Ontologies of Matter in Sociological Institutionalism

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 4:00 PM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Ossi OLLINAHO , University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
I study ontologies of matter within sociological institutionalism and discuss their political implications with regard to environment and inequality. I categorize these ontologies in four distinct classes: 1) materiality as action; 2) materiality as a stage for social interaction; 3) materiality as tools employed in social interaction; and 4) materiality as required and transformed within social interaction. I refer to these ontologies as, ”immaterial”, ”solid”, ”stuck”, and ”loose”, respectively.

Marx saw materiality as technology and metabolic ”rifts” – ”stuck” and ”loose” matter. In Veblen and Weber materiality takes mainly the form of ”solid” matter to which social interaction adapts through habitualization and cultural refraction. However, they certainly also saw humans as affecting this materiality. For Durkheim material was mainly physical objects – ”stuck” matter. Due to the cultural turn, materiality was subsequently neglected; at best, materiality was the ”solid” background for social interactions. Materiality was rejuvenated in the end of 20th century as actions that together with cognitive dimension constitute institutions. This ontology left physical matter outside the picture.

Recently, this ”immaterial” conception has been problematized by conceiving materiality as physical objects – ”stuck” matter. Scholars have analyzed how technology affects and is embedded in institutionalization and institutional change. This ontology, however, fails to perceive the human influence on the environment. It belongs to the human exemptionalist paradigm, in which technology is seen to solve any problem that the ”progress” might produce. I propose to integrate physical matter required to run social practices (e.g., food, energy, raw materials) and transformed within practices (e.g., to waste, pollution) to institutional theory. Without ”loose” matter institutionalism cannot perceive the growing ”rifts” that humanity is producing, most prominently embodied as climate change and the depletion of raw materials. The ontology of “loose” matter has direct implications on institutional change and indirect ones on inequality.