Living in a Textured World: Sociology and Contextual Intelligence

Eduardo de la Fuente

Textures are greatly underappreciated. Their importance significantly undervalued. Yet textures are pervasive in everyday life. From the clothing, tattoos and adornments on our bodies to the patterned surfaces of built and natural environments, from the ascription of qualities such as freshness and firmness to foodstuff to whether our experience of time feels fast or slow, our bodies and psyches encounter the world as a series of textures.

Dictionary and technical definitions of texture tend to highlight their more literal or “measurable” properties (for e.g., the viscosity of olive oil, the firmness and grain of a piece of wood or the luminosity and glossiness of a painted surface). But, when it comes to texture, meaning and affective association are never far away.  Thus, in the second half of the 20th century, the building material of concrete came to be seen as “grey” or drab (see Figure 1); and such surface textures became synonymous with the failures of, amongst other things, state socialism, the welfare state and modernist urbanism (Fehérváry, 2013; Forty, 2012). Now, those very same “rough” or exposed concrete textures have become the subject of social media-driven nostalgia and urban activism (Grindrod, 2018; de la Fuente, 2018). Nonhuman agencies also have a capacity to change the associations of surfaces. Weather and environment can, for example, make concrete buildings and/or pieces of infrastructure look more “rooted” in place with the passage of time (see Figure 2).

Interestingly, some social scientists studying the built environment have started using terms such as “habitus of place”, “habitus of the city” and “habitus of the urban region” to describe how bodies and psyches align or don’t align with different places (Löw and Steets, 2014: 220). The underlying message is textures play a part in making people, objects and structures feel at home in the world; and also register how they adapt or don’t to change. Thus, a collection entitled Thinking Northern: Textures of Identity in the North of England uses changes to the built and material surfaces of the region to situate its problematic. It speaks of warehouses and mills “being converted into fashionable apartment buildings, or sleek offices” and of “docks and canals, once the arteries of industrialization… being integrated into a landscape designed for the leisure-oriented urban classes” as the financial and cultural industries took “over the grim sweat mills of the North” and as “heavy industries withered away and coalmining, shipbuilding and textile industry lost their significance” (Ehland, 2007: 19).

Equally, terms such as “rust belt city” capture the symbolic and affective significance of textures in the context of socio-spatial change. “Ruination” can carry potent symbolic and political messages (Edensor, 2005); and surface decay can come to give a city or region its distinctive “feel”. A French literary academic, whose academic career has been at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that oxidized metal surfaces are central to the sensory experience of his adopted region:

The spread of rust on metal surfaces is most prevalent and visible in the Northeast of the United States… A simple bus ride from Center City to North Philly provides countless views of abandoned warehouses, sagging bridges, unused oil cisterns, decaying steel mills, broken down factories… A train ride to New York offers more post-industrial delights. Metal poles twisted, corrugated iron sheets, oxidation seeping under sturdy concrete underpasses, rust everywhere. Only on reaching the glittering facades of Manhattan can one forget it.

(Rabate, 2018: 8-9)

Arguably, such insights provide us with the kinds of “thick descriptions” Clifford Geertz (1973) prescribed in The Interpretation of Cultures. Indeed, as I have suggested elsewhere (de la Fuente, 2019), with his discussion of winking and violin playing as multi-layered, embodied practices, the anthropologist was possibly a texturalist despite the claims he made on behalf of seeing society and culture as a series of texts. Indeed, in addition to offering thick rather than thin descriptions, textural accounts are also fundamentally earthy. They want to get at the mundane material conditions in which cultural practices take root. Keeping a sensitive eye, ear, nose, hand or foot to the world’s textures also implies paying attention to material qualities that defy official or mainstream narratives; as well as those that complicate our understanding of a situation and place. In other words, the textural gaze can make us look at the world anew. Even situations and places that are very familiar to us.

Thus, one of my favorite deployments of a textural sensibility is novelist Delia Falconer’s (2010) insightful book about my hometown of Sydney. The book combines autobiography with psychogeography, social and cultural history with accounts of weather, landscape and everyday practices. The author wants to puncture the prevalent image of Sydney as “the brashest and most superficial of cities… a kind of unplanned holiday resort” (Falconer, 2010: 1-12). It is not so much that narratives that depict Sydney as one of the world’s beautiful harbor cities or which cast Sydneysiders as unduly obsessed with real estate and real estate prices are completely off the mark. It’s more a case of what can be gained by focusing on the city’s complex textures (a term the author deploys repeatedly). Sydney’s complex textural mosaic include a mix of remnant wilderness and layers of suburbia, the sculpting of topography by water over millennia and the wanton destruction of built and natural environments since white settlement. There is also air which can look “luminous and insubstantial” but which can also be “weighed down” with humidity; and “sandstone” which acts “as a kind of bass note, an[d] ever-present reminder of the [city’s] Georgian beginnings and more ancient past” (Falconer, 2010: 3; see Figure 3). Falconer (2010: 5) proposes a “palpably earth-bound” account of place and suggests a city like Sydney requires a “materialist” approach in the best sense of the word:

Think in Sydney and you can be no cold metaphysician. The material constantly intrudes – even as I write, a pulpy smell of iodine from the over-warm February harbor comes through the window… this constant awareness of the material, which goes back to our Georgian past and its interest in the body’s humors like bile and phlegm, is quite different from shallow materialism. In fact, paying close attention to the city’s tides and sunlight can even constitute an antidote to the city’s pretensions to glamour.

(Falconer, 2010: 5-6; see Figure 4)

This kind of writing speaks powerfully to what place theorist Jeff Malpas (2015) has termed the intelligence of place. The latter refers “both to the intelligible character that belongs to place and to the apprehension of that character in our thinking” (Malpas, 2015: 1). Place intelligence implies places have their own constraints and enabling conditions when it comes to thinking. And, also that allowing the textural qualities of place to suffuse thought can only enhance the latter.

The notion that texture is a good way to frame discussions of context has not been limited to studies of place. Texture has also been deployed to describe the sensations associated with “communication overload” in mobile communication environments (Harper, 2011) and also to capture “the collective construction of the organizational processes whereby a shared understanding of organizational life is achieved” (Gherardi and Strati, 1990: 605; emphasis in the original). While such usages may seem more metaphorical than those related to place (where the link to landscape, weather or built environment seem more literal), these other uses of texture in social science settings mirror those related to place in that they highlight the shape and feel of contextual conditions.

Piggybacking on Malpas’s notion of place intelligence, I think we can profitably ascribe to the textural sensibility the more general characteristic of offering a type of contextual intelligence. Sociologists have often had a love-hate relationship with context; as they have also had with “place” (see Agnew and Duncan, 2013). Context and place, as with C. Wright Mills’s (1959) characterization of “milieu” in The Sociological Imagination, are often seen as too immediate or too surface level to provide significant insight.  We might say sociologists examining the immediacies of context often worry their explanations are insufficiently “big” or “deep”. But, as Olli Pyyhtinen (2017: 297-298) has recently suggested, in “a world where, say, a single computer glitch is capable of potentially crashing the entire global economy, and where human actions disturb the albedo, sea currents and the median temperature”, we need to rethink the “scales” of social life as “multiple, rich and messy”.

Texture sidesteps the problem of the vertical hierarchy of scale and puts the emphasis on the horizontal interconnection of things. As scholars have highlighted texture derives from the “Latin texere, meaning “to weave”’ (Adams, Hoelscher and Till, 2001: xiii). To the extent a “textile is created by bringing together many threads and, as such, represents ordered complexity” (Adams, Hoelscher and Till, 2001: xiii), texture allows us to reimagine context as fabric or threaded entity. Contextual intelligence might therefore be seen as ability to develop a feel for ordered complexity and its emergent properties (on texture as the “root metaphor” such a philosophy or social theory, see Pepper, 1966). The ordered complexities or inter-weavings in question might be those of place or organization or community. And, once we develop a feel for how things are interwoven, we are better placed to practice the art of “filling in the gap” and “sewing together what is torn” (Adams, Hoelscher and Till, 2001: xiii). And, as a recent book on the history of needlework puts it, fabric and thread are a way of “patterning our place in the world, voicing our identity, sharing something of ourselves with others” (Hunter, 2019: 298). Repair, care and expressing oneself through distributed or collective forms of creativity – these are natural allies of approaching the world in textural terms.

Figure 1: Rough or exposed concrete panels at International Lodge designed by Harry Seidler and completed in 1962; Source: author.
Figure 2: With time and weathering even modernist concrete buildings such as Seidler’s International Lodge, in the harbourside suburb of Elizabeth Bay, seem to embed themselves in place; Source: author.
Figure 3: “[S]andstone [acts] as a kind of bass note, an ever-present reminder of its Georgian beginnings and more ancient past” (Falconer); Source: author.
Figure 4: “[T]he city’s tides and sunlight can even constitute an antidote to the city’s pretensions to glamour” (Falconer); Source: author.


Adams, P. C., Hoelscher, S. and K. E. Till, (2001) “Place in Context” in P. C. Adams, S. Hoelscher and K. E. Till (eds.), Textures of Place, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: xiii-xxxiii.

Agnew, John A.  and James S. Duncan (Eds.) (2014) The Power of Place: Bringing Together Geographical and Sociological Imaginations, London and New York: Routledge.

de la Fuente, Eduardo (2018) “Cosmopolitan and Non-Cosmopolitan Surfaces” in Julie Etmonspool and Ian Woodward (eds.) Cosmopolitanism, Markets and Consumption: A Global Perspective, London: Palgrave-Macmillan: 157-181.

de la Fuente, Eduardo (2019a) “After the Cultural Turn: For a Textural Sociology”, Sociological Review, 67(3): 552-567.

Edensor, Tim (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, Oxford: Berg.

Ehland, Christoph (2007) “Introduction: Northern England and the Spaces of Identity” in Christoph Ehland (ed.) Thinking Northern: Textures of Identity in the North of England, Amsterdam: Rodopi: 15-32.

Falconer, Delia (2010) Sydney, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Fehérváry, Kriztina (2013) Politics in Colour and Concrete, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Forty, Adrian (2012) Concrete and Culture: A Material History, London: Reaktion Books.

Gherardi, Silvia and Antonio Strati (1990) “The ‘Texture’ of Organizing in an Italian University Department” Journal of Management Studies, 27(6):605-618.

Grindrod, John (2018) How to Love Brutalism, London: Batsford.

Harper, Richard (2011) Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Hunter, Clare (2019) Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of the Needle, Croydon: Sceptre.

Löw, Martina and Silke Steets (2014) “The Spatial Turn and the Sociology of the Built Environment” in Sokratis Koniardos and Alexandros Kyrtsis (eds.) New York: Routledge: 211-224.

Malpas, Jeff (2015) “Introduction – The Intelligence of Place” in Jeff Malpas (ed.) The Intelligence of Place: Topographies and Poetics, London: Bloomsbury: 1-10.

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Pepper, Stephen C. (1966) World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pyyhtinen, Olli (2017) “Matters of Scale: Sociology in and for a Complex World” Canadian Review of Sociology 54(3): 297-308. Rabaté, Jean-Michel (2018) Rust, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

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