Sociomateriality … from someone who ‘knows.’

The SIoE’s ‘Critical Perspectives on Theory’ seminar series afforded me the opportunity of enjoying two superb talks on sociomateriality given by two outstanding speakers: Prof Tara Fenwick and Prof Cathy Burnett. Cathy’s research interests centre on literacy, so are slightly further away from my own research than Tara’s, which regularly explores professional learning.

It would be difficult to be unaware of Tara’s work if you read about professional learning in an educational context, and from a sociomaterial standpoint. Having one of the foremost writers on the topic was such a privilege and a treat.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I was grateful that she provided an overview of sociomateriality and the specific strands of research that contributed to the field. Although I’ve read work by most of the authors she mentioned, some more than others, I hadn’t yet pictured how their work was interrelated. Intermingled together but loosely connected, science and technology studies (STS), actor-network theory (ANT), cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), practice theory, complexity theory and posthumanism all have the common thread of materiality running through them. Other epistemologies tend to ignore the material aspects of social interactions, or barely acknowledge it whilst discussing context. As Tara discussed, materials prevent, permit and promote actions, bringing forth and performing certain knowledges over others. Materials might be practices, processes or objects brought together in heterogenous gatherings or assemblages. So, as she has said elsewhere, what sociomaterial approaches do is to:

…promote methods by which 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.

Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. and Sawchuk, P., 2015

It is precisely these elements which teachers’ professional learning negotiates, which would hopefully suggest that I’m on the right track by looking towards sociomateriality and ANT. I was interested to hear Tara mention Bruno Latour’s work in ANT more often than other authors like Michel Callon and David Law, which she explained by declaring an affinity for his work … and his humour! This was one of the important points I took away from her talk; that you choose the particular flavour of ANT or sociomateriality which aligns with your approach, research topic and your world view, then you go with that. Tara cautioned against the ‘Mush and Slush’ writings in which people reference bits and pieces from a host of different strands, and in so doing create an epistemological dog’s dinner (my interpretation!) with completely incompatible arguments. Each author and each approach does different things, so pick one and stick to them.

As things currently stand and following Tara’s advice, I’m leaning towards ANT (or After-ANT?)  as assembled by John Law and Annemarie Mol, specifically the notions of multiplicity and fluidity. In ‘Ontological Politics,’ Mol (1999) talks about reality as ‘done and enacted, rather than observed;’ multiple not because of perspective but performance. These ideas completely shifted my worldview, but importantly also spoke to my research and I’m hoping will begin to help me take a different approach.

Where Tara didn’t go in her talk was the nitty-gritty methods brought to bear during research endeavours employing a sociomaterial approach. This was understandable given the brief period she had and the themes she wanted to cover. Her writing (or at least that with which I have some experience) is often theoretically rich rather than methodologically, so offers only limited support. A post Tara wrote on the ProPEL site hinted at some of the techniques her doctoral students had recently used in three different studies. However, what was missing (indeed most writing on ANT generally is similarly sparse where discussions of methods are concerned) was the detail … which is where of course the devil is! Ethnographic approaches are fairly typically employed, but other than ‘follow the actors,’ what researchers actually do in order to follow them is incredibly thin on the ground. Whereas say, grounded theory approaches are well documented in the literature with clearly set out steps and processes, sociomaterial researchers have a much more sparse support structure on which to call. So it looks like I’m likely to be feeling my way … ‘a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler’ (Latour, 2005). Can one be both blind and myopic Monsieur Latour? I certainly feel both!


FENWICK, T., EDWARDS, R. and SAWCHUK, P., 2015. Emerging approaches to educational research: Tracing the socio-material. Routledge.
LATOUR, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social. [online]. London: Oxford, .
LAW, John (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge.
MOL, Annemarie (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.
MOL, Annemarie (1999). Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The sociological review, 47 (S1), 74-89.



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