In a recent chapter myself and three of my doctoral students decided to discuss our different sociomaterial approaches to doing our ethnographies of professional practice and learning. We found ourselves really grappling with thorny issues of how to trace the material and social entanglements of the settings that we were enacting without (1) killing the tangles or (2) getting bogged down and losing our way entirely.
For us, the important question is not what theories say, but the kind of work they can do when we are in ‘the field’ of the research site collecting information, or sitting at home amidst masses of notes, photos, and interview transcripts trying to discern useful patterns.
Of course, these and other sociomaterial methodologies and conceptions are only valuable in terms of the work that they do to help us examine the educational issues that call for research.
Jenny studied engineers’ knowing practices in the new, dynamic industries of renewable energy. Drawing from methods of actor-network theory suggested by Bruno Latour, Jenny struggled to elicit information about actors’ entanglements with their work materials from the research participants themselves. In particular she experimented with methods of visual mapping, photo elicitation, and ‘interview to the double’ popularised by Davide Nicolini. Maureen’s ethnographic study of artists’ everyday work and learning used visual arts methods in the actual interpretation of her data, working with Knorr Cetina’s notion of epistemic objects. She took digital photographs of the artists at work, translated these into progressive drawings, then juxtaposed these to show nuances of how materiality is interwoven with artists’ changing knowledge and creative processes. Sarah studied the professional learning involved in introducing new technology in health care (insulin pumps in diabetic treatment). She used broader heuristics of ‘intra-action’ and ‘diffraction’ inspired by Karen Barad to analyse the different sociomaterial worlds that she began to recognise, as practices incorporating the new technology jostled alongside entrenched practices using conventional technologies. All three studies began by interrupting the notion of ‘human actors’ as self-evident, and unsettling any categories that they found themselves adopting. They attempted to focus on what seemed banished from view: what was ignored as if unimportant, and what was made ‘other’ through the foci of their study. Finally, each researcher set about to unpick assemblages, highlighting the role played by different participants whether human or nonhuman.
In the end, we knew that the important thing is not the techniques we use but the questions that we ask. In educational ethnography, sociomaterial perspectives suggest questions like these:
- How are the range of actors – material and virtual, human and nonhuman – influencing what is enacted in education?
- What kinds of learning are promoted through particular sociomaterial assemblages? What kinds of pedagogies?
- How do some educational practices become stabilised and durable (and not others)?
- When do sociomaterial ‘blackboxes’ create problems, and how? e.g. inclusions and exclusions, etc)
- What material elements limit possibilities for education and learning? When/why do these resist efforts to change them, and why? When do they escape notice?
- How do sociomaterial assemblages produce particular identities, boundaries, centres of power?
Overall, I think the value of sociomaterial approaches is the methods they offer to recognise and trace the multifarious struggles, negotiations and accommodations whose effects constitute the ‘things’ in education: students, teachers, learning activities and spaces, knowledge representations such as texts, pedagogy, curriculum content, and so forth. Rather than take such concepts as foundational categories, or objects with properties, they become explored as themselves effects of heterogeneous relations. Finally, sociomaterial perspectives offer important approaches for understanding the power relations and politics that constitute learning: not just analytic tools for picking apart the ways powerful webs become assembled as knowledge, but also pointing to affirmative ways to intervene, disturb or amplify these webs.
Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham (US): Duke University Press.
Knorr Cetina, Karin (1997): “Sociality With Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies”. In: Culture & Society, 14/4, pp. 1-30
Latour, Bruno. (2005): Re-Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nicolini, Davide (2009): “Articulating Practice Through the Interview to the Double”. In: Management Learning, 40/2, pp. 195-212.