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More-Than-Human Sociology

More-Than-Human Sociology: A New Sociological Imagination

by Olli Pyyhtinen

read in Aug 2022

book info on goodreads

I have read several books on process and process-relational approaches that approach the theoretical project from a philosophical (e.g., Process Philosophy and Process-Relational Philosophy) or anthropological (e.g., How Forests Think) angle. Olli Pyyhtinen’s book “More-Than-Human Sociology” is the first take on this project that I read that approaches process-relational questions from a sociological perspective. He motivates a process-relational approach via an inherent duality in the sociological literature. For him, there are either grand theorists or abstracted empiricists. Grand theorists fetishise concepts and theories. Abstracted empiricists emphasises the importance of rigorous methodological inquiry and justified knowledge claims. Both positions to sociological (and by extension organisational and IS) theorising are not well equipped to theorise complex and dynamic webs of relations. Indeed, he argues, that their concepts are reifying a static and simplified understanding of reality. The book discusses three main ontological and epistemological assumptions of a process-relational approach as manifested in a more-than-human sociology. What I find even more interesting though is the way in which Pyyhtinen uses short empirical examples to illustrate what a process-relational approach foregrounds.

A more-than-human sociology is grounded in a relational ontology. Specifically, relations that are going along together, that are moving forward. As humans we become determined through being-with-others and not only as a momentary being, but a going-along-together. There is no being without being-with.

“Things are never devoid of relations, but to be is to be related; entities become what they are by entering into relations, by affecting and being affected by others. Relatedness has primacy over quality. There is no substance to things other than their event, their actualization in relations.”

Relations do not only connect pre-existing entities. Instead, the properties and being of entities depends on the relations. Relations participate in constituting what the entities are. This importance of others, of being in relation with others to be something or someone at all, does not reduce the creativity, autonomy, or indeed agency of the individual. Relations are a precondition of agency. Without being-with-others we do not have personal freedom.

Pyyhtinen discusses in detail a unique notion of scale that is at the centre of his approach. Human geography has debated the concept of scale and its implications. The concept of scale has produced a scholarly focus on either the large or the small scale. This privileging of one of the two scales has induced a blindness to both how processes traverse across scales and how scales are produced in action, to practices of scaling. The micro and the macro are over simplifications that cannot capture the richness and messiness of the world. The global scale is produced in and through connections; it would cease to exist if the localised connections ceased to exist. Indeed, the global is itself a flow that circulates through a web of relations together with things flowing along seemingly local trajectories. The global only exists through connections between local sites Scale is not given categorically; scales are made and sustained in practice, they are performed into existence. Thus, scale itself can be turned into an object of inquiry by foregrounding the work that goes into producing scale. It is not just humans who produce scales, for example in mapping. Scales are produced in connections between humans and non-human objects.

With this notion scale, Pyyhtinen critiques the analytical practice of zooming that has become popular in practice oriented studies. He argues that, instead of zooming from the individual to the social or the other way around and thereby jumping across scales, a flow-oriented approach follows the relays of actions and interactions.

“No zooming and zooming out, but travelling in and through conduits.”

Zooming jumps between two extremes, the local and the global, the individual and the social, the practice and the structure. But to analyse how the global is produced in localised connections we need to trace exactly these connections between the local and the global rather than jumping over them.

A more-than-human sociology is deeply concerned with how materials and things are implicated in every relation. More-than-human sociology or linealogical sociology pays attention to heterogenous assemblages and changes the way of thinking of traditionally anthropocentric sociology by considering social actors as intersections (or correspondences in Ingold’s terms) of processes and flows; structures composed of dynamic relations; and society as a relation of relations.

“If we take our entanglement and foldedness with our environment seriously, we cannot limit the numerous others we depend on in our existence and activity to other humans alone. In everything we do we are entwined also with a variety of non-human or not-only-human elements and materials. They are always already present and implicated in the human.”

Understanding matter as something active in the human-material relationship shifts attention to what matter does instead of what matter is. It is not about understanding matter’s primary qualities, its essence, its being. Instead, it is about understanding matter in non-essential terms, as something whose properties are defined by its relations and are thus susceptible to change because its relations are changing. Importantly, to say that matter is active does not simply grant them some form of agency. Instead, it offers a way of reconsidering what action is by attending to the actual events in which materials are active and produce certain effects. Materials cannot be understood when stripped off their relations as it is only through the relations that they enact their particular qualities that make them what they are. However, this is exactly what we do when we focus on the materiality of objects. A focus on materiality misses the changes that materials go through together with its vagabond, variable qualities. This is a move to the flows of materials rather than taking them as clear-cut, self-enclosed objects.

Besides these three well articulated tenets of a process-relational approach, Pyyhtinen provides several beautiful examples of what a process-relational approach foregrounds in everyday, mundane phenomena. For example, Pyyhtinen draws from Calvino’s illustration of taking a shower:

“The solemn act of taking a shower ‘puts me in touch with […] thousands of years of human civilization and with the birth pains of those geological eras that gave our planet its shape’. This to say that there are different temporalities, places and activities folded into my action and making it possible. It is only thanks to the labour and inventions of various generations before me that I am able to wash up by simply turning on a tap and have clean water running out of the wall. Dams, the summoning of water to tanks, the Romans and their aqueducts as well as engineers with their equipment, calculations and know-how – all are required. And the water that comes out of the tap gushes from a place more distant than the wall and is basically as old as the earth itself, having circulated the earth for billions of years. What is more, there is a series of complex technologies and infrastructures required, from sluices, tanks, pipe work, sensors, control boards and drains that condition the luxury of having running clean water of adjustable temperature. Not a single drop comes from the tap unless these technologies and infrastructures are stabilized and function properly.”

Through action (taking a shower) we are in touch with (or corresponding with) different temporalities and spatialities. Such an inquiry is mobile, it quickly takes the researcher away from the shower box at shower time to other times, places, and actions along chains and chains of associations. Any given action overflows with other actions that are already in the action coming from some other time and some other place. Because of these complex chains of associations, actors are often not even aware of all the different actions, temporalities, and places that an action connects to. The action of taking a shower is conditioned and made possible by the actions of several others in different places and at different times. And Pyyhtinen has more such incredibly articulate examples such as the becoming of food waste, a television set, and, drawing from Latour, the becoming of a ‘nose’. With these examples, he powerfully shows how a process-relational approach can help trace some of the connections between the human and the shower, TV, food, and odours and a whole range of other materials, practices, flows, and people.

In sum, Pyyhtinen argues us how a process-relational approach takes into account not only heterogenous non-human materials, but also several spatial and temporal scales and practices of scaling. As he shows through several examples, to do process-relational research about technology, we need to take into account the bits and pieces of our smartphones and laptops, the global markets of rare earth materials, the climate change induced by their mining practices, as well as the temporal scope of our events from the milliseconds of CPU cycles to the lives of future generations who need to live on this planet. This is a type of analysis that is very similar to Kate Crawford’s work in Atlas of AI. However, Kate uses a book to do such “scaled” analyses. How one is supposed to do just that within the scope of a research paper remains to be seen. Nevertheless, what such analyses offer us is an understanding of, no matter how contemporary digital technologies may seem, they are never contemporaneous with our actions and interactions. These socio-technological flows come from different times and have their own temporality that differs not only from the particular action, but also from our experiences, memory and finite life.