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Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory

In this essay, we reconstruct a keyword for communication—affordance. Affordance, adopted from ecological psychology, is now widely used in technology studies, yet the term lacks a clear definition. This is especially problematic for scholars grappling with how to theorize the relationship between technology and sociality for complex socio-technical systems such as machine-learning algorithms, pervasive computing, the Internet of Things, and other such “smart” innovations. Within technology studies, emerging theories of materiality, affect, and mediation all necessitate a richer and more nuanced definition for affordance than the field currently uses. To solve this, we develop the concept of imagined affordance. Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers. We use imagined affordance to evoke the importance of imagination in affordances—expectations for technology that are not fully realized in conscious, rational knowledge. We also use imagined affordance to distinguish our process-oriented, socio-technical definition of affordance from the “imagined” consensus of the field around a flimsier use of the term. We also use it in order to better capture the importance of mediation, materiality, and affect. We suggest that imagined affordance helps to theorize the duality of materiality and communication technology: namely, that people shape their media environments, perceive them, and have agency within them because of imagined affordances.

Peter Nagy and Gina Neff. 2015. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory,” Social Media + Society, July-December 2015: 1–9. DOI: 10.1177/2056305115603385

Learning from documents: Applying new theories of materiality to journalism

This article briefly reviews theories of materiality emerging in communication technology studies and organizational communication and then suggests three ways that journalism scholars might apply these theories to studies of news production. How journalists work, how journalism is shaped within newsrooms, the ways the news industry is changing, and ultimately, the effects of digital transitions can all benefit from including a focus on the ‘objects of journalism’. First, objects, such as documents, help scholars describe the social settings where objects are found. Second, the objects of journalism help scholars uncover lines of authority, contexts of news routines, and richness and persistence of news practices. Third, studying the objects of journalism can help explain the persistence of so-called residual practices that might otherwise seem dysfunctional in digital news. Materiality theories can help journalism scholars explain the impact of the transition to digital news on the work and practices of journalists and the news industry as a whole.

Journalism, January 2015 vol. 16 no. 174-78. DOI: 10.1177/1464884914549294

Materiality: Challenges to Communication Theory

Increasingly, communication researchers are issuing calls for attention to the role materiality plays in communication processes (e.g., Boczkowski, 2004; Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008; Leonardi & Barley, 2008; Leonardi, Nardi, & Kallinikos, 2013; Lievrouw, 2013). Resulting in part from the challenges of studying new communication and information technologies, this new focus on materiality offers opportunities for communication researchers to theorize beyond communication through, with, and, in some cases, without a medium to think about the material structures of mediation itself. In this chapter we propose a model for thinking through the communicative roles and functions of the materiality of everyday objects, by using one type of objects, documents, as an extended theoretical example of the importance of materiality for communication.


Neff, Gina, Brittany Fiore-Silfvast and Carrie Sturts Dossick. “Materiality: Challenges to Communication Theory,” International Communication Association Theme Book 2013: Challenging Communication Research. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp 209-224.