Describing substance abuse treatment through actor-network theory

Brad Roberg (BSW) has been a social worker within the field of substance abuse treatment for the past 13 years. He has graduate qualifications in substance abuse studies and philosophy. Brad is currently enrolled in a Social Science Honours program at RMIT. He has a particular interest in research looking at how social workers practice, and the forces that shape these practices. Email Brad at

I have recently commenced an Honours thesis, looking at how actor-network theory can contribute to the description and analysis of practice. Methodologically, I will be conducting an ethnography of practice. In part, this comes about because of the importance to understand and research practice, even though, as Pithouse (1985) states, practice is a largely invisible world. So, in the context of evidence-based practice, it seems to make sense that we would try to open up this world of practice to understand and explore what’s going on.

It would come as no surprise to many in the health and welfare sectors that much of the details of practice are hidden, and practice frequently takes place behind closed doors. This presents a problem for a student-researcher who also happens to be a manager: Who is looking? Why? What happens with the evidence gathered? How can one be an ‘insider’ and retain the sufficient objectivity required for research to be valid? These are not unusual questions, and form much of the reasoning for research ethics scrutiny; deservedly so, too.

Practice may be the object of my research, but what I am interested in is not so much what professionals say and do, as it is how people and objects relate, and how this shapes practices, forming the objects of intervention? This is what I take actor-network theory to offer. Actor-network theory is a view of the world where non-human objects have a kind of agency (Sayes, 2014; Latour, 2005); where the boundary that makes humans the locus of action and objects the passive tools of our intent is revealed as unstable, shifting, permeable. For example, the social lives of professionals in a multidisciplinary team for the treatment of opiate dependence are mediated by many non-human objects: laptops, urine drug screen results, patient identification numbers, files and software, proformas and meeting templates requiring dates and signatures. Without these objects, I hypothesise that the kinds of practices that are enacted and the decisions that are made and the outcomes that are produced can be transformed.

From the methodology of actor-network theory, the research involves writing accounts of practice. This is an insistent message from actor-network theory. Write an account. In doing so, assemble an account that reconstructs the ways in which the social worlds of informants come into being…or fall apart. It is a critical insight of the approach to insist on widening our frame of reference for ‘the social’ (Strum & Latour, 1987).

© Julien Eichinger via Fotolia

Such an approach calls for the researcher to dispense temporarily ‘the social’ as a frame, and to start with the basic building blocks of sociality, which are conceptualised as associations (Latour, 2005). What associations can be mapped that go together to compose something like a social world? This calls for what I’ve been thinking of as a strict or radical empiricism – leave nothing out. Describe everything, the scene of practice and the various elements composing it, and describe what happens within it.My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease

My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease artherosclerosis) has many realities, depending on where it is encountered (the outpatient clinic, the pathology lab), under what conditions (acute illness presentations, chronic disease management needs), in the context of which practices (under the surgical knife, or in the occupational therapists assessment). The object ‘artherosclerosis’ is multiple here, the life of interpretivism (multiple perspectives on one object) doesn’t hold; artherosclerosis is done differently and differentially. Bodies (human and non-human) are taken up into multiple practices, brought into multiple relations with other bodies, producing multiple worlds. This approach demands that as a researcher I take on an ontological shift, away from describing a world of being (“What is it?”) to worlds of becoming (“how is it done?”).

Which brings me back to my original point – it’s easy to think of the invisibilities of practice in terms simply of what professionals do ‘in the room’, matters of technique, whether what’s said is ‘evidence-based’ or not. But if we accept that social worlds are constructed as much of non-human objects as human subjects, and if we accept that non-human objects can have a form of agency,  then the things we often fail to see become visible and important to understanding practice. In this sense, The world dissolves into a multiplicity of world-making practices, and the things we assumed were inert and therefore of little account, tools to be used by an intentional subject, suddenly take on a life of their own or, at least, lives in relation to us. And this really is the point – a life is one that takes place in relations. Which is what Social Work has been trying to say all along.


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press

Mol, A.  (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Pithouse, A. (1985). Poor visibility: Case talk and collegial assessment in a social work office. Work & Occupations. 12(1), pp. 77-89.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor-Network theory and methodology: Just what does it means to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science. 44(1), pp. 134-149.

Strum, S. & Latour, B. (1987). Redefining the social link: From baboons to humans. Social Science Information, 26(4), 783-802.


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