Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

Posted by Richard Heeks on 30 July 2011.

This article discusses a theory that is very applicable to development studies.  The Actor-Network Theory (ANT) provides a non-traditional perspective on social theory.  It has three main ideas:

  1. Sociology today focuses on humans as the only critical influences that shape the world.  However, people are not the only “actors” on the planet – everything affects the environment, including plants, inanimate objects, and even the Internet.
  2. Society is influenced by the interactions between people and the environment.  We must focus more on this relationship rather than trying to prove that the world is shaped by society.
  3. To understand society, our research should focus more on the big picture and less on individual data.  We can gain useful insight by studying the interactions between society and its environment.

ANT is relevant to ICT4D because of its emphasis on dynamics, innovation, technology and networks.  Actor-Network Theory gives a unique perspective, and can be used to answer many questions pertaining to ICT4D:

  1. “How do you explain the trajectory of an ICT4D project?
  2. What role does technology play in an ICT4D project?
  3. How does power manifest itself in an ICT4D project?  How were apparently powerless actors able to influence the direction of an ICT4D project?  How was it that apparently powerful actors didn’t get their way on an ICT4D project?
  4. How does a particular ICT4D innovation (be it a new technology or business model or idea) diffuse or scale-up or sink without trace?
  5. How did a particular ICT4D impact or ICT4D policy come about?” (Heeks, 2011)

I found Heeks’ third question to be particularly insightful, and I think that ANT can be utilized as a strong supplement to current analysis approaches.

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