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The turn to materiality in the social sciences


In recent years, so-called soft governance has played a major role in governing education. The inclusion of soft modes in the repertoire of governance is indicative of a new way of governing that has been shaped by a massive increase in the quantity and scope of comparative measures and by the production of educational standards. Soft governance is a system of rule that uses mobilizing techniques and non-governmental agents to govern at a distance.

In order to capture the proliferating regime of soft modes of governance, or what we also refer to as incentive-based governance, the research programme Policy Futures explores new ways of examining policy processes inspired by recent innovations within poststructuralist philosophy, often referred to using terms such as performativity philosophy, new materialism and post-humanism. This turn to materiality is rooted in a critique of the privileging of mind over matter. Recent thinkers – Karen Barad in particular – have argued that discourses have material consequences. Furthermore, they have argued that ‘matter’ has agency. It has been suggested that this recent movement within the social sciences can be viewed as an intensified demand for more materialist modes of analysis across disciplines such as anthropology, economics, political science and sociology. For many social scientists, the increased focus on ‘how matter comes to matter’ is shaped by a critique of what they understand as the linguistic turn.

Policy futures draws inspiration from this turn to materiality since it enables analysis of how a thing materializes or manifests itself. We understand non-human agency as integral to policy and administrative processes, drawing on new materialism (Barad), Actor Network Theory (Latour) and assemblage theory (Deleuze). In our view, the turn to materiality moves beyond a focus exclusively on the human-social realm by providing a way to incorporate material dimensions of agency. We use these materialist modes of analysis to examine, for instance, the agency of specific policy instruments, such as comparative scorecards, graphs, tables and follow-up reports, and of administrative instruments, such as algorithms and measurements of data units.