Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland on "Actor-Network State : Integrating Actor-Network Theory and State Theory"

I have been writing about the way in which globalization has de-centered the state in emerging systems of behavior management.  Backer, Larry Catá, Governance Without Government: An Overview and Application of Interactions Between Law-State and Governance-Corporate Systems  in  Beyond Territoriality: Transnational Legal Authority in an Age of Globalization (Günther Handl and Joachim Zekoll Editors, Leiden, Netherlands & Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers, forthcoming 2012). (March 1, 2010). Penn State Legal Studies Research 10-2010.  I have also suggested the ways in which the ideology of the state system itself has contributed to the difficulty of engaging in these changes that effectively threaten the fundamental ordering  presumptions inherent in the law-state.  Backer, Larry Catá, On the Tension between Public and Private Governance in the Emerging Transnational Legal Order: State Ideology and Corporation in Polycentric Asymmetric Global Orders (April 16, 2012).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá  Backer 2012)

The power of the ideology of the state and the current framework for understanding reality through it has been the subject of excellent work by political sociologists and international relations scholars. An excellent recently published article merits close reading:  Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland, "Actor-Network State: Integrating Actor-Network Theory and State Theory,"  International Sociology 2010 25: 818-841 (2010).

The abstract suggests the scope of inquiry:
This conceptual article draws on literature in the sociology of science on modelling. The authors suggest that if state theory can be conceptualized as an ‘engine’ rather than merely a ‘camera’, in that policy is mobilized to make the world fit the theory, then this has implications for conceptualizing states. To examine this possibility the authors look through the lens of actor-network theory (ANT) and in doing so articulate a relationship between two models of the state in the literature. They find that an ‘actor model’ of the state is accepted by many scholars, few of whom develop ‘network models’ of the state. In response, this study introduces an actor-network model and proposes that its contribution to state theory is in rethinking the character of modern states to be the outcome of actually performed assemblages of all those practices of building it, protecting it, governing it and theorizing about it. (Passoth and Rowland, supra, 818).

The jumping off point is the action-nature discourse: the state is captured within the being-doing matrix (Ibid, 818-19).   Passoth and Rowland lean toward action theory, through the theory (ANT).  (See, e.g., Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).  Passoth and Rowland argue:
If state theory is performative, then this implies that states are performed. To unlock this idea, we suggest, state theory could best see states as performed through the concepts and implied methodology of ANT. To that end, we review state theory and show how scholars depict the state to be an actor (i.e. a macro-entity with quasi-interests, quasi-goals and quasi-actions) and how few scholars depict the state to be a network (i.e. elaborate webs of dis- tributed agency). We then outline how an actor-network concept of the state helps to overcome (some of) the problems of the ‘state as an actor’ and the ‘state as a network’ models while at the same time not devaluing previous empirical findings or purporting that they are obsolete. (Passoth and Rowland, supra, 819).
The article starts with a discussion of the move from being to action theories, "with the model of the 'state as an actor' being the most accepted." (Ibid., 820). They trace the state from an instrumentalist notion to manifestations of power relations or an ensemble of institutions  (Ibid., 820-21).  They then critically contextualize neo-statism (Ibid., 821-23), worrying, as do many who consider the basic institutional character of the modern globalized corporation, about the reality of treating a complex institution like the state as an incarnated being.  "Rather than unified actors, states are afforded the singular appearance of constitution by a much distributed network of agents, which do not necessarily act in concert." (Ibid., 823).
The answer to these problems is to move from institution to process, and from being (formalism) to effects (functionalism). For that purpose Passoth and Rowland turn to post structuralist network models. (Ibid., 823-24). 
This conceptual movement towards a network model is tightly linked to the works of Foucault and his innovative reconceptualization of power. For Foucault, there are no states per se, but only stateness (étatisation) . . . . That which looks like a state takes the form of force, is constituted by human relationships and becomes a way of linking what can be said, done and seen. Stateness is the exercise of power under mod- ern conditions. But power is neither a capacity of someone ‘in power’ nor a possession of someone who ‘has power’. Instead, power is thought of as a network of influence: the machinery and mechanisms to discipline that regulate subjected subjects . . . . Rather than being something that a person, state, or political institution can possess, power is a network of ubiquitously interrelated forces produced by inter- woven discursive and non-discursive practices. Therefore, states cannot (and must not) be analysed as centres or instruments of power (as classic Marxist state theory did) or as the ability of individual states to achieve their interests (as neostatist theory did from the 1970s on).  (Ibid., 823-24).   
The avoidance of trivialization, Passoth and Rowland suggest, is founded on Foucaukt's notions of gouvernementalité. "Crucial for this article: in the process of prioritizing the development of discourse analy- sis, these scholars neglected to develop the Foucauldian network model of modern statehood." (Ibid., 825). Yet it might have been as useful to consider the move from form to function within the realities of economic globalization that itself represents a presumptive universe that contextualizes the actions and effects of states in ways that might be different from that expected within the pre 1980s discourse in which the role of the state (against which theory reacted) was distinct.

To remedy that Passoth and Rowland move to the actor-network model: "This direction for state theory does not ask same old question ‘what a state is’ – it is an actor-network, of course – because that does not say much, and instead asks ‘how states are’." (Ibid., 826).  ANT, drawing on some of the insights of semiotics and others of autopoiesis, suggests both a relational approach and a functional orientate.  It draws on forensics for its reconstruction of a thing from the disturbances it has left felt by or through others or inscribed in the material world where its effects have been felt.
ANT accounts treat markets, bodies and states as sociotechnical assemblages that come into being as concrete actors are enrolled: price-calculation devices, traders trained in economic theory and Reuters terminals in the case of markets; flesh, medical devices and anatomic almanacs in the case of bodies; land, borders, measurement and counting procedures and ideological treatises in the case of states. Markets, bodies and states are not abstract entities, but concrete localities that one can visit to observe networks of ‘the social’ unfolding. (Ibid., 828).
This is applied to states in a number of forms.  This sketch of framework forms the heart of the paper.  First it avoids considering states as actors per se.  The focus is instead on action.  (Ibid., 828-29). Second, state power is not inherent but is instead  something like the offal of state activity. (Ibiod., 829).  Third, size and power are consequential concepts. (Ibid.). That suggests that social organizations other than states might well invoke the actions that can produce the sort of size, power and effects of states without the need to become states. Fourth, the state speaks through its actions, objects and constituent parts; "In this sense, a fence at a frontier ‘speaks’ for a population that has to be protected in the same way that a politician ‘speaks’ for the same population that has to be governed – and both protect the idea of the state and its role in protecting the people ‘it’ represents. " (Ibid., 830). Fifth, the speaking implies a common language and the presumptions that build meaning into words and actions. (Ibid.).  Ideology in this sense is a second order byproduct of the actions that in the aggregate support and reify the state or any other actor within networks of activities. For Passoth and Rowland, the application suggests internal communication rather than external or constitutive communication. "This economic sleight of hand, where seemingly qualitative state issues (i.e. how and why to adopt one policy over another) are transformed into quantitative matters (i.e. how much does it cost and when will implementation be complete), allows planners to estimate a bottom-line. . . . Just as the market is performed in this way, we too expect similar processes to buttress state projects. " (Ibid). Sixth, and not surprising, the focus is on the material. (Ibid. 831). We consider Athens here and not Sparta--the former leaving much to mark its presence (Acropolis, etc.), the latter could only be felt at the time the action was undertaken and could little survive the end of the action. Passoth and Rowland, though are exactly correct to deploy the ideology of city planning as an assumptive support.  But here it is possible to suggest that city planning (Ibid 831) is as much an expression as it is a construction of ideology.  One can contrast Passoth and Rowland's focus on Roman approaches (Rome and the U.K.) to medieval (Toledo, Spain or the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul) to suggest that ANT itself would understand the ideology of the material in consequential terms.  
Taken together,  the framework suggests a way of de-centering ideology from the understanding of the state, or for that matter any entity with operational or situational effects.  'We know it when we feel it' is a powerful tool for  examining a thing, especially  dynamic thing that is itself an abstraction.  That applied with equal force to states as it does to multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International. The notion that character is not inherent in organization--a core presumption in the ideological construction of the state--is particularly useful.  Yet it may also be true that particular clusters of actors gathered within a construct that acts may indeed exhibit a proclivity to particular forms of behavior that may well be inherent in the networked relation though it may not be in the organization itself.  As such, ANT may explain that the character of states is not inherent in the form of the state, but it does not explain why peculiarities of action appear to be replicated in states and multinational corporations when they exhibit particular amalgamations that produce effect.  More importantly, the de-privileging of formal consideration s may produce distortion.  It is well understood in law (and customary system) that function may sometimes follow form, or lmore likely, that from may constrain function.  That leads to a further insight--that form itself has function.  ANT tends to avoid those considerations and thus may become overly indifferent to the form of action (law versus norm; consultation versus imposition for legitimacy effects; etc.).  The focus on ex post effects may also make it harder to provide  insights on future actions.  ANYT, in this sense, may be an approach always seeking to catch up to the present.   Yet for all that, the approach is powerfully sensitive to the internal construction of action and the importance of action on those ideological systems (also an effect) that themselves then produce and contain both the reality of the world within which action is deemed possible and impossible and their justification (also an effect designed to produce self restraint in those who are charged with behaving in appropriate ways).

Having sketched out the conceptual framework for approaching the "state" or other organizations, Passoth and Rowland  "suggest that future research could uncover how models of states shape and are shaped by political practice, and that this article lays some groundwork for that endeavour, especially in this discussion section where we hint at specific avenues for future research. For more advanced scholars, we also include a section on linking method to theory and practice in modelling theory and end by documenting some common criticisms of ANT accounts." (Ibid., 832).  For that purpose, Passoth and Rowland nod in the direction of New Public Management (Ibid., 832-33) and its potential use as an "entry point for performativity studies." (Ibid., 833).  They also nod in the direction of historicity in research.  (Ibid., 833-34). 

Passoth and Rowland end with an engagement of common criticisms of ANT. These include the obvious--how does one choose actors to reinvent as the sum of their actions--and the less obvious: issues iof symmetry.  The symmetry issues are particularly interesting.  They suggest that analysis that levels actors, that is that treats human and non-human actors alike, is unrealistic. (Ibid., 835). But these criticisms suggest a theory in gestation, not in fear of error.  "As we increasingly con- front the imbroglio of statehood, the performance of the global mar- ketplace and the sociotechnical network that lay the groundwork of our current experiment in ‘being’, ANT provides insight and a few limitations as we search to faithfully describe our current practices and processes. For scholars, ANT offers a (re)solution for seeing the state as both an actor and a network, or, most accurately, as an actor- network."  (Ibid. 836). 

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