You are on page 1of 7

Networks and meshworks

Last week we looked at approaches that aim to produce multi-species

ethnographies. But what sorts of thinking or ways of describing the world
are needed in order to achieve this? Over the next few weeks, well
consider some of the influential approaches to bringing non-humans into
the social. Previously, non-humans had been on the side of nature and
were thus only included in the social in terms of what society or culture
made of them. The lines of connection between species were thus broken.
Not breaking the lines that entangle humans and other species when they
come into contact. In the past the division of nature and culture has
tended to force us to view any contact from one side or another. But how
do we trace these lines of connection? Two somewhat similar approaches
are the network (associated with Latour, Callon, Law etc.) and the
meshwork (Ingold).
These approaches have strong similarities but also some differences,
particularly in the sorts of things they emphasise. Compare them later but
the approaches come from different directions. Networks (and Actor
Network Theory) comes from studies made of scientists. Meshwork comes
from phenomenological approaches to human-environment relations,
influenced by the ontological claims made by indigenous hunter-gatherers.
These different origins can lead us to consider different aspects of
relations and their effects.

The network and collective

Actor Network Theory. Emerged in late 70s and 80s in France. Developed
by social scientists studying scientific research. Associated particularly
with Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, John Law and a few others.
Interest in natural science raised questions about how both nature and
society should be described and understood by social scientists. Concern
that social science could not really talk about nature except as a social
construction and that natural scientists, who claimed to know about
nature, tended to write out the social from their own work. How could all
of these elements be described within one approach?
Also keen to pay attention to failure, which often happens in science. Both
success and failure should be studied in the same way, as emerging
through controversies. Symmetrical analysis.
ANT is not really a theory in a conventional sense of an instrument to
generate interpretation or a model of how society operates. It is more a
means of describing complex inter-relations involving humans and other
things. It is perhaps as much a methodology as a theory.

Assemblages of actors (or actants) in a network. These actors can be all

kinds of different things. How do these come to be assembled in the way
they do? How does this process define the different actors?
Semiotic approach. Concerned with how different elements in a network
act to define one another. Actants are in a process of becoming of being
defined and of giving meaning to other parts of the network.
But also materialistic, in that there are real things involved: flesh and
blood, animals, microbes, technologies etc.
Agnostic approach. Interested in controversies but not in taking sides. Is
concerned more with describing how controversies develop and in
following their effects. Impartial.
Grounded approach (influence from Garfinkel and grounded theory).
Doesnt presume that certain social factors (e.g. power, class, morality)
will be important but looks to all aspects of what is significant in particular
cases and builds up a description from this grounding. All aspects of the
network are in process and their definitions are malleable within this
context. The network translates the actors i.e. these are being related,
associated, ordered, enrolled, mobilised in various ways and in relation to
one another.
Non-hierarchical and symmetric. Flattens the social to include all relevant
actors and to describe them in the same terms. Has significant
implications for non-humans, which are included and described in exactly
the same way as humans e.g. microbes are given the same significance
and agency as Louis Pasteur in Latours The Pasteurisation of France.
Significantly, even non-living and non-sentient beings are understood to
have agency in the network. All actors act in ways that produce effects
in the network. This is how ANT defines an actor; acting is not about
intentionality but about effects.
Concern with how non-humans are made to speak and how actors are
represented (including humans).
Makes claims to resolve various problematic dualisms e.g. human/ nonhuman; structure/ agency; real/ ideal.
ANT is a broad approach to describing relations. It is best discussed not as
an abstract theory but through case studies e.g. Callon on scallops.
Anders Blok on an ANT approach to whales. How to bring whales into the
social? How has this happened e.g. through the creation of a superwhale that is gentle, caring, peaceful etc?
Counter to approaches that emphasise the human side of human-animal
relations. ANT offers an approach that can present whales in equivalent
ways to humans.
How do whales have agency in their emergence as species of concern to
many humans?
Important thing is how actors define what they do, not why they do it i.e.
whales act in certain ways and this has to be attended to. What whales do
can change the unfolding of events. They act in such a way that could
define various other parts of the network as it assembles and develops.

Humans may speak as representatives of whales (e.g. scientists, activists)

but they also enable the whales to speak. The issue is less to do with
what whales are but with what they are becoming as part of a collective.
How have whales come into contact with humans and how this has
changed their social lives? Whales have been translated in various ways
(e.g. into symbols, media etc.) that extend their contact with many
Humans have also started to come into contact more and more with
whales through whale watching. Whales still resource for economic gain.
Whales personalised by whale watch companies in commentary and seen
as persons by those watching.
Where does this personhood come from? Is it always attributed to the
whales or is it demonstrated by them? What is being defined in here and
Whales are no doubt conscious of the boats that visit them, often on a
daily basis. The whales have to make themselves present to be
watchable. They may also be affected by the noise from the boat but the
money thats made helps to keep the whales safe from other, more
directly damaging forms of exploitation.
Activists such as Greenpeace also use whales, and claim to act as
spokespersons for them. They use imagery of whales being threatened or
dying to gain support, for their own organisation and for whales. These
images and films are collected and distributed and take the whales from
the zone of contact and into distant peoples homes. They are enrolled
into networks that involve different sorts of consumption. This happens
whether they live or, perhaps even more readily, if they die. The dying
whale in the Greenpeace video represents other whales that are under
Scientists work, somewhat like ethnographers, in revealing the complexity
of whales cultures, which seem to come close in their sophistication to the
human cultures that anthropologists have described.
We are challenged to acknowledge a series of social 'worlds-for', of sociospatial 'intelligencings', where humans and non-humans live radically
different but interrelated lives (2011: 80).
Whales have, in ANT terms, spoken to us about the complexity of their
lives, albeit through the representation of particular whales and various
human spokespeople. They are, as part of a larger network of relations,
active in this definition of both whales and the humans who are interested
in them.
Bloks description is of how whales were, in various ways, brought into
society and how this process involving various actors (scientists, activists,
whalers, tourists, technologies and the whales themselves) defined them
in ways that are very different to how they were defined in the past.
Whales have been incorporated into different networks and have become
something different in so doing. ANT provides a means of describing this
process in a way that does not analyse what whales and humans do by

different means. It doesnt cut the lines through which whales and
humans come into contact.
Blok emphasises that the networks of humans and whales cannot be
generalised in terms of humans and animals but are about specific
animals and specific groups of humans. ANT needs to attend to these
multiplicities, both human and non-human.
The network of associations to the collective, common world. The social is
being remade to include non-humans, or non-social things. How ANT
became more overtly political.
Latours extension of ANT approaches to consider the relations between
science and politics, human and non-human. Argues that the way these
have been associated has been too hasty and that these relations need to
be reconfigured, or reassembled. A new idea of the social needs to be
Latour book called Politics of nature: how to bring the sciences into
democracy and in this he addresses the problem of political ecology. He
begins the book with the rather provocative statement:

What is to be done with political ecology? Nothing. What is to be done?

Political ecology! (2004: 1).

What he means here is that a lot of what people call political ecology isnt,
to him, political ecology. The problem is that nobody is really doing what
he thinks of as political ecology and the reason for this is that people,
particular politicians and academics, still cling to the idea of a singular,
dehumanised nature and a plurality of cultural conceptions of it. Political
ecology as its conventionally styled is all about bringing nature into
politics. But for Latour, nature is the problem and real political ecology
has nothing whatever to do with nature. To find a solution to this problem,
what we first need to do, according to Latour, is to get out of the cave.
By the cave, Latour is referring to a story told by the philosopher Plato.
In this, humanity lives, metaphorically, in a cave unable to see the world
of reality, with its non-human laws, clearly. In this myth, the task of the
philosopher, and later the scientist, is to journey from the social, human
world of the cave to the reality outside. This fable thus creates a contrast
between the social world and science as forms of knowledge and order. It
is only Science that can gain knowledge of the reality of nature. But it is
also asserted that politics only operates within the human world of the
cave. So, in the Old Regime, politics and nature have been kept separate,
with only Science able to move between the two. Latour calls this the Two
House Collective or the Bicameral Collective.
So what Latour is interested in is a different way of conceiving of the
world, and thus also of politics and science: a real political ecology that
makes no reference to the myth of the cave. This is what he proposes in
the book Politics of nature. It should be pointed out that Latour is not
against science. In fact, as someone who has devoted much of his career
to studying what scientists do, he is keen to maintain science, or more

particularly the sciences. Latour makes a distinction between what he

calls Science with a capital S and the sciences. In this he makes quite a
common and fundamental distinction in the social sciences between what
is actually done and what people say and think about what is done.
Science is to Latour, a kind of ideology, linked to the outmoded ideas of
the cave. But if you look at the activities that the sciences actually do, as
Latour has spent much of his career doing, you see something that is
much more congruent with Latours thinking about political ecology. The
problem, then, is that there is a gap between the rhetoric of Science and
the work of the sciences and so Latour is keen to dismantle the
assumption that Science can mysteriously traverse the divide between the
cave and the world of reality.
To do this he considers some of the effects of the separation of the
political and socio-cultural house on the one hand and the house of nature
on the other. One such effect is that a separation is made between fact
and value. Facts are to be found only in reality, and are only accessible by
means of Science, whereas values are the province of the political. These
are kept separate by what Latour calls (political) epistemology or the
epistemology police. According to Latour:

The trap set by the epistemology police consisted in denying to anyone who
challenged the radical externality of Science the right to continue to talk about
any external reality at all: those who had doubts about Science were supposed to
content themselves with the gruel of social conventions and symbolism. They
could never have gotten out of the prison of the Cave on their own (2004: 3839).

So politics and nature are conceived of as two parallel means of ordering

the world that are incommensurable and operate on different principles.
Latour is concerned that the house of nature or reality represents a hastily
arrived at unity, or mononaturalism, that has been arrived at without due
process. On the other hand, the political and social house is constructed
as being rife with division, or an endless array of perspectives. Because
these houses are incommensurable, the bicameralism, or division into two,
of these houses isnt appropriate for democracy or political ecology to
operate properly. What is required instead is what Latour calls the Third
Estate of the collective. This differs from the old two house system as

1. In the old system, society is continually threatened by the realities of

nature. In the new system, society is in the process of expanding and
making associations between humans and nonhumans.
2. There is no need for a process of mysterious and dramatic conversion
between two worlds, as is described in Science. Instead the small
processes of exploration that are conducted in laboratories by the sciences
are sufficient to incorporate the world of reality into the collective. This
world of reality is not as big a deal as Science would have us believe and

can be collected into many different forms and associations:

multinaturalism or a plurality of external realities.
3. When nonhumans are recruited into the collective, instead of being
elements of a world of reality that can simplify or circumvent the social,
they tend to complicate matters and create debate and negotiation. This
means that the common world is always in a process of being collected, in
a complicated but describable way.
So, although much of this might remain unclear to us, whats important is
that Latour is offering a new model of politics in combination with a model
of human-environment relations that gets past the old stark divisions of
society and nature. Its also a model that re-evaluates the role of the
sciences. In the old model, Science isnt really democratic because it
insists that there is one fundamental reality and that only certain kinds of
people have access to this. In the new model, the sciences are concerned
with exploration but in a way that is not intended to simplify and shortcircuit debate but to complicate and open up society as collective to

The meshwork

Ingold has turned his attention to how life (both human and non-human)
can be thought of in terms of lines. Like Latour and the ANT folks he is
interested in how lines and lives come to be associated and entangled.
What sorts of line? Ingold reminds us that lines can be of two distinct
types. First, they can be an unbroken, and perhaps wandering, trace that
flows. Second, they can be between a series of pre-existing points, rather
like dot-to-dot drawings.
Thinking of organisms as a locus of activity, or movement. Life is lived
along lines of movement. Also thinking about movement across rather
than along. Between points. Contrast between wayfaring along and
transport across. Tension of pause against completion of destination.
Organism as a haecceity (Deleuze). Bundle of lines that emerge as a
living being.
Meshwork: entanglement of lines of life. Life lived through lines of growth,
movement and perception. Lines through which relations happen not
between objects.
Problem of network as association of objects connected by lines between
them. Is this really what network means in ANT? The problem of
translation: network and netting.
The problem of agency and living things. How can a stone have the same
agency as an organism with a nervous system that is able to attend to the
world and actively respond to its own entanglement? A stone is assumed
by ANT to have agency so long as it becomes associated with the network
and can have effects within it.
Acting for Ingold emerges through living and attending, not from being
part of the associations of the network.

A different emphasis to ANT, on how life is lived by organisms and what

sorts of relations emerge from the organism-in-its-environment
developmental unit. Less overtly semiotic than ANT and much less
focused on the political.
A much more recent approach that has not really been put into practice.
What might a case study of meshworks look like?


How are scallops and their larvae brought into the social? What do they
help to define? How do they have effects on other networks? How do
they become dissidents?
How does ANT describe how the issue over scallops developed and why
the researchers attempts to improve the situation failed?
What do you think of Ingolds criticisms of ANT (as spider)? Are they
Are actor networks and meshworks compatible? What obstacles might
there be to bringing them together?
Does Ingold avoid the political? Why might this be?
How does Ingolds meshwork include semiotics? How are the different
lives entangling in the meshwork defined and differentiated? How does
the entangling change them?
Are approaches that try to explain human and non-human actions in the
same ways anthropomorphic? Is it a problem if they are?
Can we really use the same approaches to discuss the actions of scientists
and the organisms (scallops, microbes) they study? Do they really both
act in similar ways? How do we think about the agency or power of
What are the political implications of taking such an approach?