Marres and Participatory Relevance

As an addition to this post Marres has a new ahead-of-print article in Social Studies of Science building on her concept of ‘experimental political ontology’. It is available (subs. only) here.

This last week I have delved into two books. First up was John Law’s (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, second was Noortje Marres’s recent title Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics (2013). Both authors I’m relatively familiar with already and I’ve been dipping into Material Participation on and off for a while but have reserved a complete read of it until now. Law’s I read across two sittings without having touched it previously. What is perhaps obvious from scanning each title is both books have different objectives. Nonetheless there are similar aims in both; to re-define a concept. Put somewhat pithily, Law wants to open a dialogue on the concept of method, although it is far from a traditional methods textbook. Marres on the other hand, wants to start a discussion on the material nature of political participation. Both come from an STS background. Law has worked with the likes of Annemarie Mol and Michel Callon, whilst Marres was a student of Bruno Latour so their respective titles can be said to overlap if academic association is our only multiplier of interest.

The aim of this post is actually to tease out some of the greater passages of Marres’ book and place them in relation to my own work. Law’s will be positioned as an ambitious attempt to reconstruct the nature of method in the social sciences that tallies and overlaps with Marres’ desire to re-mould the nature of political participation. For my own work, the former affects how I can handle the latter.

Because I want to keep this relatively sweet I’m actually going to restrict myself to a discussion of Marre’s final chapter (‘Re-distributing Problems of Participation’) rather than wade through every single one. It is in this section that Marres expands on her notion of ‘device-centred’ political participation and engages with some cartographic metaphors employed by sociologist Alfred Schutz back in the 1960s. Whilst the first, perhaps needless to say, is a driving force of Material Participation, the second is a more cursory point to introduce a discussion of relationalism which I think can be fed back into digital mapping theory.


When Marres talks of ‘devices’ she means tools, technological apparatus’, gadgets and nothing else. Devices like energy calculators, monitors and everyday interfaces. The type touted by utility companies to calculate water, gas and electricity prices ‘more accurately’, or for consumers to reduce energy consumption and cost or for educators to involve young people in environmental narratives of social responsibility. What Marres wants to use Schutz for is to ‘call[…] into question the wisdom of assuming a fixed geometry of [political] relevance’ (143). He borrowed the term ‘isohypse’ from cartography to further this notion of relevance. Schutz’s use of the term was designed to draw attention to lines of equal significance, contours of interest, or isohypses of political relevance. Marres’ greater point of reference is the notion of the ‘community of the affected’ as she discussed in chapter 2 – that swirling abstract mass of people in some way embroiled in a matter or issue. The world of GIS and digital mapping hasn’t escaped (in fact, readily embraced) the more instrumentalist appropriations of the phrase in the way of cost-benefit analyses of planning decisions and wind-farm construction, for example. Marres’ cases also readily spin on environmental narratives.

In both her talk of devices and political relevance, however, Marres wants to foreground immanence and emergence rather than background and projection. Everyday devices allow a material form of participation to bubble up. Schutz’s cartographic metaphors point to a kind of ‘topological’ political community built not on typological categorization but on agential capacity. Both deny that only strict geometric arenas for participation can exist (parliament, judicial inquiry, courtroom). Both understand the rabid nature of political formation and de-formation.

Marres’ debate in Material Participation has particular implications for how we can think through digital mapping practices. If we take this double assault (device-politics and topological politics) into the world of digital mapping we can say two things. Firstly, that digital maps as deployed on devices can be political in their use (and not simply in their institutional origin) and secondly, that digital maps operate on the basis of relevance or theme rather than geometric distance per se. Far more actors can be brought into the arena if we follow these two methodological pillars. This is why Law’s After Method teams up nicely with Material Participation. Both are attempts to reconstitute the nature of a concept (method and politics) and shift its boundaries – shift the debate. Both prove useful if we want to (perhaps ambitiously!) re-conceive the practice of digital mapping. Use of a digital map can problematize political action irregardless of whether it is a military map of enemy territory, an automobile sat-nav for everyday commuting, or a mobile urban zombie game. These ‘heterogeneous assemblies’ as Callon and others have called them, implicate humans in everyday politics, the kinds of isohypses of relevance that Marres seeks to tease out in Material Participation.