Replacing the networked society with social foam: a revolution for corporate ethnography?
“I said “Brr. It’s cold in here/It must be something in the Atmosphere!”” (Cheerleaders’ chant from Bring It On, dir. Reed, 2000)
What would it mean for corporate ethnography to think of society not as networked, but as if it were a set of bubbles making up foam? In this paper I outline Peter Sloterdijk’s theory that we live in a plurality of spheres, captured in his notion of foam. Sloterdijk argues that we should replace the notion of society – too easily understood as a ‘mono-spherical container’ – with the idea of social foam. Foam is an aggregate of micro-spheres, adjacent but without being accessible to or separable from, each other. Sloterdijk offers a persuasive alternative to the concept of network, which as he points out leads us to think/visualize the world as having an “excessively reductive geometry…the network intimates the notion of expanded points that are connected…a universe for data trawlers”. Working through Sloterdijk’s theory leads us to a different way of thinking about how ideas travel and are transmitted. For him, transmission is about suggestion and imitation. He gives a key role to theories of affective transmission. Thus he focuses on how foam sociality becomes embedded in particular air conditions or ‘atmospheres’. We might use this theory it to change the fundamental tenets of what ‘the social’ is for ethnographers in industry.