Reconnected in a Disconnected World: The Role of Objects in Shaping Practices

Author: Rebecca Harrison recently completed her Masters degree in Engaged Anthropology at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, after a rewarding career in medical diagnostic imaging. Her studies were supportive in her transition to her current advocacy role in the  Patient Involvement Unit within the Royal College of Physicians in the UK.

There are movies you watch but never imagine you will take part in. Horror stories, apocalyptic scenes, and stories of human endeavour in the face of extreme adversity. And then, just like that, there we were. Oxygen shortages, mass burials, a race for a vaccine, lockdown, social distancing, herd immunity, new words for new sensations.

Those first few weeks were about finding our feet after the rug had been pulled from under them. We panic bought, scrambled to get groceries online and watched the terrifying sight of patients supine in intensive care on a permanent newsreel loop, trying to make sense of the possible consequences for the human race. Our leaders took central stage, we closed our borders, looked to the science and let’s be honest, feared for our lives.

A few weeks in and what now? How do we cope with this new normal? Realisation edged in that we were in this for the long haul. The human race had to readjust; and for me, just like so many others, the readjustment was reverting to the “local”, in this case, the streets around my suburb of a Midlands’ town in England. Our activities became restricted to within five miles of our home, our lives constricted to a small circumference beyond which it was illegal to cross.

Our local streets became our sole stomping ground, yet walking the same route everyday had some unexpected gains. I have lived in my house for ten years, but only knew my neighbours well enough to nod on the way from the car to the doorstep. We never imagined we would be stopping to chat at length, getting in shopping for those without access to the internet, and generally looking out for each other. These walks became everyone’s social lifeline.

And then, on these very streets, actually on the very ground, something intriguing started to happen. At first there was the odd one or two. Pebbles of differing shapes and sizes, decorated with bright, cheery images and short messages. “Smile” they said, or “be happy” they instructed. Then the activity increased. Little clusters of pebbles arrived, some in plain sight at the base of a lamppost, others snuggled under a shrub, waiting for someone to say, “I’ve found one”.

Painting images on pebbles may at first sight suggest this was a game for the local children to play, but there were clearly plenty of intricately designed stones left by adults who added to the growing network of delights.

Having just completed my Masters in Anthropology, I was struck by the use of these objects to communicate. During my studies I had been particularly interested in the work of Latour, Mol, Law and others, who suggest that objects are actors in their own right.

Indeed, my dissertation looked at the role of objects in shaping practices, and I conducted an investigation into Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as a means to reveal their place in human relationships. ANT is interested in the connections that occur between humans and non-humans, believing that everything that exists in the world is the outcome of an interaction between human and non-human actors, and that this chain of networks has potential to produce change in the course of action of the “actants” (Latour 2005). ANT offers an opportunity to reveal connections, and why orders hold in a particular way, and is about observing this network of things and people.

Were these pavement stones a real-life example I was seeing before me? As humans, we depend on shared social processes. We all look for ways to communicate, share experiences, and my research had shown me that objects are not passive in this process; they are made of a multiplicity of layers. There is agency of the objects themselves, allowing humans to reflect on their own position, to create alliances and to provide strong relationships with other actors in the network.

These pavement stones offered a means for inclusion, a way for us to actively participate in the process of communication. Here, a simple process of painting pebbles had constructed the setting for the flow of information from one actor to another.

Pavement stones had enabled us to reflect on this pandemic journey, to create something of ourselves, to leave something of ourselves. They resulted in a relished opportunity for those around us to express our thoughts. They had an influence on the conversations taking place. Would these conversations have taken place without the presence of the stones? The messages and cheerful images were tending toward the positive, with encouragement and playfulness, and whilst not addressing the darker side of the situation, the stones had at least broken down a difficult situation. Somehow, we had found a way to be reconnected in a disconnected world.

We can learn from objects that are on exhibition in this way, and by directing conversations towards the objects we can give access to an alternative voice. The street offered a way to give the stones centre stage, allowing human relations to hold together and to seek comfort in shared experiences.

As Latour would say, by observing and following the life cycles and trajectories of objects, we can discover how people are drawn together in a network of relatedness. These stones reveal that the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.

Further reading

Latour, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory. Oxford. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

[All photos in this blog courtesy of the author.]

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