Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Theorising the object-seeking social actor

Object transitioning, sensual practice and the unfolding materiality of social life

Dr. Ian Woodward


This research concerns the role of objects – material and non-material – in animating, directing and enrolling social action. It explores the boundaries and limits of who and what constitutes economic action through an exploration of the uses of a material approach to consumptive behaviours, with particular regard to the uses of object-relations psychoanalytic approaches in theorising commodity relations. The material approach to sociality – which in its strongest version is based on analysing haptics, pragmatics and techno-interaction – has in part developed as something of a reaction to recent dominant cultural approaches in the social and cultural sciences which emphasise meaning, interpretation and symbolic communication. The new material models work radically outside and beyond cultural accounts, de-emphasising their traditional assumptions and epistemological forms. In exploring the uses of both material and cultural approaches to economic actions, this project seeks to integrate both models through the object-relations approach. One a more ambitious level, it seeks to make a case for an expanded theory of economic action that incorporates the principles of an object-relations theory of materiality into its models.

Taking materiality as its central concern, and dealing especially with questions of actor-commodity relations through the idea of ‘object transitioning’ as a social practice which is part material-pragmatic and haptic; part psychological and emotional, this project begins by applying literatures within object-relations psychoanalytic theory to consumption studies. It uses the conceptual apparatus of the object-relations approach to propose an innovative way for theorising aspects of some consumption practices, conceptualising them as a process of objectified imaginative elaboration and self-transformation, as suggested by object-relations theory. It develops the idea that meaning is performatively constructed, or bought into being, from fusions of object-centred pragmatics with imaginative engagements that temporarily stabilise the meaning and use of commodities through various practices.

The project commences with D. W. Winnicott’s work as a point from which to integrate broader literatures on aesthetic experience and subject-object relations. In linking theories of practice to matters of ordinary consumption, routines and habits, embodied performativity and the role of things in structuring economic life this approach has been in part inspired by actor-network theories and also approaches within the sociology of science and technology studies. However, while it focuses on practices, things and materialities, it seeks to make stronger links between embodied practices or haptics, imagination and emotion through the deployment of Winnicott’s ideas and their extension into later psychoanalytic object-relations theorists such as Klein, Bollas, Bion and Ogden. In the larger scheme, what is a stake here is an expanded, cultural theory of economics, one which incorporates desire and the non-rational and fuses it with materialised theories of practice. In doing so, it is allied with recent cultural research, as well as work on the margins of economic theory, in highlighting how idealized, abstracted models of the economic actor which dominate mainstream economic theory are too narrowly conceived to capture the complexity of economic behaviours.