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Reading Notes: Week 8

Activity Theory vs. Actor-network Theory

Ah, welcome back, Spinuzzi! While I’ve enjoyed Latour’s snark and not-so-veiled disdain, I’m happy to admit that I’ve missed Spinuzzi’s straight-forward style and thoroughly understandable explanations.

In his chapter, Spinuzzi outlines the history, theories, and key points of both activity theory and actor-network theory (ANT).

Activity theory, Spinuzzi explains, is about distributed cognition and focuses issues of “labor, learning, and concept formation” (p. 62). As a result, its methodology relies on the foundations of dialectics, unity, and origin, taking an instance of a phenomenon, reducing it to a single abstract concept or principle, and using it to develop further variations (p. 64). In a nutshell, activity theory posits that “activity networks consist of a developing set of activities anchored toward a common object toward which people strive” (pp. 67-68). In this view, activity is mediated by physical and psychological tools, and, as a result of such mediation, the quality of the activity is improved and thinking is transformed.

The primary unit of analysis in activity theory is the activity system, the structure of which is represented here:

Activity System

Engestrom’s Activity System Diagram, from

Central to the dialectical account of development is contradictions, and Spinuzzi outlines the four forms these contradictions can take:

  1. exchange value vs. use value
  2. division of labor vs. advanced instruments
  3. culturally more advanced object or motive introduced into the dominant form of the central activity
  4. neighbor activities (pp. 72-73)

In addition to identifying two main types of activity systems (chained and overlapping), Spinuzzi identifies one of the most important features of activity theory: only humans have agency–nonhumans do not. In activity theory, artifacts serve as tools for activity that work toward the object.

In contrast to activity theory, actor-network theory (ANT) is an ontology that focuses on issues of power in science and politics, rhetoric, production of facts, agreements, and knowledge. Whereas activity theory relies on unity, ANT relies on multiplicity, associations, and relations (what Spinuzzi refers to as alliances). From the ANT perspective, “existence is achieved through accretion rather than development, associations rather than evolution” (p. 66). ANT assumes that interconnections are not necessarily organic, self-contained, or unified and rejects cause-and-effect relationships (pp. 80-81).

Primary beliefs of ANT include

  • relational interactions (unlike dialectical interactions) can always be reversed (p. 82)
  • symmetry-as-negotiation (p. 83)
  • one actant‘s point of view does not constitute the organizing principle for the entire network (p. 84)
  • actor-networks are unstable but are more stabilized through increased associations or alliances (p.87)
  • agency is distributed (everything mediates everything) (p. 87)
  • nonhuman objects can serve as mediators and thus have agency (p. 85)

Spinuzzi emphasizes the point that ANT is concerned not with how something is interpreted (as with activity theory) but rather how it is enacted into being. Emergence into being is mediated and this mediation “involves mutual transformation of the assemblage” (p. 87). Latour identifies four parts or moments of this transformation:

  1. Translation: power applied to change–allows us to trace through particular moments of negotiations
  2. Interessment: defining and splicing in the stakeholders who make themselves obligatory passage points
  3. Enrollment: wherein roles are defined
  4. Mobilization: wherein representation of the object is agreed upon

In short, ANT posits that all actors are networks and “actants are mobilized to commonly achieve a goal that accomplishes the accumulated goals of the various actants” (p. 90).

Activity Theory Resources

Interaction Design Foundation’s book on activity theory:

Martin Ryder, University of Colorado at Denver, bibliography of resources:

Video Introduction to activity theory:

Actor-network Theory Resources

Daryl Cressman’s “A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory”:

Actor-Network Theory in Plain English Video:

Other Comparisons

Bonnie Nardi’s “Studying Context”:

Reijo Miettinen’s “The Riddle of Things”:


Spinuzzi, C. (2008). How are networks theorized? Network: Theorizing knowledge work in telecommunications (pp. 62-95).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.