Tag Archives: actor-network theory

Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of “key-individuals”

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carlos Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on “Transformative Collective Action” (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; ‘key-individuals’ tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like a deus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Juan’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Here social movement scholar Mario Diani has showed how to use social network analysis to understand “network-level mechanisms”, which I view as:

“social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors” (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).

Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno Latour, John Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town (Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juan’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.


Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management.” Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action.” Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog http://www.rhizomia.net/]

Undermine Nature/Culture dichotomy – Bruno Latour visits Stockholm

As you might know, some of us at the Stockholm Resilience Centre are quite inspired by actor-network theory (ANT), an “infralanguage” to help us undermine the Nature/Culture (or Social/Ecological) dichotomy; a dichotomy that has divided academia for a long time, but which interdisciplinary institutes like SRC is trying to overcome. One of the key developers of ANT is coming to Stockholm, Bruno Latour, to give a lecture at the Nobel Museum entitled: “May Nature Be Recomposed? A Few Questions of Cosmopolitics” (The Neale Wheeler Watson lecture, Tuesday, 16-18).

Bruno Latour<br />

In many ways, ANT is ‘a way of writing’ academic (ethnographic) accounts so as to treat humans and non-humans (including species, water currents, machines, documents etc.) in similar ways. A classic study is that of Callon (1986), in which a bunch of marine biologists strive to save the population of scallops by introducing controlled scallop production mobilizing both fishers, scallops, technology, and water currents (but they ultimately fails…).

In my own study of how a large green area of Stockholm got protected (and thus influenced the urban ecology of Stockholm), ANT inspired me to acknowledge that it was not only civil society activists that played a great role in managing to protect this green area, but also maps, buildings and species that got ‘enrolled’ into a protective story (Ernstson and Sörlin 2009). Others have used this in similar ways (e.g. Eden et al 1999). I believe more can certainly be done as we engage with this “infralanguage” (for instance how to understand the “politics of scale” in transformative change towards ecosystem management).

In his lecture, Bruno Latour will talk about “cosmopolitics”. Most people would associate this term with that of being an internationalist, somebody with backgrounds in a lot places and nations, and with an open attitude to different cultures and the formation of new collectives. However, I suspect the talk will be about other types of collectives, those that stretch over the Nature/Culture divide, and that even prove that this divide is nothing more than an illusion (although a powerful illusion indeed).

An intrerpretation of what Latour and others (especially Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitiques, vol. 1) understand as cosmopolitics is a “politics of the cosmos” that leads to the recognition of new “collectives”, a recognition that humans and non-humans are entangled and that we (the collective) need to respect this entanglement in order to live our lives. In our field of reserach, this idea has partly been captured in the concept “ecosystem services” (although in a more economistic fashion, see argument of a “social production of ecosystem services”; Ernstson, H., 2008, In Rhizomia. PhD Dissertation.Stockholm University, Stockholm.). Funny enough, and inspired by British geographers (Hinchcliffe, Whatmore et al 2005), I held series of lectures and a workshop with art and design students at the Stockholm School of Art and Design (Konstfack) on “Cosmopolitical Experiments“, i.e. how can designs evoke a sense of recognizing our entanglement with these other-than-human citizens that share our planet.

To SRC and the broader field of social-ecological studies, ANT and similar attempts to undermine long held dichotomies that constrains our thoughts, methods and theories, are exciting to explore and engage.

PS. The lecture at Nobel Museum will be broadcasted after the lecture on Tuesday, 16-18.