Materiality and Space: Organizations, Artefacts and Practices

Jeremy Aroles (Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 2 March 2015



Jeremy Aroles (2015), "Materiality and Space: Organizations, Artefacts and Practices", Information Technology & People, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 242-244.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This edited volume is the result of the 2012 OAP (Organizations, Artefacts and Practices) workshop that took place at Université Paris Dauphine. This volume aims to establish a dialogue between different intellectual traditions – social studies of technology, sociomateriality and sociology of space – in order to pore over the relations between materiality and space in organizations. Throughout this volume, this takes the form of a clear attempt to both challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about materiality and space and further our understanding of the complex processes underlying organizational practices. As stated by the editors, this involves fostering debates in four central areas of research: the conceptual and theoretical stance, the managerial dimension, the importance of multilevel approaches and the microfocus on work practices in organizations. As such, this volume stands for a timely contribution not only to the field of organization studies but also to social sciences in general. Scholars with an interest in questions of materiality and space will find this edited volume particularly engaging and thought provoking.

This volume is divided into four sections: Materiality, Space and Practices: Definitions and Discussions; Spaces and Materiality in Everyday Work and Co-work Practices; Space, Materiality and Managerial Control; and Space, Materiality and Institutional Dynamics. These four sections, which include three or four chapters each, nicely complement each other, thus contributing to the weaving of a compelling reflection on space and materiality in organizations.

In the first chapter, Andrew Pickering draws on miscellaneous examples – aesthetics, technologies of the self, biology, etc. – in order to emphasize the necessity to overcome the distinction between people and things. He argues that taking a post-humanist stance involves a paradigmatic shift in terms of how we conceptualize agency: upon understanding agency through performance, one can challenge the view of humans as main actors of change and further become sensible to the complex entanglement of the human and the material. Through the second chapter, Aron Lindbger and Kalle Lyythinen develop a conceptual framework around “ecological affordances”. They build upon Wittgenstein’s notions of “language games”, “family resemblances” and “life forms” in order to design a framework for the understanding of multiple affordances – the characteristics of an artefact in relation to the possibilities of users. They suggest using alignment, completeness and drift as characters for the establishment of a “grammar of affordance ecologies”. In the third chapter, Philippe Lorino establishes a parallel between the architecture of buildings and that of complex instrumental systems, which he subsequently refers to as “architectural instruments”. While a dense body of literature has investigated the impacts and influences of these instruments on individuals, he notes that sociomateriality does not bring the necessary theoretical tools to explore these in the context of collective activity and suggests turning towards pragmatism and semiotics as ways forward. This leads Lorino to argue that these architectural instruments can be linked to collective activity in three ways: similitude of form, physical constraint, and social and culture conventions. The fourth chapter, which marks the end of the first section, consists of an exploration of the human experience of materiality through the work of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. More precisely, Michèle Charbonneau attempts to stress how Bachelard’s essays on the elements can further our understanding of materiality in organization. She suggests a turn towards senses, imagination and aesthetics as ways to take forward constructivist approaches to the study of technologies.

The second section starts with a reflection on the role of physical space in collaborative workplaces hosting entrepreneurs. Through a case study of the “Beehive” in Paris, Julie Fabbri and Florence Charue-Duboc explore the materiality of workspaces and highlight how spatial layout influences patterns of interaction between different organizations, thus arguing that spatial design can affect collaboration and innovativeness in organizations. In the sixth chapter, Lotta Häkkinen and Nina Kivinen draw upon a very thorough ethnographic investigation carried out in a publishing house in Finland in order to explore space, performance and materiality. More specifically, they look at how stories are produced and they argue that the production of stories is associated with different forms of materiality and with the creation of different organizational spaces, thus highlighting the complexity associated with these practices. In the following chapter, Nathalie Raulet-Croset focuses on the role of space in relation to transient forms of organizations. She takes the case of urban civilities in French suburbs as an example of an event producing ephemeral organizations. She highlights how spatial and human agencies interact in these ephemeral organizations and how space plays a central role in relation to the coordination of human activities within these transient organizations. This section ends on a reflection on the use of spaces by employees when they engage in e-learning programmes. Bhumika Gupta and Emmanuel Baudoin use the notion of “champs de liberté” in order to explore how employees interact with their spatial environments. They further show how certain spatial conditions can foster or hinder e-learning, thus emphasizing the strategies developed by employees to benefit from their spaces.

The third section begins with a Foucauldian exploration of space in relation to organizational control of mobile information systems. Building upon four case studies, Aurélie Leclerq-Vandelannoite revisited the metaphor of the panopticon in order to highlight the ways in which control and power are increasingly exercised by workers inasmuch as through mobility, they can reconstruct the organizational spaces and thus exert a certain control. In the tenth chapter, Stewart Clegg, Miguel Pina e Cunha and Arménio Rego consider the case of death camps in Cambodia in order to explore power relations within genocidal contexts. They focus on the position of the followers and argue that followers do not constitute a homogeneous mass that simply obeys the rules. Rather, they highlight the distributed sense of agency encountered in death camps, thus putting forward the idea that followers obey the rules because they want to. In the next chapter, Stephan Pezé pores over identity regulation in organizational settings. He investigates how a sense of identity is performed through the actions of individuals and argues that identity regulation should not be seen as a top-down process. Building upon a study of managerial training, he shows how a focus on practices can enhance our understanding of how identity becomes constructed at the workplace.

The final section is made of three chapters. The first of these chapters discusses the importance of “mobilities” in contemporary societies and reflects upon the mobile character of modern life. John Urry emphasizes the importance of material resources and objects in relation to movement patterns. He draws on several examples to show the ways in which mobility is inscribed and relies on various material supports. In the following chapter, Aljona Zorina and David Avison pore over the notion of agency and seek to highlight how human and material agencies become intertwined within organizations. They draw from a case study of local area network (LANs) in Belarus in order to show how sociomaterial entities become produced through organizational routines and technologies. This allows one to re-think agency within the context of organizations and to stress the importance of extra-organizational dynamics and routines in the performance of sociomaterial entities. The last chapter of this section and of this edited volume investigates the dynamics of work practices, technological artefacts and professional identity. Pierre Laniray draws upon a study of the introduction of smartphones amongst train drivers in order to show how perceptions of technologies are shaped and influenced by values, beliefs and routines which all form part of the occupational identity of train drivers.

These four sections are followed by a brief conclusion from the editors of this volume through which they highlight directions for further investigations. This conclusion is itself followed by an epilogue by Lucas Introna who calls for an ontology of becoming as a way to challenge the sociomaterial bifurcation.

This edited volume stands for a very noteworthy contribution to the study of materiality and space in organizations. It benefits from a wide array of both conceptual and empirical frameworks, which permits to highlight various directions for future investigations in this field of research. Throughout this volume, one can appreciate the call to challenge ready-made assumptions about space and materiality and the clear will to give more importance to both in research. This has involved challenging the clear-cut distinction between humans and things in order to show how material and human agencies become entangled through organizational practices, routines and actions. Thinking agency through the lenses of multiplicity allows one to further reflect upon the role, or rather the influence, of space on sociomaterial entities. Space is not simply given but needs to be theorized and approached as a key feature to the understanding of organizational practices and decisions. In conclusion, this edited volume is an accessible and thoughtful gathering of essays on space and materiality in organizations, which provides nuanced and multiple accounts of the ways in which the social, the material and the spatial become intertwined through practice.

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