There’s a *new* materialism?

“Sociology and New Materialism” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/35948554891 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

At my last meeting, one of my supervisors suggested a book that he thought might inform my methodological chapter (whatever it ultimately gets called!): “Sociology and the New Materialism: Theory, Research, Action” by Fox and Alldred (2016). At the heart of the book is the notion that we might problematise the human as being central to the research endeavour. Someone must conduct the research, right? What Fox and Alldred offer however is a less anthropocentric view, where knowledge, rather than being revealed or constructed by a researcher, is produced by an “assemblage of things, people, ideas, social collectivities and institutions.” Here then I’ll try to summarise what I’ve learned from the book and what implications it might have for my research musings.

For a realist, there is a knowable ‘out there’ reality which is independent of human concepts. A constructivist on the other hand generates reality through the interpretation of what they observe. In new materialism however, the observer/researcher is displaced from their central position and instead, reality and knowledge are produced when the constituents within a research assemblage become interrelated. The events which become the focus of research interests, and the research processes through which those events are explored, are ‘material, relational and interacting networks of human and nonhuman components.’ So material, social and even abstract entities (a smartphone, a discussion, learning) do not have ontologically prior status i.e. they are relational, brought into being through the relationships forged by other similar bodies, things and ideas. It’s crucial too to note that all matter has agential capacity and is not simply a tool in the service of humans; it can affect.

Traditionally, researching the social has a knowing subject (the researcher) who drives the research endeavour, using tools, theories and methods to make sense of the data generated from the world. This anthropocentric view is destabilised by a new materialism in which the researcher is subsumed with the aforementioned tools, theories and methods into a research assemblage as all these constituents become related to and with one another. Fox and Alldred then take Deleuze and Guattari’s  (1988) ‘machine’ metaphor and propose the research assemblage as ‘a series of interconnected machines that do specified tasks such as data collection, data analysis and so forth.’ At first, the notion of a ‘machine’ seemed rather incongruous in this environment; it felt too scientific or technological. Too fixed perhaps and insufficiently flexible and open to change. But then my former physics teacher self kicked in and I thought of how we might define a machine as a device that does work. In physics, work is produced (or required) when a force moves through a distance (W = F x d). This means some machines amplify a small force into a larger one; others turn a small movement into a larger one. So to return to a research machine, think of one producing an effect as a result of a something being done. In new materialist terms, this might be called an affective flow. There are machines of data production, data management and data analysis, all of which do things; they affect to produce effects. Research machines such as interviews bring into being very different data (and knowledge) than questionnaires for example.

Fox and Alldred propose (at least) two assemblages: the event assemblage (ascribed the letter E) is the social phenomenon under study. For me that could be a Twitter #chat for example, which might involve computers, connections, screens, mice, code, apps, operating systems, software, participants, norms, conventions, texts and hyperlinks. What I want to illuminate is what those relations do in their making and unmaking, and consequently what E does. That is achieved through the research assemblage (R) composed of me, methods, notes, data and theories.  For the #chat that might involve observation, data mining, together once more with computers, connections, screens, mice, code, apps, operating systems, software. However, E and R are not separate. In order to produce knowledge, R will need to interact with E; it will affect it. But in so doing, E inevitably has an affect on R to produce the research output. E and R become effectively interwoven in a hybrid assemblage and we can begin to see how using a different machine within that hybrid, different knowledge will be produced. If we swap one research question for another, one method for another or one theory for another, the assemblage and all the interrelations change, and inevitably therefore, the output.

So let’s think in these terms about a couple of the machines I’ve employed. An individual qualitative interview seeks to produce accounts of events from the human participants, but this naturally privileges their interpretations of events; what Fox and Alldred call the micropolitics of the hybrid assemblage. Observations, on the other hand, may also intend to produce accounts of events, but this time privileges the researcher’s perspective. When these accounts are later brought together, say using a thematic analysis, the researcher generates the categories, either from the pre-selected themes of a preliminary study or from the literature (two more potential sources of affect), then the researcher’s category choices are ultimately privileged, even though an interviewee may have provided their interpretation of events. An ethnographic approach will, in general, tend to privilege the researcher account, whether through the choice of ethnographic gaze, selection of participants, or during the analysis and presentation of findings.

A political shift?

In my study, I certainly used an ethnographic approach, observations and semi-structured interviews, so it would seem that my views will dominate the research outcomes. Perhaps it should; after all it is me that’s being examined through the thesis I produce? But if we return to the beginning, this is precisely the anthropocentric view for which new materialism offers alternatives. Let’s therefore take another look at the event and research assemblages and their hybrid. Those interviews were, with one exception, conducted through Skype … at the choice of the participants. In a couple of cases, they opted for audio only interviews and in one case, the technology in the form of a low bandwidth connection asserted its authority and insisted on an audio only connection. When the visual channel of communication is missing, the nature of the exchange changes for both participants and this may in turn affect what is said, what is recorded and what ultimately becomes part of the data. Interviews, at least in this case, are not naturally occurring data and are much more entrenched within R. However, if I was to interview someone during a participant observation session, that exchange might be considered part of the hybrid, since it arose within E and yet is also part of R. The interviewee here is involved in an event (E) of their volition, rather than one (R) of the researcher. They may feel able to terminate the exchange much more easily, since that would be within the norms of the event, unlike in a more structured, researcher-led interview. In effect, they are in their arena, rather than that of the researcher. Those differences in machines which form aspects of the R/E hybrid may ultimately lead to different knowledge and different research outputs.

There are other ways in the research assemblage which also destabilise it in different ways. For example the Voxer interviews came about through the suggestions of interviewees; I would never had contemplated them as a possible machine had they not been mentioned within interviews. And returning to the interviews for a moment, traditionally interviewees are selected by the researcher, using some sampling process: theoretical purposive, convenience. The sample may be random, but the choice of random sampling was still made by the researcher. The interviewees that came together in my study were in some instances chosen by me as a result of a comment they made or blog post they wrote elsewhere. However over a half (of the dozen) self-selected and volunteered as a result of reading my blog posts, hearing the podcasts, or seeing my tweets … or the retweets of other people. In one case, I interviewed someone who had been specifically identified by someone else on Twitter – “You should try to speak to xxx. They have some interesting views on this.”

When it comes to both analysing and presenting the findings, I’ve been experimenting with different forms, other than text. When data is viewed in different ways, with different machines, different knowledge may be produced. Furthermore, rather than abstracting the data completely from R/E into the thesis (a presentation assemblage?), hyperlinks ensure that R/E is still visible and still active. The podcasts that some interviewees were kind enough to agree to permitting mean that those interviews remain part of the research assemblage for others to return to and become enrolled themselves.

Onto-epistemology?

This expression, coined by Karen Barad (2007) as “the study of practices in knowing and being” seems appropriate here, although it is not used by Fox and Alldred. We ‘understand the world from within and as part of it,’ rather than being standing outside and somehow objectively looking in. To me, this is what Fox and Alldred are advocating when they propose the hybrid assemblage of research and event assemblages. As part of the hybrid, and through the relations which (re)form between the constituent elements thereof, we (the heterogenous mix of humans and nonhumans) are bringing reality into being as we attempt to produce knowledge about it.

Jensen (2010) claimed

“the challenge of generalized symmetry is intimately bound up with a move from an epistemological approach to one focusing on practical ontology, and from a representational to a performative idiom in the understanding of science”

And in here I sense more emphasis on what some have called the ‘ontological turn.’ Not so much onto-epistemology, but ontology, where reality is produced or enacted. When a researcher acts, as part of a heterogeneous assemblage, then they are part of that enactment. I’m now straying into the territory of John Law in particular and messy methods, but this is a literature I need to return to before proceeding further with that line of thought.

What didn’t make the ‘cut?’

I’ve used the term ‘interact’ here a couple of times, when a more appropriate choice might have been ‘intra-act’ in the context of new materialism. Another term Barad uses when proposing a diffractive approach … but that’s a discussion in its own right. Fox and Alldred avoided intra-action too, but they used the notion of affect and affective flows to underpin much of their discussion. I need to think far more about this and how this fits with or replaces agency or translation as used within actor-network theory and sociomaterial approaches. And as I mention sociomateriality, it strikes me how within Fox and Alldred, the two are discussed as distinct, rather than perceived symmetrically.

The crucial omission in my discussion here, but one which leapt out at me as shouting for inclusion was the contribution of ethics. Perhaps ethics should be framed as its own assemblage of institutional policies, ethics approval applications, researcher sensibilities, impacts on participants, consent forms, anonymisations, and guidelines form professional bodies. This too affects and is affected by both research and event assemblages generating an ethico-hybrid which once more will produce different knowledge as different elements within it change. The norms I experienced on Twitter required me to revisit and challenge the default requirement of affording participants anonymity; is that ethically sound in these circumstances? Choosing one path or the other produces a different ethics assemblage and consequently produces different knowledge.

This all needs thinking through a little more once I’ve gone back through the sociomaterial literature; a task I shall take up on my the camping reading retreat I’m off on shortly.

 

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Fox, N. J., & Alldred, P. (2016). Sociology and the new materialism: Theory, research, action. Sage.
Jensen, C. B. (2010). Ontologies for Developing Things. Making Health Care Futures Through Technology, 3.

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