Book Review: Materialities, textures, and pedagogies: Socio-material assemblages in education, edited by Tara Fenwick and Paolo Landri
London, Routledge, 2014. Pp. 164. Hb. $145.
Reviewed by Mathias Decuypere
With this edited collection, Tara Fenwick and Paolo Landri have brought together an inspiring and diverse range of contributions that offer an excellent overview of what could be broadly called ‘sociomaterial approaches to education’. Sociomaterial approaches are largely aimed at scrutinizing how educational practices are composed relationally, by and through an array of both human and material actors (instead of being singularly determined by context or structures, for instance). This bundled volume presents seven studies that take up such a sociomaterial approach. Even though this collection is largely framed as a collection of actor-network investigations, these seven studies do not confine themselves exclusively to this framework. Whereas earlier educational studies that sought to analyze the intertwined social and material dimensions of educational practices were mostly inclined to solely employ the well-known approach of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), this book clearly shows the recent proliferation of a more dynamic interplay with other approaches attentive to the sociomaterial dimensions of education (broadly conceived). In that respect, this collection presents a convincing heterogeneity of other theoretical approaches that could be amalgamated with the analytical lens of ANT. This has resulted in a timely and important book that itself could be considered as a rich assemblage of various theoretically-related vantage points: (post-) phenomenology, practice and infrastructure studies, critique studies, and so on.
Equally, and more importantly, this collection presents studies on a rich diversity of educational settings, thus persuasively demonstrating the potential of deploying sociomaterial approaches in a diverse array of educational settings. Fenwick and Landri have brought together studies that range from the classroom to policy contexts, from professional to informal learning, and from concrete empirical case studies to more theoretically-oriented analyses. As such, and conceived as a whole, this collection not only captures many facets of the contemporary educational field, it also showcases – as a collection – the potential of conducting educational research without needing to exclusively put the usual educational suspects (pupil, student, teacher, …) centre-stage.
In the next paragraphs, I am going to continue by considering this book as a collection and, hence, by taking all these contributions together, I will consider them as a state of the art rendering of sociomaterial approaches in educational research. While this inevitably entails a reduction of the richness and complexity of each separate contribution (the whole is always smaller than its parts, Latour would argue), it will allow me to raise some issues regarding the very state of the art of these educational sociomaterial studies. That is to say, in taking all the contributions together, I will try to outline and pinpoint some challenges that this current state of the art seems to face, on the basis of reading this book. In what follows, I will raise three such challenges. The first is situated at the methodological plane, the second at the level of analysis, and the third, perhaps biggest, challenge, is situated at the level of what Fenwick and Landri denote as pedagogies. Rather than intending to be judgmental or evaluative, these challenges are posed as an invitation in order to push these sociomaterial approaches in/to education a bit further.
First, as far as methodology is concerned, this book clearly demonstrates that sociomaterial approaches have not crystalized in to some generic methodological frameworks that one is expected to adopt. This definitely constitutes an asset of these approaches: by not being confined to a singular set of methodological guidelines that solidify what can and should be researched, sociomaterial studies have a substantial amount of freedom with respect to the particular methodologies one might deploy. As is well known, theoretical contributions to sociomaterial approaches are notorious for hardly assisting researchers in how to set up concrete methodological accounts, arguing that one ‘just’ has to follow the actors and that one ‘just’ has to describe what one sees (although there are some noteworthy exceptions: Fenwick & Edwards, 2010; Latour, 2005; Venturini, 2010; 2012). The consequential differences in methodological design again display the richness of the book: the concrete methodologies are as varied as the seven studies themselves, and include, among others, interviewing, fieldwork, and visual (photographic) methods. In sociomaterial studies in particular, however – where the actions and doings of particular constellations of actors is of focal interest – it is perhaps not a bad thing to be a bit wary of one’s own deployed methodological design(s) and the actions and doings that such designs perform themselves – a central concern for many sociomaterialist authors (e.g. Law, 2004). This is an issue Fenwick and Landri are fully aware of but that is nevertheless only very scarcely taken up by the various contributions. Exceptions in this respect are the methodological heuristics proposed by Thompson and the experimental stance that Ceulemans and colleagues adopt.
Second, on the level of analysis, it seems to me that the various studies in this collection are somewhat lacking in what could be called – for lack of a better name – descriptive analysis. With this term, I designate descriptions that are capable of giving insight in to the complex dynamics of unfolding educational practices beyond the mere descriptive. That is, of descriptions that are equally analyses, demonstrating the concrete effects that sociomaterial distributions of actors generate. The editors make a very compelling distinction in this respect, namely a distinction between showing and telling – the former as being a thing one might expect from sociomaterial studies, the second as a necessity in order to be able to empirically trace the many details and intricacies of the studied practices. It seems, however, that the balance between these two often tips to the telling-part, sticking to descriptions but at the same time not giving enough insight into the dynamic effects of the described assemblages. What sort of space do they enact? What sort of time? Where are authorities found? What is central? What is marginalized? Etc. Although such questions are sometimes raised by different contributors, the reader is offered (too) few concrete answers to such issues. However, it is perhaps precisely in raising and answering such questions that a typical educational rendering of sociomateriality might consist, as Postma convincingly argues in his contribution.
This educational rendering is a last challenge that I deem to need to be taken up by contemporary sociomaterial studies. This is a challenge that is related to the central issue of the discipline we find ourselves in, and pertains to the question whether or not there is such a thing as an educational discipline: Is there something typical about educational practices that makes them different from, for instance, economical, sociological, or psychological practices? Does the educational field constitute some unique or typical characteristics? What is ‘education’ – broadly conceived – precisely about? Such questions pertain to the very notion of ‘educational practices’ that many of the authors in this timely contribution adopt: in the practice literature, many authors are precisely in search of what would be typical about the settings under investigation (e.g. Schatzki, 2010). Such issues are, however, only very minimally covered by the contributors to this volume. If we want the sociomaterial turn in education to be about more than just (another) application of a sociological and/or philosophical perspective onto the educational field, but rather an approach that would be capable of concretely showing typical educational compositions and associations, then perhaps we are in need of accounts that seek to disentangle what Latour (2013) has come to denote as ‘modes of existence’. Is there such a thing as an educational mode of existence and, if so, what are the typical characteristics of such a mode? These are very challenging questions, but I deem them to be of central importance if we want to render the sociomaterial turn in education educational in itself.
To be fair, these three challenges do not refer to shortcomings of this book in general, or to specific contributions in particular. On the contrary, these challenges seem inherently bound to the adoption of sociomaterial approaches in educational research. In sum, this book will serve many as inspiration and presentation of what sociomaterial approaches are capable of: by very convincingly defamiliarizing the familiar, they offer us a new way of looking at and talking about educational practices. The issues I have outlined briefly here are, in this respect, not downsides of the book. Rather, they are both an attempt and an invitation to push the field further to develop into a mature educational field of study, rather than being merely a sociological-philosophical field of study on education.
Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-network theory in education. London: Routledge.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An introduction to actor network theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Law, J. (2004). After method. Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.
Schatzki, T.R. (2010). Materiality and social life. Nature and Culture, 5, 123-149. doi:10.3167/nc.2010.050202
Venturini, T. (2010). Diving in magma: How to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understanding of Science, 19, 258-273. doi:10.1177/0963662509102694
Venturini, T. (2012). Building on faults: How to represent controversies with digital methods. Public Understanding of Science, 21, 796-812. doi:10.1177/0963662510387558
Correspondence: Mathias Decuypere, Laboratory for Education and Society, Research Group Education, Culture & Society, Katholieke University of Leuven, Andreas Vesaliusstraat 2 – PO Box 03761, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium