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 interactions 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 [0263-2764(200210)19:5/6;23–33;028404]

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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 everchanging social phenomenon ‘the Christian Church’. Grammatical Models How do we get the idea that there are any ‘social substances’? The characteristic grammatical mark of the existence of a substance is the use of a noun (substantive) in discourses about the domain in question. However, Wittgenstein has warned us against taking superficial grammatical forms as authentic 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

Harré – Material Objects in Social Worlds


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 indefinitely 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 represent a kind of distillation of narrative conventions that have survived translations 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 garage. 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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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).

Harré – Material Objects in Social Worlds


What is ‘An Object’? All this leads me to challenge the very idea of An Object, and the commonsense 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. Affordances In Gibson’s original sense an affordance is a material disposition, the consequent 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, threatening, 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 narrative. 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 narratives 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 narratives 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


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 description 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.

Harré – Material Objects in Social Worlds


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 contradictory 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.

Grammar 1 Lay Story _ Medical Story Pills Tics: Grammar 1
Figure 2 Contrary Meanings of Little Round Things



è Grammar 2 é

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 technical grammars has recently been reversed by some authors (Sabat, 1994). But in most contexts in which things get drawn up into narratives, technical 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, nevertheless the same story? Is Anna Karenina more or less the same story as Madame Bovary? Lévi-Strauss used binary oppositions and formal transformations 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 affordance. 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 available to the protagonists. This would provide a general methodological formula for incorporating material things and structures into microsociology. 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

Harré – Material Objects in Social Worlds


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 mountains 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 signifier of the ridge pole resting in the fork of the vertical columns of the framework, 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 individual 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 narrative 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 arrangements 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 maintaining 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 maintained 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 interpreted 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 territories 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.

Harré – Material Objects in Social Worlds


Served with caviar it is an expression of grandiloquence, but served with shepherd’s pie it is an expression of pretentiousness.
Note 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. References 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: 157–66. 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.

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