Materials – things that matter – are often missing from accounts of educational processes such as learning. Materials tend to be ignored as part of the backdrop for human action, dismissed in a preoccupation with consciousness and cognition, or assumed to be subordinate to human intention and design. This sort of treatment still tends to privilege human beings, as though our intentions, thoughts and desires are separate from the materiality that makes us. In educational research, Estrid Sørensen argues that there is a ‘blindness toward the question of how educational practice is affected by materials’.
However in more recent educational studies, researchers have pressed for much more recognition of the ways that materiality actively configures educational practice and knowing, which have tended to be considered as social phenomena. Why this new focus on materials? Materials – objects, bodies, technologies and settings – permit some actions, and prevent others. They convey and indeed produce particular knowledges, and can become powerful. Everyday things such as doors, seat belts, keys and car parks are, as Bruno Latour has written, political locations where values and interests are negotiated and ultimately inscribed into the very materiality of the things themselves – thereby rendering these values and interests more or less permanent. In other words, material and social forces are interpenetrated in ways that have important implications for how we might examine their mutual constitution in educational processes and events, through ethnographic research.
Many theoretical approaches might be described as ‘sociomaterial’, including those inspired by actor-network theory (and ‘after-ANT’), STS (science and technology studies), complexity theory, ‘new materialisms’, activity theory, and spatiality studies. These each have very different and often conflicting theoretical and ontological roots, so it is very problematic to simply refer to ‘sociomaterial theory’. However it becomes tricky to then talk about ‘sociomaterial’ approaches without rehearsing a lot of detail to properly delineate the distinctions of all these approaches. In some of our books we have tried to provide more of this detail plus examples (such as Actor-Network Theory and Educational Research, Routledge 2010, or Emerging Approaches in Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial 2011). Other books we have found helpful do too, such as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Duke University Press 2010). And of course, this thinking has a long lineage with heavy debts to the thought of Spinoza, Tarde, Heidegger, and Deleuze, among others. Rosi Braidotti’s recent book The Posthuman offers a lively history of her own influences by such thinkers.
What ‘sociomaterial’ perspectives tend to share is an interest in materials – particularly in how material act in their interweavings with everyday activity. Wanda Orlikowski describes this as the constitutive entanglement of the social and material. At a simple level we could talk about ‘materials’ as the everyday stuff in our lives that is both organic and inorganic, technological and natural – everything from our fleshly bodies to databases, snowstorms, dust and passcodes. We can think of ‘social’ dynamics as including meanings, emotions and discourses. The point is to analyse how material and social forces become interwoven so that they produce one another. The focus then is their relationships.
But as the complexity physicist Karen Barad suggests, let us avoid thinking of these relationships as how subjects and objects inter-act, as though they are separate entities that then develop connections. Instead she encourages us to examine how these elements and forces penetrate one another – what she describes as intra-actions in and among nature, technologies, humanity and materials of all kinds. These intra-actions produce what we tend to treat as separate objects with inherent properties. Barad also points to the ‘apparatuses’ that we use to observe, work with, and make meaning of phenomena. With these apparatuses of language or measuring instruments or analytic logics, we create categories that define subjects and objects – or we use categories that trusted others have produced through observational apparatuses – to cut through materiality, see patterns, make meanings – perhaps develop a sense of control. These ‘agential cuts’ in matter define what we take to be agency, power flows, objects and so forth. But Barad emphasises that these cuts can also open new possibilities – if we would only attend to them. Causality is not about linear relations between causes and outcomes, but multiple entanglements with surprising effects.
What this means then is that all things are viewed as effects of connections and activity. Things are performed into existence in webs of relations. This starting point highlights the practices through which boundaries come into being which define things and identities, and which assign value to some while ignoring others. Any practice is a collective sociomaterial enactment, not a question solely of one individual’s skills or agency, or even of the collective skills of a group of people. This view also helps us recognise how materials act, together with other types of things and forces, to exclude, invite, and regulate activity.
Objects, practices and phenomena – and actors too, some would argue – are therefore sociomaterial assemblages. Some prefer the term ‘agencements’ to avoid the static-sounding ‘assemblage’. They are gatherings of heterogeneous natural, technical and cognitive elements. They also embed a history of assemblages and negotiations, influences. As Ingunn Moser puts it, they entrench normativities because they align actors and elements in ways that define not just what is, but what ought to be. In examining particular educational practices, researchers ask how and why particular elements became assembled, why some elements become included and others excluded, and how elements change as they come together, as they intra-act.
Finally, most sociomaterial perspectives – in different ways – accept the fundamental uncertainty of everyday life, as well as of the knowledge, tools, environments and identities that are continually produced in it. To emphasise an earlier point, unpredictable problems and possibilities are always emerging. This may be a familiar notion, but sociomaterial theories offer specific analytic tools that can examine much more precisely just how these assemblages are emerging – why they come together to produce and mobilise or entrench particular effects, and when they do not. These are processes that complexity theory might explain in terms of ‘strong emergence’ (see Deborah Osberg 2008), actor-network theorists call ‘translation’, and new materialists like Braidotti (2013) call ‘becoming’. The focus is on relations: how things influence and alter one another in ways that are continuously opening – as well as closing – possibilities.
Barad K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Half-way. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Coole, D. and Frost, D. (2010). Introducing the new materialisms. In D. Coole & S. Frost. (Eds.), New materialisms: ontology, agency, and politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fenwick, T and Edwards R. (2010). Actor-Network theory in Educational Research. London: Routledge.
Fenwick, T., Edwards, R., and Sawchuk, P. (2011). Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: tracing the socio-material. London: Routledge.
Moser, I. (2008). Making Alzheimer’s disease matter: enacting, interfering and doing politics of nature. Geoforum 39: 98-110.
Orlikowski, W. J. (2007). Sociomaterial practices: Exploring technology at work. Organization Studies 28: 1435-1448.
Osberg D. (2008). The logic of emergence: An alternative conceptual space for theorizing critical education. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6 (1): 133-161
Sørensen, E. (2009) The Materiality of Learning: Technology and Knowledge in Educational Practice. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.