In times when new means of communication are emerging, it becomes increasingly relevant to revisit and reconsider media studies’ main concerns, and how contemporary media can be understood and studied. This paper draws attention to how the presumption of characteristics belonging to certain entities may elevate problems in a datafied age when streaming services, texts, content, producers, audiences, social media sites, and television are always intensely entangled. Here, the paper argues that it might no longer make sense, or even be possible, to make clear-cut distinctions between such entities. The paper further elaborates on the relevance and possibilities for media studies to draw upon actor-network theory (ANT). The paper argues that ANT, through its ideas of approaching objects as situated and local, can be a useful alternative theoretical approach when studying media phenomena in a datafied age.
Dichotomies in media and communication research
ANT in practice
A key challenge for scholars is how to make sense of the complex emerging modes of new means of communication in relation to the contemporary datafied age. With the introduction of the Internet, digitalization, algorithms, and big data, scholars from a range of disciplines are interested in and are responding to emerging forms of digital engagement, making media a wider social sciences issue. The rise of the Internet and mobile media devices allows people to simultaneously be involved in multiple media practices by multiple means (boyd and Ellison, 2007). Such conditions foster complex interactions, entangling humans and technologies in new ways. The rapidity at which this development is happening further elevates the need to rethink the analysis of media (Borah, 2017).
However, media research has a long history of organizing media around a dominant mass- and consumer-oriented research scene, where media has been approached in relation to dichotomies such as individual/society, producer/receiver, and subject/object. Such dichotomies are foundational for how media and communication have come to be understood. With new emerging modes of communication, mobile media devices and the Internet are blurring the boundaries between such groups, and such group pairing may not make much sense in a datafied age.
In response, media scholars have suggested approaching media as plural (Bratich, 2005; Livingstone, 2015), or as a set of practices (Couldry, 2012). For theoretical support for such approaches, scholars have turned primarily to practice theory (Schatzki, 1997). In this paper, I will elaborate on the relevance and possibilities for media studies to draw upon actor-network theory (henceforth ANT) (Latour, 2005, 1987). More specifically, I will explore some of the fundamental differences between ANT and practice theory as a basis for an explorative discussion of what ANT — approaching media as socio-technical assemblages — could offer studies of media in a datafied age.
Before taking on such a task, however, it is necessary to situate the debate on approaching media as socio-technical assemblages in relation to the theoretical foundations upon which the dominant strands in media and communication research have been developed. I will, therefore, begin by revisiting some of the main dichotomies in approaches to media and communication research before turning to differences between practice theory and ANT to further develop the main argument. Finally, I will explore how media studies in practice have engaged with ANT.
Dichotomies in media and communication research
There is no lack of comprehensive overviews of media and communication approaches, so the purpose of this section is not to recite them (see for example, Balnaves, et al., 2009; Miller, 2005; Watson, 2008). Nevertheless, for a discussion on new approaches to media and communication studies, it is helpful to briefly recall some of the perhaps most dominant (Anglo-American) dichotomies in media and communication studies because these are foundational for how we have come to understand media and communication. As I will discuss, however, there is a risk that such dichotomies “seem to be ‘natural’” when in fact they are “historically constructed” .
In the United States, the main concern of early communication scholars like Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948), was to explore what the mass was doing and thinking. Building on such ideas of mass communication, scholars have sought to quantify individual media audience members, exploring how behaviour and opinions were affected by media exposure (Webster and Phalen, 2013). Mass communication studies have also elaborated on wider debates of culture, drawing on Marxist theories and critiquing capitalistic systems and their profit-driven mass media (Horkheimer and Adorno, [2002). Another significant strand is the semiotic analysis, which turns to meaning-making processes and literacy theories in attempts to explain the readers’ relationship with media texts (Ang, 1985; Hall, 2003; Morley, 1986).
Although these strands differ from each other in many respects, the history of media research has largely been organized around a dominant mass- and consumer-oriented research scene. Media has been conceptualized in relation to macro-level explanations (either by turning to media ownership and its supposed influence and control over people through manipulation, or by turning to economic, social, or cultural contexts and structures). Different manifestations of this include scholars referring to media audiences as crowds (Schnapp and Tiews, 2006; van Ginneken, 1992); masses (Briggs, 1985; Webster and Phalen, 2013; Williams, 1976); publics (Calhoun, 1992; Warner, 2002); consumers (Lewis, et al., 2005; Napoli, 2010; van Dijck, 2009); citizens (Butsch, 2008), and commodities (e.g., Artz, 2015; Smythe, 1977). Even the body of scholars that perhaps most strongly argues for media audience resistance by conceptualizing audiences as participants (Jenkins, 2006), producers (Bruns, 2007), or users (Rosen, 2008), tend to rest upon, and reinforce, an underpinning dichotomy (e.g., between producer and users, production and reception). This, in turn, has made concepts such as power and control pivotal in media research. With mobile media devices and the Internet blurring the boundaries between such groups, such group pairing may not make much sense in a datafied age. Consequently, it is important to acknowledge the risk of reproducing such underpinning dichotomies in the formulation of new problems. The datafied age requires a reconsideration of how media and communication can be understood, as well as how it can be approached to help us question such dichotomies.
In relation to the datafied age, it has been suggested that a new paradigm can be developed to approach the changing significance of media in society by theorizing media as practice (Couldry, 2004; Swidler, 2000). For theoretical support of such an approach, studies have turned to practice theory (e.g., Bräuchler and Postill, 2010; Couldry, 2004; Reckwitz, 2002) and in some cases ANT (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2006; Wajcman and Jones, 2012). Both practice theory and ANT need some unpacking to make sense of how they differ.
The point of departure for a “turn to practice” in media research was to challenge inherited descriptions of what people do with media (Couldry, 2004). First of all, while Couldry (2012) emphasizes that practice approaches can be useful in media research, he delimits the discussion to the potential contribution of practice theory (e.g., Bräuchler and Postill, 2010; Couldry, 2004; Reckwitz, 2002). Moreover, Couldry’s argument regarding the fruitfulness of practice theory for media studies was grounded in an idea to return to questions raised by Lazarsfeld and Merton  regarding the media effects “of the existence of media in our society”, with the purpose of moving beyond such discussion approaching media “not as text or production economy, but first and foremost as practice” . Before we take a closer look at what implications such choice of theoretical framework poses for the study of media, we need to explore what practice theory entails.
Schatzki (1997) outlines a theoretical framework that proposes that practice is a composition of four elements: rules, understandings, artefacts, and teleoaffective structures. What distinguishes one practice from another, according to Schatzki (1997), is a difference in any of these four elements. Such an approach to the study of media could, accordingly, be understood as a question of identifying these elements. In contrast to traditional sociology, a key assumption Schatzki  makes with practice theory is that the actions of individuals within a domain can be explained by the practice (i.e., the composition of the four elements of a practice can explain the actions of an individual):
Practices are interwoven activities in a given social domain such as agriculture, cooking, the economy, and politics. [...] Individualist theories, by contrast, accord priority to action, tying the identity of particular actions to properties of the individuals who perform them (e.g., goals, intentions, and other mental states), and treat practices as contingent agglomerations of already constituted actions. 
Secondly, Schatzki (1997) situates a practice within broader contexts of “social domains”, and by doing so, he separates macro (structures) from micro (interaction). Then, the analysis is grounded in explaining how the two influence each other. Here, the practices’ stretchability is consequently restricted. According to practice theory, actors enter a practice according to rules, norms, and structures (similar to Giddens’ structuration theory) that are already there, embedded in the practice (Schatzki, 1997). In practice theory, the practice is this way given authority and agency (see, for example, Bourdieu, 1977; Schatzki, 1997). For Schatzki, a practice is maintained by the actions of participants; actions which, in turn, are determined by the four elements that make up the practice.
A practice theory analysis downplays individual actions and, instead, emphasises how a practice possesses pre-existing characteristics such as routinized practical knowledge (Reckwitz, 2002). In this regard, it resembles how Giddens’ (1984) structuration theory (which is commonly included in the theoretical repertoire in media studies) assigns to the “structure” a certain set of pre-existing characteristics. Furthermore, although both structuration theory and practice theory draw connections between structure and interactions, they both rely to a large extent on pre-existing “forces” within their structures (Giddens, 1984) and practices (Bourdieu, 1977). This predetermined explanatory feature of these theories constrains their relevance in view of the continuous change significant for a contemporary datafied age.
Theorizing media as a set of practices could direct attention to the details of what comes into play in media engagements. However, such theorizations assume pre-existing “structures” (be it Schatzki’s “four elements” or other macro-analytical terms such as “power dynamics” or “social forces”), which risks overlooking the situated work involved in such achievements. Concerns with surrounding external forces as a foundation for explanation indicates taken-for-granted stability in structures. While practice theory can help draw attention to media practice, it also risks reinforcing, rather than challenging, dominating dichotomies and taken-for-granted structures (e.g., social, cultural, and economic).
Applied to media research, this means that a practice theory approach may assume that the context and structures surrounding media engagements pre-exist media practice. Practice theory thereby risks overlooking the ephemeral and situated nature of the local work involved in media engagements. Such an approach to media as practice does not support inquiries into the fragility and changing conditions of contemporary media landscapes. It is here that practice theory and ANT differ. ANT has a lot more in common with Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodology, arguing against the idea of distinctions between micro and macro.
By addressing issues regarding structuration as activities of ordering (as a verb) instead, ANT offers a move away from presupposing that orders are stable or pre-existing. Law  argues that “there is no such thing as ‘the social order’ with a single centre, or a single set of stable relations.” Instead, there are multiple orders. This resonates with Haraway’s (1990) ideas of multiple and complex related orders, and that dominance or hegemony is an outcome of activities of ordering rather than simply something that orders interactions.
Unlike ANT, practice theory treats structures and contexts surrounding the actors as if they exist independently of the actors. Such theories assume stability in the structures and context that supposedly surround the actors (Asdal and Moser, 2012; Law and Moser, 2012). In terms of fluidity, an ANT approach to media would instead acknowledge the ongoingness and sensibility of such structures and contexts and consider them part of the practice. Such positions are grounded in the discarding of several of the common views and explanatory outlines found in traditional social sciences and humanities, which often draw on the basics of dichotomies. The argument here is that dichotomies, made between society and nature, for example, are something that should be explained rather than be taken as a starting point. By questioning the dichotomies, ANT invites examination of these notions of both society and nature and the conditions of their supposed relations (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985).
The development of ANT in a strand of science and technology studies (STS) sprang from an attempt to introduce a “sociology of associations” rather than a “sociology of the social” . Latour (2005) reminds us that “the social” is not what explains things, but rather something that needs to be explained. What differentiates ANT from traditional social sciences is that ANT scholars treat “the social” as an achievement of a process and, by doing so, question epistemological preconceptions (Latour, 2005, 2004). ANT bears witness to the STS history of attending to practices in which STSers believe realities are achieved. The commitment to focusing on practices is grounded in the belief that realities are achieved rather than pre-existing. Strum and Latour (1987) exemplify the move of the question of how things exist to practice, which has implications for how we can explain things.
A common critique against ANT in media studies, where we often see agency debated, has been that ANT resists acknowledging power. If we take the common question of power in media research and instead address such questions with an ANT approach, the focus would be put on the actions leading to the outcome of someone being designated a spokesperson. That means that if “power” is found, it is grounded in an empirical notion rather than a presupposed notion. The potential with ANT in media studies is that it can help us understand and analyse how the foundations of power (for example) are built (Latour, 2005). Following such argumentations, concerns with social concepts (of which power is an example) become, with ANT, relocated from what is to how it is (re)produced. For the understanding of media, this means resisting any temptation to turn to a functionalist interpretation of media phenomena. The principle that applies is that, as a starting point, we cannot decide a priori which associations are meaningful and which are not. By applying this principle, ANT questions common dichotomies (such as individual/society, producer/receiver, and subject/object) that have harnessed media studies.
ANT’s long-standing project roots for an ephemeral flat ontology, treating the nature of things as an outcome of constantly ongoing socio-material assemblages . Another symmetry-related issue that ANT has with other social science theories is a concern with scale in actors . In ANT, both humans and non-humans are considered actors (Latour, 1987). “Actor,” in ANT, refers to an entity (human or non-human) that makes “a difference in the course of some other agent’s action” . ANT is often wrongly interpreted as an attempt to grant non-humans as much agency as humans. ANT was not trying to give either humans or non-humans agency, but to give them equal consideration in analysis. Another important point to emphasize here is that this is not the same as saying that they are alike or equal in effect. However, the symmetry that ANT argued for was interpreted as evenness. Evenness would mean assigning equal agency to all actors as a starting point, but the point ANT scholars were trying to make was that one should not assume agency but inquire into how any actor (human or non-human) might achieve it.
This, in turn, connects to debates about agency and structure, which bear witness to such distinctions . There is a collective that accomplishes realities, consisting of both humans and non-humans that together are involved in the accomplishments. By not assuming any pre-existing characteristic (like agency) belonging to either humans or non-humans, ANT seeks to explain social order through networks, which intertwine humans and non-human actors. There are few narratives “integrating technology into social theory” in social sciences, which also signifies the difficulty in finding narratives that account for technology . Technologies are often black-boxed in social theory (Latour, 1987). The stories of technologies’ roles in interaction have been considered less rich than stories about humans (Sismondo, 2010). Because social practices have become intensely technological in the contemporary media environment, finding approaches that account for the role played by non-humans seems crucial when trying to understand contemporary media phenomena. Such approaches take the interactional relationship between humans and technologies seriously (e.g., Akrich, 1992; Akrich, et al., 2002; Strathern, 2005, 1992a, 1992b, 1991; Suchman, 2006, 1987). Accounting for non-humans is part of a re-occurring theme in ANT research that attempts to do away with ideas of binary oppositions such as object and subject, culture and nature, and machine and man (Barad, 2007, 2003; Haraway, 1991; Latour, 2005, 1999; Strathern, 1992a, 1992b, 1991).
Media scholars have made efforts to connect and link media studies and science and technology studies (STS) by highlighting materiality and content when using media technologies (Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2007; Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2006). Media scholars that have taken an interest in ANT have pointed to the need to problematize techno-determinist approaches (Lievrouw, 2014, 2009), and to the co-determination of society and technology (Boczkowski, 2004; Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2007; Gillespie, et al., 2014; Siles and Boczkowski, 2012; Wajcman and Jones, 2012). Such scholars have also been eager to combine ANT-inspired approaches with institutional theories, for example, when it comes to materiality or interpretation processes. However, ANT does not play well with institutional repertoires. This is because if one acknowledges that surrounding structures and contexts are changing (Asdal and Moser, 2012; Law and Moser, 2012), then it becomes theoretically problematic to explain media through such structures and contexts. On a similar note, ANT is not of much help when it comes to explaining interpretation or meaning-making processes. The potential of ANT is not to be understood in terms of how some of its propositions can be combined with media theories. Instead, the main strength of ANT is how its fundamental assumptions can be a basis for renegotiation and reassessment of boundaries between actors in a changing media landscape.
ANT in practice
My intention with this paper is not to propose ANT as a comprehensive approach to studies of media. Concerning discussions on how to approach media and communication studies in the contemporary media landscape, I merely seek to add to the broader debate by discussing some of the ways in which ANT might be relevant.
Having outlined the basics of practice theory and ANT in relation to media and communication studies, it is time to elaborate on what an ANT approach to media as situated socio-technical assemblages would practically entail. A good example is Bucher’s (2017) study of journalism in a datafied age. Here, Bucher explores the consequences of implementing computational procedures in different stages of the production of news and how algorithms “have become the new technological ‘saviour’ for an industry in decline” . Consequently, newspapers are now hiring technologists and working with data analytics groups. Her study, which draws primarily on interviews with leading Scandinavian news organizations’ staff, explores the newsroom in a datafied age. By taking an ANT-inspired approach, Bucher illustrates how contemporary news production is organized and assembled around technologies. Here, Bucher attends to how algorithms get to decide not only which news items are deemed newsworthy, but also “where and how to show the news” . Bucher clarifies that this is “not to say that the algorithm determines the valuation of news. Rather, algorithms can be seen as actors, among others, enabling and constraining journalistic practices in certain ways” . Here, adopting an ANT approach makes it possible for Bucher to explore how the editorial role in a newsroom changes with the introduction of advanced technology. Bucher’s account shows that technology may be understood as an actor in media practice, as technological advancements made technology part of the journalistic practice, rather than a mere tool to be used by human journalists. By attending to a renegotiation of the definitions of actors and the relations between them (i.e., not taking for granted the roles of the editor, technology, or the boundaries between different actors), an ANT approach made it possible to show in detail how humans and non-humans collaborate in the production of news. The valuation algorithm was not simply a tool for editors to use when evaluating news. The introduction of such algorithms also challenged the boundaries between human actors and technology actors within the journalistic practice. The algorithm required the editors to continuously monitor how it performed. One of Bucher’s interviewed editors explained that she had implemented questions in her journalistic practice to be able to evaluate the algorithm’s work. She asked herself if she had “rightfully assessed the algorithmic processing of a story,” if the story was “displayed in the way that she had anticipated,” and how “the story works in tandem with previously published stories” . In essence, Bucher’s study shows how algorithms have changed the journalistic practice, illustrating how editors coordinate their work with the algorithm’s work. If the algorithm were reduced to being approached as merely a tool for journalists, Bucher would not have been able to identify how the editors’ and journalists’ work practices have developed and transformed with the new technology. The study showed that algorithms do not simply assist journalists in their work. Instead, algorithms are entangled in the journalistic practice. Bucher’s study thereby draws attention to the importance of reassessing definitions and relations between actors in media practices in a datafied age, illustrating how an ANT approach can support the design of such a study.
Another good example is Moats’ (2019) study of the Woolwich attacks in London in 2013. Moats explores the chain of events of the Woolwich attacks from the first traces of the occurrence on Twitter, where some locals had tweeted about the event. The study attempts to show what can be gained by moving away from media studies’ customary focus on the materiality of media technologies and instead following “objects like controversies” . Doing so, Moats demonstrates how such an approach can help scholars move away from dichotomies such as producer/audience and content/material (which can, especially in a datafied age, be problematic). For example, the study shows that the reasons some narratives get picked up (and others do not) cannot simply be traced back to the characteristics of Twitter. This finding shows that, in analysis, it would be problematic to separate different domains (such as social media, television, or online and off-line) from each other. Assuming an ANT-inspired approach, Moats (2019) did not have to decide beforehand “who, where or how things work” through “ready-made concepts of technologies”. Instead, his study questions ideas of what counts as media . As Moats (2019) explains, this chain of events crossed:
domains between institutions like the police, television, blogs and social media, and reveals the backchannels between them. This is not a simple circuit between audiences and producers — it is a web of different media stretching between the visual and the textual, online and off-line. 
In Moats’ study, an ANT approach made it possible to explore the events happening in relation to the Woolwich attacks without delimiting presumptions about predefined actors and institutions. By focusing the analysis on tracing the chain of events of an occurrence such as the Woolwich attacks, presumed distinctions between entities were thereby questioned instead of taken for granted.
Instead of explaining the relations between a predefined set of entities and structures, a study inspired by ANT sets out to explore what types of entities are involved in an event, then it follows them and describes what happens. It is by taking seriously the questioning of dichotomies that we can learn which actors are involved in the interaction and what their matter of concern is in that situation. As Bucher (2017) and Moats (2019) demonstrate, such an approach can successfully reveal who, where, and what works and how it is held together. To media scholars, ANT is specifically methodologically relevant in the way it approaches definitions and relations as empirical questions rather than assuming certain properties belonging to entities beforehand. The examples from the two papers draw attention to how such presumptions may elevate problems in media and communication research. For example, in a time when streaming services, media texts, content, producers, audiences, social media sites, and television are always intensely entangled, clear-cut distinctions between such entities might no longer make much sense, or even be possible to make. An ANT approach has the potential to help scholars trying to grapple with the changing conditions of media in a time where humans and technology (and other entities) interact in new ways. Scholars might otherwise miss out on important insights into such changing conditions. Accounting for technology as an actor and not merely as a tool (for example, by approaching the algorithm as an enabler of journalistic practice), these two cases highlight the importance of rethinking how media and communication research draws boundaries between the assumed actors (producer/receiver, individual/society, and object/subject). Moreover, in a datafied age, where new means of communication are emerging, it also becomes increasingly relevant to challenge ideas of who and what can be treated as an actor.
With this paper, I have tried to elaborate on the relevance and possibilities for media studies to draw upon ANT. ANT approaches within media and communication studies have so far been significantly limited, and when ANT has figured in media studies, combinations with institutional theories have been suggested. Here, I have instead tried to explore the differences between practice theory (which has been used, and argued for, more frequently in media studies in a datafied age) and ANT. The strength in an ANT approach, I argue, is not in combining it with other theories. The potential ANT offers media and communication studies lies in its offer to reassess and renegotiate boundaries between actors, which seems important and urgent in a datafied age where much communication and media become even more intertwined with the Internet and new fast-developing technologies such as artificial intelligence. Here, ANT offers media and communication scholars an opportunity to reconsider what the study of media research’s main concerns are and how they can be understood and studied.
To exemplify, I explored how Bucher’s (2017) and Moats’ (2019) studies followed the ANT idea of downplaying social orders. By approaching media as socio-technical assemblages, Bucher and Moats were able to study the dynamics of complex interaction in emerging forms of digital engagement. An interaction involving both human and technological entities. ANT’s focus on the empirics — what happens (without making a priori decisions about agency or power) could, therefore, prioritize ideas of what is in play in certain situations. Such an approach escapes explanatory foundations that over-simplify causal agency (Latour, 2005, 1987). It is primarily as an approach to objects as situated and local that ANT can be a useful theoretical approach for the study of media in a datafied age.
About the author
In 2019, Emma Dahlin received the Swedish Research Council’s three-year International Postdoctoral Grant. The position is divided between TEMA T (Department of Thematic Studies, Technology and Social Change) at Linköping University, and the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz.
E-mail: emma [dot] dahlin [at] liu [dot] se
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Received 11 November 2019; revised 4 March 2020; accepted 14 March 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Emma Dahlin. All Rights Reserved.
Approaching media as socio-technical assemblages in a datafied age
by Emma Dahlin.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 4 - 6 April 2020