One of the most enjoyable yet mind-bending challenges during my thesis work has been getting to grips with the powerful terms and vocabulary used in actor-network (ANT). I liken this experience to learning a new language, like French. For the first few years as a post-grad in the School of Education, I spoke ineloquent Franglais. Now, in the final draft stages of my thesis, I can pass for an ex-pat who has lived a good six years in Bordeaux.
But I often lapse. I find it hard to shake the words and terms that have been ingrained in my writing style through my early years training as a cognitive-based psychologist. Reviewing my chapter drafts, my supervisors circle words that jump out at them as incongruous to an ANT text. From their more fluent vantage point, they remark that it’s like being suddenly given a ‘sandpaper rub’ just as they were settling into the smooth flow of the text.
During this review process, I recalled reading a book about the metaphors we unconsciously draw on in both academic and everyday writing. The seminal book, Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) argues that, ‘our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature’ and it is these metaphors ‘that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do’ (p.3-4).
In one of my thesis chapters, I found myself talking about the ‘centre’. I think I even used the word ‘vacuum’. From a critical perspective, the wrong word or verb conjugation not only betrays my fledgling grasp on ANT, but confuses the ontological argument that’s central to an ANT. Using the word ‘centre’ implies an out-thereness, running counter to ANT’s relational sensibility.
I wrote about ‘closing down’ a work issue, which, when highlighted by my supervisor, made me realise I had slipped back into categorical terminology. She also pointed out I had written about ‘breaking down structures’, as if they were a reified thing, created a priori to be smashed through.
I was learning that the choice of words or terms I used was reflecting the theory itself. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) call these ‘ontological metaphors’ (p.25). One famous ontological metaphor in education is the banking metaphor by Paulo Freire (1970), which frames ‘students as containers’ that can be filled up like an empty vessel. It infers students are passive objects and teachers are the active subjects. In a few words, this metaphor has set up several dichotomies, power differentials, notions of oppression, as well as an understanding that ‘knowledge’ is a static, transferable commodity.
Throughout my writing process, I have had to become aware of the power of the metaphors that I was using. That is, with a careless insertion of a word or metaphor, I offer the reader a social explanation without perhaps intending to do so. Coming from an ANT perspective, Latour (2005, p.221) argues that employing metaphors as social explanations has become ‘too cheap; too automatic’.
Latour (2005) believes that using metaphors, tropes or clichés to describe entities does ‘nothing more than help us counterbalance the weight of social inertia’ (p. 220). As a writer, he contends that we should turn to description to do the work of the metaphors ‘to make sure that every entity has been reshuffled, redistributed, unravelled and ‘de-socialized’ so that the task of gathering them again can be made in earnest’ (p. 221).
So how did I learn to recognise, unravel and redistribute the words, terms and metaphors I found myself using automatically in my writing? The supervision process certainly helped me to attune to them. I also found Mol’s (2010) Actor-Network Theory: Sensitive terms and enduring tensions paper a most useful resource. She advised me that terms are slippery and that I should play with words.
It’s not that they are up for grabs, but terms are malleable and can be made to work for you, as long as you define how you aim to use them in your work. For example, in my theory chapter of my dissertation, I argue that I use the term ‘network’ not as a metaphor to mean a flat and linear arrangement of connections, but as a vibrant, messy performance of gatherings.
The other helpful resource was the length of time I passed emerged in ANT texts and papers as a post-grad. They say you need to live in another country to become fluent in the language. I could not locate an ANT speaking country, but I could sculpt an ANT community to inhabit.
I immersed myself in reading groups, conferences, and colleagues to expose myself to ANT vocabulary, and to conceptualise new metaphors. As I near the end of my thesis writing, I cannot confess to being fluent, but I am in a position when I can confidently play with words, terms and metaphors to make them work for my ANT writing.
Freire, P., 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Mol, A., 2010. Actor-Network Theory: sensitive terms and enduring tensions. Kolner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 50 (1), pp. 253-269.
Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M., 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
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