We live in societies increasingly characterised by the blurring of human, natural and digital systems. Contemporary transformations, such as the ‘Internet of Things’ revolution, the humanisation of pets, and more frequent and intense natural disasters, call for focused reflection and redefinition of our understanding of, and relationship to, the ‘material’ or non-human world.
Post-humanist theories of practice have attempted to grapple with the materialities of social life. Objects, infrastructures, food and things have been variously understood as ‘elements’ of (Shove et al.) or ‘participants’ in (Reckwitz) social practices, or the ‘arrangements’ (Schatzki) which coordinate and constitute the ‘plenum’ of social life. Although materials are conceptualised as part of dynamic systems which change over time, these theorisations have commonly been applied to the role of static or discrete material objects and architectures, such as showers, air-conditioners, kitchens, buildings or shopping centres. Less attention has been paid to non-humans that transcend the accepted boundaries or properties of materials. In particular, living systems, animals and digital or automated devices express and carry agency in sometimes confounding and contradictory ways. The ‘human-like’ characteristics of pets and robots, for example, are challenging traditional notions of the ‘material’ in contemporary social research, potentially performing practices in their own right. Similarly, the agencies of living systems which are changing and ‘acting up’ under anthropogenic climate change are transforming practice on a large scale.
The aim of this symposium is to provoke discussion and advance conceptualisations of dynamic non-human entities and phenomena in theories of social practice. We invite contributors working with such phenomena in applied or theoretical scholarship to reflect on how researchers can conceptualise the role of living, emerging, or non-material materials. Such examples might include the animals that people eat, the pets that people keep, automated or ‘smart’ devices, ecosystems and their services (such as water or air), changing weather patterns, natural disasters, and/or the changing neighbourhoods in which people live. In particular, we ask contributors to consider whether new theory is needed, or if such change and diversity can be adequately accounted for with existing theoretical resources. Is there scope to understand some non-humans not only as elements of or participants in practices, but as performers in their own right? More provocatively, is it possible for a practice to be performed (and/or transformed) without any humans at all? In reflecting on these questions we hope to engage participants in a lively debate that contributes to contemporary theories of practice by foregrounding ‘materials’ or non-humans that replicate, disrupt and potentially replace human agency in practice.
Animals, ecosystems and organic materials
Materiality and infrastructures
Automation and digital devices
Follow the symposium on Twitter #nonhumans2015
RMIT Europe, Barcelona