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Actor-Network Theory and Systems Theory

systemLeave it to the #CLmooc overlords (hey, I can never figure out who the weekly leaders are, so why not?) to challenge us to think about systems theory during the Week 4 Make Cycle. While last week was a challenging one for me on many levels, I just could not let this one pass by without offering some thoughts and ideas on it.

I think the video to illustrate systems thinking that was provided at the start of the week’s Make Cycle was excellent. Nothing like using the image of the blind men touching various parts of the elephant and thinking, or claiming, they know the entirety as a result. Though the video was a bit heteronormative in its images, I degress . . . or do I? It may be easy to claim that noticing something in the video that assumes the larger picture (here I am referring to the “family” image of what appears to be a husband and wife, surrounded by children and family, friends, and the like). Excellent example, though in this aspect of it there are assumptions.

Lots of assumptions.

Such as . . . “We lose sight of what really make us happy” or “Why don’t we use such wisdoms to understand more complex systems, and not only love?”

Granted, the suggestions at the end (i.e., Favour quality over quantity or Acknolwedge mistakes, stay a learner) are wise and well-heeded, though they miss something.

I believe the entire video misses something.

It misses the very thing that enables a system to be a system, namely the non-human elements. People never (rarely?) act on their own without external, or environmental, elements. These influencers (like hot and humid weather, excitement about a conference coming up next week, barking dogs that want to go out, etc. ), supports (i.e., I am typing this on a computer with Internet access, after all), and detractors (hunger pains, loud rap music in a car that is driving by, knowing I have meeting today so cannot spend too long on this post, the phone ringing, etc.). These other elements, as I called them, really shape our ever-changing systems, or in reality, they are layers of networks that constantly expand and constrict that which we call our lives.

This is why I think systems theory is a bit limited, for as good as it is, in missing the non-human actors, it becomes easier to not account for them, and thus their influence.

This is why I think actor-network theory (ANT) is so valuable. I recently mentioned this in a post about my experience as a critical theorist, though when I think of actor-network theory I tend to think about the works of John Law

Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools,sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations.
Translation is the mechanism by which the social and natural worlds progressively take form. The result is a situation in which certain entities control others. Understanding what sociologists generally call power relationships means describing the way in which actors are defined, associated and simultaneously obliged to remain faithful to their alliances. Understanding what sociologists generally call power relationships means describing the way in which actors are defined, associated and simultaneously obliged to remain faithful to their alliances.

In a nutshell, actor-network theory is a strategy for trying to understand how constantly shifting layers of actors, both human and non-human, influence one another to maintain and develop systems (or networks).

With this said, how do the various layers of networks, both human and non-humans such as within the open and #ConnectedLearning #CLmooc groups and Makes, influence one another in ways that account for the system structures and processes themselves?