Public Diplomacy and Actor Network Theory

June 3, 2013

I think that Bruno Latour is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary social science.  I first came across him about 15 years ago when I was involved in the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Virtual Society Programme.  There were lots of anthropologists involved who kept talking about something called ‘actor-network theory‘ or ANT.  In the pub one night I innocently asked someone what ANT was the response:  ‘that’s Bruno Latour; he thinks that things are people too’.  I didn’t follow this up until a few years later where I was teaching a course that engaged with the social impact of communications technology and this stimulated me to get into  the science and technology studies (STS) literature which is where Latour comes from.  Although Latour is known for his radical positions it’s important to keep in mind that he’s an anthropologist who believes that researcher should look and listen to what people actually do.  This probably the core of his ideas that there’s a huge gap between what people in the contemporary world do and what we think we do.  I’ve also found Latour to be quite literal in his approach to the world, he has little truck with abstract impersonal ideas like society or globalization.

A few years ago I did write a conference paper exploring the application of ANT to IR but got a bit stuck with how to take it forward.   In working on public diplomacy I’ve been drawn back to ANT as a way of thinking about the nature of PD and world politics more generally so I’m starting an occasional series of posts exploring the application of ANT in PD and IR.  I this post I want to argue that actor-networks are actually a pretty good way of thinking about what public diplomats try and do.

What is an actor-network?  An actor (or actant) is alway a network in the sense that it is assembled from other actants .  A football team is a set of players.  Sometimes we see the team at other times we see a collection of  players.  A car is normally a unified object but if it breaks down or crashes we see it as a collection of parts. Hence actors have a dual nature.  But is a car an actor?  In the world of ANT anything that makes a difference is an actor (or strictly speaking an actant).  The football team is not just people it is also their team strips, their boots, their training equipment while the car is also dependent on the intervention of humans to build and maintain it.  For Latour humans and technology are inseparable and always have been.  Trying to separate the human and the technological is not just a waste of time it’s a mistake that stops us understanding the world.  The network that produces the actant is not just loca;l the football team is dependent on fans and sponsors, it’s part of a league….The car is the product of a global network of production, it depends on a network of mechanics, maintenance, fuel, licensing etc.  How far you need to go in following the network depends on what it is you’re investigating.  The point is that if there is a problem with any of these connections the operation of the actant is threatened and the missing connections need to be repaired or replaced.  When everything is running smoothly the actant is ‘blackboxed’ and is taken for granted.   This leads to one of the recurring features of Latour’s thought that the social sciences start in the wrong place.  That they take for granted the existence of ‘states’, governments, public diplomacy and Latour’s particular bete noire ‘society’ rather than asking how are these actors are produced and maintained.   You can’t explain things by reference to ‘society’ unless you can show how society is produced.

Dry stone wall as actant Photo by Cristina Archetti

The duality of the actor-network 1: Dry stone wall as actant
Photo Cristina Archetti


The duality of the actor-network 2: It's a pile of stones!  Photo by Cristina Archetti

The duality of the actor-network 2: It’s a pile of stones! Photo Cristina Archetti

Dating back to Latour’s earliest work on scientists he tends to focus on the entrepreneurial work of building black boxes.  The entrepreneur has to enrol other actants in the network that is being constructed; money, equipment, other people, office space.  The difficulty each of the actants that make up the new actor network have their own interests.  Enrolling them requires a translation; bringing them together changes them and the collective.  As the entrepreneur, be it a scientist or a public diplomat, builds their network the enrollment of more actants causes shifts in what the network can do or will become.  Hence a central concern has to be with the stabilization of networks into black boxed actants and the maintenance of those actants.   From a political point of view Latour’s central problem is how things, both ‘small’ like scientific facts and ‘big’ like states, are stabilized.

So what does all of this have to do with public diplomacy?  By focusing on communication we are missing the bigger picture.  To put it very narrowly ‘getting the message out’ implies that you already have a channel through which that message can be transmitted.  The history of public diplomacy suggests that it is building that channel  that is the difficult part.   Successful public diplomacy is about drawing necessary actants into a stabilized relationship that alters the situation in way that benefits the initiator.   This suggests three possible outcomes

  1. It is impossible to construct a stabilized network that will do this.  Other actants refuse to play your game.  Your boss won’t give you the money for your project or no-one will listen to your radio station, or your local partners take your money and spend it on a new office instead of working with the public.  The two groups that you hoped will work together hate each other.
  2. You construct a stabilized network that won’t do what you thought it would do.  This is a very common one.  In the mid 1950s the most popular radio station in the Middle East was the Sharq al Adna, a very popular entertainment oriented station operating from Cyprus.  Most people knew it was controlled by the British but they listened anyway.  According to some accounts this station even made money.  It had been blackboxed.  But come the confrontation with Colonel Nasser in 1956 and the attempt to the British government to use it as a tool of strategic communication its popular Arab staff quit, as did its audience.   Sharq al Adna  was stable as an entertainment station but as soon as a new actor the, government psychological warfare operation, connected itself it destabilized the network and constituent actants split off.  More broadly public diplomacy activities build a public for their activity but the public they have doesn’t actually have the influence on attitudes or policy that they hoped.  But in many cases it is more important to make the project look like a success than for it to really be a success.  How can we continue to get funding? (money is part of the actor-network) we need to show that lots of people are coming to our events (or that they are really important people) hence the activity gets tweaked to produce the indicator that the funder wants.
  3. You build a network that is stabilized and does what was supposed to do.  Your network appears so natural that it is invisible.  For instance you carefully promote linkages between publishers in your country and your target.  It appears completely natural to go and study in your universities or to learn your language.   What you’ve done is to enrol others interests in a way that you may even be able to disengage from the network and do something else.

Another ANT scholar, Michel Callon, talks about ‘heterogenous engineering’ at work, the entrepreneur needs to bring together a coalition of people and things to make their project work.  Who and what you have in your network tells you an awful lot about what the network will produce.   There’s a paradox that the actants who are most valuable in your network are also the hardest to control.  During the 1920s and the 1930s the USSR sought to gain the support of western intellectuals but as you would expect the bigger the name the less able they were to control them, and the more keeping them onside became an end in itself.

If you’re interested in Latour probably the best places to start are with his Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP: 1987) and or Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). Latour also has a very comprehensive web site with copies of many of his papers here.

In future posts I’ll explore issues around an Actor-Network inspired theory of International Relations; my initial list of issues includes globalization, the state, representations, the role of diplomacy, the conceptualization of politics, how to think about conflict and competition,



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