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Actor-Network Theory

This study used actor-network theory (ANT) to look at the food safety regulation of artisan food processing.

ANT is a social theory that provides one means of bracketing our assumptions about things—phenomena—like artisanship, regulation, and the relationship between them, in order to understand them in a fresh way. This is important because in many people’s minds, regulation is inimical to artisanship. Regulations are believed to get in the way of craft production and food entrepreneurship.

That is, here’s how we tend to think of artisanship—in terms of simple tools, hands-on methods, and natural materials:


And this is how we tend to think of regulation—as formal, written requirements:


Two points are important in describing how I used ANT. First is a focus on how phenomena like artisanship and regulation are “enacted in practice” (read on). Second is a focus on the objects involved in enacting phenomena like regulation and artisanship.

1. Focus on what’s done in practice

It can be easy to take broad, abstract ideas like artisanship and regulation for granted, as pictured above. Yet, from an ANT perspective, the practice, or enactment, of a phenomenon precedes the idea of it. To know anything about regulation and artisanship, you have to look at how people carry them out. “Regulation” is enacted each time an inspector evaluates a facility and writes a report. “Artisanship” is enacted each time a baker makes bread. So, in a strict ANT sense, there is no single, pure ideal of artisanship, nor even of regulation. There’s only what happens in real life.

It is through continual enactment and reenactment that our general ideas of “regulation” and “artisanship” take shape. Over time, the general concepts overshadow the more specific instances, and we come to think of regulation and artisanship as abstract ideas—as “things” that “just are.” We see a forest and not its constituent trees.

But if we want to understand regulation and artisanship and how they relate to each other, we need to try to forget our general assumptions about them. We need to zoom back in and look closely at the specifics of how they are practiced.

2. Focus on objects as well as humans

From an ANT perspective, objects—and not just humans—play a very real role in enacting phenomena like regulation and artisanship. (This is what the actor in actor-network theory refers to; humans and objects alike are actors, which is to say they have the ability to act, to do things.) Artisanship and regulation are enacted by the tools and implements that artisans and regulators use, as well as by the people themselves.

This is a (simplified) ANT view of artisan baking, with its cast of humans and objects:




This is an ANT view of regulation, also simplified, with its own cast of humans and objects. The objects shown with the inspector include a surface thermometer, flashlight, writing materials, hairnet, and lab coat:



One challenge of using ANT when doing research is that objects that are indispensable to the study of a phenomenon are also very easy to take for granted and overlook. Think, for example, of the unassuming and humble mien of refrigerators and hairnets. This is not what grabs our attention in an artisan bakery. Yet they are necessary both to baking and to conducting an inspection.

This challenge is taken up in the next section, which describes how ANT was applied in the field.

For more information on this theory, see Actor-Network Theory in Plain English on YouTube. This video’s author created a short, engaging intro to the theory that provides more conceptual background.