This essay raises a question that our primary ways of dealing with materiality in organizational research are conceptually problematic. After reviewing current difficulties, the author proposes an alternative approach, the constitutive entanglement of the social and the material in everyday life. Then two empirical examples are introduced to support that the approach helps us more effectively recognize and understand the multiple, emergent, and shifting sociomaterial assemblages entailed in contemporary organizing.
Existing Views of Materiality in Organization Research
It starts with the premise that everyday organizing is inextricably bound up with materiality, including visible (e.g., bodies, rooms, documents) and invisible (e.g., data, electricity, air systems) forms. Organizational studies, however, have had two prominent ways of dealing with materiality. The first way largely disregards, downplays, or takes for granted the materiality of organizations. The second way that the organizational literature has treated materiality is to study specific cases of technology adoption, diffusion, and use within and across organizations. This stream of work has provided the following difficulties.
- The explicit focus on technology adoption, diffusion, and use as separate and distinct phenomena occurring within organizations.
- A tendency to focus either on technology effects (a techno-centric perspective) or on interactions with technology (a human-centered perspective).
Towards a View of Constitutive Entanglement
The concept of constitutive entanglement does not ignore it, take it for granted, or treat it as a special case, and neither does it focus solely on technology effects or primarily on technology use. It replaces the idea of materiality as ‘pre-formed substances’ with that of ‘performed relations’, in order to characterize the recursive intertwining of the social and material as these emerge ongoing. In addition, the author proposes labeling of conventional organizational practices as ‘sociomaterial practices’.
Sociomaterial Practices: Empirical Examples
First, Google-mediated search activities are temporally emergent because the engine on computers depends on the millions of people who create and update web pages everyday. Therefore, the performance and results of a Google-abased search are sociomaterial.
Second, after a company issued Blackberry to their employees, the ‘push email’ capability of the device has become entangled with people’s choices and activities to keep devices turned on, to carry them at all times, and to respond to email regularly. Therefore, the performativity of the BlackBerrys is sociomaterial.
To better understand contingent, dynamic, multiple, and indeterminate social practices, the author argues a shift in our thinking about materiality in organizations.