Law, J. and Mol, A. (1995). Notes on materiality and sociality. The Sociological Review, 43(2):274–294.

While both Law and Mol were mentioned in Nicolini (2012) this article wasn’t referenced by Nicolini. I can’t remember where I ran across it now, which is a bit of a shame because I really enjoyed it. I can see from my BibDesk database that I added it the day before I added Nicolini. So perhaps it turned up in some bibliographic research I was doing when I was putting together the reading list for my independent study.

Law and Mol’s goal in this paper is to describe how materiality and sociality are produced together–but they don’t specifically use the term sociomateriality themselves. It seems that the term sociomateriality has been more prevalent in organizational studies, and was established largely by Orlikowski. I’ve got Orlikowski (2000) on my reading list already. I think I added it because it is where she pivots from Giddens’ structuration theory towards practice theory, and first starts talking about sociomateriality. I can see she references Latour and Law, so perhaps these ideas have their source partly in this work by Law and Mol? The use of the word produced here is also interesting because I was really interested in exploring the idea of coproduction from Jasanoff, where knowledge and technologies are developed together.

At any rate, Law along with Latour and Callon helped establish Actor Network Theory, which I took a quick look at in my last post. In the 90s he started moving away from the idea of ANT being a theory as such, and cited his collaborative work with Mol as being one of the reasons for this shift. It appears that this article was the second collaboration, at least in their writing. The first appears to have been just a year earlier in Mol & Law (1994). It’s interesting to identify these moments of intellectual shifting, where one idea gives way to another. Perhaps it’s where the limits of theory are easiest to see.

The style is very sparse and is driven by short case studies or stories that highlight three aspects, or metaphors of materiality and sociality: semiotics, strategy and patchwork. For an example of this sparse style, which I really like, here’s how they start out:

What is materiality? What is sociality? Perhaps these are two different questions. Perhaps materiality is a matter of solid matter. And sociality has to do with interactive practices. Perhaps, then, sociology departs from matter. Perhaps it ‘departs’ from it in two different senses: perhaps it both rests upon it; and it goes beyond it. To say this would be to hold on to materialism. And to idealism. Together. It would be to hold on to a traffic between the two. An interchange.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Perhaps materiality and sociality produce themselves together. Perhaps association is not just a matter for social beings, but also one to do with materials. Perhaps, then, when we look at the social, we are also looking at the production of materiality. And when we look at materials, we are witnessing the production of the social. That, at any rate, is a possibility. The possibility that we explore here.

I like the rhythm of the words here: how they hold and turn the ideas of material and social around, as if inspecting them. The use of the stories (electric cars, pasteurization, speak & spell games, World War 2 bunkers, Long Island parkway) are also really helpful because they help ground the philosophical discussion in particulars. They are also drawn from other work by Latour, Langdon Winner and Sherry Turkle which constellates their ideas.

I hadn’t run across the use of semiotics in my reading of practice theory yet…so that was a novel introduction. Perhaps it was trendier in the 90s when this was written. Semiotics basically provides flattened space, where the social, mind, truth, knowledge, science can be deconstructed or dissolved.

Sherry Turkle’s stories suggest that the dividing line between people and machines is negotiable. And that sometimes it is difficult to draw a line at all. So that what we see is heterogeneous. Think of that heterogeneity. People have dental fillings, spectacles, drugs, heart pacemakers, condoms, alarm clocks, dresses, telephones, shopping bags, money, books, identity cards, bus passes and ball-point pens. And machines have drivers, pilots users, service-people, designers, victims, onlookers, look-outs, cleaners bricoleurs, adapters, admirers and abusers.

This flattened space, and the stylistic use of lists, reminds me a lot of Object Oriented Ontology, except that OOO attempts to circumvent anthropomorphism altogether and imagine what it’s like to be a thing. Law and Mol are keeping the baby in the bathwater, as it were. While I think it can be an interesting (and useful) poetical experiment to imagine what its like to be a thing, I appreciate this approach where the human is decentered, but still in the picture. I guess this flattened space has most in common with ANT, where objects can have agency as well as humans.

The idea of strategy is another metaphor they introduce. They cite the now classic example of Moses’ bridges over the Long Island Parkway that Winner (1986) used as an example of how artifacts have politics. Basically strategies are relations between people and objects, to achieve particular objectives. Sometimes the strategies shift but the material configurations don’t. Sometimes there are latent strategies that were not planned for, but were enabled. Stategies are embodied in performance which organize and produce material distinction.

This feeds into their last metaphor of patchwork, or the ways in which multiple strategies can coexist in a given scene. This idea draws directly on Mol’s idea of multiplicity or multiple forms of materiality. They use an example of a doppler probe being used in three different medical settings to show how the object participates in different material realities. These realities can reinforce each other, and drift apart. Sketching out these different scenarios is what patchwork is all about–and it seems to have a lot in common with practice theory. In fact I wonder if practice and strategy here have a great deal in common.

Interestingly Mol’s idea of bracketing came up in my ethnographic methods class reading just a week ago. I think this idea of patchwork, or multiplicity could have a lot to offer in looking at web archives, so I’m going to give Mol (2002) a read soon. Another idea that I like, which Law and Mol stress is the importance of durability. Networks of relations between people and artifacts can last longer than their strategies…which can cause them to be repurposed and improvised upon. They use this example or story:

A few miles outside Utrecht the fields are filled with large blocks of concrete and heavily armoured bunkers. These are part of a line of defence built by slaves for the Nazis during World War Two. The object was to preserve the Thousand Year Reich. Happily, though the concrete blocks remain, they didn’t work. Like the elaborate nineteenth century system of flooding the polders which failed to save the Netherlands from the Nazis in 1940, the blocks didn’t stop the Allied advance in 1945.

The object-networks which were supposed to obstruct allied tanks did not stand in the their way. The soldiers are gone, and when the rain drives across the flat Dutch landscape the concrete blocks shelter cows. So the concrete is still there. But it isn’t an element in a Nazi network any more. That network was less durable than some of its concrete elements.

For some reason while reading this paper I got to thinking (again) about the idea to study open source repository systems through the lens of sociomateriality…or now perhaps practice theory. Mark Matienzo suggested to me during a cab ride in NYC this summer that it could be interesting to do a study of the development of the Fedora repository software. I think it could be an useful stepping stone in showing how the concept of “digital preservation” is built up or ontologized. I haven’t read it yet, but I think this could build off some recent work that looks at the role of standards such as OAIS in the digital preservation community (Bettivia, 2016). I just thought I’d jot down the idea in case I ever need to return to it, or it’s the seed of an idea for someone else to run with. I’m not sure it fits in completely with my idea of studying web archives…but perhaps it could.

References

Bettivia, R. S. (2016). Encoding power: The scripting of archival structures in digital spaces using the open archival information system (oais) reference model. (PhD thesis). University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.

Mol, A., & Law, J. (1994). Regions, networks and fluids: Anaemia and social topology. Social Studies of Science, 24(4), 641–671.

Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford University Press.

Orlikowski, W. J. (2000). Using technology and constituting structures: A practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization Science, 11(4), 404–428.

Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. In Daedalus (pp. 121–136). University of Chicago Press.