In-between actors and networks: actor-network theory and the prospects for a symmetrical perspective on social movements
Psychology and Education Universitat Oberta de Catalunya Barcelona, Spain
Conceptualizing and understanding forms of collective action is one of the historic preoccupations of social thought. In this context, we propose that the conceptual and methodological baggage that goes with the Actor-Network theory (ANT), can become a fundamental resource for renewing and enriching the analysis of collective action. For this, I focus on two main contributions: i) ANT's alternative understanding of social action (to explain the social it is necessary to leave the exclusive concern with social relations aside and take into account the non-human actors, such as the technical procedures in which they are involved); and ii) its original definition of the "collective" (the collective is basically an aggregate of humans and non-humans, without predefined borders, it is just the relational product created by the constant and precarious commitment between heterogeneous elements). Both contributions, I affirm, allow the opening of an interesting discussion about agency and the possibility of articulating a new theory of collective action that differs from the dominant traditions in that it considers and assumes the heterogeneous and relational character of social movements, and, as such, it also assumes that all (social) political action is the emergent effect, the interactive product of hybrid collectives in action.
To give an example of the fertility of this approach, I will focus on an analysis of the ecological disaster that occurred in Doñana National Park, in Spain. As will emerge from my reading of the events, the action of environmentalist groups mobilised and enlisted human and non-human entities to resignify the content of the political activity and weave a globality that was to resist the attempts at localising the disaster operation. In this sense, we could easily say that the collective action mounted at Doñana was similar to the "actor-networks" that ANT tells us about. They were networks because they designate the result, the instantiation of an assemblage of practices, actions and interactions between various, heterogeneous entities. But they were also actors because we see that these networks mobilise the world, reorder it and execute it in a particular way.