Professor Tim Dant, Head of Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology, asks what is sociologically interesting about material interaction…
Professor Tim Dant
I was asked this question recently by a well-established sociologist and my answer was pretty feeble. I’ve been thinking about it since and trying to work out how I should have answered. Let me first say what I mean by ‘material interaction’. This is the interaction between people and things – it includes, for example, the finely skilled interaction between a musician and their instrument, the mundane interaction between someone and their toothbrush or the exploratory interaction between a child and their new toy. The person interacts through their senses of sight and touch, making sense of the thing and working with it to do what they want. It is purposive and intended interaction that the person engages in for their own reasons. The thing reacts back or responds in a way that leads to or changes the person’s next action with the thing. Once my toothbrush has absorbed a little water under the tap I can see and feel it is ready for the addition of some toothpaste, which, once added, gives the toothbrush a different weight and feel that I then manoeuvre into my mouth to begin the brushing action on my teeth.
Perhaps the most important sociological feature of material interactions lies in the consequences that they have for societies. If we understand not only the purposes that people are seeking to realise with material interactions but also the complex ends that are their result, we might see that many mundane material interactions lead to unintended and unwanted ends.
Professor Tim Dant
Everything about such ordinary actions is ‘intentional’ in the phenomenological sense of being directed towards something and the reason I call it inter
action is because the thing – the toothbrush – reacts to each small action; absorbing water, accepting toothpaste, carrying the toothpaste into my mouth, brushing the toothpaste over my teeth and so on. And these reactions lead to my next action, so, as with interaction between people, one action leads to another and the person develops a line of action in response to the reactions of the objects. The human gestures have to be learnt but they don’t always work; sometimes the toothpaste slides off the toothbrush at some point between its being applied to the brush and meeting my teeth.
So far, so mundane – some would say obvious to the point of banality. But there are a number of reasons why such ordinary processes of material interaction are sociologically interesting. Firstly, not all cultures use toothbrushes and the particularity of the toothbrush and how it is made will finely shape the type of interactions it is taken up in. Secondly, as I’ve said, to become a taken-for-granted material interaction that demands no thought, the process has to be learnt. And the way it is learnt is partly shaped by the array of material objects that are used (brush, toothpaste, tube, tap, etc.) and partly by the cultural practices that are considered appropriate in a particular culture at a particular time. More interesting and more culturally specific are the perceptions and gestures that lead to the interaction between musician and instrument, driver and car or moby and user. Think of the different bodily orientations and uses of the hands in playing different types of guitar in different styles that have different cultural resonances (classical, flamenco, folk, blues, rock and so on). But, thirdly, all material interaction is culturally relevant in the sense that it is ‘meaningful’ to both the person doing it and to any other person who is involved, such as someone watching a partner brush their teeth, the person listening to a street busker, or the grandparent smiling at the child with the new toy.
And this is about as far as I got… and still the question was what is sociologically
interesting about material interaction isn’t really answered. What I should have said is that material interactions are indicative of social relations, they mark work practices and consumption practices, they are often indicative of gender roles (think of make-up and shoes) and they show all sorts of social distinctions. One of the most important is the difference between people of different capacity or ability to engage in material interactions. Some people have much more difficulty than others with very ordinary tasks – opening tins, using cutlery, cleaning cupboards, answering the phone – and their restrictions on their material interactions shape the sort of lives they can lead. Recognising the importance of material interaction not only in indicating and sustaining social status but also in marking disadvantage and inequalities is a fundamentally sociological issue that has not received much attention. Paying attention to the material interaction rather than bodily impairment would enhance the understanding of ‘disability’ across the life course.
But perhaps the most important sociological feature of material interactions lies in the consequences that they have for societies. If we understand not only the purposes that people are seeking to realise with material interactions but also the complex ends that are their result, we might see that many mundane material interactions lead to unintended and unwanted ends. These would include, for example, pollution of the environment, using up scarce resources and releasing greenhouse gases, things that result from intentional material interactions but are hardly consciously intended. If we were to adopt Hans Jonas’s ‘Imperative of Responsibility’ and apply it to the material interactions of modern society, we would question and challenge not just our own individual interactions but also the collective and socially sanctioned interactions, such as the building of infrastructure, the extraction of raw materials and the manufacture of goods. Modern societies cannot continue without these things but by making us more aware of material interactions, sociology can question the current utopian desire for growth
, of ever more interactions with the material world, which is so often taken for granted as necessary to the survival of the species.