Theoretical Foundations for the Study of Sociomateriality - Leonardi (2013) - Article


Information technology and information systems (IS), originally a practical research field, has become much more theoretical in the last years, which the author of this article dislikes. Sociomateriality, a recently popular researched topic, is extremely theoretical. Authors who write about sociomateriality attempt to make a pointedly philosophical statement about the relationship between social and material. Orlikowski (2007) states: “the social and the material are considered to be inextricably related – there is no social that is not also material, and no material that is not also social”.

As if it is not enough yet that IS has become much more theoretical, scholars have begun to quibble about the theoretical foundations upon which a sociomaterial perspective should be built. While there are much studies focused on and build on the philosophical discussion, the debate initiated by Mutch (2013) about whether a move toward viewing organizational practises and organizations as sociomaterial should be premised upon the insight provided by an “agential realist” or a “critical realist” ontology has very practical consequences for questions scholars ask, the phenomena on which they focus their attention, and, ultimately, the insights and ideas they can generate to improve the way that organizations operate. It is, in fact, the first significant attempt to turn the philosophical discussion into practical theory.

The social, the material and the sociomaterial

Sociomateriality and agential realism

It depends on who you are asking what means sociomaterial. The simplest answer would be to say that the phenomena in question are simultaneously social and material. Latour’s work (1987, 1992, 2005) makes the argument that there are no inherent differences between the social and the material. However, scholars often make a distinction between “material” and “social”. He tried to demonstrate sociologists often draw unempirical-based lines around phenomena in their attempts to classify and direct programs of study. Latour argues that no phenomena can be adequately described unless scholars abandon the distinctions made between social and material and direct their attention to the empirical reality.

Barad’s (1996, 2003, 2007) work is complementary, but slightly different. She argues that the distinction between the “social” and the “material” is more epistemological than ontological. Barad states that scientists construct the world “out there” intersubjectively in their attempt to represent it, by developing machines that capture it. By doing so, scientists develop particular renditions of the so-called “reality” as they attempt to explain it, while it doesn’t have to have anything in common with the real world to is waiting “out there” to be found and explained. Thus, phenomena in the world, including humans, act, but our attribution of agency to them is done post-hoc. When adopting the standpoint that observers – or “knowers” as Barad calls them – are co-authors of the phenomena they are considering, agencies are seen to be products of the knowledge-making process as opposed to properties of any specific actors. For this reason, Barad takes the further step in arguing that agencies themselves are the product of observer-phenomena relations. Stated differently, objects or phenomena do not have agency; people attribute agency to them when they use equipment, machines, formulae and other various apparatuses in an attempt to explain the machinations of the universe through the imposition of causality. This is the reasoning of “agential realism” and all quite philosophical, but a widely attractive theoretical foundation on which the theory of sociomateriality is built.

Structuration theory and shifting definitions of “structure”

The core question for early organizational contingency theorists was whether certain technologies demanded particular organizational structures in order for organizations to be effective. There was no real conceptual critique of the relationship between technology and structure until Barley (1986) famously argued that technologies might not be structural determinants, but rather their implementation in organizations were occasions during which organizational actors could re-evaluate or re-imagine the structures in which they worked. Barley operationalized social interaction as interpersonal communication and, adopting the premises of structuration theory, assumed that interpersonal communication formed organizational structure: see panel A of fig. 1 (p. 63). In fig. 1, action and structure are depicted as horizontal arrows signifying flows through time. The structural realm represents an abstract framework of relations derived from prior interaction on which organizational members draw to enact their work practices. The realm of action refers to the specific interactions between people in real-time. The diagonal arrows moving from the realm of action to the realm of structure signify actions’ slow but cumulative constitution of structure. The vertical arrows moving from the realm of structure to the realm of action show structures’ more direct and immediate effect on quotidian communication.

Poole’s and DeSanctis’ (1992) Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST) became an even more influential application of structuration theory to technology use within the IS literature. While they also focused on interpersonal communication as the way that social structure was enacted in everyday practice, they considered social structure to be the norms of behaviour governing small, decision-making groups (see panel B, fig. 1).

In these two appropriations of structuration theory, technology use mediated between action and structure by providing people with new capabilities and opportunities to do things they could not do before. A third application theory of structuration theory to technology use – Orlikowski’s (1992) duality of technology model – changed the premise entirely. Orlikowski operationalized action itself as technology use instead of seeing action as the communication among people that was altered by technology use (see panel C, fig 1.). So, technology use was the micro-level action that aggregated into macro-level organizational structure and this formulation placed technology in a central role in the organizing process.

Orlikowski (2000) developed the practice lens, and in this the “technology-in-practice”, defined as “a particular structure of technology use”, was substituted for broader and more abstract types of social structures (centralization, group norms, or structures of legitimization, domination and signification). So, the practice lens argued that certain patterns of technology use aggregated into particular “technologies-in-practice” as people formed interpretations, in the practice of their work, about how the technology’s features would help them accomplish tasks and social interaction with others (see panel D, fig. 1). Note that there are no downward thrusting vertical arrows, because the practice lens treats structure as if it were always in a state of “becoming”.

The practice lens has been criticized for offering an overly socialized view of technology. This critique comes from the fact that the realm of actions consists of people choosing to use a technology in a certain way. At macro social level, a technology-in-practice is nothing more than a set of norms governing when, why and how to use a technology in a specific setting. Technology is only seen in the enactment of social processes.

To overcome this critique, authors have attempted to bring technology back into the picture, either with an empirical strategy or a more philosophical strategy. These strategies led to the same tendency: to treat technologies themselves as if they were a structural property that existed outside the space-time of normal interaction. So, technologies became phenomena that existed in the “realm of structure” while technology use existed in the “realm of action”. Technology itself is given some causal priority in the explanation of usage patterns.

Orlikowski’s formulation of a sociomaterial perspective to organizational practices responded to these critiques in two important ways. The first shift involved an important language game. Instead of talking about “technology use” and “technological artifact”, “social”, “material” and ultimately “sociomaterial” emphasized the philosophical statement that all action that constitutes organization is no more or less social than it is material. The second shift was marked by the important transition from structuration theory to agential realism as an ontological foundation. When resting upon the theoretical foundation of agential realism, a sociomaterial perspective argues that there is no social that is separate from material; there is only the sociomaterial. The natural world knows no distinctions; only the people using structuration theory to capture what is “out there” notice distinctions between social/material.

An alternative theoretical foundation: critical realism

Problems arising from the theoretical foundation of agential realism

Mutch (2013) states that although the move to redress the “neglect of the material in broader social and organization theories” is admirable, there are some major drawbacks to erecting a perspective of sociomateriality upon the theoretical foundations of agential realism. He lays out four major problems (see the first two columns of table 1, p. 66). Firstly, there is the lack of unique explanatory power of agential realism. Secondly, he argues that although the philosophical rejection of a subject-object dualism in agential realism is attractive from a philosophical standpoint, researchers have a great deal of trouble using this idea to engage empirical data, because actors in the world do not perceive the material and the social on the one hand and technology and organizing on the other. Thirdly, Mutch argues that agential realism ignores time. Without a consideration of time, no analyst could explain why sociomaterial practices in organizations arise, endure or change. The fourth problem is that “the social world is one in which humans and items of technology are in some way constituted by the relationship in which they stand to one another” (Faulkner & Runde, 2012). They suggest that a sociomaterial perspective that finds roots in agential realism treats all relationships (like those between the material and the social) as constitutive relations – relations in which the relation in question contributes to making what one or more of the relata are: internal relations. However, they argue that some relations are external relations in the sense that although two entities are related, they do not need each for either to exist. The problem with treating all relationships as mutually constitutive is that the analyst overlooks how and why phenomena get put into relationship with each other, and, consequently, how their relationship might change phenomena other than themselves.

Critical realism as one solution to problems presented by agential realism

To address the problems, Mutch (2013) offers critical realism as an alternative to agential realism as a theoretical foundation for the study of sociomateriality. Critical realism differs from agential realism in the way that the philosophical arguments are translated into theoretical mechanisms. Critical realism is a philosophical stance that recognizes the potential existence of a reality beyond our knowledge or conscious experience; a view that entities exist independently of being perceived, or independently of our theories about them. Critical realism does not suppose that there is one true reality out there waiting to be found. There is a common philosophical error of supposing that the term “reality” must refer to a single superthing instead of looking at the ways in which we endlessly renegotiate our notion of reality as our language and our life develop (Putnam, 1999). Most critical realists hold that mental states and attributes (such as meanings and intentions) although not directly observable, are part of the real world. In other words, “while critical realism rejects the idea of ‘multiple realities’ in the sense of independent and incommensurable worlds that are socially constructed by different individuals or societies, it is quite compatible with the idea that there are different valid perspectives on reality” (Maxwell, 2012).

Archer (1995, 2000) developed the “morphogenetic” approach to the study of structuration. Morphogenesis (a Greek word meaning “beginning of the shape”) is a term from biology that describes how cells and organisms develop shape. Buckley (1967) applied the term to systems theory to explain the potential adaptability in social structures over time. This approach to critical realism is based on two analytical assumptions: (1) that structure logically predates the actions that transform it, and (2) that structural elaboration logically postdates those actions. Within a morphogenetic approach, structures can be analysed separately from the actions that brings them into existence, and sustain them through elaboration, reproduction or transformation.

There are some similarities between agential realism and critical realism. Both agree that there is a reality that exists apart from the humans that perceive it. Both also agree on the ontological nature of realism and they admit a tremendous amount of empirical constructivism. However, where they sharply differ, is in their conceptualization of interpenetration. Agential realism would argue that there is no ontological distinction between the social and the material. Critical realism would argue that the social and the material are indeed separate entities that are put into relationship with one another and come to appear inseparable through human activity occurring over time.

A description of how critical realism address the problems created by agential realism can be found in the two right-most columns in table 1 (p. 66). A first solution would be to acknowledge that the social and material are external relations rather than internal relations, so one can exist without the other. Materiality is defined as the arrangement of an artifact’s physical and/or digital materials into particular forms that endure across differences in place and time. Critical realism allows “materiality” to exist as a concept separate from “sociomateriality”. The important point here is that like any structural property, materiality predates the actions to which it will be put and the perceptions it will help create. Put more simply, users are introduced to a technology whose materiality has already been preconfigured for them. In this way, materiality and social can be separated. Talking about sociomateriality is to recognize and always keep in mind that materiality acts as a constitutive element of the social world and vice versa.

A sociomaterial perspective resting on critical realism also brings time into sharp relief. Time is important in our analyses, as certain conditions are more enduring and resistant to change. What is actually imbricated over time is social agency (which manifests itself in a groups’ goals and intentions) and material agency (the things a technology can do that are not entirely under the control of users). Social and material agencies, though both capabilities for action, differ, phenomenologically with respect to intention.

Although materiality itself transcends variations in space and time, those uses and actions can be different depending upon the context in which the materiality is used. Whereas materiality refers to properties of the object, material agency refers to the way the object acts when humans provoke it. What the technology is does not change across space and time, but what it does can and often changes. Material agency (function) is a construction that depends on materiality, but also depends on one’s perceptions of whether materiality affords her the ability to achieve her goals or places a constraint upon her. Materiality exists independent of people, but affordances and constraints do not. The perceptions of what functions an artifact affords (or constrains) can change across different contexts even though the artifact’s materiality does not. Depending on whether people perceive that a technology affords or constrains their goals, people make choices about how they will imbricate social and material agencies. Social and material agencies are distinct from one another, and it is only once they become imbricated in particular ways that they can then reconfigure technology’s materiality and organizations’ communication patterns.

An agential realist stance on sociomateriality worsens the problem of being able to explain why certain actions occur when they do because it focuses so much on how certain actions are performed in practice. Consequently, it becomes difficult for the analyst to understand what role the sociomaterial plays in the constitution and perpetuation of organizations. By introducing time and by focusing on the process of the imbrication of agencies through it, the critical realist perspective provides better explanation of organizing as a process and, consequently, more points of articulation with existing theories of organization.

Researches who use a sociomaterial lens cannot show how practices become sociomaterial. Further, without a perspective that includes an explicit theory of time, it is difficult to demonstrate the process of interpenetration. When one adopts critical realism as a foundation for the study of sociomateriality, they are directed to explain process and the way in which the sociomateriality emerges and presents itself as indivisible, holistic and a natural state of affairs. There are clear methodological implications (see p. 71).

Figure 2 (p. 72) illustrates some of the similarities and differences between an agential realist view and a critical realist view. In panels A and B, the activity occurring within the grey square represents actions constitutive of broader organizational structure since organizational structure is not rendered in the realm of structure in a sociomaterial perspective. Agential realism suggests that sociomateriality is a phenomenon that occurs exclusively in the realm of action. Thus, practices are inherently sociomaterial. Unlike those theories of technology based on structuration theory presented in fig. 1, there is no structural realm. The organizing process is nothing but a set of sociomaterial practices stung together because organization occurs only in practice. It is thus difficult for studies of sociomateriality to say anything about the process of organizing specifically. By contrast, a critical realist perspective maintains an analytical dualism between the realms of structure and action. Here, materiality is thought to be a structural property while social interaction occurs in the realm of action. Over time, the material and the social become the sociomaterial through the process of imbrication and stay conjoined through continued imbrications. Although this model looks the structurational models in fig. 1, it is also quite different. As the figure (2) demonstrates, the realms of structure and action are distinct. They are not recursive, as they are in structuration theory, but they are interactive in that phenomena such as organizations are constituted at their confluence. Although, conceptually, structuration may have no end or beginning, a specific person enters the process of structuration at a certain point in time.

In the critical realist view, people can only be present in the realm of action, but the realm of action into which they enter is enabled or constrained by structures that pre-exist them. By keeping an analytical distinction between action and structure and by focusing on process over time, a perspective on sociomateriality based on the foundation of critical realism can perhaps say more about the constitution of organization than can be said when analysed from an agential realist perspective.

Concluding remarks

Mutch (2013) entitled his paper “Sociomateriality – Taking The Wrong Turning?” As the title suggests, he equates the sociomaterial perspective with agential realism and makes arguments for why agential realism is flawed.

The arguments of the author of this paper differ in two important ways. First, he does not equate agential realism with sociomateriality. The choice between theoretical foundations of agential realism and critical realism is based on which benefits are most important to the one who chooses, and which drawbacks are least bothersome.

The second way that differs is that this author does not see agential realism as wrong, bad or worse than critical realism; they are different. Table 2 (p. 74) summarizes the similarities and differences between agential realist and critical realist foundations for the study of sociomateriality. There are significant differences in practical application depending upon which theoretical foundation one chooses. By making comparisons and exploring their value for understanding technology and organizing, scholars who examine the most practical of all phenomena may be able to find a path out of the interesting, important and dense philosophical forest into the open fields of practical utility.

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