Assemblage Theory Part 4: Actor-Network Theory and Latour

Rigid, reified categories limit our understanding of the world, and hence the need to focus on dynamic, ever-shifting networks and associations that connect events across space and time. Social realities are not out there to be discovered by either social actors or scientific endeavors; they are performed by multiple actors. (Siakwah, 2018)

Today I will take a  closer look at the Actor-Network-Theory since it also (!) uses assemblages, but I think in a slightly different way compared to Deleuze/Guattari.

I came across a GREAT website ( which was a great start for me to understand ANT a bit better.

As always, this page is intended for my notes and idea and therefore it will contain sources from non-academic texts/pages as well as many quotes!

Actor-Network Theory

Wikipedia’s webpage about ANT defines Actor-network theory (ANT) as “a theoretical and methodological approach [in] social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exists in constantly shifting networks of relationships. It posits that nothing exists outside those relationships. All the factors involved in a social situation are on the same level, and thus there are no external social forces beyond what and how the network participants interact at present. Thus, objects, ideas, processes, and any other relevant factors are seen as just as important in creating social situations as humans. ANT holds that social forces do not exist in themselves, and therefore cannot be used to explain social phenomena. Instead, strictly empirical analysis should be undertaken to “describe” rather than “explain” social activity. […]

Developed by science and technology studies (STS) scholars Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, the sociologist John Law, and others, it can more technically be described as a “material-semiotic” method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic. Broadly speaking, ANT is a constructivist approach in that it avoids essentialist explanations of events or innovations (i.e. ANT explains a successful theory by understanding the combinations and interactions of elements that make it successful, rather than saying it is true and the others are false). Likewise, it is not a cohesive theory in itself. Rather, ANT functions as a strategy that assists people in being sensitive to terms and the often unexplored assumptions underlying them. […] It is distinguished from many other STS and sociological network theories for its distinct material-semiotic approach”.

So the questions that come up based on this Wikipedia article:

  1. “It posits that nothing exists outside those relationships”- What are the ontological/epistemological assumptions of ANT? Somewhere I read about the “flat ontology” connected to ANT, I think that it is connected to actors/actants being on the same level (but not 100% sure about that)
  2. “ANT holds that social forces do not exist in themselves, and therefore cannot be used to explain social phenomena. Instead, strictly empirical analysis should be undertaken to “describe” rather than “explain” social activity”- Is it just a way of DESCRIBING networks?
  3. What is a material-semiotic method?
  4. “It is not a cohesive theory in itself. Rather, ANT functions as a strategy that assists people in being sensitive to terms and the often unexplored assumptions underlying them”- I thought ANT was used to describe rather than analyze?
  5. It is distinguished from many other STS and sociological network theories for its distinct material-semiotic approach- What are the other sociological network theories? Do I know of them?
  6. Is ANT socially or technologically deterministic (or none?)?

So far the Wikipedia article has brought up more questions than it answered! However, I hope that I can answer them when I know about ANT.

Actor-Network Theory- Definition

I am not sure if it is possible to briefly define ANT, since there are different variations and also evolutionary versions of this..yeah what is it? Tradition, theory? Nevertheless, as Elder-Vass (2019) concludes, there are some elements and key concepts that are well-established in this tradition.

The main feature in ANT is its focus of actors and their effects on social processes. The actors in ANT can be either inanimate or humans, this perspective though si a radical notion as it attests agency to inanimate things.

“An actor can however only act in combination with other actors and in constellations that give the actor the possibility to act – this is because reality is assumed to be actively performed by various actors in a particular time and place. Thus inherent to ANT is a move away from the idea that technology impacts on humans as an external force, to the view that technology emerged from social interests (e.g. economic, professional) and that it thus has the potential to shape social interactions.”

Human ActorsInanimate Actant
Software developersLaptop

Cresswell et al. (2010) write that “ANT has its own epistemological and ontological position, in essence considering the world as consisting of networks. These networks can include humans, things, ideas, concepts – all of which are referred to as “actors” in the network. Tracing of associations or relationships between network components (or actors) is a key activity in ANT”. However, on some articles human actors are referred to as actants (e.g. Lewis and Westlung, 2015).

The authors further explain that “ANT assumes that the sum of non-social phenomena can account for something that is social as a result of constellations of human and non-human actors constituting the network. It follows then that the ANT approach is agnostic with respect to the debate which has divided many sociologists in that it neither asserts that everything is socially constructed (social constructionism) nor that everything is pre-existent (realism)”.

An assemblage is an assembling of elements and actants in a flat ontology, meaning treating the elements equally – in simple terms, a modern approach to the egg v. chicken debate.

This definitely answered my first question!

ANT seems to be prominent approach in geography and I found an article by Siakwah (2018) who points out that “ANT is also known as an enrolment theory, a process through which varied actors are recruited to form a network depending on their interests or a shared, emerging problem (Crawford, 2005)”. The author also introduces another central concept: translation, which is sometimes referred to as the sociology of translation. Translation in ANT, “is a process through which an actor recruits other actors into the network so that whatever the recruited actors do will help strengthen and further the interests of the actor who recruited them (Callon, 1981). The translation process encompasses creating connections and alliances and establishing communication among varied actors (Brown, 2002). It is the stronghold (or ‘centre of calculation’) position that enables an actor to control and utilize other actors’ activities to further his/her interest (Latour, 1988)”.

Networks in ANT

Networks play a central role in ANT, as ANT focuses on investigating and theorising “about how networks come into being, to trace what associations exist, how they move, how actors are enrolled into a network, how parts of a network form a whole network and how networks achieve temporary stability (or conversely why some new connections may form networks that are unstable)” (Cresswell et al., 2015).

As we already know, networks consist of actors, but there are also intermediaries and mediators that can form relationships between actors. According to Creswell et al. (2015), “the difference between the two is that the outputs of intermediaries can be easily predicted on the basis of their inputs (a black box). In mathematical terms, the assumption here is that X directly causes Y. Mediators, on the other hand, transform inputs into unpredictable outputs. This means that they can also transform actions, making something happen that is not necessarily related to what set it into motion. In mathematical terms, the effect of X on Y is in this case influenced by some other variable such as Z. ANT assumes that the social world consists of many mediators, which tend to be the focus of analysis as they impact on social outcomes in often unpredictable ways and very few intermediaries”. “A key task for the ANT researcher is to explore how local networks are ordered and re-configured over time.”

Another interesting point was that the “composition of networks tends to become particularly apparent when things in a system go wrong; conversely, these inter-connections tend to be hidden when things are working smoothly.” (Cresswell et al., 2015). This reminded me of the characteristics of infrastructures as described by Bowker and Star (2000), which become visible upon break-down.

My question here is, therefore:

What is the difference between an infrastructure (according to Bowker & Star) and a network (according to ANT/Latour)?

Actor-Network Theory vs Assemblage Theory/Thinking Part 1

Elder-Vass (2019) points out that one of the most fundamental claims of ANT is that “our world is composed of assemblages (also known as actants, actors, actor-networks, and articulations, to list only the ‘a’s).” This was initially quite confusing for me to read since I did not come across it in relation to Latour. Also, Elder-Vass accounts for that, as he explains that the concept originally derived from Deleuze. However, the author also points out that “the version advocated in ANT is distinctive – or at least, it seems to have narrowed down the range of meanings found in Deleuze. As in Deleuze, the word (derived from the French agencement) refers to something that falls somewhere between a thing and a process, with elements of both. For actor-network theorists, assemblages are open, transient, unique networks of influences or associations.” To support his claim, the author refers to a citation from Latour’s book “Reassembling the Social”; “an actor-network [= an assemblage] is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it. It is made to exist by its many ties: attachments are first, actors are second” (Latour, 2005, p. 217)”.

Elder-Vass added the assemblage in this sentence and is not found in the book. One time Latour actually mentions assemblage is on p. 2, where he talks about “the assemblages of nature” to “scrutinize what is ‘assembled’ under the umbrella of society”. However, he does not clarify it further I think.

My questions:

  1. I am wondering if assemblages according to Deleuze are NOT open, transient and unique? I am not 100% percent sure that these are characteristics of ANT, as outlined by Elder-Voos
  2. Does that mean that actor-networks are assemblages? Why or why not?

Elder-Vass (2019) further explain that assemblages do not correspond to everyday concepts of concepts or things, but that “assemblages are not bounded in the simple spatial way that ordinary things are. An assemblage is not a thing, but a coming together of influences”. According to Elder-Vass, this notion of assemblages in ANT is further illustrated in Latour’s discussion of the “work of the French scientist Louis Pasteur on the process of fermentation, which Pasteur attributed to the influence of yeasts. Pasteur, Latour tells us, “encountered a vague, cloudy, grey substance sitting meekly in the corner of his flasks and turned it into the splendid, well-defined, articulate yeast twirling magnificently across the ballroom of the Academy” (Latour, 1999b, p. 145). “Yeast”, in this sentence, is not simply another name for the same “vague, cloudy, grey substance” that had always existed; rather, it is a different assemblage, in which Pasteur’s own theories are among the elements or mediators that are bundled with or attached to the grey substance. Latour calls this articulation – yeast is an articulation of some material stuff and the ideas produced by science that relate to that stuff (and indeed other elements too, including perhaps the equipment required to support those ideas and the publications in which they are asserted)” (Elder-Vass, 2019).

Elder-Vass (2019) highlight another focus of ANT; the refusal of binary divides, such as “society and nature, human and non-human, and subject and object (Latour, 1993). Latour’s notion of yeast, for example, no longer locates it unambiguously in the categories of natural, non-human, and object, because for him the assemblage we call yeast includes textual, human, and subjective elements. One might question whether earlier thinkers are quite as dualistic as Latour suggests, but there is no doubt that he takes anti-dualism much further than most of his predecessors. Latour has strong views about the implications of this perspective for the research process. Research, he argues, must “follow the actors” (Latour, 2005, p. 68), or follow “associations” (Latour, Jensen, Venturini, Grauwin, & Boullier, 2012, p. 591) – the connections that make up assemblages”.

However, as the author points out, following the actors/associations raises challenges for research. Elder-Vass gives a couple of examples which I would support, and which I think also apply to assemblage theory according to Deleuze:

  1. How is a researcher to identify an actor/assemblage in the first place, when the boundaries of actors are so open and fluid?
  2. Do actors exist in forms that the researcher is to discover, or is the extent of the network of connections that make up an actor a construction of the researcher?
  3. Can boundaries ever be drawn between actors? How can we identify the constituent elements of actors when those constituents themselves are to be conceived of as assemblages rather than as conventional physical objects?
  4. How is the researcher to resist the collapse of analysis into a mélange of vague influences between unbounded networks? (Elder-Vass, 2019)

Even though some of the questions are addressed in research, Elder-Vass (2019) criticizes that “often these problems are resolved in a way that subverts the official ontology of assemblages. Without any systematic means of delineating assemblages, the elements that are put together to define an assemblage are just whatever mix of ordinary observable objects and people that the researcher thinks are relevant to the problem at hand – people, flasks, grey substances, and recording devices for example – rather than assemblages [actor-networks] as Latour defines them. The assemblage [actor-network] concept is then rolled out whenever this crude empiricism needs to be clothed with some philosophical respectability. In such cases ANT functions not as a solution to any of the classic issues raised by empirical social research but as a means of evading them”.*

* In the quote above I added the actor-network in the square brackets.

Harsh criticism! I am not sure if it is justified as I have not read enough articles and research that uses ANT, but I do think that the question he raises are valid and should be addressed because, at this point, this sounds like an IMPOSSIBLE task and approach to use in research. Well, it is possible, but how should research generate a GOOD analysis of an assemblage? Where are the boundaries, if assemblages are made of assemblages?

Actor-Network Theory vs Assemblage Theory/Thinking Part 2

The article by Müller (2015) focuses on the similarities and differences between ANT and AT, which was quite helpful for me, so here are the main points/quotes that helped me get it.

From the beginning on, the author highlights the significant similarities between ANT and AT: “One way to think of ANT is as an empirical sister-in-arms of the more philosophical assemblage thinking. Like assemblage thinking, it is interested in the provisional, socio-material ordering of entities beyond one universal principle: […]: ‘There is no social order. Rather, there are endless attempts at ordering’ (Law 1994, 101). […] The parallels between the concepts of the actor-network and the assemblage are significant.” While there are clear parallels between ANT and assemblage thinking, there are also notable differences and Müller (2015) presents what he considers the 3 major ones: agency, concrete concepts and politics.

  1. Agency

“ANT insists that agency is exclusively a mediated achievement, brought about through forging associations. There is nothing outside associations, and to become capable of action, entities need to form aggregates and find allies to produce an actor-network. Thus, what becomes political is a matter of what is made political through associations: ‘the political significance of materials is not a given; rather, it is a relational, a practical and a contingent achievement’ (Barry 2013b, 183).

With its focus on relations of exteriority, on the other hand, assemblage thinking posits that the component parts of an assemblage can have intrinsic qualities outside associations that impact on and shape the assemblage. It posits an open-ended set of capacities that is unpredictable and exceeds the properties of the component parts (B. Anderson et al. 2012, 179–181)”. As a consequence, seeing the world through associations, ANT has been criticised for being blind to what remains outside associations but may shape them nevertheless. (see criticism)

In the article written by Siakwah (2018) the author explains that “agency [according to ANT] is distributed across humans and non-humans (Latour,1999). However, things do not act by themselves, in a self-contained manner (Law, 1994); instead, the capacity for agency is a relational feature that emerges through interactions. ANT is premised on how things are formed and shaped through networks, associations and assemblages (Latour, 2005). Networks are made up of heterogeneous actors and their relationships (Johannesson and Bærenholdt, 2009). The relative heterogeneity of the networked actors ensures their resilience and durability (Latour, 1991, 1988; Doolin and Lowe, 2002)”.

2. Concrete Concepts

“Compared to assemblage thinking, ANT offers a more concrete conceptual and methodological apparatus that can be applied to empirical work. Terms such as ‘centre of calculation’, ‘oligopticon’, ‘black box’, ‘immutable mobiles’ and ‘translation’ or ‘overflows’ help to make sense of the formation of associations. The pioneers of ANT have delivered a string of analyses to illustrate these concepts. This makes ANT wieldier for empirical application.”

3. Politics

I am not really sure about this point. Müller (2015) states that “researchers working in the spirit of ANT have developed a much clearer notion of ANT’s relation to politics” and then continues to elaborate on ANT and politics, leading towards incentive to call for ontological politics or Dingpolitik, however, he does not really mention politics from an AT perspective, so I cannot really draw any conclusions here.

Criticism ANT:

“Critics have taken the approach to task for eschewing to think about how power differentials, for example, race, gender or class, impact on who or what is able or unable to form associations in the first place and thus for failing to acknowledge unequal power relationships. ANT also does not distinguish a priori between humans and materials, ignoring that humans are capable of intentions and pursue interests whereas things are not. With its task of following the associations that form networks, critics claim that ANT risks describing endless chains of associations without ever arriving at an explanation for the reasons and differences in network formation processes. In a similar vein, ANT discards social context, for example, cultural or historical factors, for explanation, unless it can be traced in the formation of concrete networks. In so doing, it also neglects to problematise the researcher and how his or her position is implicated in fashioning ANT accounts of certain phenomena” (Müller, 2015).

Interestingly, Cresswell et al. (2015) conclude that the aim of ANT is “to gain detailed insights into how social effects such as power come into being”. Following this, they present a parable, initially described by Law: “He describes how objects such as a big office, a computer and a phone can serve to create the manager in an organisation as the source of power. The manager studied in isolation (as a person or “naked ape” as Law calls him i.e. without objects), as opposed to as part of a network, is viewed as relatively powerless”. […]

ANT assumes that if any actor, irrespective of its position, is removed from or added to the network, as is the case if technology is introduced into an organisation, then the functioning of the whole network will be affected. However, networks are constantly evolving as social reality is assumed to be both complex and fluid.”

While I would agree with the second part of this quote, I am hesitant about the first part. I am not sure if ANT, in general, is looking into power. Quite the contrary, when I read some of the articles, this was one crucial point that critics mentioned: ANT does not account for power differentials and therefore fails to acknowledge unequal power relationships.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. First paperback edition. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press, 2000.

 Cresswell, Kathrin M, Allison Worth, and Aziz Sheikh. “Actor-Network Theory and Its Role in Understanding the Implementation of Information Technology Developments in Healthcare.” BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 10, no. 1 (December 2010): 67.

Elder-Vass, Dave. “Disassembling Actor-Network Theory.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 45, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 100–121.

Lewis, Seth C., and Oscar Westlund. “Actors, Actants, Audiences, and Activities in Cross-Media News Work.” Digital Journalism 3, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 19–37.

Müller, Martin. “Assemblages and Actor-Networks: Rethinking Socio-Material Power, Politics and Space.” Geography Compass 9, no. 1 (2015): 27–41.

Siakwah, Pius. “Political Economy to Globalized Assemblages: Actor-Network Theory, Hydrocarbon Assemblages, and Problematizing the Resource Curse Thesis.” In Network Theory and Analysis, edited by Amber Jorgensen. Mathematics Research Developments. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2018.

Assemblage Theory Part 3: Foucault’s Dispositif

For my PhD project I am going to look at data and Datafication, but I am still in the phase where I try to find the right “vocabulary” for my work, meaning I need to find a theory and approach that I can and will use. If you are reading this, please remember that this blog is meant for me, monitoring my progress and taking notes- that why you will find a lot of long direct quotes and questionable sources as well. However, this is part of me getting this!

Since I would align with the quite new area of Critical Data Studies, the term “data assemblages” is quite central- which is why I started to dig into assemblage in the first place. However, in on of the central texts ( Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,”) the authors write that they draw an Foucaults idea of the dispositif to chart and unpack data assemblages. Further they write:

“This notion of a data assemblage is similar to Foucault’s (1977) concept of the ‘dispositif’ that refers to a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions(in Gordon 1980:194) which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within society.

The dispositif of a data infrastructure produces what Foucault terms ‘power/knowledge’, that is knowledge that fulfils a strategic function: ‘The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge’ (in Gordon 1980:196). In other words, data infrastructures are never neutral, essential, objective; their data never raw but always cooked to some recipe by chefs embedded within institutions that have certain aspirations and goals and operate within wider frameworks.”

So, what exactly is a dispositif and why is it similar to an assemblage?

I have to admit that I absolutely got LOST while I tried to figure out what a dispositif is. The terminology seems to be an absolute mess, the French Dispositif has been translated into in English as; dispositive, apparatus, procedure, machine and others. Most common seems the translation to “apparatus” but some authors favor “dispositive” in English (e.g. Raffnsøe, 2016)

Furthermore, dispositif is difficult to grasp, also due to the fact that Foucault did not give a definition in one of his, as far as I understand. A often cited interview from seems to be closest to a definition: (in this translation, dispositif = apparatus)

“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements. Thus, a particular discourse can figure at one time as the programme of an institution, and at another it can function as a means of justifying or masking a practice which itself remains silent, or as a secondary re-interpretation of this practice, opening out for it a new field of rationality. In short, between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

Thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of–shall we say–formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function.” (taken from:

Kind of as a reaction to the “emergence as a response to a urgent need”, Jäger writes that:

“Foucault apparently sees the emergence of dispositives in this way: an emergency occurs, an existing dispositive becomes precarious. As a result, a need for action arises, and the (Sozius?) or the hegemonic forces confronted with it gather together the elements they can get to counter this state of emergency, i.e. speeches, people, knives, cannons, institutions, etc., in order to seal the “leaks” that have occurred – the state of emergency – again, as Deleuze says. (See Deleuze 1992 and Balke 1998)

What links these elements is nothing other than that they serve a common purpose to ward off the momentary or permanent state of emergency. Whatever kind of “inner bond” that would link them together is not otherwise visible in Foucault’s understanding of dispositive.

But this bond exists in the form of the human-sensual activity or work that mediates subject and object, the social worlds and the representational realities with one another, that is, through non-discursive practices that do not appear explicitly in Foucault’s definition of dispositif.” (Jäger, 2000)

However, Wikipedia also gives us a Jäger’s definition of a dispositive, and he defines it as

“the interaction of discursive behavior (i. e. speech and thoughts based upon a shared knowledge pool), non-discursive behavior (i. e. acts based upon knowledge), and manifestations of knowledge by means of acts or behaviors Dispositifs can thus be imagined as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, the complexly interwoven and integrated dispositifs add up in their entirety to a dispositif of all society.”

I have to say that I am not sure about Jäger’s understanding of discursive and non-discursive practices though.

Another definition made by Frost (2015) emphasizes the power relations within it:

“The dispositif represents the network of power relations which articulates how a power not based upon classical conceptions of sovereignty manifests itself … . It is through the dispositif that the human being is transformed into both a subject, and an object, of power relations. “ (found here:

Seeing power as one of the main features of the dispositive seems to be in line with Foucaults thinking. On a webpage (, dedicated to Foucault, I found the following definition of a dispositif:

“Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.”

The same page elaborates on Power, according to Foucault:

“Foucault argues a number of points in relation to power and offers definitions that are directly opposed to more traditional liberal and Marxist theories of power. It is important to note that Foucault refined his definitions of power over time and his views are not homogeneous.


  1. power is not a thing but a relation
  2. power is not simply repressive but it is productive
  3. power is not simply a property of the State. Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.
  4. power operates at the most micro levels of social relations. Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.
  5. the exercise of power is strategic and war-like”

They do not explain what exactly heir notion of a social boy is though. About “body” they write the following:

“Foucault is particularly concerned with the relations between political power and the body, and describes various historical ways of training the body to make it socially productive. The body is an element to be managed in relation to strategies of the economic and social management of populations.”

So, a social body might just be a body that has been trained to be socially productive (meaning also adopting e.g. hegemonic structures I assume).

Wrana and Lange further elaborate, that Foucault “understands the dispositives – his newly introduced term for power-knowledge complexes – as an ensemble of discursive and non-discursive practices, but in the dispositive concept he merely adds them up without adequately determining their relationship “.

To sum it up a dispositif is:

  1. System of relations/connections/inner bond/link that can be established between elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions)
  2. The established relations are power relations/ the dispositif is a power-knowledge complex
  3. Elements can be discursive or non-discursive
  4. Ever changing and its formation has its major function at a given historical moment
  5. Formation of it is responding to an urgent need and has  therefore a dominant strategic function
  6. validity is limited in space and time and is subject to its rules being followed and its institutions being used. Individual elements can also be part of several dispositives and be inherited by a new dispositive

Wikipedia offers the following example of a dispositif:

“The notion of dispositives can be explained by the example of archaeological artifacts: Objects whose use and purpose are no longer known to us pose riddles. What was object X used for? Who could – and was allowed to – use it? How often has the object been changed until it has reached its final form? How many discursive practices had to be gone through before it was agreed to design the object in this way and not otherwise? There was a time when it was evident – important or even necessary for survival. Today it no longer tells us anything. We miss the talk of that time about its purpose, its integration into a certain system of thinking and imagining the world – this discourse has ceased to exist. With it, the special theory of man’s position in the world, in whose context the object was relevant, disappeared. That which has been forgotten and that which we associate with it today forms in its entirety the dispositif X, or an overall dispositif “archaeological artifacts

It is not decisive which elements make up the dispositif, but how the elements determine the everyday discourses and practices that again produce objects and social facts that either reproduce the old dispositif or produce a new one.”

Attempt analysis according to Jäger(2000)

Discourses are not independent and autonomous phenomena; they are elements of and are the prerequisite for the existence of so-called dispositives. A dispositive is the processing connection of knowledge, which is included in speaking/thinking – doing – objectification. The basic figure of the dispositive can be imagined as a triangle or better: as a rotating and historically processing circle with three central passage points or stations of passage:

1. discursive practices, in which primarily knowledge is transported

2. actions as non-discursive practices, in which, however, knowledge is transported, which is preceded or constantly accompanied by knowledge

3. visibilities/objectivizations, which represent objectivizations of discursive knowledge practices through non-discursive practices, whereby the existence of the visibilities (“objects”) is only maintained through discursive and non-discursive practices.

The dispositive has a certain firmness, but is also always subject to historical change. Moreover, its constant influence by other dispositives must be taken into account.

Dispositive analysis, which deals with the processing connection of knowledge, action and visibility, would therefore have to complete the following steps:

1. reconstruction of knowledge in the discursive practices

2. reconstruction of the knowledge underlying the non-discursive practices

3. reconstruction of the non-discursive practices that led to the visibilities/objectifications and the knowledge contained therein

According to Jäger, it is necessary to firstly distinguish discursive and non-discursive practices, to analyse them separately, however I am not quite sure I got the distinction between discursive and non-discursive practices and whether or not it is actually possible to analyze them separately. Important here to mention is that Jäger also writes that discursive practices connect to sagbares/unsagares and non-discrusive practices, which he connects to Tätigkeiten. So, moving on trying to figure out discursive/non-discursive practices.

Wraner and Lange (2007) point out the problems that Jäger identifies: first, an all too verbally conceived “discourse” evokes a “reality” as its other, which is then, however, neither in itself nor in its relationship to the discourse adequately determined. Jäger’s critique could now be sharpened and formulated: The more one understands the discursive and the non-discursive as two separate realities, the more problematic becomes the resulting question of mediation. However, as the authors further elaborate, Foucault’s concept of discourse is “not characterized by an autonomous linguistic concept of discourse, as Jäger assumes, but Foucault attempts to conceptualize discourse as a boundary between the linguistic and the non-linguistic Sprachlichem & Nicht-Spachlichem)”.

Discourse, in that sense, I would conclude, is not a discussion, conversation, talk, dialogue, communication, conference, debate or essay, treatise, dissertation, paper, study, critique, monograph, but in a more theoretical sense.

As I have understood, Foucault has been quite infuental in discourse analysis, however attempts have been made tie extent discourse analysis to a dispositive analysis “which – starting from the discursive – includes an analysis of power relations and non-discursive practices.”

Since discourse, discursive practices, non-discursive practices are key here, I thought I would read a bit about that as well.


According to Wikipedia “Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and, thus, every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power.[19] Even further, he would state that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth.[14] Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse, therefore, is controlled by: objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak.[2] Coining the phrase power-knowledge, Foucault (1980) would argue that knowledge is both the creator of power and the creation of power. An object becomes a “node within a network”. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network: a book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences”. The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, overarching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.

One of the key discourses that Foucault identified as part of his critique of power-knowledge was that of neoliberalism, which he related very closely to his conceptualization of governmentality in his lectures on biopolitics.“

I came across a forum, where someone asked a question related to discursive practices:

 “Discourse is the collection of hegemonic accepted norms of any given period […]. In simple terms, discourse has mores or acceptable behaviors according to the discourse of the era. As discourse is constantly in flux, hegemonic acceptable norms are too. Discursive practices are the way in which discourse brings these hegemonic norms into life and are usually determined within the power/knowledge dichotomy.” (

Explanation of one of Foucoults key terms (

Discourse is as Foucault admits himself a rather slippery notion in his work but at the most basic level he uses the term to refer to the material verbal traces left by history. He also uses it to describe ‘a certain “way of speaking”‘.

Discursive practices:

Key term Foucault (

 “This term refers to a historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on people’s thought, rather it is a matter of rules which, a bit like the grammar of a language, allow certain statements to be made.”

Same forum I found an interesting reply in (

“A discursive practice in foucauldian terms is “the process through which [dominant] reality comes into being”. This is a very nebulous process, of course, and Foucault focuses on questions of power. His notions of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopower’, from his later work, are helpful to understand this. Foucault does not only focus on formal and semi-formal institutions like the state, the law, schools, clinics, prisons, the family, race, gender, and sexuality, or not just on what the critical theorists and neo-marxists call the ‘Culture Industry’ (like the media); he notoriously concerned with how power is inscribed on the body, at the level of people’s movement and perception of themselves. How does Power produce ‘docile bodies’? is another way in which he poses the question. Biopower in this sense refers to the capillary living network (like veins or hairs) of how Power is propagated and inscribed on docile bodies.”

“The word “discursive” also needs some explanation because “discourse” has accumulated many senses in recent years. In its original sense in applied linguistics, “discourse” refers to stretches of language above the level of the sentence in conversations or written texts. More recently, “discourse” has also taken on an extended meaning that differs from its use in applied linguistics in at least two ways. First, in the extended meaning of the word, language is not the sole system of signs to be studied as discourse; other semiotic systems are included, such as habits of dress, the built environment, and, of course, gesture. Second, the meaning of “discourse” has been further extended to include societal meaning‐making systems such as institutional power, social differentiation of groups, and cultural beliefs that create identities for individuals and position them in social relationships. This sense of “discursive” in “discursive practice” is accurately advertised in the description of the program in discursive practice that I quote from the Web site of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i: “The discursive practice approach is grounded in four insights concerning discourse. One is the affirmation that social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed. The second is the appreciation of the context‐bound nature of discourse. The third is the idea of discourse as social action. The fourth is the understanding that meaning is negotiated in interaction, rather than being present once‐and‐for‐all in our utterances.”

Studying discursive practices involves paying attention not only to the production of meanings by participants as they employ in local actions the verbal, nonverbal, and interactional resources that they command, but it also requires attention to how employment of such resources reflects and creates the processes and meanings of the community in which the local action occurs. As Erickson (2004) wrote, although the conduct of talk in local social interaction is unique and crafted by local social actors for the specific situation of its use at the moment of its uttering, it is at the same time profoundly influenced by processes that occur beyond the temporal and spatial horizon of the immediate occasion of interaction. The aim of discursive practice is to describe both the global context of action and the communicative resources that participants employ in local action. When the context of a practice is known and the configuration of communicative resources is described, the ultimate aim of Practice Theory is to explain the ways in which the global context affects the local employment of resources and vice versa” (Young, 2008)

Non-Discursive practices:

Foucault key term (

“In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault lists non-discursive practices as including ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes’ (p.162). He also argues that discourse does not underlie all cultural forms. Forms such as art and music are not discursive. He also notes: ‘there is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me’.”

I have not read enough about Focuault to say that I KNOW what archeology/geneology in his approach imply, but this citation might come in handy later:

”While archaeology examines the unconscious rules of formation which regulate the emergence of discourse, genealogical analysis focuses on the specific nature of the relations between discursive and non-discursive practices, and on the material conditions of emergence of practices and of discursive systems of knowledge. Genealogical analysis is thus essentially a method for looking at the historical emergence in the search for antecedents. While archaeology examines the structure of discourse, genealogy gives a greater weight to practices, power, and institutions.


So, if I had to sum up the dispositive in one sentence: the dispositif is a heterogenous ensemble consisting of discursive as well as non-discursive elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions) that create the contingent power-knowledge complex also called dispositif.


I am not sure if this brought me closer to understanding what an assemblage is, but it might help- and also the dispositif might be a theoretical lens I could use in my thesis instead. But to know that, I have to answer a couple of questions:

  1. What is the difference between dispositif and assemblage? RIght now I think it might be that the dispositif focuses more on knowledge/power while assemblage might focus more on agency, but not sure about that!

2. Why have Kitchin & Lauriault decided to go with data ASSEMBLAGES, without referring to either Deleuze/Guattari or DeLanda and why have they chose to name it data assemblages while citing Foucault’s DISPOSITIF?

3. Why haven’t they named it data dispositive? Or dispositive of a data infrastructure?

4. If there are connections/lines between the elements, isn’t it like a network? What is the difference to a network? Ecology/ Ecosystem and Actor-Network? What would be “my dispositif”?


Jäger, Siegfried. “Kritische Diskurs- Und Dispositivanalyse.” 2000, Accessed August 6, 2020.

Frost, T. (2015). The Dispositif between Foucault and Agamben. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 15 (1), 151–171. Available from [Accessed 12 February 2019].

Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,” 2014, 20.

Raffnsøe, Sverre, Marius Gudmand-Høyer, and Morten S. Thaning. “Foucault’s Dispositive: The Perspicacity of Dispositive Analytics in Organizational Research.” Organization 23, no. 2 (March 1, 2016): 272–98.

Wikipedia (Dispositif)


Wrana, Daniel, and Antje Langer. “An den Rändern der Diskurse. Jenseits der Unterscheidung diskursiver und nicht-diskursiver Praktiken,” n.d., 30.

Young. “What Is Discursive Practice?” Language Learning 58, no. s2 (2008): 1–8.

Assemblage Theory Part 2: Guattari, Deleuze and DeLanda

What is Assemblage Theory? Guattari, Deleueze and DeLanda- Edition

The three main names that come up frequently when reading about assemblage theory are Deleuze, Guattari and Deleuze. So, what is the matter with the three?

Starting with Deleuze and Guattari, in whose philosophical work the concepts of assemblages play a crucial work. However, while Deleuze and Guatarri are often credited as having introduced assemblage theory (AT), the authors have never formalized it as a theory per se and De Landa states that it “hardly amounts to a fully-fledged theory”. I have seen that Deleuze and Guattari quite often are mixed with De Landa, suggesting that DeLanda approaches Deleuze/Guattari’s work to formalize a theory. I have found the article by Nail who closely examines the three authors and writes that DeLanda “relegate “Deleuzian hermeneutics” to the footnotes and focuses on developing his own “neo-assemblage” theory, “not strictly speaking Deleuze’s own” (DeLanda 4)”.  The author further suggests that there indeed are fundamental differences that need to be clarified when using both in e.g. the theoretical background. Based on this, it is necessary to look at both approaches to distinguish but also to find similarities between the two. I am not sure I can do this in detail right now, since I have neither read a Thousand Plateaus in its entirety nor have I had the time to read DeLandas work (but it is ordered!). Nevertheless, I need to move forward with my understanding, which is why I heavily rely on other people’s work. I will try to use this as a stepping stone for my understanding to be able to move on to Latour, ANT and Foucault’s Dispositif.

Deleuze & Guattari:

I thought that the conclusions that Nail draws in his text are nice and concise and give the first impression about Deleuze & Guattari’s AT:

“Deleuze and Guattari, do in fact have a “fully-fledged” assemblage theory. This theory is fully-fledged not in the sense that it explains all the consequences of the theory, but simply in the sense that it gives us the core concepts and typologies by which the theory can be successfully deployed. What Deleuze and Guattari call their “general logic of assemblages” is based on three major theoretical formations.

First, all assemblages are composed of a basic structure including a condition (abstract machine)*, elements (concrete assemblage), and agents (personae). Although the content differs depending on the kind of as­semblage (biological, amorous, aesthetic, and so on), the structural role or function of these three aspects are shared by all assemblages.

Second, all assemblages are arranged according to four basic political types: ter­ritorial, statist, capitalist, and nomadic. Each type describes a different way in which the conditions, elements, and agents of the assemblage are ordered. Each assemblage is always a mixture of these four types to vary­ign degrees.

Finally, all assemblages are constantly changing according to four different kinds of change or “deterritorialization”: relative negative, relativel positive, absolute negative, and absolute positive.

According to this general logic, all assemblages are political. If we want to know what an assemblage is, we need to know how it works. We have to do an analysis of the assemblage: what is its structure? what is its political typology? and what are the processes of change that shape it? Once we understand how the assemblage functions, we will be in a better position to perform diagnosis: to direct or shape the assemblage toward increasingly revolutionary aims. “ (Nail, 2017)

*(conditioned relations à DeLanda)

Not sure about the very last paragraph, but the rest sounds appropriate.


Sellar  (2009) looks into Assemblage theory mainly referring to DeLanda and concludes that AT “offers a range of possibilities for the analysis of complex processes by incorporating principles of complexity and transaction into a theory with diverse applications across variously scaled human and non-human contexts”.

He continues by explaining that DeLanda’s “emphasises processes of formation over final forms; the importance of relations; and the constitution of territories rather than the delineation of boundaries.” This, however, sounds to me as if it is connected to the “assemblage” understanding in French/English that I mentioned in the first part, but not the agencement one that Deleuze/Guattari introduced. Is this one of the main differences?

The author further highlights potential benefits of this take on assemblage theory as outlined by DeLanda, “as it provides a unique way of considering the development of a social assemblage such as occupational science and the processes by which disciplinary territories are formed”. In addition to this, “the theory poses deep philosophical questions about the nature of any whole and, by extension, how we might conceive of human agency”.

Especially the part about the human agency was interesting here, and I will focus on the agency part.

Even though these two conclusions let me peek into the two approaches I need to read more and also re-read the articles. However, these two parts have given me some hints about some of the core concepts in AT which need understand:

From Nail article:

  • abstract machine & conditioned relations
  • concrete assemblage
  • personae
  • territorial, statist, capitalist, nomadic assemblage
  • Kinds of changes: relative negative, relative positive, absolute negative, and absolute positive

From Sellar article:

  • Relations and territories, which Sellar names as two of the key aspects of AT

I am also particulary interested how boundaries are seen/set in assemblage theory and how that connects/ conflicts with (critical) systems thinking.

Even though I am not “there yet” in my understanding of AT, I also need to have a look at Latour and Foucault, as they have ideas similar to assemblage theory, if I understood it correctly. So, while it might be a bit disencouraging to think that I am not there yet, I have to remind myself that this is a learning experience and that with every day I will get closer to understanding AT!

Nail, Thomas. “What Is an Assemblage?” SubStance 46, no. 1 (2017): 21–37.

Sellar, Ben. “Assemblage Theory, Occupational Science, and the Complexity of Human Agency.” Journal of Occupational Science 16, no. 2 (July 2009): 67–74.

Assemblage Theory Part 1

This series about assemblage theory is intended to follow my journey of understanding this theory, so some of what I write might be revised and changed in some of the subsequent parts.

What is an Assemblage?

Even though Wikipedia has a bad reputation within academia, I like to use Wikipedia as a starting point when I come across a new topic (and I also think that Wikipedia is a brilliant example of what open source can do!).

Wikipedia defines assemblage theory as follows:

“Assemblage theory is an ontological framework developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, originally presented in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities. Assemblage theory asserts that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority.”

Let’s see if this definition holds up after I read the articles that I have chosen. However, to understand what assemblage theory implies, I have to understand what an assemblage IS, which is what I will write about in this first part about assemblage theory.

Agencement vs assemblage?

Before diving deeper into what an assemblage is, there is one important remark to make here. Deleuze and Guattari speak of “agencement”, which is commonly translated as “assemblage”. However, translations can never be 100% correct, which is also the case here. Nail (2017) examined the two terms and explains that the french agencements has different etymological roots compared to assemblage.

agencer, agencementFrench: assemblageEnglish: assemblage
arrange, to lay out and to piece together a construction, an arrangement, or a layout = arrangement or layout of heterogenous join, to gather, to assemble, collection, set, a set of parts = gathering of things together into unitiesthe joining or union of two things, a bringing or coming together = gathering of things together into unities

The issue here according to Nail is the French word assemblage already exists and means the same thing as the English word “assemblage”. To address this, the author suggests, for English speakers, to “dissociate their understanding of the English word “assemblage” from the concept of agencement since it will only confuse things”.  However, I am not really sure what that means here. Should one be aware of this distinction? And then decide to e.g. use agencement to follow Guattaris/Deleuzes line of thought instead of assemblage or use assemblage and accept that it has an incorrect connotation? Does everyone, that uses assemblage theory understands the English assemblage not according to its dictionary definition but as the French agencement? I guess I just pay attention and find out while reading others’ work!

However, this small detour has not really brought me closer to finding out what an assemblage is. I found this article written by Sellar (2009) who defines assemblages as “a collection of heterogeneous parts and acts that form contingent relations across time to produce an emergent whole”. However, following this definition it sounds as if Sellar understands assemblages as a mix of agencements and assemblages- not sure if this clarified things or made it even more complicated?!  Even though I am hesitant to get into this, imo, complex theory, I think that assemblages cannot be understand while separated from the whole, so let’s move on and start looking into assemblage theory as a whole.

Sellar, Ben. “Assemblage Theory, Occupational Science, and the Complexity of Human Agency.” Journal of Occupational Science 16, no. 2 (July 2009): 67–74.