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Material Objects in Social Worlds

Rom Harré

Introduction: Substances: Bits of Stuff and Material Things

HILOSOPHERS USE the word ‘substance’ for two kinds of beings.
Individual substances or just plain individuals are those beings which
are identifiable and re-identifiable in a domain of other beings of the
same sort. Individuals are semipermanent bearers of at least some group of
permanent properties. But philosophers and lay people alike also use the
word for stuff, for solids, liquids and gases. What is a ‘controlled substance’
but a kind of stuff that people are not supposed to make, possess or ‘use’?
The category to which this article is devoted is the common material object,
a non-living individual that occupies space and time, and is capable of
interacting with human beings. Some material things are passive in relation
to people, other things are active. Whether something is passive or active
is largely story-relative. Stuff figures in this article only in so far as it comes
in bits, chunks, droplets, samples and so on.
Social Reality
There are two presuppositions defining the conception of ‘the social’ that
animate the analysis to follow.

1. A social world is an ephemeral attribute of a flow of symbolic interac-
tions among active people competent in the conventions of a certain
cultural milieu. The major mode of symbolic interaction for modern
people is discursive, involving the performance of meaningful actions,
such as making gestures, moving material stuff around and shaping it,
using linguistic forms, and so on. Taken jointly the flow of individual
actions constitutes social acts such as promising, pleading, entertaining,
buying and selling, and so on. A social world just is a relatively coherent
and enduring pattern of clusters of acts conforming to a certain loosely
bounded and unstable typology.
 Theory, Culture & Society 2002 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi),
Vol. 19(5/6): 23–33
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24 Theory, Culture & Society 19(5/6)

2. Vygotsky’s (1986) insight, that no higher-order mental function exists for
individual cognition unless it has first existed in the public activities of
a social group to which that individual belongs, animates everything in
this article. Individual acts of recollection as remembering are possible
only because an individual has been part of a family, say, and been drawn
into conversations in which people have talked about the past. It is in
this way that such important distinctions as that between remembering
and fantasizing become established. Our abilities to categorize have the
same source, namely other people categorizing with us and for us.

1 and 2 together are close to Giddens’s principle of double structure,
a socio-psychological pattern that is brought about through cyclical
processes of structuration. Competent people produce social worlds, from
which new members of a society acquire the competence to recreate them,
more or less. The flow of social acts may have attributes unknown to and
unintended by individual social actors.
There may be other notions of ‘the social’ that can play a useful part
in coming to understand how people live in groups but the ones just
sketched will suffice for the analysis of social objects to follow.
What Could be Meant by a Social Substance?
By a ‘social substance’ I will mean a material stuff that belongs to a category
that is defined in terms of the properties of some social world understood
in the ways just outlined. Thus the category ‘alcohol’ does not define a social
substance, while the category ‘communion wine’ does.
The latter category belongs in a system of categories including those
defining certain social acts the totality of which is the complex and ever-
changing social phenomenon ‘the Christian Church’.
Grammatical Models
How do we get the idea that there are any ‘social substances’? The charac-
teristic grammatical mark of the existence of a substance is the use of a noun
(substantive) in discourses about the domain in question. However, Wittgen-
stein has warned us against taking superficial grammatical forms as authen-
tic models of what there is. Everyday social talk, let alone social theory, is
full of grammatical substantives, but I will try to show that only those which
refer to discursive acts are what they seem. Nouns like ‘flag’ or ‘dollar’ or
‘shop’ are different from nouns like ‘water’, ‘sand’, ‘arm’ and the like. The
latter do not require any particular social setting to complete their sense,
while those in the former list do. They are indexicals. Social substances are
picked out by expressions the senses of which are incomplete unless related
to a particular flow of social acts, a particular social world.
The Principle of Genesis by Construction
Nothing exists in the social world unless it has been introduced into that
world by a human social and constructive act. By that I mean an act which
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fixes the category of the being in question, for instance a certain gesture as
a greeting, the utterance of a certain form of words as a death sentence, and
so on. The point of this article is to try to show that the same is true of how
a piece of coloured cloth can serve as a national flag, a small metal disc as
a coin, and so on. As Marx pointed out it is not technology that shapes a
social world, but the social arrangements that are required or adopted to
implement it. But contrary to what I think Marx thought there are indefi-
nitely many social arrangements by which a technology, defined in physical
terms, can be implemented as an industrial or agricultural process by real
human beings, with a history and traditions.
First Characterization of a Constructive Process
The discussion to follow depends on the following principle:
An object is transformed from a piece of stuff definable independently of any
story-line into a social object by its embedment in a narrative.

Fairy tales are full of such objects. It is not frivolous to draw on fairy
and folk tales for useful material and for model cases. These tales repre-
sent a kind of distillation of narrative conventions that have survived trans-
lations and transformation, partly, of course, because we all know those of
our own cultures. It would be a very isolated child who had never heard of
Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood. Indians know the stories of
Krishna’s adventures, Maoris knew about Maui though they probably know
more about Goldilocks these days, and so on. There is an important mirror
in Snow White, and Maui had a magic fish hook. In my wallet I have a magic
piece of plastic. Reflecting on these stories leads to another principle:
Material things have magic powers only in the contexts of the narratives in
which they are embedded.

By a ‘magic power’ I mean a power that is not an effect of the physical
properties of the thing in question, such as its shape, texture, chemical
composition and so on. The power of a form of words to set a war going is
a ‘magic power’. So is the power of a set of numbers of a slip of plastic and
a piece of writing as a signature to produce a Maserati Quattroporte in my
I turn now to exemplify the application of these principles in the
several ways a material thing can be embedded in a narrative, taking my
examples from fairy tales.
Narrative-relative Categories
1. Material things can serve as carriers of meaning, for the moment and in
the context of a story; for example, the porridge in Goldilocks and the
Three Bears.
2. Material things may be potent in a special way in the context of the story;
for example, the needle in Sleeping Beauty.
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26 Theory, Culture & Society 19(5/6)

3. Material things may have practical roles not, as it were, included in their
original specification; for example, Rapunzel’s hair.
4. Material things can change categories within the story; for example, the
straw in Rumpelstiltskin changes from organic to metallic.
5. Material things can be impediments to the actions that are presented as
proper in the story; for example, the tower in Rapunzel.

Note that the same kind of material thing can have a great many roles
open to it; e.g. a needle can be related to sewing, a haystack, direction
finding, removing a splinter, pricking a finger, and so on. Any one of these
could be given a magic force. Food is generally pretty dangerous in these
stories, a convention made much of by Lewis Caroll.
Narrative Binding
How are things bound into narratives? The three ways in which this could
happen that are described in what follows seem quite obvious and there are
no doubt others.

1. There are many cases of the Task/Tool Format. The narrative specifies
the task and this predetermines the category of whatever is to serve as a
tool. This format allows the parts of someone’s body to be incorporated
in a narrative. Hands for warding off the evil eye (the Hand of Fatima in
Islamic countries), the genitals for entertainment (as in Lady Chatterley’s
Lover), the sense organs for finding things (as in King Solomon’s Mines),
the brain for doing sums (as in Pickwick Papers’s Mr Micawber), and so
on. These tend to be story-relative. The very same organ of the very same
person could be used for something else in another story or another
episode in the same story.
2. There are many cases of Established Conventions. For instance bits of
coloured cloth become flags, clothes becomes uniforms, and so on. The
bits of coloured cloth that go to make a Union Jack may have different
‘valencies’ from those they would have to make a Tricolour, but in order
to have different story-roles the construct must be The British Flag. For
example if a group of protesters are going to burn some pieces of coloured
cloth they had better be arranged in accordance with the convention that
makes them this symbol rather than that.
3. There are also many cases of Informal Customs. For instance the role of
chocolates in gender relationship stories (remember the Black Magic
advertisements) is part of British male folk wisdom about women’s tastes
and susceptibilities.

Not only are the choices of these modes of binding story-relative. That
they are modes of binding at all tends to be culture-relative. There are
cultures without flags, others in which the evil eye is not a recognized danger
and so on. There are yet others in which chocolate figures only as a sauce
(mole) for turkey (pavo).
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What is ‘An Object’?
All this leads me to challenge the very idea of An Object, and the common-
sense assumption of a Single Narrative determined by the overt character
of an episode. To develop this point further a new concept is required, the
affordance. This will allow for a material thing identified by its material
attributes to exist as more than one social object, each identified by its role
in a narrative.
A Drop of Grammar
There are several possibilities left open by logic for choice of concept to
describe the properties that material things have, in so far as they can enter
into narratives as social objects. The most useful seems to be a special kind
of disposition the concept of which was developed by the psychologist, J.J.
Gibson (1979). This is the concept of an affordance.
In Gibson’s original sense an affordance is a material disposition, the conse-
quent of which is specified in human terms. The same material thing may
have a great many different possible ways in which it can be used. Each is
an affordance. Affordances are spatio-temporally located relative to well
identified material things and states of affairs. Thus a floor affords walking,
dancing, placing furniture; a window affords a view of the lake, an escape
from a threat, a view for a peeping Tom; a knife affords cutting, threaten-
ing, opening a window catch, and lots more.
Returning to social objects, it is important to remark that they usually
have multiple affordances, thus allowing for their multiple roles in a narra-
tive. For instance a needle affords sewing, so a princess may pick it up, but
it also affords finger pricking, so a princess may be magically put to sleep.
The practical affordances enable the plot to get under way, making a place
for the magical or potent one. Cakes afford eating, but also in Alice in
Wonderland, shrinking and enlarging.
Multiple Context-relative Affordances
Since there is usually more than one narrative unfolding in any familiar
story with multiple story-lines, material things as potentially social objects,
are Bohrian, that is have multiple context-bound affordances. I call them
Bohrian because like the affordances of subatomic set-ups they may have
contradictory manifestations or displays, for example a set-up can afford a
display of particles or a display of waves, but not both at the same time and
place. In each case there is a common description, wholly mathematical for
the sub-atomic realm, and wholly physical for social objects.
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Types of Double Narrative

Type 1
Both narratives use the same grammar, that is the same conventions for
constructing story lines.The material object involved in the paired narra-
tives in the example is a metal band with some pieces of mineral inserted
into it. Once very common, objects of this type are still found quite
frequently. The folk designation used in the stores that sell these objects is
‘engagement ring’.

a. His narrative: This will keep the other lads off. I’ve got the money, at least
it’s less than my Visa card credit limit. It will confirm what she said last night.
And so on.

b. Her narrative: This will show the other girls in the office that I can get a
man, and it will show some of my relatives too. It’s expensive so he must be
taking all this seriously. And so on.

I know perfectly well that the story-lines I have used in these narra-
tives sketches would be regarded by many among the readers of this article
as old-fashioned, out of touch and even sexist. I also know that this
‘grammar’ is still very much alive for a great many people. The grammar
provides a common repertoire for both the characters in the vignette. Each
can understand perfectly well what the other is thinking, whether or not the
thoughts are explicitly voiced.
The relationships could be expressed diagrammatically as follows in
Figure 1:

His narrative: Nm ç Grammar è Her narrative N f

Common Material Description

Figure 1 Multiple Meanings of Metal Bands

This set-up is not Bohrian since his narrative and her narrative, though
drawing on different social affordances of the metal object in question, are
not mutually contradictory.

Type 2
Each narrative is based in a different ‘grammar’, the pairing being due to
the common material stuff, of which there exists a possible common descrip-
tion intelligible to both authors. The common designation of the stuff is as
‘medicine’. But that may conceal a world of differences as the concepts of
‘medicine’ or ‘the pills’ are embedded in lay or professional discourses. Here
we come close to a Bohrian complementarity of affordances.
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a. Medical narrative: This polyphase inhibitor will inhibit the production of
serotonin and reduce the overall anxiety level.

b. Lay narrative: These pills will probably stop me feeling so anxious all the
time, bursting into tears and so on.

It is not at all obvious what the relation between the two narratives is
on any given occasion. They may be incompatible when combined into a
single story. Thus the occurrences of ‘anxious’ and ‘anxiety’ may be contra-
dictory in that there may be no bodily feeling implicated in its use in the
medical narrative.
In studies of the relation between sufferers, experts and support groups
in the context of Tourette’s Syndrome, Hamilton (personal communication)
has shown how the grammar of the medical narrative has penetrated the
grammars of the lay narratives. This has been a two-stage process. It began
with the two lay groups picking up a neuro-physiological account of the
causes of displays of tics and coprolalia, displacing lay descriptions. More
recently the seeming heritability of a tendency to develop the condition has
led the lay groups still further away from the original lay descriptions on
which Giles de Tourette based his diagnostic criteria. The gap has widened
to such an extent that someone can claim ‘Tourette’s’ on heritability grounds
alone, even when he or she has never displayed any of the standard
symptoms. So the third party in this structure, so to say, the materia medica,
is linked in quite complex and different ways to the dual narrative, as the
grammars have changed. Serotonin, let us say, is the stuff involved, but as
it is drawn up into a social world as a social substance its grammar takes
over the ordering of the entire narrative context for making sense of tics as
cases of Tourette’s Syndrome.
This structure can be summed up diagrammatically in Figure 2.

ç è Grammar 2
é é
Grammar 1 Lay Story _ Medical Story

Pills Inhibitor

Tics: Grammar 1

Figure 2 Contrary Meanings of Little Round Things

Hamilton’s studies show that as ‘Tics’ have faded from their once
central role in the semantics of ‘Tourette’s’ so the grammar of the Medical
Story begins to be used more and more by all concerned, sufferers, support
groups and medical professionals.1
Narrative Priorities
In the case of Tourette’s Syndrome we have an example of the power of the
technical grammar to displace the lay grammar. It also illustrates how
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unstable the everyday categorization of out-of-the-ordinary material
phenomena is. In cases where the entities are not material but discursive,
such as Alzheimer’s Condition, the order of priority between lay and tech-
nical grammars has recently been reversed by some authors (Sabat, 1994).
But in most contexts in which things get drawn up into narratives, techni-
cal grammars tend to have priority. We can see this in gardening and cooking
programmes on the TV.
The Identity Criteria for Narratives
There are always two identity questions tied up with each other when we
reflect on the meanings of ‘same’. By what criteria do we decide that one
and the same something has survived over time? By what criteria do we
decide when two somethings are the same and when they are different?
Where English has two senses of ‘same’, Spanish has two: ‘igual’ and
‘mismo’. The two languages share ‘identical’ (‘identico’).
When are we hearing the continuation or next episode of the same
story? When does a story begin and when does it end? Is a sequel another
story or just more of the original tale? Is Return of the Jedi the same story
as Star Wars? A criterion could be adapted from Propp’s functions, by which
the plot of any folk tale can be analysed (Propp, 1968 [1925]). When the
30-odd Propp functions have been passed through that is the end of that
tale, and, even if it is the same cast of characters, a new tale begins, with
the reappearance of Propp function I (a family member is absent).
When are two stories, distinct according to some criterion, neverthe-
less the same story? Is Anna Karenina more or less the same story as
Madame Bovary? Lévi-Strauss used binary oppositions and formal trans-
formations of patterns of opposition to try to show that superficially different
stories were, in some essential way, the same story. In this sense Anna’s and
Emma’s stories are the same. And they differ from the story of Pride and
Prejudice, while all three differ from that of Romeo and Juliet.
Why this digression? If material things become social objects in so far
as they are embedded in narratives then the question of whether this the
same or a different social object depends on whether and how this is the
same or a different story. If someone were to ask ‘What is the meaning of a
bridge as a social object?’ one would want to know whether it spanned the
Seine or the River Kwai.
These points can be related back to the important concept of an affor-
dance. Suppose one said that a material thing as a social object just is the
totality of those of its affordances that the embedding narrative makes avail-
able to the protagonists. This would provide a general methodological
formula for incorporating material things and structures into micro-
To take another example: how do we understand the retaining walls of
a prison sociologically? The above considerations suggest that there is no
general answer to the question. It depends on the story-line. For one who
considers himself or herself unjustly incarcerated the walls are barriers
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preventing entry into the world outside. For one who feels the prison is a
refuge the materially identical walls hold back the encroaching world. This
is a pretty banal observation but it is surprising how often it is overlooked.
Even Foucault (1986) never quite makes this point. The windows of the
Panopticon always afford surveillance, never a glimpse for the prisoner of
fellow human beings.
Limits on Transformations
So far in this discussion the question of intrinsic limits on the take-up of a
material thing into a symbolic system has been passed over. Can anything
become anything? Mount Everest and Olympus became the abode of the
Gods in the respective world pictures of Tibet and of the Homeric Greeks.
Would the market place at Lhasa or the beach at Piraeus have done as well?
Neither has the inaccessibility and scenic prominence that fitted the moun-
tains for their symbolic role. There are material attributes of these entities
that open up and limit their use as social objects. In Bourdieu’s famous
(1973) study of the Berber house, the proverbs that drew on the sexual signi-
fier of the ridge pole resting in the fork of the vertical columns of the frame-
work, once remarked on, seem entirely appropriate. The material properties
of things constrain the uses to which such things can be put in the local
social narratives.
This point needs rather careful qualification. It is true that which
beings are picked out as individuals and which properties are regarded as
important in the pursuit of the natural sciences are the products of belief
systems. Goodman (1978) makes the point that it is a convention that the
heavenly bodies are bounded in such a way that we see a universe of indi-
vidual stars. However, it is also true that such a convention only serves to
differentiate classes of beings if the material reality so demarcated will allow
it. The ocean affords currents but not individuals like stars. Once one sees
the heavens in terms of constellations, and that requires stars, further narra-
tive transformations can occur. Arab star gazers were able to discern some
different constellations from those discerned by the Greeks, embedded in
different narratives, but they also discerned some which involved the same
gestalts but having a different narrative significance. Even now Orion to
some of the inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere is the Iron Pot to some
of the peoples of the lands below the equator.
There is another line of argument that seems to offer counter examples
to the general thesis of this article. I have been arguing for the priority of
the symbolic order over the material in the genesis of social things. It has
been claimed that the physical, chemical and biological attributes of the
material environment constrain the possibilities of the social arrangements
required to effectively transform it for human needs. The tenor of my
argument has been that what is taken as salient from the indefinitely open
set of material features of an environment depends on the narratives
dominant at a certain time and place. To the contrary it might be claimed,
for example, that the role of the priests in predicting the annual flooding of
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the Nile could be argued to be the source of the way the social arrange-
ments for agricultural production in ancient Egypt were structured. The
geography of the Nile valley is the indirect source of Pharaonic social order.
Social Motivations Around Material Things
As I argued in my study of social rule systems (Harré, 1993), it is never as
simple as that. Human beings have always, so it seems, lived in a double
social order. One component consists of the social arrangements for main-
taining life in such and such an environment. This is the practical order
and people have their locally proper places in such an order. The other
component consists of the social arrangements for creating hierarchies of
honour and status. This is the expressive order. Material things can be
understood in their full human significance only if their roles in both these
orders are identified. A Maserati Biturbo Quattroporte is a useful device for
bringing the weekly groceries home from the supermarket. It is also a visible
expression of wealth, style and so on. Almost everything material that has
a necessary place in the practical order of a culture also has a possible place
in the expressive order. The narratives with which these orders are main-
tained are very different, it goes almost without saying. It is worth noting
that something that was hard to make and so valuable in the practical order
may be almost worthless in the complementary expressive order because it
is thought vulgar or gross.
This distinction was the great insight of Thorstein Veblen (1899). It is
to be seen in the narrative conventions of such publications as Hello! It is
also true that not everything that has a place in the expressive order has a
place in the associated practical order. As Veblen noted, breeds of dogs,
once upon a time established for hunting, can become detached from that
role and come to serve as accoutrements of style. As to social motivations
around material things, I believe an overwhelming case can be made out
for the priority of the expressive order over the practical (Harré, 1993:
192–203). I shall not argue that further in this discussion.
There is nothing else to social life but symbolic exchanges and the
joint construction and management of meaning, including the meaning of
bits of stuff. To become relevant to human life material beings must be inter-
preted for them to play a part in a human narrative. Interpretations require
grammars that are historically and culturally local. Vygotsky (1986) has
shown how grammars are maintained through the generations, and so how
interpretations can remain stable for centuries. This gives the illusion of
something being real in the way that a mountain chain constraining terri-
tories is real. Money is a case in point. Issuing and using a bank note is
just a performative act, a promise. So too is communion wine, the Stop sign,
and so on. These things are social objects only within the dynamic frames
of story-lines. It is the most ephemeral and ‘invisible’ product of human
action that is really real, the narratives that are realized in some social order.
Champagne is fermented grape juice, according to a vinicultural narrative.
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Served with caviar it is an expression of grandiloquence, but served with
shepherd’s pie it is an expression of pretentiousness.
1. Folk wisdom has it that analgesics, taken in large quantities, can be lethal. I
have heard that Tylenol does not afford suicide since there is a tiny quantity of an
emetic in each capsule. If a lethal dose is swallowed there is then enough emetic
to induce vomiting.

Bourdieu, P. (1973) ‘The Berber House’, ch. 18 in M. Douglas (ed.) Rules and
Meanings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Foucault, M. (1986) Discipline and Punish. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Gibson, J.J. (1979) An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston, MA:
Houghton Mifflin.
Goodman, N. (1978) Ways of World Making. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Harré, R. (1993) Social Being, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Propp, V. (1968 [1925]) The Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin, TX: University
of Texas Press.
Sabat, R. (1994) ‘Excess Disability and Malignant Social Psychology: A Case Study
of Alzheimer’s Disease’, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 4:
Veblen, T. (1899) A Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rom Harré is Emeritus Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford, Professor of
Psychology at Georgetown University, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy
at American University, Washington, DC. His published work includes
studies in the philosophy of the natural sciences such as Varieties of Realism
and Great Scientific Experiments. He has been among the pioneers of the
‘discursive’ approach in the human sciences. In Social Being, Personal
Being and Physical Being he explored the role of rules and conventions in
various aspects of human cognition, while in Pronouns and People, with
Peter Mühlhäusler and in The Singular Self he developed the thesis that
grammar and the sense of self are intimately related.