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Black Boxes as Capacities for and Constraints on Action: Electoral Politics, Journalism, and Devices of Representation


Actor-Network Theory, as a theoretical and methodological approach, is particularly insightful when applied to domains of social activity that are in flux, thus making it particularly useful for ethnographic research about unsettled socio-technical systems. Drawing from field research conducted over the last decade, this paper presents two empirical cases that reveal how ANT enables researchers to trace the associations that form the socio-technical objects of political and journalistic practice. We focus on “black-boxed” technical objects, exploring two distinct, yet complementary, analytical moments that emerged during our respective fieldwork. First, we detail the work that an electoral map performs in stabilizing networks of political representation and creating new capacities to act. We then go inside a journalistic organization to reveal a moment of breakdown when the black box of a content management system unravels and fails to do what it is seemingly supposed to do, throwing news production into a tenuous state. The paper concludes by interrogating our empirical findings through the lens of cultural practices, highlighting a few ways sociologists might need to supplement ANT-analysis with a more robust understanding of culture and symbolic belief systems.

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  1. The very definition of culture and its causal capacities is still the subject of active debate within sociology and psychology. For an excellent recent review of these debates see Vaisey 2009.

  2. We thank Fenwick McKelvey for this insight. This applies to states with a history of discrimiation. The specific formula for doing so was found unconstitutional in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  3. Quandt (2008) formally defines newsroom content management systems as “central production tools, offering (sometimes limited) word processing functionality, and access to archived information in a database … layout, and some publishing functionality” (84).


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The authors would like to thank Fenwick McKelvey and the participants of the 2013 Objects of Journalism pre-conference at the International Communication Association annual meeting for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to C. W. Anderson.

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Anderson, C.W., Kreiss, D. Black Boxes as Capacities for and Constraints on Action: Electoral Politics, Journalism, and Devices of Representation. Qual Sociol 36, 365–382 (2013).

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  • Actor-Network Theory
  • Black-boxes
  • Campaigns
  • Communications
  • Ethnography
  • Journalism
  • Politics
  • Social theory
  • Technology