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)

 

 

Tips for qualitative researchers seeking funding – what NOT to leave out of your grant applications

It is grant reviewing season and I’ve been reading through some very interesting applications from some accomplished qualitative researchers in the social sciences and media studies. The rationale and background for projects are usually very well described and justified, as are the track records of the applicants.

But I’ve seen some common areas across several of the applications that need more detail. These are:

  1. There is often not enough (or sometimes even any) information about the approach taken to analysing the qualitative data you are collecting. Simply saying you are ‘using NVivo to analyse the data’ and leaving it at that is not enough. NVivo seems to have become a magic word to use to explain and justify qualitative data analysis. But it is just a data management tool. I want to know what you are going to do with it. There are many approaches to analysing qualitative data. Which approach are you using? Have you had previous experience with this approach? Please justify the reason for your approach and provide some information about what you will be looking for in the data, and why.
  2. If you are recruiting research participants for interviews, focus groups or other types of participation, please provide details of whether you have used your recruitment methods before and how successful they were. I know from experience that recruiting participants can be difficult and time-consuming, and achieving this successfully is crucial to the feasibility of your project. I would like you to explain to me more carefully how you are going to find people, and how you will keep them involved if they are required for more than one activity or you are asking them to be involved over quite a long time in the project.
  3. This issue is particularly important if you are proposing to recruit hard-to-reach or marginalised social groups, and also high-status groups (such as busy professionals, for whom time is money). Here you need to provide even more information about how you will successfully recruit these participants and commit them to be involved. What will persuade them to be part of your study?
  4. Which leads on to the ethics of recruiting participants from marginalised groups, or those you wish to engage in discussions about potentially distressing experiences. How will you persuade these people to want to speak to you? How will you protect them from harm, if you are raising sensitive and distressing issues and inviting them to discuss them with you? How will you protect yourself and other researchers involved in the project from the distress you may yourselves feel at discussing sensitive and very personal issues which may be very sad or otherwise confronting for all involved? I am concerned to see that often these very important issues are not discussed in enough detail, or are even glossed over, as if the applicants do not consider them important or have not considered their implications.
  5. Many qualitative researchers now make statements suggesting that their research will have impact outside universities. Yet here again, often not enough fine details are provided to convince assessors and funders how feasible these claims are. Please tell us more about how this impact will be achieved.
  6. And finally … many major funding bodies now mandate that the publications generated from the projects they fund should be made available open access. Yet very few qualitative researchers demonstrate any awareness of this, or describe how they will meet these requirements. Here again, more detail is required. Will you be depositing your publications into your university’s e-repository? Will you need to ask for funding in your budget to pay journals to publish your accepted manuscript as open access? Please explain your strategy.