Centre for Science Studies Lancaster University ...

John Law 'Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity'
First published 1992 Centre for Science Studies Cartmel College Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK phone: +44 1524 594177 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +44 1524 594177 end_of_the_skype_highlighting 01524 594177 fax: +44 1524 594256 01524 594256 email: scistud @lancaster.ac.uk

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois -- are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay. How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of "actornetwork theory"(1) -- the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory -- also known as the sociology of translation -- is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth. Here is the argument. If we want to understand the mechanics of power and organisation it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain. For instance, it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is a macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other. If we do this we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organisation. Instead we should start with a clean slate. For instance, we might start with interaction and assume that interaction is all that there is. Then we might ask how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and

then. is the one of the core assumptions of actor-network theory: that Napoleons are no different in kind to small-time hustlers.rather than as the fait accompli of a noun. it appears in the the form of skills embodied in scientists and technicians (Latour and Woolgar. then we should be studying how this comes about -. reagents. This lies at the heart of actornetwork theory. I put "knowledge" in inverted commas because it always takes material forms. This is a radical claim because it says that these networks are composed not only of people. This. animals. But I have already suggested that science isn't very special. organisations. articles. Thus what is true for science is also said to be true for other institutions. the argument is that we wouldn't have a society at all if it weren't for the heterogeneity of the networks of the social. and describe some orgnisationally-relevant findings of actor-network theory. All of these are ordered networks of heterogeneous materials whose resistance has been overcome. computing systems. This. scanning electron microscopes. So much for science. size. I discuss the materials and strategies of network ordering. skilled hands. how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power. machines and organisations) may be seen as a product or an effect of a network of heterogeneous materials. But where does it come from? The actor-network answer is that it is the end product of a lot of hard work in which heterogeneous bits and pieces -. and in particular how it is that networks may come to look like single point actors: how it is. scope or organisation with which we are all familiar.may be similarly pictured. I consider some of the ways in which patterning generates institutional and organisational effects. Or it appears in papers. and all the rest -. preprints or patents. power or organisation are generated. then. they argued that "knowledge" (but they generalise from knowledge to agents. Indeed. find shelter in our houses. and explore how it is that they come to be patterned to generate effects like organisations.that would like to make off on their own are juxtaposed into a patterned network which overcomes their resistance. So in this view the task of sociology is to characterise these networks in their heterogeneity. So the argument is that the stuff of the social isn't simply human. and so converted (or "translated") into a set of equally heterogeneous scientific products. Or again. And if they are larger. social institutions. in particular.all of social life -. It is all these other materials too. it is a material matter but also a matter of organising and ordering those materials. In this note I start by exploring the metaphor of heterogeneous network. then. they argued that knowledge is a social product rather than something generated by through the operation of a privileged scientific method. In short. the economy and technologies -. architectures -. we are sometimes able to talk of "the British Government" rather than all the bits and pieces that make it up. and IBMs to whelkstalls. is the crucial analytical move made by actor-network writers: the suggestion that the social is nothing other than patterned networks of heterogeneous materials. Finally. money.any material that you care to mention. It comes as talk. the conceptual and the textual are fitted together. Next I consider network consolidation. Accordingly. in other words.a somewhat uncertain process of overcoming resistance -. but also of machines. including hierarchy and power. "Knowledge". organisms. In particular.test tubes. is embodied in a variety of material forms. and produce objects with machines. in other words.how. radiation monitors. It isn't simply that we eat.seem to become "macrosocial". So this is the actor-network diagnosis of science: that it is a process of "heterogeneous engineering" in which bits and pieces from the social. the organisation. I then examine the character of network ordering and argue that this is better seen as a verb -. computer terminals. other scientists. or conference presentations. the technical. It is also that almost all of our interactions with other people are mediated through . inequality and power. agents and machines are all effects generated in patterned networks of diverse (not simply human) materials. With others in the sociology of science. fame. size. Society as Heterogeneous Network Actor-network authors started out in the sociology of science and technology. And. 1979). and is a way of suggesting that society. the family. Look at the material world in this way. texts.

Or they might. The students face me. then. have politics. texts -. Indeed it raises a basic question about what we mean when we talk of people. they divide the human and the technical into two separate heaps. they assume that one drives the other. I am tapping away at a computer keyboard. At this point there is a parting of the ways. They can see me. and while they don't the projector participates in our social relations: it helps to define the lecturer-student relationship. And to do that. It is because they interact with human beings and endless other materials too. The argument is that these various networks participate in the social. The clarificatory point is this. To be sure. The students might storm the podium and take control of the overhead projector. architectures. Actor-network theory does not accept this reductionism. If human beings form a social network it is not because they interact with other human beings. that order is an effect generated by heterogeneous means. But this is an empirical question. and the one pressed by actornetwork theory. artefacts may. And (most crucially) they are necessary to the social relationship between author and reader. behind seried ranks of desks. it sets the alarm bells of ethical and epistemological humanism ringing. to use Langdon Winner's (1980) phrase. and they can hear me. But the general case. First. It denies that people are necessarily special. In another world it might. as they do if I lecture badly. be different.the computer. our communication with one another is mediated by a network of objects -. participates in the shaping of our interaction. to distinguish between ethics and sociology. And -. To say that there is no fundamental . But they don't. it does not celebrate the idea that there is a difference in kind between people on the one hand. For the argument about the material patterning of the social can be treated in a reductionist manner. So the projector. and usually matters are more complex. just as human beings have their preferences -. But the character of those politics. But they can also see the transparencies that I put in the overhead projector.inform the other. that either objects or people in general determine the character of social change or stability. Necessarily then. how determinate they are. like the shape of the room. It is a part of the social.they prefer to interact in certain ways rather than in others -so too do the other materials that make up the heterogeneous networks of the social. they have two things in common. I think. They shape it.this is my point -. So. I speak to you through a text. What should we make of this? A clarificatory point. is this. However. They are writing notes. and whether it is possible to tease people and machines apart in the first instance -. Actor-network theory is analytically radical in part because it treads on a set of ethical. and objects on the other. of course. At any rate. simply ignore me. such as the postal system. and then an argument. It says that there is no reason to assume. Here is a second example.objects of one kind or another. Actor-network theory says. indeed. Machines. The one may -. clothes. We need. Agency as Network Let me be clear.these are all contingent questions. with paper and pens. In particular. It operates on them to influence the way in which they act. even though we will probably never meet. in particular cases.all contribute to the patterning of the social. social relations may shape machines. And. I am standing on a stage. It mediates our communication and it does this asymmetrically. The reductionist versions tell that either machines or human relations are determinate in the last instance: that one drives the other (2). but they are not identical. For instance. amplifying what I say without giving students much of a chance to answer back (Thompson :1990). or machine relations shape their social counterparts. And second. In some measure they help to overcome your reluctance to read my text. though these reductionisms are different.though even here the extra-somatic usually plays a role too. epistemological and ontological toes. Perhaps it is only in lovemaking that there is interaction between unmediated human bodies -.if these materials were to disappear then so too would what we sometimes call the social order. the paper. And it is also mediated by networks of objects-and-people.indeed should -. the printing press. a priori.

and a set of human. For instance. or responsibilities that we usually accord to people. Thus it is easily shown that machines (and animals) gain and lose attributes such as independence. for most of us most of the time a television is a single and coherent object with relatively few apparent parts. Punctualisation and Resourcing Why is it that we are sometimes but only sometimes aware of the networks that lie behind and make up an actor. an object or an institution? For instance.it is a complex network of questionable -. I could argue (as have sociologists such as Steve Woolgar (1992) and psychologists of technology like Sherry Turkle.it rapidly turns into a network of electronic components and human interventions. All of these are networks which participate in the social. 1984) that the dividing line between people and machines (and for that matter animals) is subject to negotiation and changes.as. somatic and otherwise. too. loving. interacting. I'd be something quite other -. intelligence and personal responsibility. for the average small businessperson. all of which may offer resistance. Now. for instance.and the same is true for all of us. not an ethical position. Hence the term. or the shadow of Karl Marx?) Neither does it deny that human beings. have an inner life. conversely.all the attributes that we normally ascribe to human beings. texts. Indeed. but the moral career of the mental patient is not reducible to the props. Again. and all the rest? Or is an agent an agent because he or she inhabits a set of elements (including. duties.and even more so for the fraud investigators -. earning -.indeed criminal -. It doesn't deny that human beings usually have to do with bodies (but what of Banquo's ghost. I will press the argument in another way by saying that. And to say this does not mean that we have to treat the people in our lives as machines. Is an agent an agent primarily because he or she inhabits a body that carries knowledges. always. If you took away my computer. buildings. or an effect produced by such a network. analytically. however -. . like the patients in the asylums described by Goffman. like symbolic interaction (Star.difference between people and objects is an analytical stance. is a text. a network. what counts as a person is an effect generated by a network of heterogeneous. But it insists that social agents are never located in bodies and bodies alone. for someone who is ill and even more so for the physician. we might use it to sharpen ethical questions about the special character of the human effect -. We don't have to deny them the rights. for the healthy person. the BCCI was a coherent and organised location for depositing and withdrawing money. for that same user -. a machine is also a heterogeneous network -. my books. acting. On the other hand when it breaks down. my office. And the same is true for organisations and institutions: these are more or less precariously patterned roles played by people. technical and pharmaceutical interventions. but rather that an actor is a patterned network of heterogeneous relations. users and repair-persons. This can be made in several ways. But converted into a claim about humans it says that people are who they are because they are a patterned network of heterogeneous materials. skills. actor-network -.transactions. are generated in networks that pass through and ramify both within and beyond the body. For instance. materials. of course. This is much the same argument as the one that I have already made about both scientific knowledge and the social world as a whole. 1990a. my desk. my telephone I wouldn't be a sociologist writing papers. Actor-network theory. that people take on and lose the attributes of machines and animals. And again. Now the analytical point. And. even from them.and still more for the repair person -. 1992) offers a similar response. delivering lectures.a set of roles played by technical materials but also by such human components as operators. that surrounds each body? Erving Goffman's (1968) answer is that props are important. The argument can easily be generalised. most of the workings of the body are concealed. So the analytical question is this. writing. a body) that stretches out into the network of materials. By contrast. However. The argument is that thinking.an actor is also. the body is converted into a complex network of processes. in difficult cases such as life maintained by virtue of the technologies of intensive care. values. So. and producing "knowledge". my colleagues. machines.

that they are much more generally performed than others. it is to explore the process that is often called translation which generates ordering effects such as devices. of course. no organisation. But in practice we do not cope with endless network ramification. to be replaced by the action itself and the seemingly simple author of that action. So what is happening? The answer is that if a network acts as a single block. social orchestration. Another way of saying this is to note that the bits and pieces assembled pro tem into an order are constantly liable to break down. much of the time we are not even in a position to detect network complexities. Thus. And that. or concealed from view? And why is this sometimes not the case? Let me start with tautology. it means that notwithstanding the dreams of dictators and normative sociologists. The insistence on process has a number of implications. This. actor-network theory assumes that social structure is not a noun but a verb. it faces resistance.any or all of these. Thus. organisational forms -. agents. to the extent that they are embodied in such ordering efforts they are then performed. and no agent. texts. is the core of the actor-network approach: a concern with how actors and organisations mobilise. I noted earlier that I refuse an analytical distinction between the macro and the microsocial. In short. Or. punctualised resources offer a way of drawing quickly on the networks of the social without having to deal with endless complexity. for the theory is not pluralist in the usual sense of the term. rather something that can be achieved once and for all. What it says is that the effects of power are generated in a relational and distributed manner. the possibility that one thing (for example an actor) may stand for another (for instance a network). is ever complete. Actor network theorists sometimes talk of such precarious simplificatory effects as punctualisations. Rather. and they certainly index an important feature of the networks of the social. Structure is not free-standing. there are orders.of the way in which any particular effort at ordering encounters its limits. or organisations. and nothing is ever sown up. All phenomena are the effect or the product of heterogeneous networks. and . boundary protocols. for instance. It doesn't say there there are many more or less equal centres of power or order. and struggles to accept or overcome those limits. Indeed.that can. like scaffolding on a building-site. relatively standardised sets of organisational relations. And. or a single set of stable relations. a relational effect that recursively generates and reproduces itself (4). ordering and resistance. At the same time. ordering (and its effects including power) is contestable and often contested. but a site of struggle. or make off on their own. On the other hand. and may degenerate into a failing network. to mask the networks that produce it. then it disappears. that no version of the social order. to put it another way. Thus I said earlier that human beings and machines have their own preferences. Translation: Social Ordering as Precarious Process I have insisted that punctualisation is a process or an effect. Here is the connection: network patterns that are widely performed are often those that can be punctualised. and final. Caution is required here. if precariously. a well-managed bank or a healthy body -. On the other hand I also noted that some network patterns run wide and deep -. And. Thus analysis of ordering struggle is central to actor-network theory. then. So it is that something much simpler -. Note that the heterogeneous engineer cannot be certain that any will work as predicted. to use the language of classical sociology. be more or less taken for granted in the process of heterogeneous engeering. In other words. autonomous. social technologies. for a time. Punctualisation is always precarious. This is because they are network packages -. has to do with simplification. resources which may come in a variety of forms: agents. Each of the above examples suggests that the appearance of unity.a working television. nor relevant. there is no such thing as "the social order" with a single centre.comes. The argument runs like this. reproduced in and ramify through the networks of the social(3). institutions. the way in which the effect is generated is also effaced: for the time being it is neither visible. The object is to explore and describe local processes of patterning. there are resistances.Why is it that the networks which make up the actor come to be deleted. So "translation" is a verb which implies transformation and the possibility of equivalence.routines -. in the plural. It means. how they are sometimes able to prevent those bits and pieces from following their own inclinations and making off. This was an informal way of talking of resistance and the polyvalent character of ordering -. they can be counted as resources. and the disappearance of network. devices. juxtapose and hold together the bits and pieces out of which they are composed.

but actor-network theory approaches the matter somewhat differently. and in part by the Annales school of materialist history with its insistence on the "longue duree" (Braudel. This is because durability is yet another relational effect. military orders. Walls may resist the escape attempts of prisoners -.though with a strongly historical emphasis. 1975). In particular.they may last longer. eschewing the synchronic. This idea is not new -. (3) Translation is more effective if it anticipates the responses and reactions of the materials to be translated. it is about ways of acting at a distance. 1977. The affinity with Foucault is obvious. Beniger. and counts as a central theme in business history (Chandler. and this is no exception. Thoughts are cheap but they don't last long. The argument is attractive. Thus centres and peripheries are effects too. it tells empirical stories about processes of translation. Imagine a continuum. Thus a good ordering strategy is to embody a set of relations in durable materials. rebuilt.g. not something given in the nature of things. Ivins. organisation and power? How are the resistances overcome? Here actor-network theory engages with the question that I posed at the outset: how it is that we never saw before that the Gorbachevs of this world really had feet of clay all along. So the empirical conclusion is that translation is contingent. into something that passes as a punctualised actor. Once again the stress is on precarious relational effects -. bent. local and variable. as a result. Consequently. Ong.though actor-network writers resist the functionalism and technological determinism which tends to characterise the latter. electronic communication. four more general findings emerge: (1) The first has to do with the fact that some materials are more durable than others and so maintain their relational patterns for longer. Instead.letters of credit. it explores the translations that create the possibility of transmitting of what Bruno Latour calls immutable mobiles -. methods of representation. stolen.but only while there are also prison guards. 1986) -. for instance. to conceal for a time the process of translation itself and so turn a network from a heterogeneous set of bits and pieces each with its own inclinations. displaced. Drawing on the work of historians (e.it is. For actor-network theory is all about power -. In particular. rather than power as a set of causes. (2) If durability is about ordering through time. but it is not simply Foucauldian for. and such apparent mundanities as early-modern trade routes. Here it is close to Foucault (1979). 1977.writing. it explores materials and processes of communication -. reshaped. Eisenstein. 1980) and anthropologists (Goody.and in particular when we embody them in inanimate materials such as texts and buildings -. they treat what Bruno Latour calls centres of translation as relational effects and explore the conditions and materials that generate these effects and contain the resistance that would dissolve them. The Strategies of Translation How is the work of all the networks that make up the punctualised actor borrowed. But what can we say about translation and the methods of overcoming resistance? Actor-network theory almost always approaches its tasks empirically. crucial to Macchiavellian political science. and speech lasts very little longer. If materials behave in durable ways then this too is an interactional effect. But when we start to perform relations -. However. Another way of putting it is that durable material forms may find other uses: their effects change when they are located in new networks of relations. a relatively stable network is one embodied in and performed by a range of durable materials. there is more than a hint of Macchiavelli in the method.power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect. . In sum the argument about durability is attractive and has much merit -. in part influenced by the "system-building" studies of such historians of technology as Thomas Hughes (1983). and the author of The Prince is cited approvingly by several actor-network theorists for his merciless analysis of the tactics and strategies of power. effects generated by surveillance and control. banking systems.but it needs to be handled with caution. distorted.how they manage. or cannon balls. profited from and/or misrepresented to generate the effects of agency. then mobility is about ordering through space. Indeed. but it is not as simple as it may seem. In other words. 1975.

(4) Finally there is the issue of the scope of ordering. the argument is that an organisation may be seen as a set of such strategies which operate to generate complex configurations of network durability.as interactional effects rather than primitive causes. The argument is that under the appropriate relational circumstances such innovations have important calculational consequences. What does actor-network theory have to say to the sociology of organisations? One answer is that it defines a set of questions for exploring the precarious mechanics of organisation.people. materialism and social relations have not always been the happiest of bedfellows. I have been pressing the view that this is local.1982). Thus as I have indicated. we might expect a series of strategies to coexist and interact. if we want to answer the "how" questions about structure. Furthermore.are also precarious. for as with any other form of translation. It is a set of social methods or relations in its own right. but it also asks us to treat different materials -. a theory of knowledge. the development of double-entry book-keeping. as the dualisms fall in sociology. However.which collectively operate to generate multi-strategic agents. "administration". and their contested character. In the best sociologies such as Marxism and feminism they have interacted. the caveat about relational circumstances.and the micro-social. And sociologies that do not take machines and architectures as seriously as they do people will never solve the problem of reproduction. Nevertheless. "ideas" and all the rest -. Even so. again. This. and newer electronic technologies on the one hand. To be sure. again. it says that we should be exploring social effects. Conclusion In this note I have described actor-network theory and suggested that this is a relational and processoriented sociology that treats agents. and the capacity to foresee outcomes on the other. systems of representation and calculability -configurations which have the effect of generating the centre/periphery asymmetries and hierarchies characteristic of most formal organisations. As Weber well understood. representation is fallible. materialism is not new to sociology. The actor-network approach is thus a theory of agency. the actor-network approach joins the party in a radical spirit. This is the basic argument: to the extent that "society" recursively reproduces itself it does so because it is materially heterogeneous."enterprise". more importantly. Note. calculation is not a deus ex machina. their uncertainty. organisations. the approach has a number of points in common with other sociologies. In particular. it has been usual to treat them as if they were naturally different in kind. and it cannot be foretold whether a representative will successfully speak for (and so mask) what it claims to represent. for it not only effaces the analytical divisions between agency and structure. The analogy with the problem of political representation is direct. However. at any rate. Note that if these exist they are more or less implicit -. I have implied above . and the macro. I have touched on some of the ways in which such effects are generated. its relational materialism is quite distinctive. organisational arrangements and inter-organisational transactions. and emphasised their heterogeneity. Indeed. and a theory of machines. whatever their material form. I have argued that social structure is better treated as a verb than as a noun.for explicit strategic calculation is only possible if there is already a centre of translation (5).the products of surveillance which are also relational effects. Thus in a recent study of management I have detected a range of strategies -. machines. But. And. spatial mobility. "vocation" and "vision" -.of immutable mobiles -. What might such strategies look like? This. ramify through and reproduce themselves in a range of network instances or locations. systems of representation -. they thus consider the relationship between literacy. is the claim made by several actor-network writers. print. it can only work on material representations -. and devices as interactive effects. which in turn increases network robustness. arguably it is possible to impute somewhat general strategies of translation to networks. power and organisation. But since no ordering is ever complete. As is obvious. bureaucracy. as a dualism rather than a continuity. like Foucauldian discourses. strategies which. is an empirical matter.

1991a. and the powerful who head those organisations. 1981. 1990. a process. 1989b. this volume. 1991b. with those to do with the strategy of organisation. the Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Paris. 1988a. in other words. Geof Bowker (1988. 1989. 1992a. Its components -. John Law (1986a*. 1992b. 1991*. then.the hierarchies. Human reductionism is current in many sociologies -. on the one hand. and to note that it could and often should be otherwise. and on the other. a precarious effect. that a centre may come to speak for and profit from. there is no difference in kind. 1992). the efforts of what has been turned into a periphery? How is it that a manager manages? Looked at in this way organisation is an achievement.) However. Thus it is convenient to distinguish. (Citations will be found in footnote 1. and Latour. These. 1989). power relations. and flows of information -. I am grateful to them all for their support over a decade. between the powerful and the wretched. the note reports on a large body of (substantially empirical) work by a series of authors. Cecile Medeal (see Hennion and Medeal) Arie Rip (1986). 1990*. a set of resistances overcome. 1986b. 1991. . 1986. 3.. differences in the methods and materials that they deploy to generate themselves. 1991b. Those items marked with an asterisk might be particularly helpful for those not familiar with the approach. 1987. 1989). Antoine Hennion (1985. 1987*.for instance in labour-process theory. 1992b). Alberto Cambrosio (et. This is the product of a group of sociologists associated with. 1990). 1992). And since there is no last instance. 1987. But then it says that there is no such thing as the last instance.the effect of interaction between materials and strategies of organisation. It says that. It demystifies the power of the powerful. Bruno Latour (1985*.that these questions come in several forms. What are the kinds of heterogeneous bits and pieces created or mobilised and juxtaposed to generate organisational effects? How are they juxtaposed? How are resistances overcome? How it is (if at all) that the material durability and transportability necessary to the organisational patterning of social relations is achieved? What are the strategies being performed throughout the networks of the social as a part of this? How far do they spread? How widely are they performed? How do they interact? How it is (if at all) that organisational calculation is attempted? How (if at all) are the results of that calculation translated into action? How is it (if at all) that the heterogeneous bits and pieces that make up organisation generate an asymmetrical relationship between periphery and centre? How is it. The authors associated with this approach include Madeleine Akrich (1989a. and Meadel. no great divide. 1992. Acknowledgements I did not want to clutter the text. 1992a. and Susan Leigh Star (1990b. Michel Callon (1980. So it is that actor-network theory analyses and demystifies. 1986*. it treats this as an effect or a consequence -. 2. This is one of the places where actor-network theory maps onto the sociology of organisations: the affinity between this argument and the theory of institutional isomorphism is evident. and Bijker. and in several cases located at. So when actor-network theory explores the character of organisation. and Griesemer. 1986. in practice there are real differences between the powerful and the wretched. Machine reductionism is current in the technological determinism of sociotechnical organisational theory. Our task is to study these materials and methods. in the last instance. between questions to do with the materials of organisation.are the uncertain consequences of the ordering of heterogeneous materials. and Law and Rip. 1988b. a consequence. Notes 1. 1986). so I have included few references to actor-network theory in the body of this note. organisational arrangements. 1991a. 1992). are the kinds of questions it asks of organisations.al. 1988*. and Callon. to understand how they realise themselves.

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