Room for Silence: Ebola Research, Pluralism and the Pragmatic Study of Sociomaterial Practices
The notion of sociomaterial practices speaks to a view of routine work in which people and materials are always already entangled. This implies that the commonsense tendency to treat concrete materials and social activity as separate analytical categories may actually muddy more than illuminate our understanding of practices. Engaging work from science and technology studies, this broad view of materiality refers not only to the physical properties of machines but also to software and algorithms, electrical grids and other infrastructure, buildings, human bodies, ecological systems etc. Despite remarkable enthusiasm, the conversation about sociomaterial practices occasionally has devolved into philosophical turf wars, engendering pleas for pluralism. All too often, such lofty conceptual debates lose sight of pragmatic concerns such as technology design work or humanitarian action. This essay traces both issues to a tension between adopting a grand philosophical Ontology, versus undertaking detailed empirical studies of particular concrete work practices. I argue that studies exploring the practical specifics of particular sociomaterial practices should be granted room for silence with respect to some theoretical commitments, on the grounds that this will afford a more lively pluralism. For ethnomethodologists, this re-orientation to grand theory is a matter of methodological rigor and theoretical sophistication. For pragmatists, room for silence has to do with the dilemma of rigor or practical relevance. This is not to say that key concepts are unnecessary—they can provoke us to look beyond narrow disciplinary confines and standard assumptions about the scope of field studies. Through an account of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I show how these conceptual debates matter for empirical research and for design practice. In this case, complex technical and biosocial processes made a concrete difference in the course of the outbreak and the humanitarian response to it. For practitioners no less than for researchers, this case throws into sharp relief the real human stakes of grasping how the material world gets caught up in workaday human activity.