Monika Nerland is a keynote speaker at the upcoming ProPEL conference. The title of the 2017 conference is Professional practice, learning and education: social and material entanglements. In this blog posting, Monika draws on social and material engagements with “paper work” and texts within professional work, to invite readers to expand conceptions of how one studies and questions the sociomateriality of professional practices
The work of professional practitioners is increasingly entangled with regulatory documents and different kinds of paper work. Expectations to document everyday actions and to make the basis for decisions transparent are part of this, and often discussed as expressions of managerialism and reduced spaces for professional discretion. Paper work is in this regard seen as tools for accountability and transparency. However it serves other important functions too: Documentation and writing activities are indeed also sociomaterial practices, with capacity to link across settings and networks of knowledge.
In this context, I found it refreshing to read a recent article by the Norwegian historian and STS scholar Kristin Asdal (2015). She reminds us of how documents, as part of sociomaterial practices, may transform reality and bring issues into being. By introducing the term ‘modifying work’, and by tracing the trajectory of a government report from the 1960’s about how to handle pollution from industry, she shows how this document was worked upon and changed in a series of instantiations that transformed the kind of issue being dealt with: From a pollution issue to an industry issue, from a local to a national issue, from a technical to a functional issue, from issue to ‘non-issue’ … and with various relations established between actors and issues.
She also shows how different groups of actors became enrolled in the modifying work and how the issue as such became transformed through the use of different material-semiotic means. By doing so, she turns attention to what the modifying work does, rather than what the matter is. As Asdal (2015: 74) formulates it, “we should not be satisfied with the fact that something becomes or is an issue. We need to analyze carefully both how issues emerge in the first place, and then what kind of issue and with which effect for the relevant nature object or issue”.
What, then, can we take from this paper to the studies of professional practices? I will point to three—yes—issues to engage with:
First, the historical dimension of practice: Do we sufficiently account for the effects of historical events when analyzing professional practices today? Perhaps the time has come to expand the sociomaterial lenses generated in the ProPEL network and elsewhere to studies tracing relations in the past and over a longer time span? Network approaches provide means to do this in ways that keeps analytical attention to emergent relations and entanglements. At the same time it raises challenges as to how to frame the scope of the analysis. The danger of tracing the historical trajectory of one document or set of events is that other important relations may fall out of sight.
Second, the interplay of materiality and concepts: Asdal (2015) claims that the recent attention to materiality and ‘nature objects’ in STS may have left the semiotic dimensions of how objects and materiality become accessible to us out of the limelight. Quite often, aspects of the environment or the objects we study become available to us through documents or semiotic tools, and the concepts used to name and approach objects have implications for what they become in practice. We should thus continue to ‘beware of words’ and account for how the material-semiotic resources constitute the social world. In a recent study of newcomers’ enrolment to the field of law, we observed how legal texts and terminology make up important relations in this professions’ machinery of knowledge construction, which mobilized student learning in specific ways (Jensen, Nerland & Enqvist-Jensen 2015).
Third, Asdal (2015) notes that the process of turning something into an issue does not necessarily mean that it becomes contested or turned into a controversy. That something is transformed into an issue may also imply that it is being closed down, stabilized, and handled by certain agencies in ways that turn it into a non-issue for the wider public. But it may very well be opened up again through new series of modifying work. Following such dynamics in professional practice, and the role textual work play in this respect, is certainly an interesting avenue for further research. In our research group in Oslo, PhD student Eli Tronsmo employs a sociomaterial lens to investigate teachers’ local curriculum work as a series of material instantiations within wider networks of knowledge. Although early in the process of analysis, we see how this approach gives a very different understanding of teachers’ work than previous studies entering from the perspective of managerialism and accountability.
Asdal, Kristin (2015). What is the issue? The transformative capacity of documents. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 16(1), 74-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1600910X.2015.1022194
Jensen, Karen; Nerland, Monika & Enqvist-Jensen, Cecilie (2015). Enrolment of newcomers in expert cultures: an analysis of epistemic practices in a legal education introductory course. Higher Education, 70(5), 867- 880. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10734-015-9872-z
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