In this entry I return to a topic that has arisen in several previous entries (10 Dec. 2017; 31 Jan. 2020; 30 April 2020) – the place of ontology in research that draws upon WPR and related approaches (e.g. governmentality). For a couple of decades at least social theorists have expressed concern about the “linguistic turn”, described as the over-reliance on language as the key to meaning making. In its place, there has been an “ontological turn”, re-emphasizing the importance of materiality. 

However, just what is intended by a “turn to ontology” is contested. A broad range of theories, described as the “new materialisms” (Gamble et al. 2019), contend that it is important politically to recognize the “agency” of “objects” as “actants” – how “matter” is “lively”, how it makes things happen. A key point in these arguments is the need to bring more-than-human activity into political analysis. In this and the subsequent entry I consider what is at stake in these “new materialisms” – why they are proving so popular and how WPR engages these perspectives. At the heart of the discussion are disagreements about ways of being political and the nature of critique. 

Put briefly, WPR accepts a relational ontology that emphasizes how “things” are produced in practices. A basic proposition is that “problems” do not simply exist, waiting to be solved, but that they are produced in policies. Policies, it is argued, are problematizing practices. They produce “problems” as specific sorts of problems. These produced “problems” are not simply representations of what is “real”; rather they are “real” because they shape how lives are lived. Other languages adopted to describe this process include “performativity” and “enactment”. This reference to production of “the real” indicates a particular ontological stance.  The focus is on the political generation of the “real” – a position captured in the phrase “ontological politics” (Mol 1999; Pellizzoni 2015). The argument here is that, since “the real” is produced in practices, it could be different. And since it could be different, it is always political.  

Annemarie Mol usefully explains the implications of this perspective for researchers. She points out that such a view challenges the common sense understanding of research as “throwing light” upon social processes and activities, assumed to be stable and examinable. Rather, in line with the focus on the productivity of practices, the argument follows that our research practices produce realities: “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations” (Mol 2002: 154; emphasis in original).

The question becomes – does this argument constitute a “new materialist” perspective? If not, how does it differ? Mol (2012: 380) clearly indicates that in her understanding there is a critical distance between what she intends in her references to “ontological politics” and the “new materialists” who are garnering so much attention. She explains that her position starts from the proposition that questions about ontology are not philosophical questions but political ones – hence the coined phrase “ontological politics”. In this stance, researchers are not engaged in debates about “what is real” or “what is unreal”. Rather, it is a matter of how different realities are produced and how different versions of reality ought to be valued – “Which version might be better to live with? Which worse? How, and for whom?” (Mol 2012: 381).

Mol’s concern about the “new materialisms” is that, in her view, they tend to treat “matter” as a stable and singular entity (Mol 2012: 381). By contrast, she emphasizes that “matter never is ‘itself’ all by itself”:

“Even when it is not being interpreted, matter is never alone. For it may well be that matter acts, but what it is able to do inevitably depends on adjacent matter that it may do something with.” (Mol 2012: 380; emphasis in original)

According to Mol, “the new materialism forgets these relational engagements and affordances”, and ends up “naively echoing natural science textbooks and journal articles” about the “existence” of “matter”. As a result, argues Mol (2012: 381), “Decades of work in STS [Science and Technology Studies] is being disdainfully discarded”.

Mol proceeds to characterise the STS position as “relational materialism”, a phrase that also appears in the work of Thomas Lemke (2015: 16). Lemke (2018) finds the focus on the “vitality of matter” in many new materialist accounts inadequate. His particular target is Jane Bennett (2001, 2004) and her “vibrant materialism” (Bennett 2015). To describe matter as “vibrant”, as “active, forceful and plural rather than passive, inactive and unitary”, says Lemke (2015: 4), is insufficient to explain the relationality of matter. Instead of attempting to see “matter” as having “agency”, we need, in Lemke’s (2018: 42) words, to attend to “the relationality of how materialities work in concert”. Instead of asserting that “matter” can be separated from interpretation, meaning and discourse, we need to recognize “a dynamic ensemble of matter and meaning” (Lemke 2015: 14). For example, there is a need to look at how “material artefacts have progressively been subject to monitoring, assessment, regulation and management” (Barry 2013: 6 in Lemke 2018: 48: fn 10). We need, in other words, to examine how certain “things” come to matter. I take up this argument in the next entry where I discuss Latour’s “matters of concern”. Importantly, while Lemke (2015) acknowledges the usefulness of the new materialist challenge to the anthropocentrism of much governmentality theory, he argues that Foucault can be used to analyse the “government of things”, embracing the human and non-human.

Given Mol’s and Lemke’s arguments, it seems important not to lump together all theoretical contributions that engage with questions of “ontology” under some general rubric of “new materialism”.  Indeed, if one follows Mol (2012: 380-381) – and I am tempted to do so – it seems to have become dangerous politically even to mention the word “ontology” due to the way in which the “new materialisms” have marked out and claimed the “ontological” terrain. However, with Lemke (2015, 2018), I think it is possible to lay out my concerns and hesitations about much of the “new materialism” while retaining the argument that practices produce realities, including “problems”, “objects”, “subjects” and “places” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

At the risk of over-simplification, several intertwined propositions underpin this argument. Allow me to list them before I elaborate:

First, reality is produced in repeated practices.

Second, reality is multiple.

Third, reality as singular is an accomplishment; it is “done”. 

In the first proposition reality does not precede the mundane practices through which we “interact” with “it”. Rather, it is shaped within those practices. Reality is produced through repeated practices, through reiteration and “performance”. In other language, “reality” is described as “emergent” or “in process”, “shaped in ongoing interactions with discourses and other practices” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 4, 85; see also Fraser 2020, and Lancaster and Rhodes 2020).

The second proposition follows. Because practices are multiple, so too are the realities they produce: “if reality is done, if it is historically, culturally and materially located, then it is also multiple. Realities have become multiple” (Mol 1999: 75, emphases in original). For instance, Mol talks about “different atheroscleroses” as different enactments of atherosclerosis, one performed in the clinic and a second performed in the pathology laboratory. The former builds its understanding on patient symptoms and the latter on blood tests. Says Mol (1999: 77) these two atheroscleroses are “different versions of the objects, versions that the tools help to enact”.

Accepting realities as multiple, the question becomes – how is “reality” experienced as singular? How do we come to talk about “reality” as if it is obvious and uncontested? The third proposition, therefore, is that the singularity of reality is an accomplished “fact” – it is something that is “done”. Law (2004) refers to this activity of producing a singular reality as “reality work”, describing how the world is made (performed, enacted). Part of this “reality work” involves the installing of “collateral realities”, background assumptions that shore up a particular version of reality (Law 2011). This active production of “reality” signals its political character. Basically, “reality” could be otherwise. 

Recognizing that our research practices actively produce specific “realities” – that they are not “windows” on the world, but that they interfere with it (see Mol, above) – produces the obligation to reflect on the realities we as researchers create. For example, referring to “nation-states” as a part of a study on “international relations” – a seemingly innocuous research practice – reinforces the “reality” of “nation-states”, firming up their existence and accompanying geopolitical power relations (Bacchi and Ronnblom 2014: 179). The terms we adopt, therefore, are not innocent “explanatory” devices; instead, they play a central role in “world making” (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 4). 

The flipside of this insight is the possibility of designing research projects that create new realities, which Lancaster and Rhodes (2020: 4) describe as “the inventive possibilities of method”. It is this proposition that Fraser (2020) explores in her work on “ontopolitically-oriented research”, which “sees reality as fundamentally iteratively produced in spatio-temporally specific encounters”.  Fraser emphasizes how new research practices – that is, practices that differ in character from positivist practices – are required to produce new realities. She offers the example of her research on designing a new safe injecting fitpack “to better serve couples who inject together” that employed “videotaped sitdown practice encounters with couples (rather than, say, through short opinion surveys” (Fraser 2020: 8).

In Fraser and in my own work, references to “ontology” refer to “reality work” as in Law, not to “the vibrancy of matter”, as in Bennett. “Reality work” or “world-making” research recognizes “a dynamic ensemble of matter and meaning” (Lemke 2015: 14) and explores “the relationality of how materialities work in concert” (Lemke 2018: 42).

I am suggesting here that there are starkly different trajectories within a broad “ontological turn” – i.e., the focus on “reality work” in STS and the emphasis on “vibrant matter” in “new materialisms” – and that these distinctions raise a host of important questions about the relationship between theoretical stances and politics. Fraser (2020: 4) notes that seeing all inquiry as constitutive of its objects of study leads to the need to consider “whose realities count”.  Lemke argues that the “new materialist” focus on “vibrant matter” is associated with a conciliatory approach to political disputes. He describes Bennett as intent on ending the “blame game” in politics, rendering obsolete any idea of a “strong responsibility” (2010: 37 in Lemke 2018: 43) – i.e. holding any particular group or subject responsible for outcomes we consider dangerous or deleterious. There are links here to a long-standing tension in the relationship between critical theory and scientific “truth”, a tension explored in the next entry.


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