Observing Materiality in Organizations
Research on materiality has grown rapidly over the past 10 years, highlighting the influence of physical artifacts and spaces in organizations, which had been overshadowed by discursive approaches. This body of research enriches our understanding of organizations in many areas including technology, decision-making, routines, learning, identity, culture, power, and institutions. However, researchers sometimes struggle to select methods suited to study materiality, as previous works have not been explicit in that respect. This article calls organizational researchers interested in physical environments – that is, artifacts and spaces – to integrate observation into their data collection. The first section presents a tripartite definition of the physical environment including activities, conceptions, and lived experiences. Ontological debates are introduced, and observation is proposed as a relevant method for studying materiality in organizational research. The second section presents observation techniques based on three approaches: observing materiality in actions, observing beyond seeing, and making participants observe. Each approach is mainly associated with one of the three components of materiality. The final section discusses the scope of observation techniques, suggests how to combine approaches, and flags difficulties associated with visual techniques.
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