Symbolic New Materialism: From Theory to Practice

A Brief Introduction to New Materialism

The interconnectedness of two people's stories symbolized through this unique artwork
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Consider how much time instructors and students spend in front of electronic screens and how essential technology has become within the last eight months. Meetings and lessons delivered via Zoom and other online platforms are the new normal. Given the challenging times that we are facing including new approaches to learning, living, and overcoming adversity, the idea of new materialism is gaining momentum.

New materialism (Barad, 2007; Bennett, 2010; Braidotti, 2013) is more than a theoretical framework that looks good on paper. It answers a call for a change in the way we live. It addresses the need to show more awareness toward the objects around us. It acknowledges the non-human or immaterial world, whose existence is entangled with rather than separate from the human world. It “open[s] up a world of materially situated non-human phenomena” (Hackett et al., 2020, p. 7), offering us novel avenues to “work in the fine grains of what there is, and what there could be. … It allows for a diffractive gaze and the queering of time and space” (Newfield & Bozalek, 2019, as cited in Hackett et al., 2020, p. 7). In terms of pedagogy, new materialism points to a dramatic shift in incorporating topics such as mental health, wellbeing, and environmental issues into the ESL curricula across institutions and proficiency levels. Here are two examples that illustrate new materialism as a warm-up exercise:

  • students hold up an object of their choice and briefly discuss its significance, and
  • students create a still life selfie accompanied with a brief recorded description of why they chose those objects and what they mean to them. Using Padlet, students pin their still life selfie on a Google world map and respond to classmates’ still life selfies (Martin, 2020).

Symbolic New Materialism

Objects and their stories can be a rich springboard to help instructors learn about their students on a more personal level and tailor lessons to meet students’ needs and interests. As points of entry, stories are “meaningful patterns of events” (Rainer, 1998, p. 1) that can shed light on lived experiences and help both story-teller and listener(s) gain a better understanding of who they were, who they are, and who they want to be. As part of a graduate assignment, I recounted meaningful events in my life. This prompted me to focus on people who have played a major role in my identity formation. Bitter-sweet memories brought my grandmother to the forefront, prompting me to reflect on childhood socialization practices that have shaped me into who I am today. One thing that she used to say to me when I was a little girl was that joys and sorrows follow us wherever we go. Grandmother’s saying gave symbolic life to lifeless immaterial notions like sorrows and joys, and has prompted my conceptualization of symbolic new materialism (Brass, 2020).

Everyone deals with pain and loss differently, and tries to hold on to whatever gives them strength. I recently lost my father-in-law to COVID-19. My husband brought objects to remind him of his father with him from Toronto. While he was telling me the story of each artifact, I realized that I do not have any material objects to remind me of my grandmother. In reflecting on this loss, I became aware that there is something that deeply connects me with her across time and space: I have inherited her name. My grandmother’s name was Maria. My mother’s name is Maria. My middle name is Maria. I think of it as symbolic new materialism. The fact that I was given this name gives me pride in my heritage and inspires me to keep my Romanian roots alive. This speaks to the value that I attribute to a person’s name(s) and explains why I always make a concerted effort to pronounce my students’ name properly. A name is a symbolic part of a person’s identity: It carries within it family histories and untold stories of past, present, and future (Brass, 2020). Given the value that we place on material and symbolic environments, a name (along with our symbolic investment in it) translates as rich possibilities for classroom practices and identity research.


Barad, K. M. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv12101zq.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv111jh6w.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA; USA: Polity Press.

Brass, L. (2020). A woman’s identity through material and symbolic objects: Reflections of a language teacher [Unpublished manuscript]. Language and Literacy Education Department, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia.

Brass, L. (2020). Language teacher identity through the lens of new materialism [Unpublished manuscript]. Language and Literacy Education Department, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia.

Hackett, A., MacLure, M., & Pahl, K. (2020). Literacy and language as material practices: Re-thinking social inequality in young children’s literacies. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 20(1), 3-12. doi:10.1177/1468798420904909.

Martin, J. (2020). Still life selfie map [Google map made with padlet]. Retrieved from

Newfield D., & Bozalek, V. (2019) A Thebuwa hauntology, from silence to speech: Reconfiguring literacy practices. In: Kuby C, Spector K and Thiel JJ (eds) Posthumanism and Literacy Education: Knowing/Becoming/Doing Literacies. London: Routledge, pp. 37–54.

Rainer, T. (1998). Your life as story. New York, NW: Tarcher Penguin.

Blog written by: Laura Brass

Laura Brass is a PhD student in the Language and Literacy Education department at the University of British Columbia. She holds an MEd in TESL from the University of Calgary. Laura has published in the Canadian Journal of Career Development and TEFL Equity Advocates. She has taught EFL, ESL, EAP, LINC and has worked with CBC/Radio-Canada, Langara College, MOSAIC, and Vancouver Community College. She is currently a Graduate Teaching Assistant with UBC Vantage College.  She is exploring symbolic new materialism as part of her doctoral research.


3 thoughts on “Symbolic New Materialism: From Theory to Practice”

  1. Thanks Laura for your rich and thoughtful write-up on the symbolic significance of objects and the importance of names in identity formation which resonated strongly with me.

    No longer should we say “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet,” although the original quote of Shakespeare pointed more towards the arbitrary connection between the signifier and signified more than anything else.

    The other day I was listening to an interview of Kamala Harris by Trevor Noah, where she asserted how a name is the first gift from the family that a child receives and the strong roots it has; how valuable a name is and how it should be treasured.

    I totally appreciate your practice of pronouncing your students’ names correctly and that is something I do too. I think it is important to address students properly by their names.

    I look forward to knowing more about symbolic new materialism from you.
    Take care,

    1. Hi Paramita,

      I started my grad journey drawing on Saussure’s concepts of signified and signifier, moved on to post-structuralism, and ended up embracing new materialism and phenomenology—two theoretical frameworks whose potential for research on female teacher identity and more inclusive classroom pedagogies is quite fascinating. But who knows, given my interest in symbols, I might revisit Saussure. I am at the beginning of my grad research informed by new materialism, but I am so excited about what it has in store for me.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. It was a pleasure reading it and I welcome the references you made, from Shakespeare to Saussure to Kamala Harris. By the way, I’d love to watch that interview, so if you could share the link, that would be much appreciated. I totally agree that a name carries so much and while I was lucky to have a first name that was easily pronounced here in North America, I feel for those students who have to take on a new nickname just to avoid awkward conversations and mispronunciation.


      1. Hi Laura,
        Thanks for getting back to me. I am glad that you share the same enthusiasm about Saussure and semiotics such as I do. I wish you luck in your research on new materialism and I hope to connect with you in future to learn more about it.

        Sorry, it took me some time to locate the interview. What with the constant onslaught of different social media platform posts on your senses, it does become difficult at times to locate posts one has not saved for future reference. But I did find it and here goes the interview:

        Let me know what you think of it!

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