Ethically sourced photos from John Johnston’s cc flickr search tool
I’ve always loved coastlines – living in Banff in the north east of Scotland for most of my school days has left me with a rather sentimental hankering for rocky shores, the sea, fishing boats, big waves and harbours. We’ve been spending holidays in western France, near the atlantic for nearly 20 years now and I’m developing a similar rather dewy nostalgia for the big altantic skies and coast, wild horses on salt flats and artisanal fishing scenes like the one above. It’s all so charmingly low-tech (at least it is in my romantic imaginings, anyway!).
So you might imagine with my recent tentative dabblings with actor-network theory I was quite intrigued when my PhD colleague Julia mentioned in conversation with Tara (see last post)at our last PhD workshop the light-bulb moment she had when she read Michel Callon’s chapter on ANT (Callon 1986) in Power, Action and Belief: A new sociology of knowledge? (J Law, ed. 1986) which narrates an interesting tale of the scallops and fishermen of Brittany’s St Brieuc bay. Julia isn’t alone, Tara told us – this is the switch that illuminated ANT for many people, apparently. I had to read it.
The chapter starts by outlining four pivotal “moments of translation” (Callon 1986 p196)identified in the analysis of an investigation into declining scallop population in the St Brieuc bay. These are problematisation; interessement; enrolement and mobilisation,(processes which build and change the network - see Callon 1986) and a detailed study of how translations (the micro-negotiations which shape or change the network and its actors) such as these, can give an account of how power relationships are constructed, maintained or destroyed within the network, and how certain actors go about getting other actors to comply. Callon goes on to explain how previously favoured methods of sociological analysis are no longer adequate to explain matters of science and technology in stylistic ways (because sociologists tendency to censor actors when they talk about themselves or social backgrounds); theoretical ways (Callon suggests we need to accept that natural sciences are as unstable and uncertain as social sciences, therefore they can no longer play different roles in analysis) , and methodological ways (the identities of actors is problematic and needs to be fore-grounded as such, not ignored) (Callon 1986). He proposes 3 principles to underpin a different sort of analysis: agnosticism in not privileging any one point of view or censoring any commentary from the actors on their “social environment” (Callon, 1986 p200); generalised symmetry in using the same vocabulary throughout the analysis for all actors-
“not chang[ing]registers when we move from the technical to the social aspects of the problem studied” (Callon 1986, p200)
and free association to remove distinctions between the natural and the social ; to
“follow the actors …..[ to see how they]… “build and explain their world” (Callon 1986, p201),
avoiding imposing pre-conceived frameworks for analysis on them.
The actors in this network are three researchers, their associated scientific community; the scallops in various stages of development, and the fishermen. The scallops have been fished to species -threatening levels; the scientific community has developed (in Japan) a new technique of intensive scallop – farming; the fishermen having depleted the bay are concerned about their livelihoods and the researchers want to experiment with the methods from Japan in an attempt to restock the bay. And so the story begins…..
The researchers defined the study around the central question of: does the species of scallop in the bay anchor itself in a similar way to the ones in Japan? The question may seem simple but in fact in posing it the researchers have made themselves indispensable in the network – problematisation. They have defined what other actors want: the fishermen and their desire for continued livelihood; the scallops and their desire to survive, and the scientific community and their desire to advance knowledge about scallop farming. They have “forged a holy alliance…..to induce the scallops to multiply” (Callon 1986 p204) and in doing so have established themselves as an obligatory passage point (OPP) for the other actors in the network.(Callon 1986). Power passes through them in this passage point.
Interessement works to include and exclude actors in the network. It seems to be often associated with devices. Interessement devices in this study are: the collectors and tow ropes used to help anchor the larvae which will hypothetically grow into scallops; the scientific knowledge generated by the researchers and their wider community of colleagues.
“The devices of interessement create a favourable balance of power: for the first group, these devices are the towlines immersed in St. Brieuc Bay; and for the second group, they are texts and conversations which lure the concerned actors to follow the three researchers’ project. For all the groups involved, the interessement helps corner
the entities to be enrolled. In addition, it attempts to interrupt all potential competing associations and to construct a system of alliances. Social structures comprising both social and natural entities are shaped and consolidated.” (Callon 1986, p210).
Interessement therefore seeks a double whammy – to enrol certain actors in the network and to eliminate any competing relationships, e.g. currents underwater, marine predators or elements of doubt among the fishermen. Successful interessement results in enrolement in the network, and enrolement describes the
“negotiations, trials of strength and tricks that accompany the interessements and enable them to succeed.” (Callon 1986 p212).
Not only is power established in problematisation, it also works through interessement to develop the network and actor identities.
Mobilisation or who speaks in the name of whom? Representation is occurring often in this network to social and natural entities. The converse of representation is silencing certain voices – power is demonstrated in this way. Some examples are the few larvae who do anchor themselves -they are invested with the power to represent the anonymous mass of larvae; the representatives of the fishermen who accept without argument the proposals of the researchers: the authors of the research in Japan who represent the wider scientific community, there is uncertainty however over the question of whether or not the masses will follow their representatives, and this – this mobilisation is the unravelling of the network. Transformation and displacement occurs; for example, the scallops and larvae become numbers then tables and curves in data charts for the scientific community and the three researcher are imposed spokesmen and have become representatives for all the entities in the network. But…..will those they represent continue to act as their representatives assume they will? No! Dissonance and betrayal is their undoing!
The researchers thought they knew enough to say the larvae would anchor in the bay, but their experiment was not replicated year on year – the scallops became dissident, escaped from their collectors, or failed to anchor in the first place “representivity is brought into question” (Callon 1986 p 225) but not only for the shellfish, for the fishermen as well. A group of them mutiny and fish the scallops one Christmas eve – thinking no doubt of the reveillon feast ahead of them to celebrate Christmas. So the network is not stable, it is seriously disrupted, and its representatives are challenged and betrayed by the actors they assumed to represent.
The different types of translation processes described in this study illustrate ANT in action – Callon concludes by saying it also demonstrates the power of representation in silencing majorities in claiming to give them a voice within a constantly changing social or natural world. It’s a fascinating study and a very engaging tale. I’m not sure I had a lightbulb moment; I read and reread it several times, felt a bit more enlightened about ANT and was very keen to find out what happened in the end. There is obviously loads more to say about this – it’s a much commentated and critiqued paper, but I think I’m done for now. Not sure if I’m over and out with ANT though – I might like to investigate further, but it will be for another study, not my PhD. I need to focus now on critical realism, social/cultural structures and agency……coming up next……….
Callon, M. (1986). Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of Saint Brieuc Bay. In J. Law (Ed.) Power, Action and Belief: a new Sociology of Knowledge? Sociological Review Monograph. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. 32: 196-233.