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A sociomaterialist reaction to infrastructural theory: A comment on Westbury


Published onAug 25, 2020
A sociomaterialist reaction to infrastructural theory: A comment on Westbury

A commentary on

Keywords: commentary

Part of the Special Issue Debating the status of ‘theory’ in technology enhanced learning research

As an academic working in the area of educational technology and having a great interest in sociomaterialism, I found myself contemplating why I had never heard about infrastructural theory. As Westbury (Westbury, 2020) notes, infrastructural theory is under theorised in technology-enhanced learning. Although Westbury’s work focuses on knowledge infrastructure, infrastructure is all around us at multiple levels and in multiple forms whether that be digital, physical/material, discursive, or otherwise. I agree, therefore, that it is an area in need of more consideration.

As I was reading this this paper, I was struck by the potential commensurability between infrastructural theory and sociomaterialist thought. Beyond the use of similar vocabulary (i.e., assemblages, relationality, contingency, heterogeneity, and agency), infrastructural theory and sociomaterialism also share an emphasis on the ontological: what is performed, enacted, and/or embodied at a given point in time or across time; they share an interest in multiplicity (i.e., given phenomenon(a) can be ontologically multiple forms or versions at the same time, for example, both digital and physical) rather than the more postmodernist perspective of plurality (i.e., a phenomenon(a) can be viewed from different perspectives; a more discursive and interpretive view). Referencing both LaTour  (1993) and Mol (2003), Sorensen (2009) contends “postmodern perspectivalism creates a hyper-incommensurability between subject and object. Instead of plurality of interpretations . . . we [those who advocate for multiplicity] describe the multiple versions (forms) of objects” (p. 85).

Sociomaterialism and infrastructural theory also share an underlying goal of raising awareness of that which is otherwise hidden, unnoticed, or seemingly mundane and unworthy of consideration. For both infrastructural theory and sociomaterialism, agency also plays a significant role, “instead of beginning with the question of whether technology does what humans want it to do, we should ask how materials participate in practice and what is thereby performed” (Sorensen, 2009, p. 28). As Westbury highlights, “[technology-enhanced learning] practices are complex constellations of people and technology” (2020, ¶ 4).  Because of the complexity, some practices and actors may be unseen—this is, in my opinion, the reason why both infrastructural theory and sociomaterialist approaches are important: to bring awareness to the actors, performances, and conditions that may play a significant role in the emergence of phenomenon(a).

I had to pause, however, to reflect upon infrastructural inversion for investigating knowledge infrastructures in which “understanding the nature of infrastructural work involves unfolding the political, ethical, and social choices that have been made throughout ins development” (Bowker et al., 2010, p. 99). This statement begs clarification with regard to who/what made the choices. Otherwise, we might ask to what extent knowledge infrastructures are truly contingent and the extent to which the social-material-technical actors have agency. At my current phase of my sociomaterialism journey, I view the material and digital as equally complicit in shaping and/or performing a phenomenon(a). For this reason, it is important to avoid any sentences that might be interpreted as implying only humans have agentic potential. Although there are arguments against symmetry, the idea that humans and non-humans should be treated in the same way analytically (Jones, 2015), I think there is value in examining all possible actors in an effort to achieve more complete analyses.

Throughout Westbury’s paper, multiple works came to mind that could complement infrastructural theory: Barad’s (2007) agential realism in terms of “what comes to matter”, Sorensen’s (2009) spatial imaginary of patterns of relations based on Mol and Law’s (1994)  networks, fluids, and regions. Actor network theory also offer a means of examining infrastructures, as Westbury mentions. Future theoretical work could involve further examining the potential commensurability between infrastructural theory and the work of these (or other) sociomaterialist/posthumanist scholars. For example, can infrastructural theory help us understand folding, mutable mobiles, immutable mobiles when examining patterns of relations? Or, for example, can agential realism help inform the concept of agency in infrastructural theory? It is an exciting theoretical area to consider.

About the author

Marguerite Koole, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

Marguerite Koole

Dr. Marguerite Koole is Assistant Professor in Educational Technology and Design at the University of Saskatchewan. Marguerite has worked in online and distance education for over 15 years. Through the years, she has been involved in teaching, instructional design, multimedia programming, content management, e-portfolios, and social software. She has designed interactive, online learning activities for various learning purposes and platforms—including print, web, and mobile devices. In 2013, Dr. Koole completed her PhD in E-Research and Technology-Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University, UK. Marguerite’s research areas include mobile learning, makerspaces, technology-enhanced learning, socio-materialism and new materialism, social constructionism and language revitalization.

Email: [email protected]

ORCID: 0000-0002-0041-5615

Twitter: @mkooleady

Article information

Article type: Commentary, review by editor.

Publication history: Received: 24 August 2020. Revised: 25 August 2020. Accepted: 25 August 2020. Published: 25 August 2020.

Cover image: Ainslie Gilles-Patel via Pixabay.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum Physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Bowker, G. C., Baker, K., Millerand, F., & Ribes, D. (2010). Toward information infrastructure studies: Ways of knowing in a networked environment. In J. Hunsinger, L. Klastrup, & M. Allen (Eds.), International handbook of internet research (pp. 97–117). Springer.

Jones, C. (2015). Networked learning: An educational paradigm for the age of digital networks (V. Hodgson & D. McConnell (eds.)). Springer International Publishing.

LaTour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.

Mol, A. (2003). The body multiple. Duke University Press.

Mol, A., & Law, J. (1994). Regions, networks and fluids: Anaemia and social topology. Social Studies of Science, 24(4), 641–671.

Sorensen, E. (2009). The materiality of learning: Technology and knowledge in educational practice. Cambridge University Press.

Westbury, M. (2020). Infrastructure and technology-enhanced learning: Context, agency, multiplicity. Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 1(1).

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