Imbricated – A Conceptual Morphology of Polycontexturality

Dominik Bartmanski



The present paper offers a cultural sociological perspective on ‘polycontexturality’. By situating this concept within contemporary theories of culture and society, I analyze it as a composite explanatory category that allows for a systematic perception of multiplicity and mutuality of ‘contextures’. Subsequently, the ‘contexture’ is operationalized here as an entanglement of cultural text, material texture and social context. One way in which contextures are brought together is imbrication. I outline the imbricated morphology of polycontexturality, illustrate it with examples and relate it to congenial theories to suggest a series of sociological benefits in conclusion.

1. Introduction

This paper thematizes a range of cultural sociological valences of polycontexturality and theorizes one of its forms in greater detail. The term ‘polycontexturality’ was introduced to sociology in its generic form by Niklas Luhmann (1997, pp. 891f). He intended to conceptualize it as the second-order observation of a multiplicity of first-order observations of the same object, whereby the relativity of a scientific perception itself could become recognizable, and a distinct method in social sciences possible (Giegel & Schimank, 2001). In this sense, polycontexturality can be seen as an important argument for epistemological pluralism, or simply a useful term of reflexive sociological method. While the word itself has since not been in widespread use in the Anglophone and other traditions of cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), it has appeared as a reflexive approach in these sciences under various guises (see for example, Duneier, 1999). Especially in anthropology, the recognition of the multiplicity of perspectives has gradually come to the core of the discipline, from Claude Levi-Strauss (1966) to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2017), albeit with various different ways of conceptualizing what may constitute ‘perspectives’ and the ‘differences’ between them. While these issues remain outside the scope of this paper, I will return to de Viveiros Castro’s notion of perspective below.

Here, I begin with contemporary German sociology, where polycontexturality is being employed in an altered and expanded form, adapted to address tangible social processes. In particular, it aims to capture the interwoven plurality of cultural formations and the simultaneous agency of various socio-material figurations that have spatial ramifications. To understand this condition, the new conception of polycontexturality pays close attention to the intersection of such fields as sociology of space (Raumsoziologie), sociology of knowledge (Wissenssoziologie) and sociology of communication (Medienkultur). Consequently, the term has been endowed with material, symbolic, experiential and infrastructural dimensions that considerably expand Luhmann’s original formulations (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020; Löw & Knoblauch, 2021). It concerns itself especially with the apparent overlap of different spatial logics, or spatial figurations, for example territory and network, the urban and the rural, the center and the periphery. As Martina Löw (2020, p. 504) states “polycontexturalization recognizes that spatial contexts of different scales and dimensions and on different levels must be made relevant at the same time“. This conceptual move represents a productive act of going beyond the strictly representational theorization of ‘perspective’ implied in the original idea of polycontexturality. As such it can be seen as adding a form of critical ontological pluralism to the existing epistemological diversity. Importantly for this paper, one might employ the parlance of cultural sociology and say that this move expands the semantic field of the term as method or approach to include its meaning as object of social science (Reed, 2009). Insofar as this is the case, questions ofwhat’ get integrated with questions ofhow’, and therefore a distinct kind of ‘spatialization’ and objectification of polycontexturality becomes possible. In what follows, I show how and why these issues are connected. I subsequently develop what I call a conceptual morphology of one modality of polycontexturality – the imbrication of social forms.

2. New landscape of meaning: Thinking polycontexturality through space

It is significant that one etymological dimension of polycontexturalityrefers to the material meaning of ‘texture’. In addition to the multiplicity of contexts, the meaning of the concept includes the corresponding multitude of material ‘surfaces.’ This notion is explicitly proposed in contemporary English-speaking cultural sociology as a tool of reorientation from textual to textural/material analysis (de la Fuente, 2019). While this kind of ‘objectification’ of the term is crucially important to constructivist fields of sociology, it also needs to be performed in tandem with the ongoing ‘culturalization’ of space and materiality. The process of unpacking and specifying polycontexturality is a two-way theoretical street. It involves making meaning contexts more material as well as material environments more cultural. Just as the issues of representation and understanding can’t be divorced from questions of media and embodiment (Johnson, 2007), so issues of materiality can’t be decoupled in sociology from questions of knowledge and meaning-making. I argue that in order to concretize this agenda, sociologists can nest the discussion of polycontexturality in the discussion of space. In addition to seeing space as an empirical phenomenon with implications for social research, I see it as a “landscape of meaning” (Reed, 2011, p. 92) that can aid formulations of new conceptual morphologies. Therefore, I link my argument to some central questions stemming from the German Raumsoziologie (see Löw, 2001). For example, what does it exactly mean that space or knowledge are ‘socially constructed’ and ‘relational’? If space, like culture, is a polysemous web of multiple relations rather than a unitary thing, then what is being related to what? How are these polyvalent spatial relations constituted? What is the relation between culture and space? And why should we care about all of that in the first place?

Polycontexturality can help answer such questions. However, there are conditions that need to be fulfilled. For one thing, if polycontexturality recognizes a plurality of logics and assumes their imperative agency across scales and levels of social life, it needs to jointly accommodate knowledges of these spheres. It also needs to reflect on how it relates to other synthetic efforts in cultural theorizing. For example, without a dialogical connection to a variety of foundational formulations of social practice (e.g. Reckwitz, 2002), social performance (e.g. Alexander, 2006), and social phenomenology (e.g. Johnson, 2007), polycontexturality could risk leaving its scientific efficacy unfulfilled. That is to say, it could remain confined to new forms of description instead of offering generative elucidation of social processes and enabling a rethinking of other categories. Like any other general concept, polycontexturality needs to have its terminological make-up stabilized and elaborated vis-à-vis relevant domains of social theory. It needs to fix the new master metaphors by which it can live as a scientific tool (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). Old similes won’t do. For example, new and old regimes that functionally pertain to one site or one task within society are not necessarily mutually exclusive or destined to replace one another in a linear fashion. Nor would it be accurate to say that different organizational logics, like network and territory, diverge at a given time because “a network is not a nonterritory” (Debray, 2000, p. 16). Spatiality – as a more general category – is implicated even in seemingly “deterritorialized” schemes of social life. Take the digital/analog divide. Neither a logic of replacement, nor a singular model of ‘divergence’ characterizes their coexistence today (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015). Rather, a series of complex place- and domain-specific assemblages takes place. Thus, social sciences need a more fine-grained understanding of and fresh nuanced metaphors for what happens when layers upon layers of different formations accrue to reality and gradually alter its ‘social construction.’ Polycontexturality has a potential to offer a series of approximate models of this condition. I offer an examination of one form through which it can be sociologically operationalized. I propose the master metaphor – imbrication – and some derivative notions that help specify the operationalization procedures for sociology. I will discuss this task in several steps.

First, I will briefly outline a contemporary scientific context in which introducing new concepts is perceived by researchers as both needed and potentially problematic. What does it take to bring a new or a freshly reinterpreted concept to a mature discipline? What is at stake in such a theoretical endeavor? If sociological fields are landscapes of meaning, then how can we meaningfully enter and alter them? I then proceed to discuss the relative negligence of the notion of space in sociology and link it to polycontexturality as a potential aid. Although space was prominently thematized by Henri Lefebvre (2003) and – like matter, form and texture – can be traced back to the classics such as Georg Simmel (de la Fuente, 2016; 2019), it does not enjoy terminological centrality within the discipline. I hypothesize that this situation can be traced to at least two theoretical blindspots, an understanding of which can help redress the “peripheralization of spatial theory” (Löw, 2021, p. 499): the first is the reified or residual status of space as category, and the second is the historically secondary status of culturalist and phenomenological conceptions in sociology. I argue that polycontexturality sensitizes us to the fact that as sociologists we may lose an important dimension of social explanation if we lose sight of space and do not reflect on the bracketing out of culture-oriented perspectives that fuse materiality and meaning. Lastly, polycontexturality helps bring attention to the fact that we may have neglected or missed certain available perspectives precisely because the integration of socio-cultural ‘contexts’ and material and sensory ‘textures’ has never been conceptually achieved in sociology. One meaningful function of polycontexturality is to facilitate theorizations that can make up for this gap. Before I turn to this task, let us first reflect on the significance and role of conceptual innovations in social scientific practice.

3. Fresh concepts in mature sciences 

As social reality is ever-changing, and the only constant of modern society seems to be its incessant transformation, the need for new descriptive categories appears never-ending, and the need to reveal new diagnoses tangible. At the same time, the old principle of Ockham’s razor remains applicable, too: brevity is still a virtue, perhaps now more than ever. We ought to introduce new scientific descriptors only when their indispensable functionality can be demonstrated. Otherwise, scientific neologisms feel forced, academic inventions appear superfluous, creative ‘-isms’ too indulgent. For good reason, the excessive use of jargon in social sciences has been frowned upon, and it is the simplicity of argumentative expression that is advised rather than the impulse to complexify. Formal elegance of argumentation seems at least as vital as its creativity, if not more so. And yet science without some novelty factor and the thrill of discovery threatens to become a dry bureaucratic enterprise. On the one hand, gate-keepers of social scientific practice have reasons to insist on parsimony and cutting things down to size; on the other hand, successful and widely read sociologists have advocated practicing “lyrical sociology” (Abbott, 2007) and viewing sociology also as a genre of literature (Sennett, 2008).

On the surface, this situation may look like a Durkheimian binarity between the mundane and the sacred, or between the ‘purity’ of normal science and the ‘danger’ of artsy experimentation. At closer inspection, however, social scientific practice typically mixes elements of both ideal-typical modes of thinking. To the extent that this situation exerts real influence over research activities today, it presents a curious dilemma to social scientists: how to strike a balance between these seemingly contradictory imperatives? How to go about producing adequate thick description of the ever-changing and ever more complex social reality while remaining clear, understandable and grounded within the confines of recognizable vocabularies? How to account for the increasing empirical ‘thickness’ of social phenomena while avoiding conceptual reductionism? What makes new terms and categories not only analytically permissible but intellectually indispensable for social science? How to become an impressive science writer without becoming overly ‘impressionistic’? These are among the vital questions for both meta-theoretically inclined and practically oriented researchers. We can’t answer them all here, but we should keep them in mind as a background context in which this paper’s message gains deeper significance.

Of course, one is tempted to say that every field is different and every case is unique. Therefore, each project requires its own pragmatic justifications regarding the preferred vocabulary and conceptual choices. There will never be a one-size-fits-all formula for good scientific practice. But the issue does not end there. We do need praxeological codes of research and standards of justification and evaluation of scientific development. While the descriptive function of research and knowledge production may be less problematic, we do face a different aspect of the issue with regard to the explanatory and hermeneutic functions of research. To conclusively answer questions of why something happens, what it means and for whom, and why we should care, it is not enough to have a supple language in which to couch the presentation of data. It requires some ingenious conceptual generalization too, something that is – in principle – transferable to other domains and styles of thinking. As Daniel Miller (2010, p. 9) states, “good anthropological work reveals the particular as a manifestation of the universal.” This makes social science not only good but also exciting and intellectually transferrable. In short, the business of social science is to work with controlled generalizations that function across fields and cases as sense-making devices. New concepts should be more like portable devices than heavy machinery.

Both for descriptive and for explanatory purposes, we need concepts capable of identifying forms which would otherwise go undetected or unrelated. Let’s call them concepts that synthesize a set of interconnected features. They connect seemingly scattered dots of empirical reality. We need them to classify and synthesize masses of data and therefore to help us see patterns without which the data would only be a chaos of incommensurable unique ‘occurrences.’ Such general devices of theory matter even if the complexity and variety of the empirical states deepen. The fact that trees come in a great number of different appearances does not mean that there is no overarching form and that we therefore shouldn’t use the term ‘tree’. So, while every case does indeed require specific calibrations of perception and understanding, ultimately our scientific descriptions rest on intersubjective synthetic abstractions, some of which do not even have simple ostensive definitions, and yet we strongly feel we can’t do without them. Language, culture, structure, consciousness are but a few prominent examples. We know these things by their ‘symptoms’ or indications, and we need to operationalize them with more concrete observable units of analysis. This is how I will below treat the two main terms of this essay, polycontexturality and contexture, revealing the former takes on a form of imbrication, while the latter takes on a form of a nexus of affordances and performances. In themselves, these large general categories may seem elusive. Nevertheless, holding onto them pays analytic and interpretive dividends. Such concepts provide a more elevated vantage point without which social science is hardly possible as a rigorous research practice. In what follows I will discuss the aforementioned series of concepts in their mutual interdependence, some of which are familiar to sociologists, others less so, and still others may appear deceptively obvious, or like a proverbial elephant in the room. Space is one of them. We need to appreciate the importance of space, both as concept and phenomenon, in order to better grasp the reflexive potential of polycontexturality.

4. Space as sociological notion

To contemporary social scientists, space – if they thematize it explicitly – is not merely a physical container in which action happens but rather a relational arrangement of materialities and goods through which social phenomena can emerge. Space has the character of an affordance, or a tapestry of affordances, which forms clusters, assemblages, networks and whole sensory formations that are recognizable to us as “experiential spaces” (Löw, 2013) or “ecologies” (Amin & Thrift, 2017). Following Ian Hodder’s parlance (2012), we could say that such formations are socio-material “entanglements” that require the emplaced merger of humans and stuff (Miller, 2010) and evince specific spatialities or types of spaces (Löw, 2020). But space can also be understood as a relational nexus of affordances that can’t be isolated from our notions of temporality and human phenomenology. In short, it is created performatively, as a process. In fact, one way of making the abstraction of time intelligible, or to recognize its shape (Kubler, 2008), is to see it as the observable and intuited changes in the sociological notion of space (see Seel, 2007, p. 41). Space is nowadays viewed as a synthetic general category that denotes an emergent and omnipresent dimension of human life. By the same token, and contrary to commonsensical perception, it is not a static phenomenon; rather it is a dynamic condition that evinces changes and incremental shifts. These changes simply tend to operate at scales and temporalities that are not always readily perceptible to a casual observer, nor can they be detectable at any one time or site. Comparative and longitudinal studies may be necessary, and larger theories are required, too. And yet, if equipped with a set of concepts that transcend immediate limitations and rigid inherited dualisms, we can begin to see more, or at least hypothesize the existence of larger forces that explain given surface variations.

In order to do that, however, we need a measure of conceptual self-reflexivity and realize some of the limitations of the received dominant paradigms. I have mentioned above that there are at least two reasons why space may have been “peripheral” and bracketed out in social theory. One is the reified objectification of space in sociology, according to which space tends to be the singular – as opposed to plural – and inert object of mere appropriation by actors (see Bourdieu, 1993). Another is the fact that space as category is both general and large, and for this reason requires operationalization. For example, in order to become more sociologically intelligible, it requires a careful calibration of its relation to – on the one side – surfaces, textures, objects and settings, in short, to material culture (de la Fuente 2019; Miller, 2005), and – on the other side – to the elements of social performance that activate it. These complex dimensions have often been missing or have been misunderstood in the sociological tradition. The discipline was too preoccupied with issues of structure and action. In fact, it was the wave of conceptions aimed at overcoming the structure/action dualism that opened up a context in which phenomenological materiality, performance, change and finally the spatiality of society could be systematically incorporated, for example the theory of social becoming or the theory of simultaneity of perception and effect (see Sztompka, 1991; Löw, 2008).

As a result, new useful operationalizations of space became possible. For one thing, researchers could now rely on the theories of material culture which transcend the confines of the structuralist linguistic model (Miller, 2005). At the same time, the importance of the “production of shared meaning” was preserved (Löw, 2013). This way one could avoid the reductions of materialism and idealizations of structuralism – the two problems that marred some of the most influential and otherwise inspiring agendas of new sociological materialism (e.g. Latour, 2007) and sociology of culture (e.g. Bourdieu, 1993), respectively. Alternative productive resources, some of which are not burdened with sociological inheritance, are available in art history, archaeology or anthropology. For example, a useful critique of Latour’s network-focused analysis comes from Ian Hodder’s relational theory of human-thing entanglement (2012, p. 93f). Similarly, a significant critique of Bourdieu’s practice sociology and pragmatist theories more generally comes from Alexander’s “cultural pragmatics” which was inspired by theater and performance studies (1995, 2006).

What social scientists today tend to code as ‘social change’ and by extension ‘change of space’ is not linear, top down, one directional, teleological, pre-determined or steady. Rather, it is full of lateral shifts, erasures and inconsistencies, as well as complex mediations, tensions and overlaps between heterogeneous forms that give rise to new emergent formations that remain partially opaque to us. Material and performative mediation of change makes it a “zigzag” (Debray, 2000, p. 14). But while changes evince all those indeterminacies, they are hardly ever random. They do exhibit patterns that do not belong to two-dimensional geometry but rather to 3D domains of morphology or topography. We can approach them heuristically as processual non-linear rhythms, or, to adapt a musical reference, as polyrhythms, some of which beg for the specific “rhythmanalysis” of everyday life (Lefebvre, 2013) and all of which can benefit from the abductive analysis in qualitative research (Tavory & Timmermans, 2014). Space appears to comprise a multiplicity of such patterns as well as many affinities, both elective and contingent, between recognizable experiential environments (Löw, 2008). One way of approximating what this argument may mean to qualitative sociologists is to say that instead of assuming irreversible, necessary and unidirectional transition of things from A to B to C, sociologists prefer to talk about contingent rearrangement – i.e. simultaneous and variably activated shifts of socio-material relations that constantly impact and penetrate one another, selectively appropriating and recontextualizing their logics rather than completely replacing one another.

Now, if space no longer figures in sociological analysis as a reductive unitary physical ‘thing’ or “nature” in which social life happens, but consists of clusters of affordances and settings and relations between them through which a “condition” of life emerges, then what does this imply for research practice? How can social researchers operationalize such a complex notion of space? In the vocabulary of contemporary social geographers, such notions as assemblage, topography, topology, ecology, technological networks and – last but not least – infrastructures serve as omnipresent operationalizations and guiding categories (Amin & Thrift, 2017). Importantly for the present paper, scholars addressing these geographical and spatial metaphors point out that “the separation of notions of material infrastructure from those of the social or cultural sphere can no longer be usefully maintained” (Bishop & Phillips, 2014, p. 121). This is consistent with the findings of material culture studies (Miller, 2005). Infrastructures so-conceived can be considered by cultural sociologists as good heuristic examples of contextures because they are complex socio-material entities that are as much emplaced as they are lived, availing material potential and affording human uses. Infrastructure “exerts a force – not simply in the material and energies it avails, but also the way it attracts people, draws them in” (Simone, 2013, p. 243). Last but not least, while they are always historically extensive and sensuously intensive, these contextures jointly amount to figurations.

5. Contexture, figuration, refiguration

As Norbert Elias pointed out, figurations are social formations based on mutual connectedness of individual elements. Instead of being bound to one scale, they are forms of reciprocal conditionality between different things. In contemporary terms, figurations can be seen as cultural formations constituted by humans depending on things, things depending on other things, and things depending on humans (Hodder, 2012, p. 88). As imagined sociological entities, figurations are not reducible to their constituent elements or levels of existence. Their character – or construction – can’t be deduced solely from their building blocks. It is partly to solve this problem that Elias chose the term ‘figuration’ – pointing to the interdependencies between elements and trying to avoid blind spots of both individualism and collectivism, each of which exhibited tendencies to look at social reality as being hierarchically constructed and predicated on one-directional causalities. Classical perspectives had ranked different entities as units, be it discrete or collective, and understood them as having causal precedence over one another. This mechanistic view appears insufficient for the analysis of complex and ambivalently constituted situations. Instead, thinking in terms of ‘figurations’ sensitizes researchers to the effects of interdependency which may be particularly useful for analyzing “communicative figurations” of the contemporary, heavily mediatized world (Hepp, 2013, p. 85). In this perspective, forms of social life exist and develop through the more horizontal, reciprocal conditionalities, or through what I will here call the logic of imbrication.

The problem with such complex imaginative concepts like figuration – or space – was that it proved hard to balance out a variety of elements and relations, and to account for the emergent properties and rhizomatic structures of such heterarchies. Put differently, it was hard, and perhaps counter-intuitive too, to see beyond the apparently “pyramidal” relations required to recognize “multiple segments” of power and “contiguity of parts without distinct totalization, i.e. a social space” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 27). This is understandable. The reality of power relations shows, time and again, the enormity and omnipresence of the forces of top-down control in society. And yet we also see evidence of complex horizontal ties, strong and “weak” ones (Granovetter, 1973), and of a multiplicity of “interaction ritual chains” where power is diffuse (Collins, 2004), etc. As I shall show below, however, the lines of causality and the plains of meaning are more convoluted here, and their patterning less obvious. For a concept like figuration to fully live up to its promise, it needs to register both the human and the non-human, the short-term dynamics and the longue durée, the material affordances and the emergent properties, the horizontal and the vertical relations, singularity and plurality, etc. It’s a cauldron of apparent contradictions. As paradox and ambivalence proliferate, the need for a whole range of non-dualistic operationalizable concepts becomes pressing. In short, categories like space or figuration appear useful, but they also need the accompanying conceptual engines to power their utility.

One such conceptual device is the composite term ‘contexture’, proposed and sociologically utilized by Hubert Knoblauch (see Knoblauch, Janz, & Schröder, 2021, pp. 167ff). It is designed to denote joint formations of meaning and materiality (sinnhaft-materielle Bezüge) (Knoblauch & Löw, 2021, p. 44). I approach this nexus as a conceptual lens that focuses what is conventionally viewed as diffuse and connects what is typically considered separate. Figurations that make up space become more intelligible when viewed as based on, or emerging out of, particular contextures – an array of sensuous textures, cultural texts, and social contexts, each of which is instrumental for the other to play its part, even if they seem incongruent or of different scales. The idea of what might be called ‘contextural meaning-making’ is present in English speaking literatures in a variety of guises, for instance as the nexus of affordance and setting (McDonnell, 2010) or as “entanglement” (Hodder, 2012), and it is translated and instantiated in spatial discourses in manifold ways, for example as the “art-architecture complex” (Foster, 2013). They all tackle questions of the reciprocal conditionality of materiality and meaning, sensory formations and cultural formations. They all ask what one exactly means by saying that these elements are mutually constitutive, heterarchical and decentered.

Different fields of social science have offered different answers to these questions and identified their own preferable notions. Actor Network Theory proposed one influential version of fusing human and non-human agencies within a single framework, one that presumes the so-called flat ontology but includes a version of polycontextural reflection when it states that “actors themselves make everything, including their own frames” (Latour, 2007, p. 147). Material culture studies offer another powerful agenda, perhaps even stronger because it is more balanced in challenging “our common-sense opposition between the person and the thing, the animate and inanimate, the subject and the object” (Miller, 2010, p. 5). Archaeology (e.g. Hodder, 2012; Feldman, 2014), anthropology (e.g. Viveiros de Castro, 2011, 2017), architecture (e.g. Foster, 2013) and art history (Kubler, 2008; Belting, 2012) have their own traditions of reassembling matter and mind, context and text, perspective and object, in order to delineate patterns of meaning-making. Over time, these cultural sciences have jointly created a set of fertile discursive plains for theorizing complex figurations and their correlates: aesthetic styles, cultural techniques, space-shaping, etc. This is when contexture comes in handy.

While the concept of figuration has been in circulation for some time now, contexture is a non-standard term in international discourse. It is a new synthetic category. We may use broadly conceived notions, such as the aforementioned infrastructure or urban ecology, to again exemplify what contexture could help us see. It sensitizes researchers to the fact that socio-spatial ecologies always function as bundles of heterogeneous materialities and conditions that bring them into existence, as well as the background narratives and performative scripts that activate and maintain them in human experience. This is what texture, context and text represent, respectively. Crucially, these elements are interdependent rather than self-standing. If anthropocentric humanism tended to prioritize humans over things, and technological determinism inverses this directionality of influence, then ‘contexture’ could be seen as a concept that restores the balance, or simply tries to account for the interdependence of things without claiming either total flatness or a strict hierarchy in the causal morphology of social life. Thus, it can aid researchers in questioning the primacy of hierarchical social descriptions without overstating the power and meaning of horizontal relations.

One might say that contextures give specific ontological shape and phenomenological limits to social figurations by stressing constitutive relations rather than agentic entities, the morphology of performative arrangements in the form of spatiality rather than the geometry of singular things in the form of scripts. Therefore, they allow for a description of process and change in terms of mutable ‘re-arrangements’ that are not strictly linear and facilitate the explanation of ambivalent, seemingly contradictory effects. Thus, recognizing the irreducible spatiality of social change necessitates understanding it as refiguration (Löw & Knoblauch, 2021). Space is neither unchanged nor is it wiped clean each time a new discursive construction talks itself into existence or a new technological formation arrives. It is not a laboratory petri dish or a page or screen to which humans merely ‘ascribe’ their discourses or attribute their values at will. That is partly why the once widespread metaphor of the ‘palimpsest’ may be too narrow, or even misleading, to account for urban change. If anything, a more three dimensional, topographical, non-textual and sensuous metaphor would be needed. Indeed, a whole series of interconnected notions is required. In my own work on the urban problematic, I proposed to think, for instance, in terms of the nexus of scale, substance, site and style which conditions any symbolically charged urban transformation (see Bartmanski & Fuller, 2018), or in terms of the “object-space nexus” (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015, p. 139). Both strategies could be seen as thematizing specific kinds of contextures. Yet, to the extent that social changes are embedded in broader cultural shifts and exhibit the aforementioned ‘topographical’ features, the larger concatenations of categories like contexture-figuration-refiguration help to ‘thicken’ the hermeneutic description of social change.

Here, we should come back to the relationally understood concept of “experiential ecology” (Amin & Thrift, 2017), of which “city as experiential space” (Löw, 2013) or neighborhood as “urban ecology” (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2020, p. 207) may offer concrete sociological examples. This whole new hermeneutic parlance doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of the concept of structure or culturally operative principles of structuralism, such as binary distinctions. Instead of a straightforward rejection, a new conceptual morphology of sorts is being proposed. Such a morphology attempts to account for the diversity of ontological levels at play as suggested by the new term contexture, and it is also conducive to the task of mapping out the multiplicity of such contextures in action, each of which is liable to be ambivalent – or polyvalent – as a sphere of meaning and the stuff of action. This leads us closer to the significance of the conceptual metaphor of imbrication.

6. Imbrication as a form of polycontexturality

As I indicated above, polycontexturality can help create a discursive plain on which the idea of the multiplicity of logics becomes more sociologically operative. I have also tried to show how it can help conceptualize space for sociologists and amend existing notions of social change through “refiguration”. While it is quite intuitive to say that there is a great variety of contexts that interact with each other and thus “produce” new spaces and new social qualities (Lefebvre, 2003, p. 206), it is a challenge to perceive the ways in which these productive interactions happen. For example, we know that religious worldviews coexist and remain in dialogue with secular ones within modern societies, not infrequently also within a single person. And yet we might want to know exactly how this is possible – how are these contradictions resolved and what are the implications likely to be? Or to use the aforementioned, perhaps more tangible example: we know that analog technologies and the sensory formations predicated on them co-exist and interact with digital ones, but what is the concrete manner of this ‘coexistence’? Crucially, we could ask: is it idiosyncratic and unique, or does it rather represent a type or form of polycontexturality?

For one thing, such forms of ‘coexistence’ are rarely free of tensions and ambivalent or even unholy alliances. In fact, we could interpret many social phenomena as manifestations of the ongoing process of tension-ridden and paradoxical refiguration. “Cultural trauma” diagnosed in connection with a rapid, radical political revolution could be seen as one prominent example (Sztompka, 1999). People rejected one regime, embraced another, and then became disenchanted with parts of the latter and nostalgic for the corresponding parts of the former, trying to reconnect the broken chain of signifiers in a new meaningful whole (Bartmanski, 2011). More generally, “the modern world shows an ever increasing tendency to greater particularity and simultaneously to greater universality. […] At one end of the spectrum we become ever more particular as individuals. At the other end we have recourse to ever more universal aspirations” (Miller, 2010, p. 6).

Contradictions of this kind abide. But these situations, taken at first as a ‘coexistence’ or ‘interaction’ of observable figurations, cannot quite be captured by the Durkheimian notion of anomie. To refer again to the aforementioned examples: cultural sciences and religions may employ different methodologies and epistemologies in their respective approaches to reality, and yet they closely observe each other and they evince anthropological similarities and overlaps. Social sciences rearticulate religious structures and model culture after them (Viveiros de Castro, 2011, p. 12). The persistence of religious forms of life in turn alter the performative meaning of science. The new “society of singularities” (Reckwitz, 2017), understood as a form of individual life, can be reinscribed as an old collective narrative which is traceable to earlier and overlapping notions of cultural individualism. Similarly, digitalization introduces ostensibly novel forms of aesthetic production and consumption, but, by the same token, it rearticulates the old core meanings of the analog, and it rearranges rather than annihilates them, shifting their meaning within an expanded technological context. As Damon Krukowski (2017, p. 9) observes, “analog is not simply old, and digital is not only new”. This deceptively simple statement about what we could call two different contextures exemplifies thinking in terms of ‘refiguration’ of society. Although analytically and concretely different, the digital and the analog overlap and share affordances and performative pragmatics. To an extent, they are implicated in each other rather than completely disjointed. How are we to metaphorize this situation and create a visual heuristic for it?

Enter imbrication. I see it as one of the useful metaphorical forms for sociological thick description in this regard. It is also a category with added analytic value for polycontextural thinking. First, it denotes patterned overlapping or interpenetration of elements – which here are different contextures. In this respect, I focus solely on the multiplicity of elements brought together in such a way that it results in a set of relatively tight and potentially mutually reinforcing relations. Second, unlike a blending of forms, which would mean that different elements are mixed and thus transformed beyond recognition, imbrication denotes a patterned interconnection of elements in which every element remains in principle analytically distinguishable, even if not visible in its entirety. This matters for the task of sociologically tracing the constitutive relations and helps answer one of the questions I initially posed in this paper, namely: if space or culture are “relational” phenomena – an adjective that may sometimes threaten to look like a shibboleth of contemporary theory – then what exactly is connected to what and with what ramifications?

Last but not least, imbrication denotes a formal logic of polycontexturality that helps reconstruct what cultural emergence means. That is to say, imbrication creates a new plain of reference that is not reducible to its constitutive parts and is capable of having effects that supervene on the parts that are brought together. These three aspects of the term triangulate its sociological use in qualitative research. Although sociology surely “lives by” such heuristic metaphors, they do have their limits. Metaphors can be fertile approximations and work for scientists as sensitizing concepts. But they ought not be treated as axioms and, to the extent that they conjure up instant images in our minds with their typified connotations, they require captions. Crucially, what the concept of imbrication does not presume is the homogeneity of the elements typically associated with the generic image of a thatched roof. Here, the generic picture needs a conceptual mutation. Imagine, instead, a fabric interwoven with several different sets of threads and materials. Such a visualization may in fact be better suited for certain empirical settings. If we were to schematically visualize the conceptual landscape implied by this notion of imbrication, we could use this image by Venezuelan artists Gego, tellingly entitled “Weaving”.

Tejedura (Weaving)’ by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt), Tejedura 89/13, 1989. Caracas: Fundación Gego

Figure 1: ‘Tejedura (Weaving)’ by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt), Tejedura 89/13, 1989. Caracas: Fundación Gego.

There is a seemingly inchoate, yet clearly networked wiring underneath the geometric patterns, each of which has its own texture if you look closely. All elements are co-extensive and related but not blended beyond recognition. This kind of splicing of patterns and lines visualizes the mutuality of textures and relationships, and it suggests the logic of the “bricolage”, in that it is about the creation of a new whole with pre-coded and pre-constrained elements. It is not a free mixing but a partially restricted combination of appropriated elements (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 19). We could also liken it to what Ian Hodder (2012, p. 105) calls “entrapment of entanglements” – sets of emplaced interdependencies between humans and things that endure over time despite adjustments. But there is also one additional valence of meaning to this visualization, one that hints at the impressionist effect of bringing two primary colors together, without blending them, in order to create an emergent effect in perception, visible especially from a distance. Things have affordances which, when combined in a certain way, can lead to emergent perspectival effects. This meaning of imbrication is one of the core elements that define this modality of polycontexturality.

Again, this is the heuristic rather than the axiomatic definition of this modality of polycontexturality. We can think of an alternative metaphor for the concept of imbrication that might prove at least as inspiring for research, for example the canopy of a dense forest, especially as perceived from a bird’s eye perspective. What makes the canopy metaphor different from the interwoven fabric is that it is perhaps more amenable to correspond with the aforementioned notions of social ecology – it is the entity that appears still from above as spatially delimited ‘forest’ but which reconfigures itself constantly as ‘ecosystem’.

Regardless of the metaphorical image, the basic notion of imbrication as I defined it here has specific analytic purchase, in that it accounts for emergent properties of the combined entities and co-eval phenomena without losing sight of the constituent parts and the relations that they forge. In short, it is a self-reflective sociological perspective, or a way of seeing, which offers interpretive advantages for sociologists interested in seeing both the emergent product and the plural relational substrate. Today, when a coherent symbolic universe cannot be taken for granted even within such societal ‘units’ as nation states or religious denominations, this is a key hermeneutic tool. But let us summon the perhaps more radical and historiographically more congealed case of the encounter between different civilizations in the time of the so-called great discoveries of the sixteenth century. The clash of their cultural ‘perspectives’, as defined by Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro (2017, p. 49), gave rise to culturally pre-coded and mutually misconstruing “readings” (Viveiros de Castro, 2011, p. 26). That fateful historical circumstance exemplifies the importance of polycontextural analysis as mutual assimilation, or imbrication, of perspectives, each of which is not only a system of beliefs but, crucially, of the associated socio-material apparatuses that we might call ‘contextures’. This altered conception has analytic implications.

According to Viveiros de Castro (2011, p. 25f), each cultural ‘perspective’ can be understood as an embodied, materialized ‘point of view’ rather than just a (form of) representation. The (mis)reading of ‘Whites’ as demiurges by the ‘Indians’ in the Brazilian lands of the sixteenth century was not only or necessarily the result of the pre-coded cultural schema that enabled categorizing them as such. Rather, that perspectival assimilation had to do with a variety of interconnected factors, such as the perceived “technological skill of the invaders”, which made them appear as coming from afar, so far, in fact, as to place their origin – and by extension the “speaking position” – “beyond the domain of experience” (ibid., p. 32). Note the spatial valence in the connection between specific contexture and its performative meaning. Consequently, Viveiros de Castro argues that not only the “ideological contents” but also the “potential structurations of experience” make cultures (ibid., p. 34). Since these vary greatly, the plurality of resultant perspectives implies what Viveiros de Castro calls ‘multinaturalism’. In the essay entitled “An Anti-Sociology of Multiplicities”, he goes so far as to argue that embracing the multiplicity of the so conceived perspectives “calls for a completely different interpretation of the emblematic mega-concepts of the discipline, Culture and Society” (Viveiros de Castro, 2017, p. 111). His is a Deleuzian interpretation, in which relationality of perspectives is the key principle, hence the provocative “anti-sociological” angle. Yet, as he himself cautions (ibid., p. 112, emphasis in the original), “not every relation will do. Multiplicity is a system defined by a modality of relational synthesis different from a connection or conjunction of terms. Deleuze calls it disjunctive synthesis or inclusive disjunction, a relational mode that does not have similarity or identity as its cause, but divergence or distance; another name for this relational mode is ‘becoming’.” Since ‘becoming’ has its well codified space in sociological discourse (e.g. Sztompka, 1991), relational perspectivism is a productive ally of sociological polycontexturality rather than an adversary. Indeed, it may be congenial to a new sociology of space that sees its reformulation of the social in terms of the spatial not merely as “elaboration” of sociological categories (Löw, 2020, p. 511) but as a way “to rethink our general framework for analyzing the social” (Reckwitz in Löw 2020, p. 511).

7. Recapitulation

Anthropological perspectivism is an actionable qualitative framework that corresponds in a number of ways with the notion of imbrication that I have outlined here. Both stress the relationality of perspectives as embodied pragmatic viewpoints that are rooted in larger figurations which, in turn, comprise symbolic, material and phenomenological dimensions, all interacting with each other at once. To use an established social scientific reference, one can think of James Scott’s notion of “seeing like a state” as an example of perspective (e.g., administrative planning) which is emblematic of a certain figuration (e.g., modern nation state). As Scott explained, this is as much an aesthetic and visual regime with material correlates as it is an epistemological and ethical one. In short, it can be reinterpreted – mutatis mutandis – as a set of contextures that gives rise to a figuration. By analogy, we could identify late modern contextures on which the existence of a “transnational capitalist class” depends (Sklair, 2005) and interpret this class’ modes of operation as ‘seeing like a corporation’ (Bartmanski et al., 2021). When these two massive regimes come into collaborative contact, as they constantly and powerfully do these days, they become productive of space not only in the sense given to it by Lefebvre (2003, p. 206) but also as a concrete imbrication of ‘seeing like a state’ (epitomized by visions of governmental planners) and ‘seeing like a corporation’ (epitomized by practices of business strategists). Bringing them together to create new urban spaces reveals a new form of governmentality (Kornberger, 2012), but it can also give rise to yet another emergent figuration that Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2017) call “seeing like a city”.

Imbricated patterning doesn’t presuppose a relationality which is just the function of equivalence or subordination. Rather, it evinces lateral connectivity, potentially resistant to easy hierarchization. The form of synthesis that imbrication implies is not based on harmonizing and similarity, or on an attempt at reconciling apparent opposites but is predicated instead on the implication and communication across distance and difference. Such spatial properties and phenomenological determinations do matter for meaning making. All this does not suggest that polycontexturality is to be confined only to macro level social analysis, big scale processes or clashes of big cultural formations. It remains to be seen how flexible the concept can be in research practice and how many useful operationalizations it will yield over time. I hypothesize that the dynamics of contextural imbrication are often detectable at meso level forms of cultural production, such as the development of artistic scenes. For instance, spatial co-locality and symbolic affinities of diverse institutional settings are often one of the key conditions for such urban scenes to creatively thrive (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2020, p. 242). Moreover, specific aspects of imbrication connected to the co-presence of bodies in space and the associated modes of generating and regulating emotional energy may prove crucially important in institutional contexts and micro contexts of “interaction ritual chains” (Collins, 1981). Consider, for example, the impact of remote digital communication necessitated by the current anti-pandemic measures on the interactions that typically happened in ‘analog ways’, in situ and in person, largely in order for them to be fully functional, for example between psychological therapists and patients. The contexture of remote computerized communication maintains the exchange of “contents” but it refigures the “structuration of experience” with far reaching ramifications.

All in all, the modality of polycontextural thinking presented here, be it the relational perspectivism in anthropology or the relational Raumsoziologie or the imbricative cultural polycontexturality, does not imply extreme relativism. As Daniel Miller (2010, p. 8) reminds us, such a position “seems doomed to extreme parochialism.” Imbricated polycontexturality is a generalized conceptual landscape of meaning that provides a generalizable reference for empirical research. It also means that space endures both as an important cultural signifier and a fundamental phenomenological referent of social description. Bringing space back to sociology, with all its new-found complexity, has sensitized researchers to the usefulness of polycontexturality. Conversely, expanded forms of this category allow us to reinscribe space within the discourses of cultural sciences, yet not as a unitary thing but as a metaphorical landscape which is ‘good to think with’, a new conceptual morphology.   


Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67–99.

Alexander, J. C. (2006). Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy. In J. C. Alexander, B. Giesen, & J. Mast (Eds.), Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual (pp. 29–90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alexander, J. C. (2003). The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, J. C. (1995). Fin-de-Siecle Social Theory: Relativism, Reduction and the Problem of Reason. London: Verso.

Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2017). Seeing Like a City. Cambridge: Polity.

Bartmanski, D., Kim, S., Löw, M., Stollmann, J., & Pape, T. (2021). Die Refiguration von Räumen durch smarte Apartmentkomplexe: Über Praktiken der Verräumlichung der südkoreanischen Mittelschicht. In M. Löw, V. Sayman, J. Schwerer, & H. Wolf (Eds.), Am Ende der Globalisierung (pp. 205–230). Bielefeld: Transcript.

Bartmanski, D., & Fuller, M. (2018). Reconstructing Berlin: Materiality and Meaning in The Symbolic Politics of Urban Space. City, 22(2), 202–220.

Bartmanski, D., & Woodward, I. (2020). Labels: Making Independent Music. London: Bloomsbury.

Bartmanski, D., & Woodward, I. (2015). Vinyl: The Analog Record in the Digital Age. London: Bloomsbury.

Bartmanski, D. (2011). Successful Icons of Failed Time: Rethinking Postcommunist Nostalgia. Acta Sociologica, 54(3), 213–232.

Belting, H. (2012). Florenz und Bagdad. Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks. München: Beck’sche Reihe.

Böhme, G. (2014). Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Bishop, R., & Phillips, J.W.P. (2014). The Urban Problematic II. Theory, Culture and Society, 31(7/8), 121–136.

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.

Collins, R. (2004). Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Collins, R. (1981). On the Microfoundations of Macrosiciology. American Journal of Sociology, 86(5), 984–1014.

Debray, R. (2000). Transmitting Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: FSG.

Feldman, M. H. (2014). Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foster, H. (2013). The Art-Architecture Complex. London: Verso.

de la Fuente, E. (2019). After the Cultural Turn: For a Textural Sociology. The Sociological Review, 67(3), 552–567.

de la Fuente, E. (2016). A Qualitative Theory of Culture: Georg Simmel and Cultural Sociology. In D. Inglis & A.-M. Almila (Eds), The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Sociology (pp. 78–90). London: SAGE.

Giegel, H.-J., & Schimank, U. (Eds). (2001). Beobachter der Moderne. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Gombrich, E.H. (2006). The Story of Art. London: Phaidon.

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

Hepp, A. (2013). Medienkultur: Die Kultur mediatisierter Welten. Wiesbaden: Springer.

Hodder, I. (2012). Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Knoblauch, H., Janz, A., & Schröder, D. J. (2021). Kontrollzentralen und die Polykontexturalisierung von Räumen. In M. Löw, V. Sayman, J. Schwerer, & H. Wolf (Eds.), Am Ende der Globalisierung (pp. 157–181). Bielefeld: Transcript.

Knoblauch, H., & Löw, M. (2020). The Re-Figuration of Spaces and Refigured Modernity – Concept and Diagnosis. Historical Social Research 45(2), 263–292.

Krukowski, D. (2017). The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in the Digital World. London: The MIT Press.

Kubler, G. (2008). The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lefebvre, H. (2013). Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury.

Lefebvre, H. (2003). Preface to the New Edition – The Production of Space. In S. Elden, E. Lebas, & E. Kofman (Eds.), Henri Lefebvre Key Writings (pp. 206–213). New York: Continuum.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Löw, M. (2020). Space. Urban, Rural, Territorial. In B. Hollstein, et al. (Eds), Soziologie - Sociology in the German Speaking World: Special Issue Soziologische Revue (pp. 499–514). Oldenbourg: DeGruyter.

Löw, M. (2013). The City as Experiential Space: The Production of Shared Meaning. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(3), 894–908.

Löw, M. (2008). The Constitution of Space. The Structuration of Spaces Through the Simultaneity of Effect and Perception. European Journal of Social Theory 11(1), 25–49.

Löw, M. (2001). Raumsoziologie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Löw, M., & Knoblauch, H. (2021). Raumfiguren, Raumkulturen und die Refiguration von Räumen. In M. Löw, V. Sayman, J. Schwerer, & H. Wolf (Eds.), Am Ende der Globalisierung. Über die Re-Figuration von Räumen (pp. 25–57). Bielefeld: Transcript.

Luhmann, N. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Vol. 2. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.

McDonnell, T. (2010). Cultural Objects as Objects: Materiality, Urban Space, and the Interpretation of AIDS Campaigns in Accra, Ghana. American Journal of Sociology, 115(6), 1800–1852.

Miller, D. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge: Polity.

Miller, D. (Ed.) (2005). Materiality. Durham; London: Duke University Press.

Reckwitz, A. (2017). Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263.

Reed, I. (2011). Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the Use of Theory in The Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Reed, I. (2009). Culture as Object and Approach in Sociology. In I. Reed & J. C. Aexander (Eds), Meaning and Method: The Cultural Approach to Sociology (pp. 1–14). Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Press.

Scott, J. (1998). Seeing Like a State. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Seel, M. (2007). Die Macht des Erscheinens. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Sennett, R. (2008). How I Write: Sociology as Literature. Münster: Rhema.

Simone, A. (2013). Cities of Uncertainty: Jakarta, the Urban Majority, and Inventive Political Technologies. Theory, Culture and Society 30(7/8), 243–263.

Sklair, L. (2005). The Transnational Capitalist Class and Contemporary Architecture in Globalizing Cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29(3), 485–500.

Sztompka, P. (1999). The Trauma of Social Change: A Case of Postcommunist Societies. In J.C. Alexander, et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sztompka, P. (1991). The Theory of Social Becoming. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Tavory, I., & Timmermans, S. (2014). Abductive Analysis: Theorizing Qualitative Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2017). Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Antrhopology. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2011). The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th-Century Brazil. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.


[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).


Bartmanski, Dominik (2021): Imbricated – A Conceptual Morphology of Polycontexturality. In: (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL:, Datum des Zugriffs: 25.04.2024