Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial

Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial

Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial

Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial


The last fifteen years have seen much conceptual and methodological innovation in research on education and learning across the lifecourse, bringing both fresh insights and new dilemmas. This innovation was initially fuelled by the growing influence of conceptual framings often named as either post-structural or postmodern. The works of Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard have variously found their way into the canons of educational research, and in more recent years, the influence of the work of Deleuze and Guattari has also grown. This work has proved controversial both in the challenges it has raised for the purposes and practices of education and training but also over the assumptions underpinning such work.

As part of and also in response to the influence of post-structuralism and postmodernism in the social sciences, there have emerged and developed a further range of conceptual and methodological framings which are more relational, system and practice-focussed. Several of these framings work with a non-linear understanding of causality and embrace unpredictability in the world and undecidability in our understanding of it. They also challenge any notion of a strong boundary between the social and natural sciences.

This book explores the most significant four of these framings, how they are being taken up in research in education and learning across the lifecourse, as well as their possibilities and limitations:

  • complexity science
  • cultural historical activity theory (CHAT)
  • actor-network theory (ANT)
  • spatiality theories.

Illustrated throughout with examples drawn from educational contexts across the life courses, including schooling, post-compulsory education and training, educational policy, workplace and community-based education in North America, the UK, and Australia this vital guide to understanding fresh ways of conducting and understanding educational research will prove essential reading for everyone undertaking educational research in the modern world.


A prominent shift is occurring in social sciences that are interested in knowledge, change, practice and politics, and the flows among them. We argue that this shift is also evident in educational studies, and that it deserves closer attention by researchers. This shift counters theoretical positions that assume the social/cultural and the personal to be the defining parameters of what it means to learn. It challenges the centring of human processes in learning (often conceived as consciousness, intention, meaning, intersubjectivity and social relations) derived from perspectives associated with phenomenology and social constructivism. This shift foregrounds materiality in learning.

The material includes tools, technologies, bodies, actions and objects, but not in ways that treat these as brute or inherently distinct from humans as users and designers. the material also includes texts and discourses, but not in ways that focus solely on linguistic, semiotic, intertextual and cultural matters. the material is entangled in meaning, not assumed to be separate from it. Overall, in education and other fields, this shift is away from a central preoccupation with human meaning, including meanings attributed to objects, as we might see in hermeneutic, narrative or symbolic interactionist approaches. the shift is also away from analysing such objects as simply traces of something assumed to be culture, as we might see in conventional anthropological accounts.

Instead, among perspectives that seem to be part of this pervasive shift, the material world is treated as continuous with, and in fact embedded in, immaterial energies, such as certain social relations and human intensities. Therefore, in this discussion, we have adopted the term ‘sociomaterial’ to refer to perspectives that are contributing to this shift. of course, any transcendent term like sociomaterial must be used cautiously, particularly when diverse writers and positions are being called into presence under one umbrella that may fit uneasily with their particular projects. We are not arguing for a new grand ontology, nor for replacing other perspectives with those interested in the sociomaterial. Instead, we are calling attention to the importance of materiality in education and learning, and in foregrounding those interventions and studies in educational research that have specifically explored the influences of materiality . . .

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