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How does Actor-Network Theory Differ from the Theory of the Social Construction of technology?

In theorizing the relationship between technology and the society, scientists have often applied the two theories of actor-network theory and the theory of the social construction of technology.

This is because, in the determination of the collaboration and organization the aspects of the internet, it is essential to determine the involvement of these theories in the process of shaping the technological outcome or network impact on the society. In attempting to conceptualize the technological processes that arise out of the reinvention of the existing social concepts or introduction of new ones, requires that the methodology applied to take place in the context of rapid social and technological change.

Approaches leaning towards the society have the assumption that technology and the resulting consequences are prearranged and inducted by social actor such as institutions. The core focus is on the political economy and social construction of an artefact of interests as defined by social determinism. This paper seeks to contrast the two theories by exploring the difference between them in light of the recognition of their strengths and weaknesses as applied in the society.

Actor-network theory is a theory within the field of social studies of science and technology that highlights the integrative approach to science, social studies and technology by combining the interpretative and empirical methodologies that range from ethnography to history of poststructuralist philosophy and science. Thus, the theory seeks to declare the full hybrid entities that contain human and non-human elements by analysing situations in which separation of the elements is hard to attain.

The theory views the association of scientific facts with social agencies and structures in relation to the ‘material-semiotic’ networks. Therefore, the theory aims at describing the society of human and non-human actors as equals tied together in networks that are built and maintained to achieve particular goals such as the development of products.

On the contrary, the theory of the social construction of technology (SCOT) refers to a theory in the science and technology studies field that is a response to the technological determinism that seeks to understand the reasons for the rejection or acceptance of the technology. As a methodology, SCOT seeks to formalize the principles and steps to be followed when one seeks to analyze the causes of technological success or failure in the society.

Differences between actor-network theory and the theory of the social construction of technology

First, in the actor-network theory (ANT), the society is comprised of assemblages or networks of actors that interact together, either human or technological (computers) that have as much agency in the society than humans; hence, humans and technology are equal agents. This is in contrast to the social construction theory (SCOT) that entails the creation and use of technology through social construction; hence, all agencies lies with both the humans and society. Therefore, the humans will retain the primary agency relative to technology.

Second, actor-network theory (ANT) may be regarded as different from the theory of the social construction of technology in the sense that ANT takes into consideration both the social and technical determinism. This implies that it does not stick with the concept that technology shapes the society and vice-versa. On the contrary, the social construction of technology theory (SCOT), follows on the idea that technology is developed from the social collaboration of social groups (social determinism).

Third, in both of the theories, there are participants that are involved in the process of shaping the outcomes or networks, referred to as ‘actors’. In the ANT, the actors are both human, and non-humans treated as equals as separations between them are difficult since identifying the participants which played a major role is hard. On the other hand, the actors in the SCOT are relevant social groups comprising of people who share a common interest in the modelling of the technological artefacts.

Subsequently, the actors in the ANT are constantly required to perform their roles so as to keep the network flowing without any hiccups or lags, while in the SCOT theory, there is no strict principle on performance that is followed by the actors or social groups. In this regard, for the SCOT theory, the instance of less influence or involvement of a certain relevant social group than other groups would only result in a few changes in the aftermath of the technological object.

Fourth, in consideration of the aims of the two theories, the ANT is more concerned with the formation of the networks rather than the reasons for their formations; hence, it does not predict the outcomes from the socio-technical articles at any point. A scenario in which the inputs by the actors has no possibility of predicting the outcomes, but multiplies or deletes the object or input passing through the network is known as mediation.

For the case of SCOT theory, it illustrates how the social surrounding comprising of each of the actors will give rise to the specified artefacts by predicting the outcomes right from the start; thus, the SCOT acts more of an intermediate than the ANT. In this case, there is no concern in relation to whether a change results in the social surrounding in process of building the artefact for as long as the previous assumption in relation to the outcome remains the same.

Fifth, the two theories differ in their relations to reconstitution or reconsideration of the contents. In the case of the ANT, a careful study of the theory would reveal that the actors involved are not mere objects, but are an association of different elements that self-constitute the network. For these elements to appear as single point actors, they get simplified implying that the actors are open to new ideas that are given and there are possibilities of reconsidering their contents.

However, in the case of a social construction of technology theory, there are no possibilities of reconsidering the content as the influence of the relevant social group is limited upon the gradual beginning of the diminishing of the interpretive flexibility of the group. As a result, there is a rhetorical closure of the group that occurs which also eliminates the alternative idea of a new design from being formed.

Finally, in the case of the ANT, the actors have the capability to set their own limits and frameworks of the network; thus, capable of making their presence to be felt by other actors. However, for the case of the SCOT theory, only the actor having relevance to the technology are followed; thus, likely to result in another actor being relevant to the technology. This process continues until all actors are exhausted and no new actors pop-up, and causing the interpretation to be brought to a termination.

Subsequently, ANT attempts at explaining the capability of the networks to be strengthened internally, their stabilization, organization and conversion of their elements, the durability of the networks, the enlistment by the networks of others to enroll, the bestowing of qualities and motivations to other actors by the networks, and the simplification of the networks to make them be functionally indispensable.