Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies


Sociality/Materiality: The Status of the Object in Social Science

9-11th September 1999

Department of Human Sciences
Brunel University
Conference to be held at Brunel University, 9-11 September 1999.

Keynote speakers
Main streams
Costs and registration

Keynote speakers

Keynote Speakers Confirmed:

  • Bruno Latour
  • Rom Harre
  • Karin Knorr Cetina
  • Roy Boyne
  • William Pietz
  • John Law
  • George Ritzer


The key challenge for this conference is how we can rethink traditional conceptions about the performance of social order and social relations in the face of the newly appreciated impact of material environments and the socialising effect of 'things'. In view of the 'weakening' of traditional views of social reality as an entirely social realm, a familiar issue resurfaces: what holds society in place? If (post)modern societies are able to survive on much less structure, cohesion, or foundation than social theorists have generally assumed, how much cement, how much 'existence' does the social actually need? And what is the stuff that it is made of?
Various new approaches in the anthropology and geography of material culture, in science and technology studies, in the new sociologies of consumption and risk culture, and in art criticism, have pointed towards an understanding of the performative and integrative capacity of 'things' to help make what we call society. By emphasising how much the social is ordered, held, and 'fixed' by the material, these new approaches pose a critical challenge to mainstream social theory, which has only been marginally interested in relationships between humans and nonhumans, culture and nature, or society and technology.
This conference is designed to promote cross-fertilizations between these various 'new materialisms', and to the forging of critical links with more classical tropes and themes in the history of thinking about institutionalisation, reification, fetishism, and the 'realisation' of social facts. By focusing more intently upon the social life of objects and the expressive, retroactive, or 'interpellating' effects which they have on human behaviour, our hope is for the conference to reinvigorate and alter the terms of classical debates about idealism vs. materialism, realism vs. constructivism, agency vs. structure, or essentialism vs. fluidity and difference.

Main streams

The conference will be organised into 4 main streams:

  • Fetishes and Facts:

  • new approaches to fetishism in anthropology, science studies, art criticism, cultural studies, psychology, feminism
    cultural property
    beyond idealism vs. materialism
    things at risk/risky objects

  • Realising the Social:
    realism and constructivism: opposition and/or compatibility
    performativity and social reality
    how virtual is society?
    approaches to reification

  • The Culture of Objects:

  • the materiality of place
    art(ificial) objects
    emotional objects
    object-centred sociality

  • The Disorder of Things:

  • social ordering and complexity
    the fluidity of objects
    streams of materialisation
    objects and topology

Costs and registration

The costs of the conference will be:

Full Rate (including all meals and 2 nights accommodation): 185
Non-resident Rate (including all meals except breakfast): 135
Concessionary Rate - for Postgraduates (all meals and accommodation): 135

Details of costs for additional nights are available on request.
If you would like to attend the conference please contact the organisers Dick Pels, or Kevin Hetherington or Frederic Vandenberghe, for a booking form.

Details of the conference programme and abstracts will be posted to these pages in due course.

The conference organisers can also be contacted by snail mail at:

Dick Pels
Department of Human Sciences
Brunel University


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Contents current at 22nd January 1999