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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

Processes of entanglement

Arie Rip

Texte intégral


  • 1 Quotes around “structure” to indicate that I am not referring to traditional sociological notions (...)

1Ongoing actions, interactions and practices have been studied in great detail, and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) has developed a suite of approaches to capture dynamics as they occur. My interest here is in how those dynamics get entangled so that patterns (in processes) and “structures” emerge.1 Such assemblages, patterns and structures then enable and constrain further actions and interactions, somehow, up to lock-ins and so-called path dependency.

2My concept of entanglements – “associations that last longer than the interactions that formed them” (Callon & Latour, 1981: 283) – is meant to emphasize that actors and activities can become mutually dependent: they cannot move independently anymore. There is some mutual accommodation, but not in the sense that conflict is reduced. Think of how parties on the battlefield recognize each other as the enemy, and that’s how the battle can proceed. Mutual dependence does lead to outcomes that are larger (or at least, “last longer”) than the interactions that occur.

3The nature of the entanglements is not given, it is an always precarious outcome of interactions and processes. But they can be of a long-term character, and provide a backdrop which is encountered, and in that sense given, when one moves about in the world. That is why traditional notions of structure (cultural patterns, industry structure, societal structure) are applicable to some extent.

  • 2 This includes an aversion to approaches that present themselves as “multi-level”, because talk of (...)

4In “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan” (Callon & Latour, 1981), Michel Callon and Bruno Latour argue forcefully against traditional sociological distinctions of “macro” and “micro”. Their subtitle, “how actors macrostructure reality and how sociologists help them to do so”, was taken up only partially, however. Latour has been voicing his criticism of sociology, recently in Reassembling the Social (2005).2

5The question how actors macrostructure reality has only been addressed in terms of specific tactics (enrolment, programs and anti-programs, centers of calculation, obligatory passage points, and so on). The overall dynamics of assembling/ assemblage were considered in passing only. A similar observation was made by Czarniawska & Hernes (2005: 11): “much happens between programs and antiprograms that has never been programmed by anybody”.

6ANT prefers to address changing, fluid, “hot” situations (there, it offers clear advantages over classical sociology). In doing so, it recognizes the existence of “cold” situations, but is not much interested in them, with the exception of Callon’s (2002) attempts to understand both emergent and consolidated technoeconomic networks. The further effect is that it has not been much interested in transitions from “hot” to “cold” either, even with Callon.

7This transition is exactly what is challenging in the case of newly emerging science and technology (NEST). Not only do they have to survive and grow in existing, more or less stable regimes and landscapes, there is the earlier experience – and thus present expectation – that they will stabilize and become “cold” themselves. In fact, actors anticipate a future with more stable assemblages; one example is the emergence of dominant designs, and how actors anticipate and struggle for it, “knowing” that such dominant designs will occur, eventually. In other words, unscrewing the big Leviathan is not the main task, even if that may be necessary occasionally to convince actors that they can – and should – see differently. More important is to follow how reality is macro-structured, not by any one actor, but through entanglements.

8The case for which I will do this are nanosciences and nanotechnologies, large parts of which are still fluid (“hot”) rather than stable and articulated (“cold”). In our field work, we move about in that world, as analysts and as visitors (i.e. temporary or intermittent actors). And we map and diagnose what we encounter, using Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and if necessary, adapting it. We encounter multi-layered entanglements, and this encounter is what drives the present paper. We need to understand processes of entanglement: the general idea of entanglement as how “hot” becomes “cold”, and the question of mechanisms of entanglement – in addition to well-known mechanisms like interessement and translation.


9Zooming in on what’s happening sur le terrain, one sees enrolment, obligatory passage points, etc. While (human) actors anticipate and think in terms of goals, and success and failure, there are no easy rules about what is successful. The arsenal of ANT mechanisms emphasizes description of what actors do and what the outcomes are. Its advice how to be successful is limited to the empty (because empirically almost circular) suggestion to have more allies, and longer (more extended) networks.

10I don’t want to criticize this position, but to expand on it, or at least complement it. So I zoom out again, and see variety, novelties (definitely in the case of NEST). Some novelties survive, somehow, and while translation, enrolment, etc play a part, there are other actors, broader contexts, longer-term patterns which in a sense select what will survive and what not.

11In phrasing my point this way, it becomes clear that we should explore what evolutionary theories (as in evolutionary economics and sociology, not the neo-Darwinian paradigm) offer. They address partial stabilizations, regimes and trajectories or paths, and also try to model the transition from “hot” to “cold” that has been under-conceptualized in ANT. In innovation studies, this transition has been analyzed as a process of de-alignment and re-alignment. The new and fluid emerges within the confines of the old and stable. Novelty (leading up to innovation) is introduced in an existing order and this requires de-alignment (of existing linkages and competencies) so as to create space for the new, and for subsequent re-alignment to embed the new. Abernathy & Clark (1985) discussed this for technical innovation in (industrial) organisations, and in terms of new techno-organisational capacities and new customer/market linkages. It can and should be extended to include eventual societal embedding of innovations (cf. Deuten et al., 1997). Building on this perspective, we have created a multilayered model for socio-technological developments in terms of niches, regimes, and landscape (Rip & Kemp, 1998; Kemp et al., 2001; Geels, 2005a, 2005b). Such a model can be used in a reified way (and this indeed happens). To counteract this, the components of the model should be seen as emerging and only partially stabilized irreversibilities, which continue to exert force as long as they remain black-boxed. Emerging irreversibilities are a general feature of social life, and the sociological concept of ‘institutionalization’ captures a large part of what happens. When technology is involved, irreversibilities are further solidified in configurations that work (Rip & Kemp, 1998).

  • 3 Such anticipations can lead to concrete actions. One which has by now become institutionalized in (...)

12Evolutionary theories offer useful insights into entanglements and resulting patterns. A further dynamic has to be included in such theories, though: the role of expectations and anticipations, leading to, or being already embedded in, anticipatory action.3 In general, in (co-)evolutionary theories, one should include anticipation-in-action (Rip, 2006a).

  • 4 The phenomenon of path-dependencies (which is broader than the exemplar of the QWERTY keyboard in (...)
  • 5 When applied to new and emerging science and technology, this perspective is similar to the “ficti (...)

13Emerging irreversibilities, up to paths and other stable patterns enabling and constraining actions and views, will shape further development.4 Thus, they span up an endogenous future: further developments are already predicated in the pattern of the present situation (and its past).5 Not in a deterministic way, of course, there are always choices and contingencies. The notion of endogenous future goes a long way in understanding how patterns and “structures” can be shaping, without reifying them. A further point is that actors can use understanding of these dynamics to make their choices (and the eventual co-evolution) more reflexive.

  • 6 This analysis goes much further than regular studies of agenda-building processes and outcomes: it (...)

14When actions and interactions, including anticipations, get entangled, there will be articulation and some stabilization. Prior to institutionalization, there will be diffuse (societal) agenda building. We have traced this in some detail in our analysis of the evolving “risk landscape” in/of the nano-world (Rip & Van Amerom, 2009).6 Our findings are visualized in the diagram below (Fig. 1). It is a story of actions and interactions which have further effects because actors respond to what happens elsewhere, anticipate and mobilize – and thus get entangled. One outcome is the emergence of a repertoire how to talk and think about nano-particles (“wonderful and tiny, and they are shaped like asbestos fibres, so better be careful”).

15Three features of the process should be mentioned upfront. Interventions have repercussions, but only when the time, i.e. the state of the landscape, is “right”. Big re-insurance company Swiss Re published a report in April 2004 on risks of nanoparticles, which might be similar to asbestos (cause of a financial debacle for the insurance industry), which shifted the discussion of risks from something that could be dismissed because just a claim of fringe groups, to a legitimate concern that should be addressed. Two years earlier, Munich Re’s report on risks of nanotechnology drew almost no response.

16Second, there is prudent anticipation of actors which leads to different strategies of firms (be careful, or just forget about nanoparticles), and commentaries from different NGOs (focusing on the issue of risk of nanoparticles or also considering larger questions). This happens over and above mainstream regulatory responses, and to a large extent determines what actually happens.

17Third, responsible action of actors rather than explicit law and sanctions (e.g. in the voluntary reporting-by-firms scheme that UK DEFRA and US EPA introduced) might become a new entanglement. “Soft law” is the label used by legal and regulatory analysts. Its force derives from the entanglements that emerge.

Figure 1: Evolving risk landscape in/of the nano-world

18The visualization in the diagram (Fig. 1) only shows the overall picture. One can zoom in and see the enrolments, shifts, and linkages being made – and so create an ANT picture. Even so, this picture will be more complex than program versus anti-program dynamics, “for or against nano-particles”. It is a multi-actor and multi-level (or multi-layered) process.

  • 7 McCarthy & Kelty (forthcoming), in their ethnographical study of key nanoscientists at Rice Univer (...)

19Two layers are visible from the beginning: a layer of production practices (research work, development of products, market strategies) and a layer of debate and negotiation creating a diffuse agenda which may become forceful if various actors refer to it for their own purposes. From 2004 onward, sectoral organizations, government agencies with executive responsibilities, heterogeneous associations of actors, appear on the scene and an intermediary layer in which their mutual accommodation occurs emerges. An interesting intermediary entity is ICON, the International Council on Nanotechnology, addressing risks and societal aspects, and collecting various stakeholders, including firms and regulatory agencies and a few NGOs.7 By 2009, the landscape had evolved further, with Dupont Company collaborating with NGO Environmental Defense to produce a Risk Framework for nanotechnology that might be a model for eventual government regulation, and firms as well as research promoting actors like the European Commission offering Codes of Conduct for Nanotechnology (Kearnes & Rip, 2009). The entanglements may be multifarious and fleeting, but one sees some (temporary) solidification, partly because of political pressures, like having a percentage (up to 15%) of public nanotechnology research funding be devoted to risk research.

Mechanisms of entanglement

20How do multi-layered entanglements emerge and stabilize, in particular around (and occasioned by) newly emerging science and technology? The previous section showed that such entanglements occur, and some “mechanisms” related to public debate and movements of actors in public spaces were indicated for the case of nanosciences and nanotechnologies.

21A basic mechanism is visible in the mutual dependencies in innovation and value chains. These imply conservatism, but external requirements (of users, or governmental actors responsible to ensure reliable performance, nowadays also of big retailers like supermarket chains) to reduce uncertainty about the performance of a new technology can push actors to do more. Building with reinforced concrete in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is an interesting case in point (Deuten, 2003). This can be expanded to the role of so-called “third parties”, not directly involved in the innovation value chain. When reinsurance company Swiss Re entered the fray in 2004 it was because of its concern about financial risk for itself, but their report and further activities conferred legitimacy to the consideration of risks of nanoparticles.

  • 8 See further Te Kulve (2010).

22Actors can intentionally seek entanglement, if it appears to be in their interest directly, or indirectly when they pursue a public or collective interest. The latter is particularly visible with so-called institutional entrepreneurs, “actors who have an interest in particular institutional arrangements and who leverage resources to create new institutions or to transform existing ones” (Garud et al., 2007: 957). Institutional entrepreneurs often engage in across-level activities (this happens already within institutions, cf. Fujimura, 1987). The “moral entrepreneurs” described by Howard Becker (1963), and exemplified by Mary Lasker in creating the “War on Cancer” program in the USA (Rettig, 1977) are a case in point. Their activities can be described in ANT terms as enrolling, translating, creating obligatory passage points. Because they work (and have to work) at different “levels” at the same time, I introduce the notion of “linking-pin entrepreneurs” who intentionally or unintentionally link “levels” and so create vertical alignments.8

23Linked to this, but occurring more generally is the entanglement driven by anticipatory co-ordination. Prudent actors anticipate, and will work to reduce threats and push opportunities. In doing so, they meet other (prudent as well as imprudent) actors. These interactions lead to some de facto coordination, and some alignment. The general processes of actors joining efforts and struggling for position, and aligning themselves and future technologies in one movement, now includes reflexive anticipation.

24The history of the International Semiconductor Technology Roadmap is illustrative, because of the gradual extension of the number of actors involved in the consortium responsible for the biannual roadmapping exercise, and for the dominant role it plays in the sector, shaping firm’s strategies and sector-level outcomes. Moore’s Law is one of the key references in the exercise, and in this way it became a self-fulfilling prophecy (since the late 1970s). There is now discussion, not only of physical limits (“ceilings” or “red brick walls” as the International Semiconductor Technology Roadmaps have it) to the continuation of Moore’s Law, but also diverging searches and identification of options that are “More than Moore” or “Beyond Moore”.

  • 9 This is visible already for the micro- and nano-electronics platform ENIAC, led by the big incumbe (...)

25In general, attempts at anticipatory coordination are visible in the increasing (and fashionable) interest in roadmapping exercises around new and emerging science and technology, but many of them remain paper exercises. The recent European Technology Platforms are an interesting addition, because they may evolve to become informal consortia for coordination of strategies.9 The Platform on Nano Medicine, led by directors of the relevant divisions of Philips and Siemens, draws on the strong interest in the field, but has not yet built a tradition of anticipatory coordination. It is still only a space in which new interactions occur, no entanglement with dynamics of its own.

  • 10 Such spaces are actually instances of a more general phenomenon, spaces emerging within ongoing en (...)

26Spaces for interaction where actors can mutually position their activities and strategies in relation to possible and emerging paths are occasions for entanglement. Such spaces range from conferences and other venues (Garud, 2008) up to consortia and European Union funded projects (Te Kulve, 2010).10 Temporary versions of such spaces can be consciously constructed, and with the purpose of making entanglement more reflexive. This is how we have developed Constructive Technology Assessment for newly emerging sciences and technologies, and have supported such events by creating sociotechnical scenarios showing possible entanglements.

27It is in such spaces that authorities, or better, the “shadow of hierarchy” (Scharpf, 1997), have effects. Not because the authorities can “dictate requirements from nowhere” (Jensen, 2007: 846), but because actors refer to them to exert force – and then become entangled in the referencing. Similarly, actors can mobilize the “shadow of the future”, and then be held accountable (Rip, 2010).

Concluding thoughts

28In ongoing entanglements, the mechanisms I identified occur together. For example, linking-pin entrepreneurs avail themselves of ongoing anticipatory coordination, and actively push certain visions. Entrepreneurial action as well as anticipatory coordination activities are predicated on the opening up of spaces (here in relation to NEST). The outcome is an entanglement that cannot be ascribed (attributed) to any of the actors and their intentional activities.

29Two interesting types of outcomes are boundary objects and macro-trajectories. The phenomenon of boundary objects was identified by Star (cf. Star & Griesemer, 1989), as being weakly structured in itself, and thus allowing linking of different worlds which use strongly-structured versions. One of their examples was “bird species”, joining the worlds of biologists, bird watchers and natural history museums. Forceful boundary objects are an outcome of entanglements (Sager, 2005). There might well be specific mechanisms for boundary objects to emerge – a topic for further research.

30Macro-trajectories (Nelson & Winter, 1977) are outcomes of entanglement. Here, we have some idea how they arise: in addition to specific matrices of expectations and exemplars of what can be achieved (Van den Belt & Rip, 1987), the references to overall promises like mechanization (from mid-19th century onwards) and automation (from 1950s onward) to miniaturization (from 1980s onward, and now glorified in nanotechnology), have created global paths followed in many sectors. Such entanglements start with ideographs, as is exemplified in the detailed study of the reference to electronic superhighway in the 1990s (Konrad, 2004). We can speculate about emerging macro-trajectories, up to “responsible development” which may be spearheaded by nanotechnology (Rip, 2010).

31When actors realize entanglement will occur, and what the dynamics (mechanisms) are, they can act reflexively, to better pursue their interests. This was very visible in the battle about the next generation of DVDs, where actors referred back to the earlier battle about video-recording standards, and what could be learned from it.

32In general, actors can recognize how their choices and actions are being shaped (softly determined) by sociotechnical factors and patterns, while at the same time they will act, and attempt to act better, based on their understanding of such factors and patterns – up to attempts to undermine them. Reflexive entanglement allows better “cooling”, but can also lead to attempts to destabilize, to “heat up”.

33Reflexive entanglement may be read as passive: the victims of entanglement realize what is happening, but cannot do much about it. The modernist alternative, in the great enlightenment tradition, is to act on such understanding and expect to be effective. This will be counterproductive. Actor-Network Theory wants to overcome the modernist approach, but notions like enrolment and translation appear to glorify the Machiavellian actor attempting to set things to his (her?) hand. Such attempts have to be leavened by modesty (humility?): translation is mutual, and there is no way to determine overall outcomes of entanglement one-handedly. Embedded modulation of ongoing entanglements is the best one can do (Rip, 2006).


34I am grateful to Morten Sager and Jan-Peter Voß for their incisive comments on earlier versions of this paper. Raghu Garud and Joel Gehman offered useful suggestions at a later stage.



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1 Quotes around “structure” to indicate that I am not referring to traditional sociological notions of structure, which need to be dissolved as “the illusion of structure” (Latour, 2010).

2 This includes an aversion to approaches that present themselves as “multi-level”, because talk of levels is associated with “the belief that society is ranked according to sizes ranging from Small to XXL” (Latour, 2005: 31). Instead, “Macro no longer describes a wider or a larger site in which the micro would be embedded like some Russian Matryoska doll, but another equally local, equally micro place, which is connected to many others through some medium transporting specific types of traces. No place can be said to be bigger than any other place, but some can be said to benefit from far safer connections with many more places than others”. This point has been central to ANT since Callon & Latour (1981), and rightly so. But it is not the whole story, as I will argue.

3 Such anticipations can lead to concrete actions. One which has by now become institutionalized in new product development is to create a model of the expected selection environment in a test lab (or test situation) before the novelty is exposed to the wider world (Van den Belt & Rip, 1987).

4 The phenomenon of path-dependencies (which is broader than the exemplar of the QWERTY keyboard in Anglosaxon countries, as put on the map by Paul David) emphasizes the time dimension. See for our attempts to improve on the simple path-dependency notions of economists: Rip, Robinson and Te Kulve (2007)

5 When applied to new and emerging science and technology, this perspective is similar to the “fictive script” in an R&D or technology development program, as conceived by Bas de Laat (2000). De Laat emphasizes the requirements on an envisaged future world if the present configuration is to grow and get embedded.

6 This analysis goes much further than regular studies of agenda-building processes and outcomes: it is multi-layered, there are many arenas and these can overlap, and are often linked through circulation of actors. The latter is also an empirical point: we meet various actors in different places, and we can map their movements in and around the nano-world.

7 McCarthy & Kelty (forthcoming), in their ethnographical study of key nanoscientists at Rice University, show the entanglements in building ICON.

8 See further Te Kulve (2010).

9 This is visible already for the micro- and nano-electronics platform ENIAC, led by the big incumbents in the sector, and through its members also coordinating with their North-American and East-Asian counterparts. There are now regular “International Conferences on Communication and Cooperation” (INC), from the first one in 2005 in San Francisco, to further ones in Washington, D.C., Brussels, and Tokyo.

10 Such spaces are actually instances of a more general phenomenon, spaces emerging within ongoing entanglements, opening up and subsequently closing down. A first attempt at characterizing such spaces in general was Rip & Joly (2004). Stirling (2005) discusses opening up and closing down, and his concept was taken up as a key element of reflexive governance by Voß et al. (2006). Hybrid spaces/forums have been discussed (Callon & Rip, 1992), but with less attention to how they can cross levels, or at least stimulate multi-level interactions.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Evolving risk landscape in/of the nano-world
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