Current treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) do not work well for a large proportion of patients, or at all in some individuals, and cannot cure or prevent this disease. One major obstacle to developing better drugs is a lack of complete understanding of how inflammatory joint disease arises and progresses. Emerging evidence indicates an important role for the tissue microenvironment in the pathogenesis of RA. Each tissue is made up of cells surrounded and supported by a unique extracellular matrix (ECM). These complex molecular networks define tissue architecture and provide environmental signals that programme site-specific cell behaviour. In the synovium, a main site of disease activity in RA, positional and disease stage-specific cellular diversity exist. Improved understanding of the architecture of the synovium from gross anatomy to the single-cell level, in parallel with evidence demonstrating how the synovial ECM is vital for synovial homeostasis and how dysregulated signals from the ECM promote chronic inflammation and tissue destruction in the RA joint, has opened up new ways of thinking about the pathogenesis of RA. These new ideas provide novel therapeutic approaches for patients with difficult-to-treat disease and could also be used in disease prevention.