What can actor-network theory’s approach to analyzing objects offer to cultural sociology? To answer this question we ask a more specific one: How does materiality affect people’s experience of art in a museum exhibition? Research at two museums suggests that non-human agents—object and words—interact with human bodies to choreograph the art encounter. This process works through interactions between two processes of emplacement: physical position and cognitive location. Position guides location in the process of meaning-making, a relationship mediated by three mechanisms: distance, legibility, and orientation.
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We conceive of STS as an interdisciplinary field that draws predominantly from sociological, historical and philosophical literature (Pickering 1995, 1, n. 1). Throughout this paper we primarily refer to STS scholarship that has informed sociological studies of science by focusing on the objects, routines and practices constituting the production of scientific knowledge.
For example if a lost walker asks someone she encounters on the road “Where am I?” and the reply is, “You’re a mile south of Bristol,” the answer describes position. If a professor goes off on a tangent during a lecture and then asks, “Where am I?,” and a student responds, “You were talking about Weber’s definition of sociology,” this answer describes location. Sociologists typical regard “place” as space that is meaningful (e.g., Gieryn 2000, 465), and while we agree, we contend that the physical relationships among objects allow for meaning to emerge or fail to emerge.
This paper focuses on the Weberian strand in cultural sociology that emphasizes meaning-making and socially-shaped cognition, notably prominent in sociological analysis of art, and pays less attention to other significant strands such as ritual analysis (Alexander 2004; Collins 2004), production-of-culture (Becker 1982; Crane 1992; Peterson and Anand 2004), or theories of culture-in-action (Swidler 1986; Vaisey 2009).
In an important turn in the late 1970s, laboratory ethnographers studying the routines of scientists in the lab viewed science as work, practice and talk, examining the role objects played in making that work possible (Knorr-Cetina 1981; Latour and Woolgar 1986/1979; Lynch 1985). Ushering in this “practice turn” first broadened the concept of agency to include material agency (Pickering 1995, 9–13).
Casper and Clarke (1998, 257) have highlighted how the “symmetry” principle in ANT discounts some of its political implications by reducing all human and non-human actors to the same analytic stature in sociological studies of social interaction. We argue both objects and people can potentially shape interpretation and action, while still leaving room for inequalities in how power operates with different configurations of actants, rendering some actants more or less powerful in shaping meaning and action. Relevant to this paper, Hetherington (2000, 2002, 2003) has explored these possibilities in studying the museum experiences of visitors with visual impairments. In an alternative approach that also embraces the agency of objects and the power of materiality, Gell (1998) argues that art objects are “secondary agents” that distribute the agency and intentions of the people producing or circulating them.
In noting this we align with scholars who question ANT’s minimization of external forces that might shape action within a given network. Frickel (1996, 31–34) has pointed out that actor-network theorists “typically leave open the questions of when and where external forces may be invoked as useful explanations for the success or failure of scientific or technological projects. Their implicit answer typically is never” (see also Collins and Yearley 1992).
This is Latour’s distinction between when actants are intermediaries versus mediators (Latour 2005, 37–42). Intermediaries are objects that perfectly transport meaning without transforming it. No matter how complex the internal dimensions of a mediator, the meaning is clear, singular, and predictable. Mediators, on the other hand, “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (Latour 2005, 39).
In offering this, we wish to highlight the small number of studies drawing upon ANT in their study of museums (Acord 2010; Hetherington 1999, 2000). Latour himself (1987, 225) has highlighted how museum staff’s growth, conservation and display of their collections manipulate complex scientific ideas into manageable representations.
Portland, Maine is a small city with big cultural aspirations. The Portland Museum of Art occupies three buildings, ranging from an 1801 federal design house to a 1983 post-modern main building designed by I. M. Pei’s firm, in a rather seedy downtown that, typically, urban officials have labeled “the Arts District.” Its collection of 17,000 pieces has a particular focus on Maine artists—Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth—though it also has extensive American and world holdings (its website boasts that the PMA has the largest collection of European art north of Boston). Each year the museum gets 160,000 visitors, mounts roughly 15 changing exhibitions, and has an annual budget of $4.6 million.
The Whitney is the world’s preeminent repository of American art. Its collection consists of approximately 19,000 works of 20th and 21st century American art, with a particular focus on art from the early 1900s. The museum has a longstanding commitment to showcasing the work of young and emerging artists, and its signature exhibition, the Biennial, is the world’s leading survey of contemporary American art. On average, the museum serves 350,000 to 400,000 visitors annually and there are nine to 12 major exhibitions on view over the course of any given year.
While counting and mapping is a time-honored technique within museum and visitor studies (see Falk and Dierking 1992; Hooper-Greenhill 2006 for a review), these strategies have typically been used to assess how exhibition traffic varies by social group so as to generalize more broadly. However, recent literature in the vein of “new museology” (Vergo 1989) has called for a move away from behaviorist studies of visitor attributes to more ethnographically informed research focusing on how visitors interact with installations and negotiate their meaning (Fyfe 2006, 43–44). This move further calls for bridging the practical work of museums with more theoretically and empirically informed academic study (Hooper-Greenhill 2006; Macdonald 2006). In offering ANT and cultural sociology as apposite theoretical frameworks for studying how people make meaning in museums, we suggest that in conceiving of visitors as active interpreters, researchers should not lose sight of how material environments act upon people to constrain and enable those interpretations.
Babon (2006) has made this point quite clearly by demonstrating how cognitive understandings of place affects meaning-making in the interpretation of public art.
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The authors worked equally on this paper. We want to thank the curators of the exhibitions under consideration in this paper: the co-curators of Maine Moderns, Senior Curator Susan Danly at the Portland Museum of Art and Professor Libby Bishof of the University of Southern Maine, and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Dana Miller, Curator, Permanent Collection and Diana Kamin, Senior Curatorial Assistant. We appreciate the great feedback from our anonymous reviewers and guest editors Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Diana Graizbord, and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz. In addition, we would like to thank Fernando Dominguez-Rubio and Jennifer Lena for comments on earlier drafts. A version of this paper was presented at the American Sociological Association meetings in 2012. Please send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Griswold, W., Mangione, G. & McDonnell, T.E. Objects, Words, and Bodies in Space: Bringing Materiality into Cultural Analysis. Qual Sociol 36, 343–364 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9264-6
- Cultural sociology
- Actor-network theory