Nonhumans Unbound: Actor-Network Theory and the Reconsideration of "Things" in Educational Foundations

Article excerpt

The Missing Discourse of Things as Educational Actors

"The Race War has begun. Your skin is your uniform in this battle for the survival of your kind. The White Race depends on you to secure its existence. Your peoples [sic] enemies surround you in a sea of decay and filth that they have brought to your once clean and White nation. Not one of their numbers shall be spared ..." (Resistance Records, n.d.)

This is the ad copy (and only text) on the home page for the first-person shooter game Ethnic Cleansing. As the avatar of either a skinhead or a white-robed KKK member, your job is to kill all of the Blacks, Latina/os and Jews that you encounter. This Doom-like computer game was developed by Resistance Records, a company owned by the National Alliance, a Neo-Nazi organization that promotes a racist worldview very similar to the one of the virtual world in which you, as the player, are immersed. Educators should certainly be concerned about this form of "home schooling," but more to the point, we should be concerned with the ways that this game is helping to construct the social world we are all immersed in. The computer game or the game environment, as an entity, is not simply a digital vehicle for racist propaganda and treating it as such obscures the role of the technology in producing effects. Further, in terms of being a sociological entity that produced effects, the virtual world of Ethnic Cleansing may not be different, in kind or in scope, from the ideological worlds so often critiqued in the Social Foundations of Education. These game worlds are not contained, nor neutral, nor passive. Framing them as such underestimates their complex role as social agents. Ethnic Cleansing both is an effect and produces effects, thereby participating alongside other actors in the construction of the social fabric. Game worlds, digital entities and artifacts, in general, are co-fabricators of the socio-political landscape that we live in; yet the field of Educational Foundations does not have a sufficient theoretical language with which to articulate the role of these nonhuman social actors.

As educators, we are surrounded by things: manipulatives, textbooks, lab equipment, educational media, administrative schedules and policy documents, and, of course, the encompassing school physical plant It is impossible to imagine education happening without them. Even writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who eschewed the world of modern industrial manufacturing, surrounded his students with the elements of the natural environment. Yet, as inescapable as things are in the learning process, the Educational Foundations have largely neglected to elaborate a framework with which to take full account of their involvement. This is especially curious given the serious work that has gone into the development and use of things as educational tools. Consider: Froebel gifts, traditional Montessori materials, Piaget's research manipulatives, Skinner's teaching machine (and it's electronic descendants), the "Hunter" lesson plan format, Chris Whittle's Channel One, and Blackboard's[TM]computer interface. Each of the above is a recognizable, major player in the history of education while simultaneously being a very minor player (in most cases, a mere set piece!) in educational sociology.

Comfortable in a world grounded in sense certainty, positivistic science and Critical/ Postcolonial social theory, we in the Social Foundations neglect the relationship between the material and the social. That which is not human is generally regarded as simply present. Much of the recent Social Foundation literature investigates the construction of the social, while seriously limiting the list of legitimate building materials involved. What this literature does not interrogate is the ways in which things are constitutively social (Woolgar, 1996)--and that society is constitutively artifactual. The field of Social Foundations sidesteps the fundamental insight that things, both natural and artifactual, are woven into the social fabric and it is difficult to imagine a world where their participation is absent. …