Earth is round but society is flat. Exploring the concept of “scale” in transitions and ANT (I)

One of the most well-known characteristics of Actor-Network Theory is the non-existence, neither as ontological conceptions nor as methodological resources, of dichotomies close/far; large-scale/small-scale; inside/outside (Latour, 1996). The metaphor of the “network” (“plasma” or any other structure in this way) produces a specific sense of relationship where the “in between” appears, perhaps, as the only sense of spatiality.  

Basically, this connection between elements is produced by the action of boundary objects (Star & Griesemer 1989). The figure of those objects results crucial for understanding the kind of structure proposed under the postulates of ANT. But before continuing exploring the nature of those elements, let us focus on the idea of structure. The first thing we should know about structures is their lack of durability and their nonexistence per se.

The idea of a network acts as a metaphor that tries to organize, in a certain way, an unstable and effervescent reality. Actors (any kind of element that has the capacity of producing a difference) are assembling and disassembling associations based on individual and communal intentions that are out of systemic and deterministic logics. The figure of the actor defined by a performative condition breaks another dichotomy: human/non-human. The nature of who is producing the action is not relevant as the action itself.

A network is a flexible structure that is permanently being composed by the actions of heterogenous elements in a sort of a collective construction. There is not a presupposed “epistemological primacy for any one viewpoint” (Star & Griesemer 1989, p.389) setting up this assemblage. The weight or relevance of any actor inside of a net is variable. Power is under constant circulation even when sometimes it gives the impression that it is acquiring a permanent stabilized shape. 

There is also a risk regarding the way of perceiving how the power is located. Annemarie Mol (2010) proposes to face this issue as a problem of attribution: “An actor acts. But how much exactly does it, he or she do? It is striking that some actors receive a great deal of credit: they are celebrated as heroes. But it may well be that they only seem so strong because the activity of lots of others is attributed to them.” (255).

Mol’s proposal is part of a “version” of Actor-Network Theory (Gherardi & Nicolini 2005) based on an ecological symbolic-interactionism approach (Star & Griesemer 1989; Collins and Yearly 1992) that criticizes how mostly Latour’s (1987) and Callon’s (1986) classical ANT version is prioritizing (Star 1991) powerful actors or even giving some actors a power that does not belong to them (Mol 2010). Classical ANT is creating heroes, lighting some elements and sending others to the shadows.

“Pasteur was a case in point1 All kind of people, journalists, farmers, technicians, vets, were involved in the discovery/invention of anthrax and the inoculations against it. All kinds of things were active as well, Petri-dishes, blood, transport systems. But French towns tend to have a “rue Pasteur” rather than a “rue Petri-dish” and there are no squares that are named after the first cow inoculated against anthrax even though she was the one risking her life. Pasteur was singled out as the hero, the responsible actor behind the pasteurisation of France. Bringing out that he, like any general, could only fight thanks to an entire army of people and things, is a typical ANT move. Against the implied fantasy of a masterful, separate actor, what is highlighted is the activity of all the associated actors involved. A strategist may be inventive, but nobody acts alone.” (Ibid 256)

Bringing up this issue regarding how researchers prioritize some actors over others, concentrating —borrowing this concept from Giddens (1984)— a collective agency into a single element, results in an interesting situation for entangling and exploring the relationships between scale, the position “in between,” boundary objects, and the metaphor of network made for describing and trying to give some sense to the world outside.

Let us come back at the beginning of this post for expanding the three dichotomies already presented with the intention of using them for attempting to draw around the shape of a net. “The advantage of thinking in terms of networks is that we get rid of ‘the tyranny of distance’ or proximity.” (Latour 1996, p. 4). The classical geographical perspective of closeness and remoteness is challenged by the idea of connection. It does not matter how far away —talking about metrical longitudes—two elements are, they are close if they are sharing or establishing a connection.

Representation of closeness based on connections. Image inspired on the Latour’s (1996) scheme.

The act of making connections, of establishing a bridge for communication is a performative activity. It means there is a constant process of constructing associations, of expanding the network. This particularity dilutes in a certain way the boundaries of a net. The focus should be on (1) the connections and (2) the act of establishing those connections. “A network is all boundary without inside and outside. The only question one may ask is whether or not a connection is established between two elements.” (ibid, p. 4).

Differentiation between a net’s shape and a solid element’s model. The last one has a defined structure with clear boundaries and inside-outside limits. Image based on the Latour’s (1996) scheme.

As a last proposed dichotomy we have large-scale/small-scale. This point is, perhaps, the most complex of the three already announced, and it is also the core of this exploration due to its inventive potential. Grosso modo, and from an ANT perspective, using the metaphor of a network for describing the social, invalidates any scalar analysis. “The whole metaphor of scales going from the individual, to the nation state, through family, extended kin, groups, institutions etc. is replaced by a metaphor of connections.” (ibid, p. 5).

This is a parallel between a scalar model and a network. The idea of a net is collectivizing the power among their elements. Image based on the Latour’s (1996) scheme.

Translating this proposal of dispensing with scales to Urban Studies (US) results highly problematic because scalar-elements (“city,” “region,” “country”) are fundamental objects for working inside of this multidisciplinary field. As a proposal for a future post, it will be interesting to start an inquiry about what is the object of Urban Studies. Is it the urban, or the city? Is the urban a movement? Is it a condition? What is a city? 

Anyways, to think about US without a scalar condition is basically defying the field itself. A contaminated Urban Studies with ANT conceptual background forces us —as urban researchers— to re-think the strategies and epistemological resources for approaching (1) what we consider as urban, (2) what should we take care of when we work in/with urban-something, and (3) how to talk about what we are observing in that specific context. 

If we take the model of a network as a structural proposal for temporal organizing and describing the world that is there, we are also automatically accepting flattering and enlarging that world. The action of making it flat is, paradoxically, eliminating any geographical longitude. When we talk about networks the only dimension we have is the figure of “in between.” that contains not only a semantic connection but also a specific kind of element called “intermediary.”

Despite its name could suggest a sort of neutrality, a intermediary is much more than a passive element, its function is serving as a bridge between an actor and another. “In ANT intermediaries play a fundamental role and intermediary is anything that circulates between actors and helps define the relation between them. The notion of intermediary covers diverse and heterogeneous materials such as drawings, texts and inscriptions (reports, scientific articles, laws and regulations, stories, etc), software, disciplined bodies, contracts, money.” (Gherardi & Nicolini 2005, p. 4)

In a classical-ANT perspective those intermediaries are acting only as mediators. It means, they are just devices that were made with the intention of emphasizing either the power or the authority of an specific actor. “An intermediary is the visible effect of the work of assembling heterogeneous materials performed by any actor that seeks to impose its own version of reality on others.” (ibid

Meanwhile, in an ecological-ANT approach intermediaries acquire a different status as “boundary objects.” According to Star and Griesemer (1989), those particular objects are “simultaneously concrete and abstract, specific and general, conventionalized and customized. They are often internally heterogeneous.” (P. 408). The main difference between this sort of “in between” and the one proposed by classical-ANT is that boundary objects are collective constructions instead of just being elements of authority. 

To think on those connections among elements as boundary objects is lengthening networks even more. It is possible to talk about a full flattering of the social when we not only apply a symmetrical perspective regarding the kind of elements participating in the assemblage of new associations, but when we understand the elaboration of connections as a process of establishing a communal compromise despite the actors involved in that agreement come from different worlds and have dissimilar intentions.

However, one thing is —as researchers— elaborating an epistemic model for describing the social where scales are not convenient as methodological resources, and another thing is pretending that scales do not exist as part of the actors’ ways of understanding what they are  doing and how they are making connections. “The problem is that social scientists use scale as one of the many variables they need to set up before doing the study, whereas scale is what actors achieve by scaling, spacing, and contextualizing each other through the transportation in some specific vehicles of some specific traces.” (Latour 2005, p. 183)

In the second part of this post we will continue exploring the concept of “scale,” this time with the intention of dealing with transitions and ANT. we will talk about macro-objects and spatialities rethinking from this encounter the concepts of city and urban. We also will re-work the notion of heroism imagining and speculating a urban-STS based on movements instead of solidified perspectives of ordering and governing.