Background: Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is an increasingly influential, but still deeply contested, approach to understand humans and their interactions with inanimate objects. We argue that health services research, and in particular evaluations of complex IT systems in health service organisations, may benefit from being informed by Actor-Network Theory perspectives.
Discussion: Despite some limitations, an Actor-Network Theory-based approach is conceptually useful in helping to appreciate the complexity of reality (including the complexity of organisations) and the active role of technology in this context. This can prove helpful in understanding how social effects are generated as a result of associations between different actors in a network. Of central importance in this respect is that Actor-Network Theory provides a lens through which to view the role of technology in shaping social processes. Attention to this shaping role can contribute to a more holistic appreciation of the complexity of technology introduction in healthcare settings. It can also prove practically useful in providing a theoretically informed approach to sampling (by drawing on informants that are related to the technology in question) and analysis (by providing a conceptual tool and vocabulary that can form the basis for interpretations). We draw on existing empirical work in this area and our ongoing work investigating the integration of electronic health record systems introduced as part of England's National Programme for Information Technology to illustrate salient points.
Summary: Actor-Network Theory needs to be used pragmatically with an appreciation of its shortcomings. Our experiences suggest it can be helpful in investigating technology implementations in healthcare settings.