Using a feminist materialism approach in empirical analysis

New feminist materialism theories potentially offer a foundation for exciting, innovative and creative ways to research health-related experiences from a more-than-human perspective. Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti and Jane Bennett are among the most influential scholars in new feminist materialisms. These scholars’ writings are perhaps most inspiring for their insistence on emphasising the vitalities, perversities and vibrancies of human-nonhuman assemblages. Theirs is an affirmative ethics and politics, which celebrates the renewal and liveliness of the capacities that these assemblages generate. (See an earlier post on key approaches in new materialisms.)

A major difficulty with current feminist materialism empirical work is that a methodology for how to go about conducting it is often described in very vague terms: if indeed it is described at all. In the attempt to develop a clearer understanding of how researchers can take up and think with feminist materialism theory in qualitative health research, in this post I outline some approaches I have developed when conducting analyses of the social impact and lived experiences of digital health technologies (for example, health-related mobile phone apps, wearable monitoring devices, social media platforms and online discussion forums).  This is presented as a series of propositions and key questions that I have found inspiring to creatively think with rather than as a definitive ‘cook-book’ of methods. My approach incorporates both reflective and diffractive methods, depending on the research questions and materials I am working with. While post-qualitative and diffraction researchers sometimes overtly eschew what they view to be the overly-prescriptive approach of attempting to find themes or discourses in research materials, I would argue that this approach can be valuable, particularly if the research materials are voluminous.

These propositions and questions have been drawn from my reading of feminist materialism and other new materialisms theory, in conjunction with my review of and engagement with how other social researchers have taken up materialist approaches as I have discussed above. They can be used in relation to many kinds of social research material, including survey responses, media artefacts, art works and performances, interviews, ethnographic observations, policy documents, autoethnographies and many more. They can work to inspire and provoke ideas when formulating research approaches and analysing research materials.

Propositions

  • Research focuses on understanding and mapping ontologies of the ‘human’ (understood as a category that is difficult to define and may include ‘more-than-human’, ‘posthuman’, ‘transhuman’ and other varieties)
  • Human subjects are unstable and emergent knowing, sensing, embodied, affective assemblages of matter, thought and language
  • Humans are part of and inseparable from more-than-human worlds
  • Humans come together/gather with nonhumans to configure constantly changing assemblages
  • These assemblages generate relational connections and affective forces and agential capacities
  • Together, these connections, forces and capacities constitute thing-power
  • Because of the constantly changing nature of these assemblages, there are possibilities for change, resistances or improvisations, or for thinking otherwise
  • Power is transitory as it is enacted within and between assemblages
  • Power is both constraining and enabling
  • All matter has an agential capacity to affect and be affected
  • Researchers are part of the research assemblages they are addressing
  • Analyses are only ever partial, the results of specific agential cuts or interpretations of the research materials.

These propositions can be taken up in many different ways in more-than-human research. They can be developed into a series of key research questions that can be used to guide the ways in which empirical research is conceptualised and carried out, including the choice of how to approach the collection of research materials and their analysis. The following key research questions are some that I have developed for my studies on digital health.

 Key research questions for inquiries into digital health

  • What are the key humans and nonhumans, practices, imaginaries, assumptions and discourses operating across different spaces and sites relating to digital health?
  • What conditions of action and possibility do digital health technologies and their developers, promoters and users establish?
  • What can bodies do when coming together with digital technologies?
  • How are health, illness and healthcare configured and enacted?
  • How do humans incorporate and improvise with digital health technologies?
  • What relational connections, affective forces and agential capacities are generated?
  • What is the thing-power of these assemblages?
  • How is this thing-power constraining or enabling?
  • What are the potentials for thinking or doing otherwise?

Research materials

In a more-than-human approach to critical social analysis, many kinds of research materials can come under investigation: not only human bodies, but those of other living things, as well as non-living objects, spaces, places and atmospheres. In the context of studies of digital health technologies, these are some possibilities (among many): human bodies (or parts of them – organs, blood, sweat, tears, bones, limbs, skin, gametes, foetuses), nonhuman animals, policy documents, news articles, journals, online patient support networks, websites, search engines, telemedicine technologies, social media content (status updates, tweets, likes, shares, hashtags), photographs, television programs, films, videos, audio recordings, digital memes, GIFs, robots, hospitals, clinics, waiting rooms, homes, furniture, clothing, wearable devices, apps, mobile devices, video games, sounds, smells, tastes, haptic sensations, digital datasets, art works, design artefacts, heart pacemakers, continuous glucose monitors, cities, rural landscapes, air, earth, water, sunshine … the list is infinitely expandable.

Examples

I have published some articles recently that apply these approaches to empirical research materials. These can be found open access at the links below:

  • ‘”I just want it to be done, done, done!” Food tracking apps, affects and agential capacities’ (here)
  • ‘Vitalities and visceralities: alternative food/body politics in new digital media’ (here)
  • ‘”A much better person”: the agential capacities of self-tracking practices’ (here)
  • ‘Wearable devices: sociotechnical imaginaries and agential capacities’ (here)
  • ‘The more-than–human sensorium: sensory engagements with digital self-tracking technologies’ (here)
  • ‘Vital materialism and the thing-power of lively data’ (here)

 

 

Using feminist materialism to analyse app use

food-apps1.png

I’ve been working with feminist materialism theories to understand how people take up and engage with digital media such as apps, social media and wearable devices. I’ve just had an article published, drawing from the Australian Women and Digital Health Project, which draws on a feminist materialism approach to present six vignettes from participants about their use and non-use of food tracking apps.

Here’s the abstract – the entire article is available open access here.

Food-tracking apps constitute a major category of the thousands of food-related apps now available. They are promoted as helping users monitor and measure their food consumption to improve their health or to lose weight. In this article, I present six vignettes drawn from interviews with Australian women about their use and non-use of food-tracking apps. The vignettes provide detailed insights into the experiences of these women and their broader sociocultural and biographical contexts. The analysis is based on feminist materialism theoretical perspectives, seeking to identify the relational connections, affective forces, and agential capacities generated in and through the human-app assemblage. The vignettes reveal that affective forces related to the desire to control and manage the body and conform to norms and ideals about good health and body weight inspire people to try food-tracking apps. However, the agential capacities promised by app developers may not be generated even when people have committed hope and effort in using the app. Frustration, disappointment, the fear of becoming too controlled, and annoyance or guilt evoked by the demands of the app can be barriers to continued and successful use. Sociocultural and biographical contexts and relational connections are also central to the capacities of human-app assemblages. Women’s ambivalences about using apps as part of efforts to control their body weight are sited within their struggles to conform to accepted ideals of physical appearance but also their awareness that these struggles may be too limiting of their agency. This analysis, therefore, draws attention to what a body can and cannot do as it comes together with food tracking apps.