Contexts, Contextures and the Polycontexturalization of Control Rooms

Hubert Knoblauch



Starting from a short sketch of the concept of polycontexturalization as proposed by Luhmann, the paper attempts to reframe it within the social theory of space. As it has inspired a series of research projects on highly diverse spatial phenomena, including our own study on control centers, I want to try to specify what we mean by polycontexturalization on the basis of our own empirical study. Since the conceptual frame of society as systems of communication – in which this sociological concept was first introduced – does not easily allow us to address the social role of space, I want to provide an alternative frame for a notion of communication in terms of communicative constructivism, which allows us to account for the spatiality of communication and, hence, polycontexturalization. This theoretical frame additionally allows us to distinguish three analytical dimensions which proved to be relevant in the empirical analysis of polycontexturalization: (subjective) meaning, social action/practices and objectivated structures and circulations. The paper then provides evidences from an empirical study in order to show how polycontexturality helps us understand the recent refiguration of control rooms and how the empirical study, in turn, helps us specify what we mean by polycontexturality. In this respect, the notion of contexture proved to be as helpful as its distinction from contexts. Guided by the three abovementioned dimensions, the paper then indicates how the recent waves of digitalization have refigured control in a way that objectifies the polycontexturality of control into technical systems. In the conclusion, the paper provides a short summary of the major concepts presented, focusing primarily on polycontexturalization.

1. Introduction

The idea of refiguration originally aimed to diagnose ongoing social changes in contemporary society, in general caused by growing tensions between a figuration based on centralized figuration and a figuration consisting of networked chains of interdependencies (Knoblauch, 2020). In interaction with Martina Löw and her social theory of relational space (Löw, 2016), we realized the central relevance of space for refiguration. Even more, we came to understand that the societal change we call refiguration is based on and expressed by space and the spatial logics of social action (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020). While acknowledging the role of globalization, refiguration should not only account for tendencies of transgressing space, but also for their countertendencies of delineation, bordering and divergence. The idea of refiguration of space is, admittedly, highly abstract, and so we suggested certain “sensitizing concepts” which allow us to look for empirical evidences and test them as hypotheses. The hypothesis of translocalization means that actions are increasingly connected across local spaces. Its multiple forms are subject to pre-existing research on mobility, migration and globalization. Our hypothesis of mediatization has also been subject to prior research. It shows how action in space depends on the kind of media available, and how much it is affected by media changes. Our research supports the thesis that digital mediatization plays a crucial role in the refiguration of space. Our third concept, polycontexturalization, however, had already been proposed in social theory by Niklas Luhmann. Although his conception of the term, ‘meaning reference to various functional systems’, did not relate to space in any way, it has inspired Martina Löw and me (2017) to gain a better understanding of the overall process of the refiguration of space. In this paper, I therefore attempt to reframe the concept in a way that opens it up to the social theory of space. As it has inspired a series of research projects on highly diverse spatial phenomena, including our own study on control centers (Knoblauch, Janz, & Schröder, 2021), I want to try to specify what we mean by the notion of polycontexturalization on the basis of and with respect to our empirical study.

Although some may object that such a specification of concepts exerts definitional power, it is undoubtedly one task of scientific work (even in the humanities) to have clear, coherent and consistent concepts, even if the things these concepts refer to are blurry, incoherent and irrational. Despite the increasingly fractal character of research, scientific work does imply the need to clarify the meaning of our basic concepts so as to allow researchers to discursively share their findings about what the object designates, the methods they used to arrive at these findings and the qualifications of both, the methods and the findings (Knoblauch, in press). In the case of sensitizing concepts, such as polycontexturalization, this can mean to identify empirical phenomena covered by this term. One aspect (as semanticists would call it) or attribute (as logicians would do) of this word is certainly provided by the discourse in which it has been proposed and used. This is the context of theoretical discourse, the definition of concepts and their relation to other concepts and conceptual frames (i.e. theories). In this respect, we must be aware that polycontexturalization already implies certain concepts also used in this discourse (such as “context” or “contexture”), which may be in need of clarification. In addition, the “qualities” observed in qualitative empirical research or defined in standardized quantitative research allow us to specify, correct or complement its meanings, its attributes or its aspects. In fact, it is for this reason that we investigate the phenomena qualitatively in order to identify their qualitative features, by, so to speak, “translating” them into linguistic ‘second order constructs’ (Schutz, 1962). [2]

Having made these general remarks (which are further elaborated in Knoblauch, in press), I must add that both the empirical research as well as the discussion of the concept of polycontexturality presented here are (rather early) ‘work in progress’, as this paper is based on the very first conference on this issue (Stollmann & Weidenhaus, this issue), and the process of empirical research is still ongoing.

In this paper, I want to first sketch the general concept of polycontexturalization and identify its basic meaning (2.). As the conceptual frame of society as systems of communication does not easily allow us to address the social role of space, I want to provide an alternative frame for the notion of communication in terms of communicative constructivism. This theoretical frame additionally allows us to distinguish three analytical dimensions which proved to be relevant in the empirical analysis of polycontexturalization: (subjective) meaning, social action/practices and objectivated structures and circulations. Having drawn these distinctions, I will (3.) turn to empirical study in order to show how polycontexturality helps us understand the recent refiguration of control rooms and how the empirical study helps us specify what we mean by polycontexturality. In this respect, the notion of contexture proved to be as helpful as its distinction from contexts. Guided by the distinction between the three dimensions, I then (4.) want to indicate how the recent waves of digitalization have refigured control in a way that objectifies the polycontexturality of control into technical systems. The paper will conclude (5.) with a short summary of the major concepts presented, focusing primarily on polycontexturalization.

2. Polycontexturality and the three dimensions of communicative action

In his final opus magnum (translated literally) “The Society of Society”, Luhmann (1997) introduces the notion polycontexturalization to social theory. In doing so, he explicitly draws on work in philosophical logics, where it is used to designate the connection of different logical systems implied in logical thinking. In his sociological understanding, Luhmann framed polycontexturalization within his theory of functional differentiation of modern society: According to this theory, modern society increasingly consists of different distinctly operating subsystems (such as economy, politics, science etc.). While the idea of functional differentiation is a theory that has been very common in sociology, Luhmann linked it to systems theory: systems, subsystems (and their subsystems) are (autopoietically) constructed by specific codes of communication. Law, for example, is essentially constituted by the code ‘legal’/’illegal’, or science by communication oriented towards ‘true’ or ‘false’, and religion by ‘transcendent’ or ‘immanent’. The conventional view holds that differentiation is gradually increasing in modernity; to Luhmann, however, the notion of polycontexturality indicates something of a countertendency: Communication increasingly needs to address different codes at the same time. That is to say, it increasingly demands that communication refer to different systems. It is this multireferentiality which constitutes one of the basic meanings of polycontexturality.

As abstract as this definition appears, there have been a number of rather convincing attempts to use this concept for empirical social research. In their studies on communication in hospitals, Jansen et al. (2015), for example, have even developed a method of “contextural analysis”; on the basis of interview data, they showed that polycontexturality even affects communicative interactions on the micro-level. The conversation between doctors, patients and nurses, they demonstrate, is guided by different codes at the same time: economic reflections on costs are intermeshed with medical demands for adequate care and the formal demands of bureaucratic organizations. Polycontexturality in this sense can be defined as a series of simultaneous references to different functional orientations in an ongoing ‘communication’.

The general definition of the notion is certainly helpful, but its theoretical framing by Luhmann has various shortcomings. Firstly, in his contribution to this issue, Schimank (this issue) reminds us that polycontexturality also includes references to structures of social inequality. Moreover, Luhmann’s notion of polycontexturality has a second shortcoming which is of particular concern to us. As Luhmann takes communication to be a “selection of meaning”, it covers space only indirectly. Time is considered a crucial factor to the processing of communication and to systems, yet “space” only plays a minor role, and the word “contexture” implied in polycontexturality is stripped off its material and sensual connotation as “fabric”. [3]

If we assume that communication itself is not only (sometimes) “about space” but “in space”, the spatiality of communication has been massively neglected in this theory. For this reason, we have proposed, instead, to draw up a theory of communicative construction which allows us to also consider the spatiality as much as the temporality of communication or, to be more specific, of communicative action. [4]

The theory has been elaborated elsewhere (Knoblauch, 2020), so I will only provide a rough sketch here: Communicative action means that human sociality is based in the embodied performances of subjectivities related to one another reciprocally in action, affectivity and experience as well as their embodied objectivation. The bodily performances are ordered sequentially in time, e.g., as interaction between the actors, and they are mediated spatially. Actions can be routinized as practices, they can be subjectivated as knowledge and executed solitarily, and they can be institutionalized as soon as they are transmitted to third parties. The temporal as well as the spatial coordination of embodied actions in time is achieved by objectivations so that communicative action basically exhibits a triadic structure.

Figure 1: Triad of communicative action as reciprocal relation of subjects (S) to their objectivations (O)

Figure 1: Triad of communicative action as reciprocal relation of subjects (S) to their objectivations (O)

This basic triadic structure can be illustrated with respect to the act of pointing, which is so crucial in the development of individuals and societies. Pointing is a bodily performance in which the finger is used as a bodily objectivation. In the spatial performance, it refers to something, thus producing a reference and, basically, meaning. Moreover, by extending the arm and the finger, it is a reference in space as well as a reference into space. Although it has long been thought of as an individual action, pointing almost (socio-)logically requires someone else, e.g. a subject. This subject cannot be a stone or an ant but requires what Schutz (1962) has called the “reciprocity of standpoints”. Standpoint here also implies a space of the body pointing, yet it further needs to account for the standpoint of the other as well as their (spatial) relation to one another and to what is pointed at. In that sense, pointing as a communicative action is highly relational, yet in relating bodily and performatively it requires a distinction between subjective position, the other’s position and the objectivation (as well as its reference). While the pointing finger may be used situationally as an objectivation, actors can also use objectifications (a limb, a pointer, even a laser pointer) to point. These objectifications extend the situation temporally beyond the mere performance of the act: Objectifications such as the traffic sign do point somewhere even without human actors, although they often require some form of conventionalization of other signs, such as language, visual elements (like arrows) and thus additional (subjectified) knowledge of the actors on the signification of these signs.

Without going into the details of the theory, we can easily recognize how important space is to communicative action. On the basis of the triadic structure above, we can suggest an analytical distinction between the three dimensions of the spatiality of communicative action.

(a)    Although the spatial position of the subject and the other is constituted relationally by the kind of reciprocity which characterizes the performance of communicative action, both positions need to be distinguished in order for e.g. pointing to “make sense”: On these grounds, we propose subjectivity (in a non-essentialist, processual understanding) as one analytical dimension which is constituted by communicative action. To subjects, practices take on a specific meaning which, (not only) in terms of space, is dependent on their standpoint, their position and, hence, their perspective. [5] This also holds true for affects, for imagination and anything we would call knowledge. It is on this basis that Baur, Kulke, Hering and Fülling (this issue) can claim the polycontexturality of knowledge as related to what they call the “contexts” of production, of consumption and of sales.

(b)   The second analytical level concerns social action. We lay the stress on action in order to account for the role of subjectivity and knowledge which guide action. Communicative actions are embedded in social and spatial contexts which they produce by their very performance (Knoblauch, 2001). Moreover, they are spatially mediated by objectivations, such as media, machines or material objects. Below, we will particularly focus on one form of mediation, namely contextures, which will open up the view to the meaning of polycontexturalization.

(c)    While the notion of action focuses empirically on embodied actors’ performances, the third analytical focus on objectivations refers to media, material and institutions mediating action. Here, the circulation of commodities, the infrastructures of public transport or the institutional regime of liberal market economy (e.g. in fruit trading) may then become the focus of research.

As we have elaborated elsewhere (Knoblauch, in press), these three dimensions provide the basis for a systematic understanding of the types of methods and data in (qualitative) empirical research. It is only taken together that all three dimensions can be hoped to grasp the kind of social process we would refer to as figuration (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020).

3. Contexts and contextures of control rooms

After having elaborated the general frame of reference, it may be helpful to look at empirical phenomena. In fact, the general notion of polycontexturalization turned out to be quite useful in our empirical study of control centers (cf. Knoblauch, Janz, & Schröder, 2021). Here, we also realized the relevance of its constituents, context and contexture, for an understanding of control rooms in general. In order to gain an understanding of the refiguration of control rooms in terms of social change across time, the study included data and analyses of control rooms since the 1990s (Heath, Knoblauch, & Luff, 2000). This data will be referred to here as it helps to compare the earlier forms of control rooms with the polycontexturalized ones of today.

Control rooms are interesting because control has been considered a spatial phenomenon since Foucault’s (1977) seminal discussion on the “panopticon”. Control rooms or, as they are also called, control centers or centers of coordination are an institutionalized form of space in which organizations oversee, monitor and control what is happening elsewhere. We prefer the name control room because these spaces are defined by being separated from the space they are related to by buildings, walls, doors and, often, guards and security checks. They are typically like a container space which resembles a laboratory. They cut off the room from the space controlled in a way that has been compared to a “black box” (Kammerer, 2008, p. 143) or even a “monad(s) without windows” (Caprotti, 2018, p. 2470). However, in addition, control centers are also characterized by technically transcending these boundaries. In fact, control centers are related to other spaces by highly selective technologies of monitoring and action (Latour & Hernant, 1998). One could say that the very architecture of control rooms produces translocality. To be more specific: translocality is constructed by the material means which cut the center off from what is controlled. The means by which actions control what is in the translocal spaces constitute what we have come to call contexture. Before we explain this with reference to a specific case, let us add some more general insights on control centers.

In the centers, control is typically realized by human actors. By means of the technologies, they observe what is happening in the translocal spaces and act or induce actions there in case of problems of “crisis”. However, what is controlled is not limited to the control of humans (e.g. by video) as the huge bulk of studies on surveillance would make us believe. On the contrary, most control rooms and most work in control rooms are dedicated to the circulation of things (cars, boats, airplanes), to material processes (industrial production lines, power plants) and infrastructures (gas, water, fire brigades, health services).

By focusing on communicative action in control rooms, our research has been studying the “work of controlling” carried out by operators in control rooms. This work consists of the interaction between operators (Heath & Luff, 1992) as well as their acting with the technology in the control room. It is in respect to both that we hit on the role of contextures, as the field note from a train station control center in Glasgow demonstrates that I was studying in 1998.

Figure 2: Station Manager in Glasgow Station Control Room (video still 1998)

Figure 2: Station Manager in Glasgow Station Control Room (video still 1998)

One train was reporting a defect; subsequently the operator tried to slow down the following train by trying to contact the driver. Yet, the radio did not work. So, he set the signal to get the first train into the depot. In addition, he sent the station assistant who could identify the train’s position. On the video he saw the driver returning to the cab from the mobile phone on the tracks. At the same time, he set the signals so as to get the broken train to the depot, after he had learned from the engineer in the depot that the train would be exchanged for another immediately. On the monitor, one could then see a train moving towards and soon another train coming from the depot.

As the example and the video make clear, the station manager succeeds in “synthesizing” (Löw, 2016) the spatial location of the translocal event of a train breaking down by means of observing what happens on the monitor (where trains could not yet be represented in movement), the information from the cab driver, the conversation with the station assistant and the surveillance camera in the station. This synthesis is achieved by a series of actions with other persons and the technologies available. In the course of this sequence, he succeeds in substituting one train for another. It is quite clear that the trains, the stations, the tracks, platforms etc. and their locations and movements obviously make up the kind of infrastructure which is the very subject of his control (and of his control room). In addition, however, we realize that there is something else which is mediating his actions from the center to the spaces controlled.

It is exactly these mediations, mediating his observations and actions from the spatially severed control room to the spaces controlled, which I want to focus on with the notion of contextures. In the case mentioned above, these contextures consist, for example, of the radio channel to the station assistant, the Tunnel Emergency Telephone system (plugged in in the tunnel by portable phones) accessible to cab drivers, video surveillance cameras in the tunnel and, of course, the large monitor representing the Glasgow rail network and the trains. These contextures mediate his actions from one “locale”, the control room, to a translocal space, e.g., the tracks in which the trains move, the station, the depot etc.

Contextures should not be reduced to communication media, as they also include the mobile station assistant as well as the signaling system he can manipulate. While the former acts on the basis of his understanding of language, the latter is not only “affected” by the operator’s action but set into effect in a physical way (by a link of mechanical and electronic circuits).

The idea of contexture is closely connected to the question how the control room and the controlled spaces are related, or, to be more specific, how actions in the center are mediated to the space outside the center. Contextures are characterized by a materiality that makes them into the “fabric” of action. [6] This materiality is not reduced to material carriers of signs and sign systems, such as language, maps or, as in other studies, graffities in the “tessuto urbano”. [7] They may also consist of “mere” technologies, objects and materialities. This materiality becomes clear if we move away from the focus on communicative action to the material order of space in control rooms. Take, as an example, the quite complex London Underground Network Control Centre, in charge of the various London Underground lines. During one of my field visits, I produced the following diagram of the spatial arrangement in the center. From my notes, I have marked the major contextures of the center:

Figure 3: Network Control Centre of the London Underground. Field drawing: Hubert Knoblauch 1997.

Figure 3: Network Control Centre of the London Underground. Field drawing: Hubert Knoblauch 1997.
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As the diagram indicates, the architectural separation between the control room and the controlled room constitutes a materialized container room and at the same time highlights different contextures to the controlled space in a very visible way. These contextures are themselves based on infrastructures which are highly invisible yet indicate in a more or less visible way the devices in the center (and are represented as lines on the diagram). These contextures include various informational systems (video monitors, telephone, pager, computer formats) as well as organizational units distributed on the network which are directly linked to certain positions. Contextures thus link the actions in the center to the infrastructures and whatever they are in charge of, such as yard managers who look for train crews, the signalmen, station and line control rooms, ticket counters and gates, as well as information about events in the system. Thus, when the information assistant receives a call about an incident, he makes a record of it on BMK which can be accessed by clients, sends it via PC to the Pager and to the station control unit, while Travel Information will produce a teletext information, and BT passes it on via the All Networks Line Page, British Rail prints it on posters and informs the public at stations as well as monitors in stations. Again, communicative actions mediated by contextures may have direct effects. Thus, in automatic railway lines (like the London Light Railway), operators may directly manipulate the movement of trains, based on (automated) information on their location, state and other circumstances represented on their monitors.

As we can see, for a proper understanding of contextures it is decisive to recognize that they are not identical with the underground as an infrastructure “managed”, monitored and controlled by the center. From the perspective of those working in the center, contextures are the means that mediate to these infrastructures, the means by which their observations and actions are extended into the space that is controlled (which again can be mediated by other actors). Contextures are what bridge the translocality between the control room as a segregated space and those aspects of spaces which are monitored by the control room. We specifically refer to certain aspects of spaces as these contexts are not uniform. Rather, it may be helpful to distinguish between different spatial contexts of actions in the control room even with respect to spatial figures (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020). These may be single underground lines (tracks), the location of trains or personnel; it may be the movement, circulation or congestions of travelers, or it may be a whole network (as in the NCC). Spatial contexts denote where and what the communication in centers (including actors’ knowledge and stored information) refers to by means of the contextures and what enters into the communication from elsewhere, while contextures are what links these contexts to the actors. [8] (As we shall see later, cyberphysical systems allow a dissolution of this distinction through polycontexturalization.)

The distinction between contexture and spatial context is certainly due to the strict, built separation between control rooms and the spaces they are controlling. Analytically this means that we understand contextures as what relates to contexts. Drawing on Gumperz’ notion of the “contextualization” of knowledge and actions by means of language and signs (Gumperz, 1992; Knoblauch, 2001), we can speak of contexturalization if actions are mediated by material contextures. [9]

4. Objectivations: Polycontexturalization of control centers

As the bulk of workplace studies on control centers has made very clear (Heath el al., 2000), the work of control contextures to the space controlled is embedded in formal and, particularly, informal communication within the control rooms, which allows for information flows and spatially distributed action within the “ecology” of the division of labor built into the various local positions (Heath, 2002). Each different workstation did perform very different kinds of work; even different telephones are used to indicate contextures to different contexts (institutions, areas, actors). Although these control centers had by then already been using advanced technology, the recent wave of digitalization has had significant effects on control centers. I cannot elaborate these different effects in this paper in much detail (Knoblauch, Janz, & Schröder, 2021); therefore, I want to focus here on the polycontexturalization of work in the centers.

Take as an example Seoul’s Traffic Regulation Center (TOPIS). It is located at a highly secured area in the basement of the Seoul City Hall. It includes a control center as well as a crisis room which has been used for local and national crises. Although the control center has some twenty work stations at its disposal, routinely it is only equipped with far fewer operators. This is due to the high degree of digitalization which allows them to work from any work station.

TOPIS is only in charge of surface traffic (including public transportation, such as busses). Its work entails a complex array of contextures and contexts on various scales, which I will illustrate here (and highlight by italics) with respect to bus services. Note that the controlled surface traffic extends beyond the city limits and includes both national and regional lines. In TOPIS, the traffic flow is observed by a range of different video surveillance cameras, which partly register congestions within the city automatically. Moreover, individual buses are monitored automatically on the move. Monitoring also covers the flow of the buses of various lines and their connecting bus stations, whereby they automatically monitor the distance between the buses (again displayed on a map). In addition, an automated information system permanently collects information on the number of passengers in the buses (bydigital tickets), aggregate the number of passengers in the line and system and indicate automatically if demand increases or decreases. The system can interfere actively in surface traffic in that it can assign drivers to start or withdraw, so as to change the number of buses on the line and within the system and change their frequency and the number of passengers on the buses. [10]

Figure 4: Automatic number plate recognition of parking offenders in TOPIS. Photo: Hubert Knoblauch 2019. 

Figure 4: Automatic number plate recognition of parking offenders in TOPIS. Photo: Hubert Knoblauch 2019.

In addition, the control center can gradually switch scales to focus on an even lower spatial scale, as the buses are equipped with cameras recording the bus lanes where they are driving. Thus, the cameras mounted on the front of buses can automatically record cars illegally parked or driving on the bus lane, identify their owners and inform the local city police so as to send traffic warrants to their owners. The effect of this contexture on space becomes visible e.g. in cases of automatic identification of dirty or missing license plates. Then, external staff is ordered to drive to the location on the lane, identify the car and produce the ticket. The various tasks of the system are performed automatically or, in case of problems, supported by the operators. Note that the monitoring of the buses at the most diverse spots, places, locations, lines, and networks occurs at the same time as the interventions. In addition, there are other ways of acting on and manipulating what is happening “there” – again in many different contexts at the same time. Due to the automated aspects of this work, operators can simultaneously use video surveillance cameras distributed all over the city in a way that allows them to switch scales gradually from a bird’s eye view of the whole city to a sharp view which allows them to identify details, from license plates to individual faces.

Without further specifying the different contexts involved, their scale and contextures, their complexity and multitude becomes quite clear. This is one reason why we speak of polycontexturality. Compared to the previous examples, the case demonstrates an important second aspect: while the activity in the underground station is based on temporal sequences, TOPIS allows for the simultaneity of highly varied action.

The simultaneity of TOPIS is mostly due to digital media. In fact, it is a feature of these ‘smart’ or integrated centers that more and more processes are automated, decoupled from human actors and objectified in the system. In TOPIS, digitalization is designed like a cyber-physical system. [11] Cyber-physical systems consist of technical material elements, such as traffic systems, which are linked with software systems. Here, contextures, the software in the center and the physical processes controlled (e.g. buses driving, tickets written and sent) are linked in time (or “sequentially”, as engineers call it too); moreover and more importantly to us, they are connected in space so that “many things happen at once” (Lee & Seshia, 2011, p. XII) at different physical places and in different locations, thus allowing for polycontexturality which overcomes the distinction between context and contexture and which is no longer linked to communicative actions performed by humans but is rather objectified as a technical “intelligent” sociotechnical system (involving human actors such as bus drivers, operators and passengers).

5. Conclusion

TOPIS may be an example of the objectivated dimension of polycontexturality. It could therefore pose the question if and how human actors will remain in the centers or if the centers ‘become empty’, as Foucault predicted. It would also be important to clarify if the automation of control involves the inscription of a mode of ‘command and control’ into the technology which, in many ways, contradicts our understanding of governance in democratic societies. Since this paper takes only control rooms as its empirical cases, I want to end by highlighting and summarizing some general aspects of polycontexturalization.

Polycontexturalization is the multiplication of references of communicative action in space, while polycontexturality denotes the multiplicity of such references. But it does not only mean a „multiplicity of spatialities“, as it has been suggested in a series of papers (Bear & Eden, 2008; Leitner, Sheppart, & Sziarto, 2008; Williams, 2011; Bhimji, 2012)? [12] The empirical case has sensitized us to add an additional aspect: Polycontexturality is characterized by the simultaneity of multiple references. In fact, while one may doubt that the reference to multiple spaces should be seen as a very new phenomenon, the simultaneous referentiality to different spaces across scales is certainly quite remarkable, and it seems particularly pertinent to the kind of digitalized settings we have been studying. Because of this multiplicity, analysis can gain much from the different dimensions of communicative action: With respect to subjects, polycontexturality relates meaningfully to different contexts in terms of cognition, imagination or affect, i.e. subjective knowledge. In terms of action and practice, polycontexturality indicates the objectified mediation to different contexts by means of contextures which, as we have seen, can be interconnected digitally in highly complex ways. In terms of institutional orders and circulation, polycontexturality refers to the simultaneous interweaving of different contextures which can be described as objectivated infrastructures. For actors, they allow for the kind of polycontexturality and, consequently, the refiguration of space, a web of contextures. [13]


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[1] This paper was supported by the Collaborate Research Centre “Re-Figuration of Spaces” (CRC 1265) and funded by the German Research Association (DFG) (project number 290045248). It is based on field research which was also conducted by Arne Janz and Joshua Schröder. I am grateful to them as well as to Silke Steets, Jörg Stollmann and Gunter Weidenhaus for their comments and critique.

[2] Second order here must not be taken to mean to claim their “authority”, but rather to claim their difference from non-scientific perspectives; moreover, it demands respect for the difference scientific discourses and methods make. By means of these “constructs”, we can hope to analytically describe the phenomenon and to explain it.

[3] Luhmann (1997 II, p. 1132) mentions space in respect to polycontexturality only as a kind of area of meaning (“logical spaces”). Thus, he uses it only as a metaphor (Löw & Weidenhaus, 2017, pp. 553-57).

[4] The role of action for an understanding of polycontexturality is also suggested by Schimank (this issue).

[5] As opposed to the implications of practice theories, subjectivity is not merely induced by practices but is presupposed, e.g. as “standpoint”, in order for practices to become “appropriated” (cf. Knoblauch, 2020, pp. 160ff)

[6] In architecture, context and contexture have mostly been used interchangeably, such as in “context thinking” or “contexturalism” (Rowe), the former focusing on the patterns of a building (and its plan) or on the “tessuto urbano”, the urban fabric. (Huber, 2000, pp. 33ff).

[7] Cf. West-Pavlov (2013, p. 328) who considers graffiti as an example of signs inscribed into the material surface of the city.

[8] Since Malinowski’s seminal essay on the significance of context for the understanding of language (1923), the notion of context has been used e.g. by Hanks (1989, p. 96) as the „broader environment (linguistic, social, psychological) to which text responds and on which it operates“. For a more detailed elaboration of the concept of context cf. Knoblauch (2001).

[9] The notion of figural contexture has been suggested by Garfinkel (2002, p. 84) who used it as a “gestalt” constituting the context of action.

[10] Technically, the system would also allow linking the location of passengers with other information stored on the digital tickets, which, in many cases, are also credit cards containing information on the person’s expenditures. It seems that, at the time of the study (2019), this information could not be used.

[11] “A cyber-physical system (CPS) is an integration of computation with physical processes. Embedded computers and networks monitor and control the physical processes, usually with feedback loops where physical processes affect computations and vice versa. As an intellectual challenge, CPS is about the intersection, not the union, of the physical and the cyber. It is not sufficient to separately understand the physical components.” (Lee & Seshia, 2011, p. 5)

[12] In its broadest sense, the notion of multiple spatialities designates basic spatial orders, such as network, location or territory and their conflict (Leitner, Sheppart, & Sziarto, 2008)

[13] Particularly the automation (and autonomization) by means of digital media may allow us to compare them to assemblages; however, as the discussions around control rooms could especially indicate, polycontexturalizations can be highly conflictual (Halvorsen, 2017).


Knoblauch, Hubert (2021): Contexts, Contextures and the Polycontexturalization of Control Rooms. In: (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL:, Datum des Zugriffs: 23.07.2024