Distraction Free Reading

Assembling an Actor-Network Theory Archaoelogy

Water Reservoir showing the depression in which water accumulated and walls that dammed the outflow of water from it

Elevated view of a Medieval Water Reservoir located within an inselberg.

When I first thought of putting Science and Technology Studies (STS) and archaeology in conversation, several aspects of this conversation seemed obvious. Given that things and human interactions with things are central to both fields of inquiry, I thought that it would largely be a discussion about epistemologies and the way that the “social,” as a field of action, is constructed by both disciplines. Indeed, the reason I thought about this conversation was that both STS and archaeology seem to infer aspects of the social from human-thing relationships. Further, archaeology has increasingly, in its turn to materiality and embrace of new materialism, conceptualized “things” as assemblages, nodes within networks of practice, flows of materials and the socially constructed physical properties of substances, and the ability of things to “act,” as conceived of in theories of symmetric agency and actor-network theory (ANT), (e.g., Knappet 2011, Malafouris 2008, Olsen and Witmore 2015, Renfrew 2004).

To initiate this conversation, I present two examples of archaeological applications of the insights of ANT analysis that demonstrate the kinds of insights that the convergence in the fields has generated. They discuss the ways in which drawing on ANT, and especially the concomitant erosion of ontological distinctions between humans and non-humans, and the problematization of the boundaries of objects of study, affords insights into problems in archaeology at varying scales, ranging from the constitution of social relations to the nature of agency itself.

I find that archaeological applications of ANT further an idea first proposed by Marx, when he argued that commodities mediate relationships between people, as bearers of labor and exchange value. To move beyond the modern capitalist context in which the things that people make become commodities, it is important to replace commodities with the more general term, “thing” as we think through this comparison.[1] Thus, “things” mediate social relations between people. Much of social inquiry has attempted to understand how this mediation is accomplished but has almost exclusively focused on human agency in the creation of things and the ways in which things participate in social relations. ANT approaches in general, but especially in their application in archaeology, afford an elaboration of how, what Heidegger calls the “thingness” of things (Heidegger 1971) (and conversely the “objectness” of objects), is constituted and conditions the ways in which this mediation occurs, affording insights into what agency itself is and where it is located. Further, as the last example of archaeological applications of ANT I discuss shows, they also afford a re-insertion of politics into discussions in ANT, a facet that ANT has been criticized for undertheorizing (Fortun 2014, 315, also see Kipnis 2015). Jasanoff’s (2015, 23) discussion on “The Flatness of Networks,” within ANT eloquently elaborates this problem, “it risks a kind of moral nihilism, making all actions and agents seem equally empowered, or disempowered, and therefore equally responsible, or irresponsible, for the networks within which they function.” I believe, however, that archaeological applications of ANT offer a way in which to retain critical political inquiry when considering what Bauer and Kosiba (2016) call “situated interactions,” that are the immediate contexts of networks.

Malfouris employs the concept of material agency to question the idea of human agency and its role in the production of things. He argues that agency in the process of shaping things (ceramics in the example he uses) emerges from interactions between human brains, bodies, and the materials being shaped and thus is an emergent property of these interactions, rather than being intrinsic to human beings (Malfouris 2008, 21). Another application of ANT in archaeology is Hodder’s postulation of “entanglement,” that similarly to Malfouris expands the concept of agency to argue that things exert pressure on people and consequently on social relations through the unintended consequences of their interactions with humans within the social relations they constitute. He argues that “things fall apart,” and the human dependence on things “draws humans more fully into a dependence on and care for things that is entrapping” (Hodder 2016, 1). This property of things to fall apart, he argues, induces pressure towards the constitution of temporally enduring social relationships. He reframes all human-human interactions as a consequence of human thing interactions themselves entangled (and entrapped) within thing-human interactions (interactions that result from the behaviors of things, like falling apart). Scholarship like this has opened up an entirely new field and way of understanding the creation of social relations that decenters humans and human agency.

Despite these and several convergences in the questions posed by both STS and archaeology, there remain several obstacles to discussing them as a unified or even convergent epistemology with which to approach things. Several of the positions I described above remain contested or tertiary to several paradigms within archaeology, and in particular symmetric agency remains hotly contested (Olsen and Witmore 2015). Similarly, STS is certainly not a single body of theory, though I am far less able to discuss the nuances that operate within this field. Consequently, my discussion in this post will be considerably more circumspect, and I will attempt to distinguish between an archaeology and STS that assume the existence of the social, and an STS and archaeology that problematize its very constitution. This is a distinction I borrow from Latour’s (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. He distinguishes a “sociology of technology” from an ANT approach to the social. The distinction as I understand it, lies in the understanding of the social, either as an existing or real field of action, in sociologies of technology as exemplified in Mackenzie and Wajcman’s (1999) edited volume or in treating the social as the object of study, i.e., the analysis elucidates how the social is assembled, and thus problematizes the existence of the social itself, a position which affords greater scrutiny to the agency of things, and affords a decentering of humans in these processes.

Archaeology as “a sociology of technology”: When people do things

Since archaeology is, in some ways, the process of deducing the “social,” the idea of assuming its existence might appear paradoxical or perplexing to an archaeologist. Indeed, archaeologists might argue that inferring the social is the project of archaeology (i.e., they do not assume it). In archaeology (as perhaps in the social sciences in general), the social implies a field of thought and practice that informs how people behave and provides them with traditions to emulate and negotiate within. For example, arguing that certain practices instantiate gender and other social identities would be “assuming the social.” Conversely, inquiring into the very constitution of the conditions that made such identities possible, i.e., the material and human interactions that afford their realization, would be to investigate the assembling of the social (or in this case, gender, and other social identities).

Post-processual archaeologists in the late 1980s and onwards realized that societies were not homogenous, bounded entities (as theorized by preceding paradigms of archaeology, most explicitly by processual archaeologists), but rather conglomerates of overlapping but competing social factions of people pursuing divergent goals (Brumfiel 1992). This created a need for new ways to understand the social, and in particular, ‘social complexity’ as archaeologists parse political relations (complex societies being those with political structures). While archaeologists first turned towards structural and critical theories in response to these problems, the practice theory of Giddens (1979, 1984) and Bourdieu (1977, 1990) has perhaps since had the greatest impact on archaeological theory because of the ways in which it critiqued and reformulated the distinctions between agency and structure.
Practice theory’s emphasis on reflexive action as loci of both the production of social relations as well as their modification is particularly amenable to archaeology because the material record often limits our ability to study the kinds of “social structures” that were assumed to inform practices. The material record only affords an analysis of the actual practices of people, i.e., what and how people do things is accessible to archaeologists (and usually not data about why). Because practice theory argued that social structures were created and altered in the performance of practices, it afforded archaeologists a way to elaborate the constitution of the social without reference to a pre-existing social structure or set of relations.

Practice theory does undoubtedly assume the existence of the social as a field of action, reflexively constituted in the practices that agents perform. Archaeologists have applied practice theory to elucidate aspects of this field and negotiations within it. For example, Sinopoli and Morrison’s (1995) work at the eponymous capital of the Vijayanagara empire demonstrates the ways in which the imperial elite instantiated their authority in the production of the capital city. The spatial relations of the city realized (and modified) political traditions that rendered their authority legible to audiences at scales ranging from the local to pan-Asiatic because their imperial political practices were legible within these pre-existing traditions.

Nevertheless, practice theory also accommodates a conceptualization of things with agency. Drawing on the work of scholars like Gell (1996), Appadurai (1988), and Kopytoff (1988), agency is argued to inhere to things through the work done on them by people or their social biographies. For example, Johansen’s (2004) and Boivin’s (2004) analyses of the semiotics of cow dung in Neolithic South India indicates that cow dung was an important material in Neolithic South India that played a critical role, because of its flammability, in constituting the significance of places, reifying social relations of community and providing loci for rituals that emphasized social inclusion. However, their analyses assume the existence of social conceptualizations of community and the importance and semiotics of cow dung therein.

Thus, while archaeological applications of practice theory initiated the project of destabilizing distinctions between agents, social structure, nature, culture, and to a limited extent humans and non-humans, the focus remains steadfastly on people and what people do. The ontological status of people and their ability to act in ways that practice theory understands as doxic (i.e., structural or non-agentive) or strategic (i.e., agentive or tactical) (Bourdieu 1977, 167; Johansen and Bauer 2011, 9-10) remains an axiom. ANT approaches, however, develop a project of elaborating the very process through which categories such as “people,” “things,” and “agency” are constituted by destabilizing them. It remains important to remember, as I indicated in my introduction to this post, that ANT models of distributed and symmetric agency and synchronic analysis make questions of politics, agentive responsibility, and diachronic change difficult to parse. The last example of an archaeological application of ANT that I discuss below affords a way to reinsert such analytics into ANT models.

Archaeology and ANT: When things do things

Archaeologists have also problematized and investigated the constitution of the social itself and contexts which afford the constitution of the social and the potential for political action. In doing so, they have often expanded agency to include the actions or potential for action inherent in things. Such theorizations apply ANT to archaeological questions, but the nature of the field, in particular, the temporality of these questions, also afford a critique of ANT. In particular, as Bauer and Kosiba point out, ANT approaches afford “only a faint rendering of the substantive and highly situated material relationships between people, things and their environment” (Bauer and Kosiba 2016, 119). As such, it might be said, while ANT approaches to politics afford productive bridges between micro and macro scales of socio-political connectedness and material flows, it does not resolve issues of what might be called strategic action by things and people. Indeed, the idea of how things might act strategically is hard to answer.

Bauer and Kosiba’s analysis of water and the construction and maintenance of water retention pools, in Iron Age South India, as resource places within broader practices of landscape production offers a way to consider the strategic potentials of things with agency. They examine the ways in which stones and water and social understandings of them afforded the creation of loci of convergence to produce water reservoirs as resource places in the semi-arid pastoral landscapes of Iron Age South India. The nature of water itself, the landscape, and significantly rocky outcrops or inselbergs within the landscape provided opportunities and materials that allowed the construction of these retention pools. The nature of these materials and the problem of water provisioning afforded the constitution of socio-political relations in the production and maintenance of retention pools. However, as they point out, the production of retention pools was not simply the production of networks or assemblages of people and things but also afforded the constitution of political relations. These politics result from the ‘problems’ that emerge in the interactions between things (water, rocks, hills, and herds in this case) and in human attempts to perpetuate certain aspects of these interactions and preventing others, and the investments (both social and material) doing so required. These problems included, but were not limited to the reproduction of the pools themselves, and mediating access to them, through the production of political claims to what may be understood as territory.

As they phrase it,

[t]hat is, if we accept that things can participate in and affect human social practices, we must examine differences between things, in terms of the properties they hold and the perceptions they elicit, and how these differences condition the possibilities for things to act. Such an approach moves beyond ontology, or the description of assemblages of things and people in terms of their properties, characteristics, or relationships. It inquires into politics or the situated contexts in which some things and actions are attributed significance, by exploring how human political intentions and practices combine people, organisms, and matter in flows of action, which might have unintended effects and consequences. (Bauer and Kosiba 2016, 116)

These problems and their solutions produce social and political relations in the processes of producing and maintaining and reproducing meaningful places and relational landscapes that, as scholars like Smith (2003) have argued, constitute politics.


Bauer and Kosiba’s insertion of politics into the process of ‘assembling’ and perpetuating places and the social relations they constitute affords an answer to Winner’s (1980) question, “Do artifacts have politics?” that allows us to consider things in new ways when saying, “yes.” Things do not just have politics as a consequence of human actions on or to them (i.e., as passive participants or instantiations) but rather their political agency emerges from the ways in which they behave and the ways that humans react to, and understand these behaviors.

The ways that materials interact with each other and with humans can either be anticipated or unanticipated. In either case, they create the potential for (rather than determine) action by people. The ways in which these potentials were (re)cognized by people within various networks of interactions, existing semiotic associations, and cultural traditions conditioned their responses to these problems. Archaeology’s commitment to recognizing societies as conglomerates of competing factions underlines the ways in which this cognition would be differential, as would be the abilities of people to respond to them and the responses themselves (in pursuit of divergent goals, i.e., politics). This recognition that politics, as constituted in the situated interactions between things and people, is fundamental to ANT, and that in any given social context, the ways in which things behave will be cognized differentially by factions within social groups, are to my mind critical insights that archaeology affords. Further, such an understanding of the strategic nature of the agency of things in situated interactions rather than in temporally extended or broader assemblies can reassert the importance of politics in these interactions.


[1] There is an extensive literature on the specific applicability of Marx’s ideas only to capitalist societies, and their broader relevance to various kinds of pre-capitalist societies. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest I can either post a definitive opinion on these issues, or summarize the discussions in this post. Instead, I depend on the readers’ indulgence to accept the viability of my suggestion and implicit acceptance of the relevance of Marx’s idea to pre-capitalist societies.


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