Animals, automated devices and ecosystems: a symposium on the agencies of dynamic non-humans in theories of practice.

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.


Day 1

Animals, ecosystems and organic materials

  • Human weed relations in the Anthropocene: intimate biogeographies of invasive species management – Jennifer Atchison, University of Wollongong
  • Farming soil carbon: Using mixed methods mapping to access the material, embodied experiences of carbon within upland farming landscapes in Cumbria, UK – Beth Brockett, Lancaster University and Ali Browne, Manchester University
  • How can landscapes, infrastructures and natural elements be conceptualised in human-centric theories of social practice? Permeability, contact and (un)bounded bodies – Cecily Maller, RMIT University
  • Wood as a living element of practice: recognising the biological processes within practices – Jenny Rinkinen, Aalto University
  • The ‘animal turn’ in social and urban practice in India’s smart cities: planning theory ‘going to the dogs’ – Yamini Narayanan, Deakin University
  • Rhythm, nature and the temporalities of energy demand – Gordon Walker, Lancaster University

Materiality and infrastructures

  • How do non-bodily capabilities and processes matter to ‘what people do’? – Janine Morley, Lancaster University
  • The ‘world’ of practice: conceptualising the material equipment of activity – Stanley Blue, Lancaster University
  • Inhabiting infrastructure: exploring the interactional spaces of urban cycling – Alan Latham, University College London
  • Practice in practice: lessons from the treadmill – Russell Hitchings, University College London

Day 2

Automation and digital devices

  • Automation and smart homes: understanding energy consumption and practices – Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, Aalborg University
  • When materials change overnight: how software updates reconfigure energy demand and everyday practice – Mike Hazas, Lancaster University
  • Considering artefacts as co-performers of practices – Lenneke Kuijer and Elisa Giaccardi, Delft University
  • Are we exploring the magic to better understand the human? – Giuseppe Salvia, Politecnico di Milano
  • Roomba riding: non-human agencies of pets and devices in automated vacuuming practices – Yolande Strengers, RMIT University
  • Material speculations in theories of practice – Ron Wakkary, Simon Fraser University

Follow the symposium on Twitter #nonhumans2015

Image by Cassandra Leigh Gotto via Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0


RMIT Europe, Barcelona


9-10 October