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Things are actors too

Simon has linked to a couple of papers on materiality in social research that he has written [in partnership with Simon Blyth of Unilever] that are well worth reading.  Most stuff around Actor Network Theory [ANT] doesn’t seem that helpful to the average researcher doing research, in fact most Social Science ‘theory’ seems elitist and irrelevant to me.  But whilst ANT and particularly Bruno Latour’s  work is [in my opinion] probably the best thing to happen to Social Science in the last fifty years it hasn’t made a huge impact in terms of telling stories about the world to inform better design.  Simon’s papers’ are of the few I’ve seen that try to make materiality matter to a wider audience.  Why? 

Well, I think we tend to anthropomorphisise materiality and / or consign non-human things to the status of second class citizens.  This is mostly as a result of the belief in ‘agency’ residing only with ‘us’ when actually the ability to have effects resides in everything, but only as a result of a coming together with other ‘things’, what ANT is all about; networks of association.  And being drilled in a humanist reading of life that’s hard to take.  We like to think of ourselves as special :) 

That said many of the people writing around design and experience design in particular seem to be influenced by "materiality".  Terms like ‘affordance’ seem to spring up in conversations I have with people in design, so there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that it’s important.   But in terms of doing the background to inform design it’s tough to know where to start.  My old superviser once said to me – when I was struggling to get to grips with how to research materiality – that ANT was basically about being as granular in ethnographic work as possible and not taking anything as a given.  That helped.   

1 Comment
  1. Good post James – Simon’s work definitely deserves greater exposure!

    But I think you might be relying on an unnecessarily rigid theory/method divide here, as I was taught during my PhD that ANT’s great strength is methodological more than theoretical – which, incidently, is what your final point seems to suggest as well. And if I may say so, it’s also overgeneralised condemnations of social theory like this that make it that much harder for me to justify my work as a qualitative researcher in these areas!

    As for the question of materiality – well, I couldn’t agree more :) Before turning to STS studies I worked as an archaeologist, and I bring that knowledge of material culture to pretty much everything I do concerning technology and design. And as I’m sure you’re aware, the field of material culture studies is actually thriving – but almost always overlooked by the technologists and designers I’ve encountered.

    As we know, there are no social relations that aren’t also material relations. I agree that the question of non-human agency is particularly hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but things like good participant observation and ethnographic interviewing should make these inter-relations clear enough that the concept of agency can be re-defined or re-situated in a way that it more palatable to humanists – and useful to designers.

    PS – I’m not sure if you still keep up with Nigel’s work, but I think this paper of his from last year offers some useful observations along these lines.

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