Improvement science and research methods seminar July 2020: Actor Network Theory and health research

The latest in the seminar series was given on 15 July 2020 by Dr Brian Crosbie, senior methods adviser for NIHR East Midlands Research Design Service and a sociologist with an interest in science and technology studies. His PhD concerned nurses’ understanding and use of technology in intensive care and he has written on the social shaping of AED technology. As a qualitative researcher he has worked on stroke rehabilitation, health technology and public use, and arts in health and community settings.

The seminar introduced Actor-Network Theory (ANT), a set of sensitising concepts which can be used to understand the relations between social and technological spheres of practice. ANT argues that social activity is mediated by technological objects, where what we might define as a patient, nurse, or paramedic (social humans) is in fact a ‘punctuation point’ in heterogeneous networks of both ‘human’ and ‘technical’ objects. Thus, what we might describe as autonomous Actors, comes as a result of the network stability of myriad objects. Fundamentally, ANT attempts to reframe human sociality by distributing agency to both technology and humans in socio-technical worlds. Calling for detailed ethnography, ANT requires researchers to ‘follow the actants’. To sense who is pulling things together in, for example, healthcare networks.

After an overview of ANT, Brian went on to discuss some of the framing concepts: heterogeneity, translation, network alliances, performativity, presenting examples of ANT research, including his own work in intensive care nursing and Automated External Defibrillator technology. The seminar concluded by considering, briefly, how ANT might inform health intervention development by helping to understand complexity in complex health interventions, how interventions develop, and the pathways by which they are implemented, spread or fail.

 

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