The concept of a networked society is appealing but has limitations

Some time ago I across a formulation by Manuel Castells asserting that the city is everywhere and in everything.

I’m also familiar with his comment that scandal is the epitome of politics.

A book entitled How law knows (2007), in which Mariana Valverde speaks of actor network theory, has helped me to understand potential limitations of such formulations.

Actor network theory

Valverde’s chapter in the above-noted book is entitled “Theoretical and methodological issues in the study of legal knowledge practice.”

She remarks (p. 79) that North American sociological scholars concerned with sociolegal studies have long ago dispensed with a law-nonlaw binary, and have recently questioned another set of binary opposites.

That is, they’ve begun to question “the line separating persons from things and more generally, humans from nonhumans.”

Valverde adds that actor network theory has been applied in France and Britain to the study of legal processes but has had little application on sociological scholarship in North America. It may be noted the book was published in 2007.

Actor network theory is positioned as avoiding claims about “what the world is really like”

Scholars using this approach (actor network theory) make a methodological decision, according to Valverde, to ignore the distinction between human and nonhuman when observing a research site.

This is not a substantive claim, she notes (p. 79), “about whether humans exist or are important.”

She adds that some scholars claim the legal boundary between persons and things is not self-evident.

Whatever one is dealing with,  in the actor network theory approach to research  – whether people, artifacts, human thought, things, rules, or anything else – “are all regarded as ‘actors.'”

The word “actor” in this case is assumed to have little or no link with the sociological concept of “agency” (p. 80).

What is or isn’t an actor is, as well, a matter of investigation. The term actor is always specific and relational, as Valverde illustrates with a series of examples, including her research on urban law in action.

Sociological network theory is posited as making claims about the nature of the world

As the actor network theory field was experimenting with the language of actors and networks, the author adds, a literature was developing that also spoke about network, the work of Manuel Castells being among the best known.

Two differences between actor network theory and sociological network theory are outlined in the chapter.

First, the general logic of network sociology, of the kind promoted by Manuel Castells among others, “emphasizes the success and ubiquitousness of networks and claims we now live in a networked world” (p. 81), according to Valverde.

The actor network theory school, in contrast, is characterized as “making no claims about what the world is really like.”

Secondly, while “most sociological accounts of the networked global world focus on successful changes,” the alternative approach “often draws our attention to failures, to situations in which networks grind to a halt.”

From this discussion I conclude, in a tentative way, that sociological network theory is compelling and engaging, but there are other ways to look at things as well.


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