New materialisms: key approaches

Over the past few years, I have been drawing more and more on new materialist theories, concepts and perspectives, particularly in thinking through how humans live with digital technologies (which is the focus of all my research at the moment). The approaches I am currently finding most useful come from a range of perspectives.

Recently, I sat down to map out and categorise the different approaches with which I have been working that use new materialist thinking. I made a big table, and used this to jot down these approaches, the main concepts and questions with which they engage, some key researchers in each approach, and the key theorists each draws on. The smaller table below lists the disciplines/approaches in the first column of the larger table. The PDF of the whole table is available here (third revised version added 10 April 2018): Overview of new materialism approaches v3

Sociology (new materialism)
Environmental feminism, material ecocriticism, Anthropocene feminisms
Education – gender and posthuman performativity
Diffraction theory, post-qualitative inquiry
Vital materialism
Education – materiality and enactment theorising
Anthropology of material culture
Posthuman archaeology/museum studies
Cultural geography/anthropology – sensory ethnography/affective atmospheres/non-representational methodologies
Design anthropology/sociology and arts-based practice
Information systems/organisation studies/management studies – sociomaterialism
Object-oriented ontology (OOO), speculative realism (NB: often grouped with new materialism, but actually quite different – included here for sake of comparison)

I also made a word cloud to visually represent the key theorists identified in the table, and their relative importance in the literature (below). This is an easy way to quickly show which theorists tend to be drawn on the most in this literature.

materialisms word cloud

Below the table, I listed what I saw as common threads and key questions that emerged from the literature I had read when constructing the table. These are as follows:

COMMON THREADS: More-than-human worlds, human-nonhuman assemblage, vitality and vibrancy of things, ethico-onto-epistemology, relational ontology, sensory encounters, tensions between sameness and difference, how matter comes to matter, posthumanist performativity, identifying entanglements and shared agency, identifying exclusions, respectful engagements with disciplinary differences, the micropolitics of relations and affects, the generation and expression of agential capacities, encounters, forces (constraining and enabling) and intensities – how lines of flight might be generated – resistances, new possibilities for action or assemblages, thinking otherwise – intra-actions within assemblages between their various components- this includes power, which is transitory as it is enacted – interdependency between researcher and researched.

KEY QUESTIONS: How do objects under analysis establish conditions of action? How do humans incorporate and improvise with objects? What are the social lives of things? Which assemblages and networked power relations are they part of? How do the objects of study work and who does it work for? What imaginaries do they rely on and establish? Where are tensions/differences/novel formulations? Where are differences and exclusions? How do differences get made? What effects do differences have? What are the relations between things? How does matter come to matter? What theories can be brought to bear to make agential cuts of meaning? What are the affective intensities/forces and agential capacities generated by the assemblages under analysis? What do they do? After identifying the conditions of possibility (normalising agents), how to ‘think the unthinkable’/escape normalising discourses and habituated acts and open up new conditions of possibility? What are the ethics of more-than-human worlds and encounters? What lies beyond the ascendancy of the human – what is posthumous life? What can non-western onto-epistemologies offer?