actants. The actants are mobilized to commonly achieve a goal that accomplishes the accumulated goals of the various actants. In so doing, the assemblage becomes an actant itself. Its component actants are so locked together that they behave as one.“Who performs the action? Agent 1 plus Agent 2 plus Agent 3. Action is a property of associated entities,” both human and nonhuman (Latour 1999b, p.182).
  • They work not as individual components, but as a network. And that brings us to the next phase.http://www.flickr.com/photos/respres/5181391026/
  • The more tightly an assemblage coheres as a single actant, the more easily it is to treat it as such. That is, an especially coherent composition can be “black-boxed” (Latour 1999b),turned into a single thing – an object, a procedure, a concept, a technique – that resists decomposition and that therefore functions as a reliable building block for other work.http://www.flickr.com/photos/amagill/34762695/
  • But black-boxing is entirely reversible. Any settlement can be undone, any black box can be opened, and any composition can unravel. As we see above, the black box of phone service is progressively opened, revealing the many actants that sustain it. The settlement unravels and must be restored.
  • Finally, we get to delegation: we delegate tasks – and oftenmorality – to nonhumans.For instance, Rex’s owner couldn’t let him roam the neighborhood, scaring children and digging up the neighbor’s flower bed. But at the same time, Rex’s owner couldn’t always be on hand to make sure the dog stayed in the yard. To deal with this task, he delegated it to a nonhuman: a fence. Latour points out that as we delegate tasks, we also delegate morality. You may have heard the expression that “good fences make good neighbors.” Other sorts of delegations do something similar. For instance, speed bumps in the road make people slow down. A safety feature in your food processor forces you to keep your fingers out of it.http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxwellgs/4267297275/
  • With all this in mind, we get to the genuine differences between these two theories. Rather than fighting it out, these theories can be seen as aiming to accomplish different things in their analyses.
  • (see p.94)They have very different focuses and projects.
  • Activity theory starts with development; actor-network theory starts with political-rhetorical settlements.
  • Activity theory focuses on competence and cognition; actor-network theory is all about negotiating relationships, and is not even remotely concerned with cognition.
  • Activity theory focuses on how actors structure activities. Actor-network theory focuses on relationships, relationships that produce actors.
  • Activity theory, since it’s focused on development, follows time’s arrow from the past to the future. Actor-network theory sees everything as reversible. These settlements can be abandoned.
  • Activity theory’s account of change is through structural contradictions. Actor-network’s account of change is through translations, as we’ll see in the next chapter.
  • So there’s some of the key differences. But for all their differences, these two sociotechnical theories agree on certain things. They start with a materialist understanding of activity, they both deal with splicing and weaving, and they both theorize networks that are heterogeneous, multiply linked, transformative, and black-boxed. With this common ground, we can conduct an actual dialogue between them.
  • At this point, you should have the following takeaways: [read]
  • See my book Topsight for clearer directions on how to describe activity systems and activity networks.


  • 1. How are Networks Theorized? Clay Spinuzzi Clay.spinuzzi@utexas.edu
  • 2. Value• Grounding in activity theory: history, assumptions, applications• Grounding in actor-network theory: history, assumptions, applications• Strengths of each theory• Differences between the theories• Applications of each theory to social media
  • 3. THE FIGHT
  • 5. The Central Disagreement• Activity theory: Development precedes and underpins political-rhetorical interests [weaving]• Actor-network theory: Political-rhetorical interests precede and underpin development [splicing]
  • 6. 0. Engelsian dialectics1. Mediation2. Structure of activity3. Contradictions4. Activity networksACTIVITY THEORY: KEY CONCEPTS
  • 7. 0. Engelsian Dialectics• “The dialectical laws are really laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science” (Engels 1954, p.84).• Not only does dialectic constitute a “universally valid … general law of development of nature, society, or thought,” it also constitutes a universally valid law of development for the natural world (p.91).
  • 8. 1. Mediation
  • 9. “typified rhetorical responses to recurring social situations”
  • 10. 2. Structure of ActivityLevel Focus Chars Timescale Aware? DisruptionMacro Activity Culture, Year, No Contradiction history; decades social action, social memoryMeso Goal Tool-in-use; Minutes, Yes Discoordination tactics hoursMicro Operation Rules, habits Seconds No Breakdown
  • 11. 2. Structure of Activity
  • 12. 3. Contradictions
  • 13. Primary Contradictions
  • 14. Secondary Contradictions
  • 15. Tertiary Contradictions
  • 16. Quaternary Contradictions
  • 17. 4. Activity Networks
  • 18. 4. Activity Networks
  • 19. Example: Coworking• Coworking = “working alone, together”• Coworking sites = open plan workspaces where unaffiliated people can work in each others’ presence• Coworkers and proprietors don’t agree on what coworking is
  • 20. Clients Clients Interior Web design development Object: Outcome: neighborly parallel collaboration work Coworking Clients Art Clients Marketing RealClients estate
  • 21. WebGraphic design development SEO Copywriting Web services Retail Client Outcome: Object: team collaboration cooperative work
  • 22. Client Client ClientClient
  • 23. Exercise: What’s your activity?• What is the object they’re cyclically trying to achieve?• What’s the outcome they’re trying to produce? (Why are they doing it?)(Figure out the object and outcome, and you’llbe able to determine the rest of the activity.)
  • 24. Social Media in an Activity System
  • 25. Social Media in an Activity Network
  • 26. Social Media in an Activity Network
  • 27. Social Media in an Activity Network
  • 28. Activity Theory: Summing Up• Woven, developmental• Nodes: activities, which develop over time• Links: interconnections among activities and components of activities• Splicing explicitly built on top of weaving• The first stroke is a weave
  • 29. 0. Machiavelli1. Actor-Networks2. Mediation3. Translation4. Composition5. Black-Boxing6. DelegationACTOR-NETWORK THEORY: KEYCONCEPTS
  • 30. 1. Actor-Networks• Actants define each other (Callon 1991, p.142)• The actant is the effect of the network, not its cause (Law 1992)• ANT is ontological.
  • 31. 2. Mediation• In ANT, creating a relation (link) between two actants (nodes)• All actants are also intermediaries• Agency is distributed
  • 32. Genres Developed Over Iterations
  • 33. Mediation Involves…• Translation• Composition• Reversible Black-Boxing• Delegation
  • 34. 3. Translationa. Problematizationb. Interessementc. Enrollmentd. Mobilization
  • 35. 4. Composition• The assemblage becomes an actant.• “Who performs the action?”• “Action is simply not a property of humans but an association of actants” (Latour 1999b, p.182; cf. Berg 1999, Law 1986b).
  • 36. 5. Reversible Black-Boxing• “I’ll call X.”• “The phone’s not working.”• “The line is dead.”• “I called Telecorp and they’ll send someone out.”• “Telecorp didn’t tell the BigTel technician there was a dog in our yard.”
  • 37. 6. Delegation
  • 38. Exercise: How is translation happening in your case?• Problematization. What’s the problem to be solved?• Interessement. What people and resources must be defined to address the problem?• Enrollment. How are these people and resources given roles? Defined and attributed?• Mobilization. How can they be persuaded to link up and address the problem?
  • 40. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 41. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 42. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 43. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 44. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 45. Genuine Differences Activity Theory Actor-Network TheoryThe first stroke is a weave The first stroke is a spliceDevelopmental Political-rhetoricalCompetence, Cognition NegotiationDialectic RhizomaticGenealogical AntigenealogicalAsymmetrical SymmetricalStructural RelationalIrreversible ReversibleContradictions TranslationsEpistemology Ontology
  • 46. Commonalities• Heterogeneous• Multiply linked• Transformative• Black-boxed
  • 47. Takeaways• Grounding in activity theory: history, assumptions, applications• Grounding in actor-network theory: history, assumptions, applications• Strengths of each theory• Differences between the theories• Applications of each theory to social media
  • 48. Exercise: Analyzing an Activity• Identify the object of your activity: the problem space or material around which people’s effort is focused, the problem space that is cyclically transformed.• Identify the outcome: what results from the cyclical transformation. Think in terms of motives or benefits.• Based on these, identify the other components of the activity.
  • 49. Exercise: Identifying Black Boxes• In the same case, identify a black box (e.g., “I’m making a call”).• Try decomposing the black box. What components or actants compose it and hold it together?• Try examining translation. Where did these actants come from, and how did they come together?• Repeat – forever.