Sociology and the New Materialism: Theory, Research, Action


Nick J. Fox & Pam Alldred

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  • Copyright

    About the Authors

    Nick J Fox is honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield, UK, in the School of Health and Related Research. He is the author of books and papers applying new materialist and posthuman approaches to a range of sociological topics including health, sexualities, emotions, creativity and research methodology.

    Pam Alldred is Reader in Sociology and Youth Studies in the Department of Clinical Sciences, Brunel University London, UK. She has researched sexualities and sex & relationship education, gendered and sexual violence, and the views of children and young people, lesbian mothers and young mothers on inequalities and education and social policy issues. She has published on research methods, particularly feminist and discursive approaches, and is lead editor of the Handbook of Youth Work Practice (Sage, 2017).

  • Glossary

    Note: q.v. (quod vide, or ‘see this item’) indicates a term also appears within the glossary.


    Action by citizens to effect social change or to improve or ameliorate social conditions.

    actor-network theory, ANT

    Approach to social theory and research that recognizes objects as agents operating alongside humans in networks or assemblages.

    affect economy

    The interaction of affective movements circulating within an assemblage that together establishes its capacities.

    affect, affectivity

    May be used to refer to emotions, but in this book affect is used to connote ‘something that affects or is affected’.


    Used in sociology to describe action, usually associated with humans, and sometimes contrasted with social structure (q.v.).


    A micropolitical movement within an assemblage that establishes similarities between persons, bodies or objects.


    An unofficial term used by some scientists to describe a sub-division of geological time during which human activity has affected the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.


    A perspective that takes humans as the central focus and the standard against which other animate or inanimate entities are judged.


    A philosophical position that rejects and seeks to overturn humanist assertions of the inherent value of human thoughts, beliefs and/or actions.


    Common translation of agencement (arrangement) in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, connoting an unstable coalescence of relations (q.v.).


    In Marxist dualist theory describes the economic foundations of a social system such as capitalism upon which a superstructure of social relations may be built.

    becoming, becoming-other

    A process of transformation usually associated with an increase in or diversification of capacities to act.


    A branch of philosophy focusing on biology, the biological and issues concerning life.


    The body of biomedical theory, understood in terms of biological function, and comprised of inter-dependent organs.


    A term used by Deleuze and Guattari to refer to the limits of what a body (a biological body or any assemblage of relations) can do, in terms of its capacities.


    An ability to do, think or desire; in new materialist theory capacities are not considered as fixed attributes but as properties of bodies or things emergent within particular contexts.


    In Marxist theory, capital refers solely to economic resources such as money, raw materials and the means of material production (factories, machinery); this economic capital was supplemented in Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis to incorporate symbolic capital (respect, reputation), social capital (social connections, mutual obligations) and cultural capital (knowledge, skills).


    An economic and social system that establishes and promotes private ownership of the means of economic production, requiring workers to sell their labour to the owners of capital, in return for a wage.


    Map-making, used in Deleuzian and feminist materialist theory to describe an approach that aims to map the flows of affects, power and lines of flight (q.v.) in an event or assemblage, recognizing that mapping is itself experimental and a ‘becoming’ (q.v.).


    A social theory of knowledge that focuses upon humans’ construction of a shared understanding of the world. Extreme versions regard these social constructs as the only knowable entities, in contrast with realism (q.v.). See also ‘post-structuralism’.

    critical psychology

    A strand within psychology that questions the individualism of the subject’s mainstream, to offer a more social and political analysis of psychological phenomena.

    critical realism

    A philosophy of (social) science that seeks to disclose the mechanisms that underpin social events, though acknowledging that these mechanisms may be affected by social processes.

    cultural capital

    See ‘capital’.


    In science fiction, an amalgam of living tissues and machines; in materialist theory also used as a metaphor to acknowledge that culture and nature are both material.


    Conventionally understood as an absence to be filled by the acquisition of a desired object; used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe a force or affect productive of actions, interactions or ideas.


    A generalizing process within an assemblage that counters specification, definition or territorialization (q.v.).

    diffractive methodology

    An approach developed by Donna Haraway and Karen Barad in an effort to avoid linear representations and explore interferences, for instance by reading multiple data sources together, or reading different theorists alongside one another.

    dualism, dualistic

    The division of a phenomenon into two opposed or contrasting aspects, such as male/female.


    The study of interactions between organisms and their environment.


    An approach to social inquiry (q.v.) that emphasizes the importance of observations of events. In materialist ontology, an empiricist focus is underpinned by the proposition of the ‘exteriority of relations’ (q.v.) which considers that an entity’s capacities depend entirely upon its relations to other assembled entities.


    An aspect of the philosophy of science that addresses how these things can be known by an observer.

    essence, essentialism

    A perspective that holds that an entity such as a body or a stone has intrinsic attributes or properties that define it absolutely.


    An occurrence in time and space marked by some kind of physical, social, cultural, psychological or other interaction by assembled relations; events comprise the flow of history and to social production and as such are the focus for materialist social inquiry.

    evolutionary psychology

    An approach that explores which aspects of human psychology are associated with evolutionary processes of natural and sexual selection.

    exteriority of relations

    A principle in materialist theory that an entity’s capacities depend entirely upon its relations to other assembled entities, rather than because of essential or interior attributes or characteristics.


    A hypothesis formulated by chemist James Lovelock in the 1970s that argues that the Earth is a complex, self-regulating ecosystem.


    A micropolitical process within an assemblage that increases a relation’s capacities; synonymous with ‘de-territorialization’ (q.v.).


    A Foucauldian concept that addresses the social shaping of conduct through the disseminated operation of power and knowledge throughout a society.

    hegemonic masculinity

    A concept used by some sexualities theorists to refer to the dominant form/s of masculinity in particular societies; contemporary Western forms are founded upon heterosexuality, homophobia and misogyny.


    A societal understanding that asserts heterosexuality as a norm and other sexualities as deviant.

    historical materialism

    A theory of history most closely associated with Karl Marx, in which a society’s organisation and development are understood in terms of the material processes associated with economic production.


    A view that asserts the inherent value of human thoughts, beliefs and/or actions.


    In sociology, a perspective that emphasizes the role played by human ideas, beliefs and values in shaping both society and our capacity to gain research knowledge of the social world.

    intensity, intensification

    Used in this book to assess the strength of affectivity within assemblages; the process of increasing affective intensity.


    A neologism coined by Karen Barad (as an alternative to ‘interaction’), to stress her view that entities are not prior and independent, but themselves emerge from their ‘intra-active’ relationality with other entities.

    line of flight

    An extreme de-territorialization (q.v.) – an ‘escape route’ from territorialization – that opens up hitherto untapped capacities for a body or thing, and may lead to the formation of novel assemblages.

    linguistic turn

    A term sometimes used to describe the shift within the humanities and social sciences to post-structuralist (q.v.) concerns with language, texts and knowledge as the basis for social organisation and power.


    The quality of being composed of matter; also used as a plural noun in new materialist theory to describe the range of things capable of having material effects.


    Used here to describe the internal movements of power and resistance within assemblages; contrasted with ‘macro’ level politics applied in social science to examine social movements or governments.


    An era from about 1800 to the present day characterized by application of rational and/or scientific efforts to elucidate the world (for example by observation, experiment and the development of theoretical models), and linked to ideas of social and scientific progress through the exercise of these techniques.


    A term (deriving from physical chemistry) used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe aggregated relations, or aggregative affects within assemblages (see aggregation).


    A term (deriving from physical chemistry) used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe unique or singular relations and affects in assemblages.


    A philosophical perspective that considers that phenomena inhabit a single realm or are comprised of a single substance (for example, matter), in contrast to dualistic (q.v.) ontologies.


    A set of market-oriented practices, and a philosophical and policy orientation towards individualized self-interest and the market as the foundation for most if not all human interaction.


    Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical project to develop a science and strategy for living that celebrates and encourages becoming and diversity rather than norms and aggregation (q.v.).

    non-representational theory

    An approach developed in human geography by Nigel Thrift and others that focuses on events, activities and practices rather than representations such as human accounts, texts and images.


    A term introduced by Karen Barad to make the point that events and observation are part of the same phenomenon – their ‘intra-action’ (q.v.) means that issues of epistemology are intimately linked to ontology.


    Concerns propositions about the fundamental nature of things and the kinds of things that exist.

    post-colonial studies

    Critical approach to the history and the cultural and material legacies of colonialism and imperialism.

    posthumanism, posthuman

    A philosophical position – most clearly articulated by Rosi Braidotti – that acknowledges the continuities between human and non-human, nature and culture. The post-human is the assemblage reflecting these continuities (see also ‘cyborg’).


    Perspective in the arts, humanities and social sciences that is suspicious of the commitments of modernism (q.v.) to rationality, science and grand theories of the social and the human subject.


    A range of philosophical perspectives in the arts, humanities and social sciences that reject structural explanations, seeking to explore the links between knowledge and power, as exemplified in the work of Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard.

    quantum mechanics

    A branch of physics that explores the behaviour of sub-atomic particles and waves, recognising the interactions between events and observers.

    queer theory

    Critical and deconstructive approach within social theory that acknowledges the constructed and therefore contextual character of the social world, rejects essentialism, and decouples and reverses the conventional relations between sex, gender and sexuality.


    Philosophical perspective that asserts the existence of entities independent from human constructs; in contrast to constructionist (q.v.) approaches.


    Approach that seeks explanations of complex events (such as social organization) in terms of more ‘basic’ processes (such as biology, biochemistry or genetics).


    In Deleuzian theory, the components comprising assemblages, defined by their relational (rather than essential) capacities.

    responsibilize, responsibilization

    A technique of power that seeks to make an individual responsible for their own actions and conduct.


    See territorialization.

    rhizome, rhizomic

    Metaphor used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe a branching, reversing, coalescing and rupturing flow, in contrast to linearity.


    Deleuze and Guattari’s alternative to psychoanalysis, an approach that encourages complexity, de-territorialization (q.v.) and becoming-other.


    Used in this book to describe an affect (q.v.) that acts uniquely upon a single relation, in contrast to aggregative (q.v.) affects that operate on multiple relations.

    social capital

    See ‘capital’.

    social inquiry

    Use of research and theory to make sense of the social world.

    social construct

    Idea or concept that contributes to a shared understanding of the world. See also ‘constructionism’.

    social structure

    A term used widely in sociology to denote processes or systems of social relations that influence (often constraining or limiting) human actions and interactions.

    social stratification

    The categorizations or aggregations (for instance into classes, races or genders) by a society, culture or by social scientists.


    An approach that claims that much human social behaviour may be explained by evolutionary needs; in particular, the need to pass on genetic material through reproduction.

    sociological imagination

    A term coined by C. Wright Mills to connote the insights that sociology can bring to the understanding of social processes.

    sociology of associations

    A term used by Bruno Latour to assert his monist (q.v.) view that sociology should attend solely to the material connections between entities (both ‘social’ and ‘natural’).


    Used in this book as an equivalent to the Deleuzian term ‘territorialization’ (q.v), to describe how affects (q.v.) circumscribe capacities.


    In Marxist dualist theory, describes the culture, structures and social relations between people; contrasted with the economic base (q.v.).


    A term in Deleuze and Guattari’s work (related to the French concept of terroir, which recognizes the influence of environmental factors on the qualities of produce such as wine and honey) that addresses how an entity’s capacities are specified by its relationships in assemblages.

    text, textuality

    In post-structuralism used to describe any symbolic or representational system.


    A breach or contravention of a code, law or ethics of behaviour.

    transversal, transversality

    Cutting across; used in this book to describe new materialist ontology’s relation to sociological dualisms.

    turn to matter

    Shorthand term for the move towards materialism in the social sciences, arts and humanities; contrasted with the ‘linguistic turn’ of post-structuralism (q.v.).


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