In this extremely important paper, Alistair Mutch offers a realist critique of sociomateriality which I hope to further develop in my own work in the not too distant future. In it he argues that sociomaterial “approaches tend towards a perverse (given the promise of the concept) neglect of the specificity of the systems involved and an inability to deal adequately with the broader context of practice” (28). He calls instead for a “non-conflationary approach, in which the social and the material are held apart for the purpose of exploring their interplay” (29). His point, drawing on Margaret Archer’s work, concerns the necessity of analytically distinguishing between domains (in this case the social and the material) in order to explain the sequencing of their interaction over time. Failing to draw this analytical distinction, correctly affirming reciprocal interaction on a philosophical level without offering conceptual instruments to untangle this empirically, means that “an approach which is advocated in order to bring matter to the centre pushes it to the margins, producing what is a human-centred account underneath the superficial rhetoric” (31).
This is an enormously important point which is hard to convey adequately in the space of a paper, let alone in a blog post. Theorising co-constitution entails a slide into denying the properties and powers of the co-constituting elements: entities and their interactions are subsumed into pure process. Elsewhere Mutch contrasts strong and weak process theory: realists reject the former but accept the latter. The problem with strong process theory is that it fails to account for the variable sequencing of processes. Not all processes are equal… there are periods of flux and periods of relative stability, periods where one entity is more influential than the other, as well as periods of something akin to the ceaseless dance of co-constitution implicit within strong process theory. The problem with co-constitution is that it obscures this variability. It doesn’t make it impossible to theorise but it means that any such substantive theorising proceeds in spite of, rather than because of, the more general concepts in play. In this case, socio-materialism most frequently ends up being a matter of interpreting the material through the social such that little attention is paid to the independent properties and powers of specific material structures, problematic because these are ultimately what are activated in a particular social context. But the specificity of the social can often also be lost because the conceptual framework inclines analysts to immediately look towards the material, rather than pausing to consider the specific social properties and powers in relation to and interaction with which material structures are bringing about observable effects. I’m not sure how clear this explanation is, probably less so than in Mutch’s paper, but the point feels very clear in my own head. It just needs further elaboration.