Actor-network mapping

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 17th Nov 2022

Representing vulnerability as the relationships between human, institutional and geophysical actors draws upon Actor Network Theory in political ecology (Callon 1999). The various actors (human, ecological, institutional and physical), the boundaries of the system, and the nature of their interactions are described.

An essential requirement in Actor Network Theory, and in mapping vulnerability, is to define the boundary to the system. The figure below illustrates how a core group of actors, say households in a semi-arid region, might be related in a network (A-B-C). It might be tempting to construct a vulnerability map at this scale showing their fields, local environment, settlements and catchments. However, their vulnerability is related to other actors, say merchants, extension agents and credit lenders in a wider network (X-Y-Z). These each have their own spatial logic and boundaries: for example, extension agents work within government administrative units while merchants work through market processes.

Prescribing the boundaries to a coupled system should be driven by the scales of action of the actors, rather than a fixed geophysical resolution. However, water resources and environmental systems have their own boundaries. The mismatch between the social and geophysical networks is an enduring challenge of managing water resources (Carl Folke, Pritchard Jr. et al. 1998). This is to an extent recognised in relation to the disjuncture of administrative and hydrological boundaries in the development of, for instance, river basin management systems, but there is little experience or conceptual analysis of how these relate to non-administrative boundaries such as market areas or the boundaries of social groupings such as ethnic, caste or tribal units (but see: Moench and Dixit 2005).

Image:Actor Network diagram.jpg

Figure: Schematic of actors in two levels of a network.

Note that the arrows are indicative only; in reality each element may be connected to several others, with bi-directional relationships. Source: Callon (1999)


Callon, M. (1999). Actor-Network Theory - The Market Test. Actor Network Theory and After. J. Law and J. Hassard. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Carl Folke, L. Pritchard Jr., et al. (1998). The Problem of Fit between Ecosystems and Institutions. Bonn, International Human Dimensions Programme.

Moench, M. and A. Dixit, Eds. (2005). Adaptive capacity and livelihood resilience: Adaptive strategies for responding to floods and droughts in south Asia. Boulder, CO, Institute for Social and Environmental Transition.

NOTE the above text is an exert from:

Downing, T.E., Aerts, J., Soussan, J., Barthelemy, O., Bharwani, S., Ionescu, C., Hinkel, J., Klein, R.J.T., Mata, L.J., Martin, N., Moss, S., Purkey, D. and Ziervogel, G. (2006) Integrating social vulnerability into water management. SEI Working Paper and Newater Working Paper No. 4. Oxford: Stockholm Environment Institute (link)