Object-oriented sociology and organizing in the face of emergency: Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and the material turn


(Corresponding author email: d.pierides@unimelb.edu.au)


This paper explores the material turn in sociology and the tools it provides for understanding organizational problems highlighted by the Royal Commission into the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires during which 173 people died in the Australian State of Victoria. Often inspired by Bruno Latour's material-semiotic sociology of associations, organization scholars employing these tools focus on the messy details of organization otherwise overlooked by approaches assuming a macroscopic frame of analysis. In Latour's approach no object is reducible to something else – such as nature, the social, or atoms – it is instead a stabilized set of relations. A Latourian approach allows us to highlight how the Royal Commission and macroscopic models of organizing do unwitting damage to their objects of inquiry by purifying the ‘natural’ from the ‘social’. Performative elements in their schemas are mistaken for descriptive ones. However, a long standing critique of this approach claims that it becomes its own form of reduction, to nothing but relations. Graham Harman, in his object-oriented philosophy develops this critique by showing that a ‘relationist’ metaphysics cannot properly accommodate the capacity of ‘objects’ to cause or mediate surprises. Through our case of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, we argue that a purely relational model of objects loosens a productive tension between the structural and ephemeral that drives sociological analysis. By drawing on elements of Harman's ontology of objects we argue that it is necessary for material-semiotic sociology to retain a central place for the emergence of sociological objects.