Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 39 (2014) 639–650
©2014 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation

Research in Brief

Performance as (Dis)organizing: The Case of Discursive Material Practices in Academic Technologies

Amanda J. Porter
VU University Amsterdam

Amanda J. Porter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information, Logistics, & Innovation at VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, Netherlands. Email: .

ABSTRACT  Recent theorizing in Science and Technology Studies (STS) has taken a “performance” turn. Performative approaches theorize how meaning and matter relate in the context of situated practices. Scholars of organizational communication have also turned to theorizing the relationship between matter and meaning in the context of organization. In this article, I bring together these two strands of theorizing to offer a unique lens to study materiality as a process of (dis)organization. Through an empirical analysis of an academic technology organization, I illustrate the “performance as (dis)organization” lens, detailing three “organizing moves” that encompassed the discursive material practices of academic technology coordinators: boundary working, context shaping, and relational bridging. I conclude by discussing how performance as (dis)organizing adds dimension to theories that take seriously the materiality of practice.

KEYWORDS  Performance; Disorganization; Materiality; Science and technology studies; Organizational communication

RÉSUMÉ  Les théories récentes en STS ont pris le tournant de la « performance ». Ces approches performatives proposent de théoriser la manière dont le sens et le contenu sont liés dans le contexte de pratiques situées. Les chercheurs en communication organisationnelle ont aussi théorisé les relations entre le contenu et le sens dans le contexte de l’organisation. Dans cet article, je réunis ces deux apports théoriques afin de proposer une perspective inédite pour l’étude de la matérialité entendue comme un processus d’organisation et désorganisation. À partir d’une analyse empirique d’une organisation technologique en milieu universitaire, j’illustre la performance comme perspective d’organisation / désorganisation, en mettant l’accent sur trois « mouvements organisants » qui englobent les pratiques matérielles discursives des coordinateurs technologiques universitaires : le travail de frontières, la mise en forme du contexte et l’établissement de ponts relationnels. Je conclus en examinant comment la performance comme organisante et désorganisante ajoute une dimension aux théories qui prennent au sérieux la matérialité de la pratique.

MOTS CLÉS  Performance; Désorganisation; Matérialité; Études des sciences et technologies; Communication organisationnelle

Meaning and matter meet in the space between organization and disorganization (Cooper, 2005; Hassard, Keleman, & Cox, 2008; Hernes, 2007). Recent theorizing in Science and Technology Studies (STS) has taken a performance turn oriented toward interrogating this relationship, focusing on the heterogeneous nature of practice (Bruni, 2005; Bruni, Gherardi, & Parolin, 2007; Higgins, 2007; Law, 2002; Law & Singleton, 2000, 2005; Pickering, 1995). Organizational communication scholars have likewise sought to unravel the relationship between these variables within the context of organization (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009; Cooren, 2004). In this research in brief, I bring these two complementary strands together by juxtaposing STS theorizing about hybrid processes with organizational communication theorizing about the relationship between hybridity and communication.

Adopting a “performance as (dis)organizing” framework, I examine how heterogeneous elements in specific contexts of organizational practice are (dis)organized through “the ongoing, situated and embodied process whereby human and nonhuman agencies interpenetrate ideation and materiality” (Ashcraft et al., 2009, p. 34). The results of the interpretive analysis set out below suggest that these practices are characterized by three organizing moves: boundary working, context shaping, and relational bridging. Each organizing move, in turn, explains: 1) specific discursive material practices; 2) the meanings these practices enact; and 3) the processes by which these meanings are organized.

The discussion in the next section outlines how the performance approach in STS can be combined with organizational communication approaches theorizing the relationship between matter and meaning to study materiality as a process of (dis)organization. This is followed by an overview of the methods used to analyze a university campus–based organization mandated to support technology-based research and teaching activities, and a presentation of the findings. The article concludes by setting out the implications of using a “performance as disorganizing” lens to study the relationship between meaning, matter, and organization.

A performance approach

How meaning and matter relate is a scholarly concern that surfaced in STS as a consequence of the questioning of long-held assumptions about agency. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in particular provides a logic for understanding the central role of matter in shaping what we term social by showing how non-humans make a difference in the world (Latour, 2005; Latour & Woolgar, 1986). In Laboratory Life, Latour and Woolgar (1986) aver that scientific work does not express fixed a priori truths about nature, but is, rather, something tenuously constituted through material practice. This turn to non-human agency raises a number of questions: If both humans and non-humans have agency, how do these agencies relate? How can we study non-human agency? For organizational scholars, what role does non-human agency have in the making and sustaining of organization?1

Since the opening of non-human agency to inquiry, STS scholars have theorized the world as being filled with myriad agencies. For example, Pickering (1995) develops a “performative idiom” to contrast representational idioms that cast science as mirroring nature and producing a world filled with facts and observations. A performance approach sees the world as filled with agencies where meaning is not a property of words or things, but rather an ongoing performance of the world in its differential becoming (Barad, 2003).

Although performance as a colloquial term often draws attention to the individual performer, performance approaches in STS theorize action as indeterminate and relational. Performance thus fragments what might previously be understood as unitary and seamless (Law & Singleton, 2000). Put simply, agency is seen to exist through relations with other agents as opposed to being an attribute of someone or something. In turn, knowledge is viewed as existing through connections, instead of the essences of acting subjects and acted-upon objects (Law & Singleton, 2000). What appears to be a “fact” is, from a performance perspective, a contingently constructed effect of sets of agencies.

Performance approaches have made significant advances in capturing material dimensions of practice. In classic accounts of performance, people perform surrounded by and using material props (Goffman, 1959). STS scholars shift the focus to show how material arrangements themselves are the result of relations, and cannot be taken for granted (Higgins, 2007). Through performance, it is possible to see the constitution of multiple material arrangements that STS researchers embrace as the “heterogeneous becoming of things” (Bruni, 2005; Bruni et al., 2007; Higgins, 2007; Law, 2002; Law & Singleton, 2005). For example, in his articulation of “relational materiality,” Law (1999) argues that what we call social is actually materially heterogeneous. Talk, bodies, and objects are all implicated in and perform the social. In other words, performances are the result of connections and networks constituting multiple and complex relations (Law & Singleton, 2000).

Performance provides a fertile ground for organizational researchers to examine how meaning and matter relate without reducing matter into a single form (Ashcraft et al., 2009). Performance approaches can interrogate meanings, agencies, and objects that come to appear fixed and stable in the process of organization. In so doing they pose new questions for organizational communication scholars: How do heterogeneous practices give shape to enactments of meaning? How is the boundary between subject and object constituted? What role do constituted agencies have in the making and sustaining of situated practices and organization? At the same time, approaches to performance in STS can benefit from theories of organizing. In recent organizational communication theories, the construction of particular meanings, subjects, and objects is posited as an accomplishment occurring in relation to the deconstruction of other meanings, subjects, and objects. In other words, organization is viewed as a process bound to disorganization (Ashcraft et al., 2009; Cooper, 2005; Hassard et al., 2008; Hernes, 2007).

Given the focus on how objects and subjects are produced, performance approaches appear to be well suited for unpacking the relation between matter and meaning as a process of (dis)organization. Moreover, performance as (dis)organization acknowledges recent critiques of ANT claiming that construction, connection, and stabilization of networks is often highlighted at the expense of deconstruction, disconnection, and change (Couldry, 2008; Herzig, 2004).

Site and method

An organization called Academic Technologies operating in a large state-university context was the site for this study. It contributes to the university’s educational mission by employing individuals called technology coordinators to troubleshoot, problem-solve, and consult with university instructors on a broad range of issues relating to their use of technology in teaching and researching activities.

A combination of semi-structured, in-depth interviews and participant observation was used to investigate the three organizational moves described above. Ten technology coordinators working for the organization were contacted, of which nine agreed to be interviewed. During these meetings the participants were asked to reflect on their practices when consulting with faculty about technology-related issues. The situated practices of technology coordinators also were observed in seven instances: four scheduled consultations and three spontaneous consultations. A further four instructional presentations in which technology coordinators demonstrated a particular technology to an audience of other technology coordinators were also observed, along with 10 hours of formal and informal meetings that took place between the technology coordinators and their directors. To analyze the data, a version of the constant comparative method of qualitative research was employed (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Organizing moves of academic technologies

We are a bridge between academics and central technology.
I really think that we are an entity in-between.

—Karen, Academic Technologies Coordinator

A performance lens assumes that all phenomena are ontologically indeterminate. As such, when observing meanings that appear stable and fixed, one must inquire into how these meanings take shape. The discursive material practices of the participant technology coordinators were characterized by three organizing moves: boundary working, context shaping, and rational bridging. Through each of these moves the organization they represent, Academic Technologies, was discursively and materially organized as an “entity in-between” other agencies in the university.

Boundary working

Occupational identity was a preoccupation of the participant technology coordinators. Defining their roles, comparing their practices to other technology offices on the university campus, and trying to understand how they fit into the university context were important practices for these individuals. Boundary working explains the process by which Academic Technologies was organized as distinct from the central technology office on campus.

Boundary creation: Technology coordinators as skilled thinkers

Defining the technology coordinators’ identity as different from their counterparts at the central technology office involved disassociation from the technological artifact and the practice of repairing malfunctioning technologies. This boundary creation practice is important because most instructors conflated Academic Technologies with the central technology office. However, these two entities relate very differently to the technological artifact. One participant technology coordinator, Derrick, elaborated on how the practices of the central technology office were bound to the technology itself:

I think central technology is mainly concerned with the technology, with the device. Is the device working, are there problems with it, what happens when we implement and install technology? That’s central technology.

Derrick explained how, in contrast, the situated practices of technology coordinators were not similarly bound to the technology:

If we were sitting at a table, we’d sit with the instructors. Instead of sitting on the other side of the table with the technology, pushing it over to the instructors, saying, “You must adopt this. You must implement this in your class.” Instead, I think technology coordinators are concerned with the instructors.

In order to create a boundary, technology coordinators work to remove themselves from the pronounced material relation with the technological artifact that defines the central technology office and to associate themselves more with the instructors with whom they liaise.

Individuals representing the central technology office focus on repairing malfunctioning technologies and take on a reactive, troubleshooting role. Technology coordinators, on the other hand, seek to avoid such repair work, focusing instead on helping instructors to use a technology to meet a pedagogical goal. Indeed, they actively disassociate themselves from the embodied practice of repairing technology. Explaining this practice, Karen, a technology coordinator, commented:

I think people mostly perceive me as being with central technology. I usually try to correct them. Not because I do not want to be a part of central technology, but because it really doesn’t reflect what we are doing. So I am trying to combat that I am the person that comes in and fixes their anti virus. I really want to distinguish because there is a difference. Academic Technologies is not a “Hey, fix this, it’s broken” type of service.

Being a technology coordinator requires a different skill set and identity than the embodied practice of repairing technology. Honing these skills is a regular practice in “think” meetings where technology coordinators develop their big-picture view of technology. Karen explained, “It is sort of like a community scholarship idea where we pick a topic or an idea and we all read on that idea and we discuss it. We are trying to feed ourselves and feed our interests and ask the bigger questions.” These “think” meetings allow technology coordinators to constitute their relation to technology at a higher conceptual level than the embodied practice of repairing technology. Regular discursive material practices of disassociation from the technology enact a boundary between the identity of technology coordinators and their central technology counterparts.

Boundary violations: Technology coordinators as reactive troubleshooters

Ironically, the practices that enact boundaries between the identity of technology coordinators and those working for the central technology office are subject to constant boundary violations. These overlaps occur in crisis situations where the brute materiality of malfunctioning hardware and software becomes the principal agent by which all other agents are associated. Recalling one such situation, Derrick noted:

One of my instructors’ printer driver needed to get installed for her to print. And so, she’s like, “Can you please help me, I’m like, I’m desperate, I just need to print this stuff out for the plane ride.” And so I was like, “Well, I can try to help you out here, let me see.” So, that’s where the boundary was kind of fuzzy. But I’m not mandated to help instructors with that stuff.

In these circumstances, technology coordinators are temporarily subordinate and reactive in their material relation to the technology. Derrick continued: “If I solved all their problems, if they [instructors] came to me every time and I was able to, like [snaps fingers], bam, it’s fixed, bam, it’s fixed, then it’s sort of like Pavlov’s dog. Ding! It’s fixed.”

However, a temporary superiority also is an enactment of the boundary violation “where you’re the hero for everyone.” An equally common occurrence in crisis moments is the “superman fallacy”:

A short, older, frantic woman comes darting into the office. She quickly explains that something needs to be fixed in her classroom. She leaves the room and Derrick turns to me and says, “Now see, this is not part of my job description.” We go down the hallway to a seminar-style classroom full of students. I stand at the door and observe while Derrick goes up to the laptop that is connected to a television and begins pressing buttons. Almost immediately he brings the image up on the TV screen. The instructor is visibly happy and explains that it took someone else 15 minutes to figure that out last week. Derrick jokes to the instructor, “You have to call the expert.” The instructor laughs loudly and seems pleased. Class is restored—the presentation must go on. (Field note #6)

In these instances, technology coordinators are drawn into a material relation with the errant technology. Boundary violations such as these enact a reactive, troubleshooting identity for technology coordinators, forcing them into an association with the technological artifact and the “fix it” practices of their colleagues from the central technology office.

In sum, boundary working is accomplished through two, often contradictory, discursive material practices: boundary creation and boundary violation. Ultimately, instances of the latter, which occur frequently, deconstruct the differences that the former strives to construct. For technology coordinators these practices are a relational effect that simultaneously enacts a dual identity consisting of skilled thinkers and reactive troubleshooters.

Context shaping

Instructional technology consultation is a primary practice of technology coordinators. In these meetings, they provide support to instructors on how to use a technology. Context shaping refers to the process by which the context of instructional consultations is organized to shape perspectives of the technology. Two discursive material practices—decontextualizing and contextualizing—enact paradoxical control over these encounters.

Decontextualizing: Simplifying technology to manage control

The consultation between an instructor and a technology coordinator is a fragile environment where the egos of instructors are often in a tenuous relationship to technology. One interviewee, Lindsey, summed up the typical consultation as follows:

I would say, easily 90 percent of the cases where I’ve worked with people, people always felt extremely helpless. For people to disclose that they’re not comfortable or not knowledgeable enough to use a certain technology can be very vulnerable.

At the beginning of consultations, instructors are usually subordinate in their relation to the technology. To manage this tension, technology coordinators actively work to simplify the technology by reducing its agency and rendering it mute or harmless. Karen provided this example of the practice:

I will say things like “Computers are really stupid. I mean, the only thing they will do is what we tell them to do, and they are really not an intelligent sentient anything. And so you’re not the one with the problem; the computer is the one with the problem.”

Reducing a technology’s agency is integral to diagnosing the needs of instructors and requires the use of various tactics. Mike explained how technology coordinators begin by “factoring out” technology in order to diagnose the real problem:

I often get people who come in and say, “I want a website.” And so what I have to do is kind of back up and say, “So what do you want to do?” Factor out the technology and figure out what they want to do and then you can start to step the technology in. Unless you know what they ultimately want to get to, I think you can get lost in technologies really easily.

Technology is often removed entirely from the consultation in order to better control the definition of the instructional problem. By closing their laptops, technology coordinators factor out the technology during their consultations so as to facilitate conversation. Derrick summed up this practice as “black boxing” the technology.

The practices outlined above reduce the agency of technology, enacting a consultation environment in which instructors’ egos are managed in order to limit any loss of face and to control the definition of the instructional problem.

Contextualizing: Complicating technology to manage control

Given the fragile nature of instructional consultations, efforts at reducing the agency of technology often are accompanied by other practices that amplify its agency. Amplification takes place when a technology coordinator’s own sense of ego is on the line. Karen described the process:

There are times that I pull rank. They [instructors] are trying to figure out if I deserve respect, and so there are times when they will say, “That isn’t what my son who works with computers says.” And so I will pull out my highly technical vocabulary, and I will just start lambasting them with words that I know that they don’t understand and at some point they break. And they realize that like, “Oh, she is going to talk over my head if I am going to talk to her like that.” And so then we start to connect because there’s been this level of respect established.

As can be seen from the above comments, Karen may amplify the social and material relations constituting a technology to make instructors understand the complexity of a particular problem. She continues:

They [instructors] do not see why it is so complex to do something so simple. There are all kinds of layers that people don’t recognize, and so trying to educate people without overwhelming them is difficult to do. You have to make a choice about how far you go down the rabbit hole. I would say that most of the time people don’t want to know it. But if they are criticizing me for not getting something done in what they think is a timely manner, I start down that rabbit hole to show them what it takes to accomplish that. So it’s like, “Yeah, what is the big deal?” Why don’t you let me start with drawing you a diagram of all the different pieces involved [with this technology] and why I don’t have control over all of those pieces.

In addition to illuminating the material relations constituting technology, amplification practices enact control of the consultation, fostering an environment in which technology coordinators’ egos are managed so as to reduce their own loss of face.

Through these discursive material practices—which decontextualize and contextualize technology—a paradoxical control of the instructional consultation is enacted. This process of enactment is a relational effect. Decontextualizing creates a curtain behind which to hide the technology, while contextualizing exposes its material conditions.

Relational bridging

Another noteworthy practice of technology coordinators is bringing together different expertise and resources to solve problems with instructional technology. These practices connect multiple technologies and people both on and off campus. Bridging refers to the process by which gaps between expertise and resources are organized to problem-solve. Here, two additional discursive material practices are enacted: closing gaps and opening spaces in socio-material relations.

Closing gaps: Stabilizing socio-material relations

Bringing together the right technologies and people to fill needs that have not been addressed by academic departments and the central technology office is an important facet of Academic Technologies activities. Lindsey, a participant technology coordinator, summed up this gap and how her colleagues sought to close it:

I think we’re here to bridge the gaps in technology, meaning that if an instructor knows that there’s a certain part of his or her curriculum that he or she has not been able to teach, it’s our job to try to find a technology or even a teaching strategy to be able to deliver that curriculum.

Technology coordinators are well aware of their position as “in between” faculty and the central technology office. Bringing together heterogeneous resources and people to close gaps is their role. This is a process of being able to speak two different languages: one of technology experts and one of instructional experts. A primary skill for technology coordinators, then, is the ability to move seamlessly between these two realms. In Derrick’s words, “I have to translate.”

To solve problems with instructional technology often means technology coordinators have to go beyond the technology on campus. A technology coordinator, Sam, explained this practice:

I was able, using Facebook, to track this former student down and get him to agree to give up his email address so this faculty could get it. In a way, I was going between, because central technology said, “You know it’s not our policy, we can’t do anything for you.” So I kind of tried to go a little farther.

Here, we observe that closing gaps includes connecting new resources to address gaps in expertise. Closing gaps is a discursive material practice bringing together expertise and resources to solve instructional technology problems, thereby enacting stability in socio-material relations where unaddressed gaps may otherwise strain these relations.

Opening new spaces: Risking innovative socio-material relations

In addition to closing expertise and resource-based gaps, technology coordinators also enjoy pushing the boundaries of socio-material relations. An important practice for these individuals entails keeping on-campus resources and expertise fresh by proposing innovative ways of using instructional technology.

New configurations of technologies and expertise are often created through the discursive material practices of academic technology coordinators. One that was described by an interviewee involved using instructional technology to create a new collaborative online meeting system. Such a system had never been used before at this campus, and the interviewee had worked with several different technologies and departments to develop it. As she put it, “So I went over here to computer science and said, ‘I really want to get this done. Can we get this done?’ Yes [snaps her fingers]. Bam. Already developed it, already have it up.”

Innovative methods that push the boundaries of existing socio-material relations on campus are not always successful. They come with risks. While accounts of failure are less prevalent than success stories, technology coordinators readily recognize the possibility of failing. Opening new spaces of possibility is a volatile practice. As Mike explained:

There’s a lot of bridging bunches of areas, bridging a lot of people with a lot of different levels of expertise, and you’re bridging a lot of technologies, and the intersection of those changes a lot, so I think that’s what keeps the job interesting, what keeps it dynamic and interesting, but it also makes it feel like you’re not quite on solid ground yet.

Bridging encompasses closing gaps and opening new spaces in socio-material relations. The former creates stability for the socio-technical relations on campus, while the latter creates risk.


Using a performance lens to study the relationship between meaning, matter, and organization begins with an indeterminate ontology in which meanings, agencies, and objects are understood as relational effects emerging from discursive material practices. The analysis presented above highlights how a university campus–based organization, Academic Technologies, performed as an entity operating between instructors and the central technology office. This performance was illuminated through three central organizing moves: boundary working, contextualizing, and rational bridging. Two sets of related, yet often opposing discursive material practices constituted each organizing move. Relational effects of each move were the result of the dynamic between these opposing discursive material practices.

The analysis suggests that performance approaches in STS and organizational communication approaches can be brought together to study organization as a heterogeneous, (dis)organizing process. This cross-connection advances a highly contextual account of the “heterogeneous becoming of things” (Bruni, 2005; Bruni et al., 2007) wherein technology oscillates as subject and object in different situated practices. An implication of this type of account is that making matter visible requires that its granularity be examined at a given moment in time in a specific set of practices. For example, in boundary working, the technology revealed its material condition in moments of crisis, actually producing what it means to be a technology coordinator in that moment. Technology coordinators were objects of the errant technology. In context shaping, by contrast, saving face during instructional consultations actually obscured the material conditions of the technology, creating it as an object.

Performance as (dis)organizing shows how technologies perform in multiple ways. It suggests that material objects do more than provide stability in an actor network (Law, 1999). In the case discussed here, technology comprising the practices of technology coordinators called forth actors to act in certain ways, participated in making relations visible and invisible, and performed as tools used to accomplish specific tasks. One implication of this multiplicity is a shift in terms, from materiality the noun to materializing, the verb (Ashcraft et al., 2009; Czarniawska, 2008).

In addition to highlighting the fluid multiplicity of the material, the organizing moves observed in this study also reveal how important meanings, such as identity and control, are established through relational effects. For example, boundary working showed how the identity of technology coordinators was inextricably tied to the repair-centric practices of those employed by the central technology office and the (mal)functioning of technological artifacts. In context shaping, the control of the instructional consultation was inextricably tied to the ego of instructors and the material relations constituting the technology.

Viewing performance as (dis)organizing draws attention to the contradictory quality and nature of the relation between meaning and matter. In so doing, it extends the concept of relationality currently employed in existing STS performance frameworks and models. Organizing moves show how relationality manifests as tensions between inextricably related but often contradictory processes. For example, in boundary making, relationality (between technology coordinators, the central technology office, and the technology) occurs through processes of association and disassociation. Through boundary creation, the technology coordinators disassociated themselves from the central technology office and malfunctioning technology. Yet boundary violations brought these same elements into association. Since technology coordinators regularly performed both practices, the identity of technology coordinators was an effect of this contradictory process.

Organizing moves provide a vocabulary for naming the multiple modes of ordering and disordering “realities” in performance (Law & Singleton, 2000). Three realities that emerged as significant in this analysis are the (dis)organization of difference, perspective, and relational spaces. Boundary making occurred in service of constructing and deconstructing difference. Context shaping occurred in service of constructing and deconstructing perspective. Bridging occurred in service of constructing and deconstructing relational space. Organizing moves performed local conditions of exteriority and relational determinacy and indeterminacy (Barad, 2003).

In conclusion, the cross-connection between STS performance approaches and organizational communication approaches contributes to theories that take seriously the materiality of practice. Traditional Actor-Network Theory (ANT) studies uncover the web of heterogeneous relations that produce durability and are applied in organizational contexts to show the emergence of an organizational macro-actor (Latour, 2005; Law, 2007). This durable web shows the geometry of organizational hybridity. However, this article showed that matter and meaning exist not as a durable web, but as the continual process of simultaneous organization and disorganization (Cooper, 2005; Hassard et al., 2008). This approach adds dimension to an already robust geometry of hybridity by theorizing the relationship between hybridity and communication without tilting toward construction at the expense of deconstruction.


1.  See Czarniawska and Hernes’ (2005) edited volume for a more complete account of recent studies of organizations adopting an Actor-Network Theory approach.


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