Post-qualitative approaches to research challenge our understandings of concepts that we typically take for granted. In this blog post, I bring together some initial definitions from authors for concepts that you will see in writing about new materialisms. You’ll notice that I’ve focused on concepts that Karen Barad has written about, which I’ve listed in alphabetical order. There are a number of special journal issues on post-qualitative research informed by post-humanist and new materialist philosophies, so be sure to review these for a deeper understanding of how scholars take up and use these concepts. I’ve included some references at the end of this blogpost. And of course, for those who want to use these concepts – be sure to read the original sources. You’ll find some references below where you might begin.
Feminist physicist Karen Barad (2007) proposed the idea of agential realism as a way to conceptualize the relationships among the material and discursive. According to Barad, agential realism:
“rejects the notion of a correspondence relation between words and things and offers in its stead a causal explanation of how discursive practices are related to material phenomena. It does so by shifting the focus from the nature of representations (scientific and other) to the nature of discursive practices (including technoscientific ones), leaving in its wake the entire irrelevant debate between traditional forms of realism and social constructivism. Crucial to this theoretical framework is a strong commitment to accounting for the material nature of practices and how they come to matter” (Barad, 2007, pp. 44-45).
Kaiser and Thiele (2014) trace the metaphor of “diffraction” to Donna Haraway’s writing on rethinking “difference/s beyond binary opposition/s” (p. 165). Haraway (2020 ) wrote that “diffraction does not produce ‘the same’ displaced, as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of differences appear” (p. 300). Kaiser and Thiele (2014, p. 165) commented on Karen Barad’s quantum understanding of diffraction, stating that “diffraction highlights the systemic intra-actions and unavoidable ‘agential cuts’ that co-constitute subjects, objects and the ongoing pattern-formations in which they/we participate” (p. 166). Barad (2014) proposed that a quantum understanding of diffraction troubles dichotomies: “cutting into two – as a singular act of absolute differentiation, fracturing this from that, now from then” (p. 168).
Aligned with the idea of intra-action, and in contrast to the taken-for-granted idea that human beings are self-contained individuals, Barad discussed the idea of “entanglement.” According to Barad, “[e]ntanglements are not a name for the interconnectedness of all being as one, but rather specific material relations of the ongoing differentiating of the world” (Barad, 2010, p. 265). Barad (2007, p. ix) comments:
“To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating. Which is not to say that emergence happens once and for all, as an event or as a process that takes place according to some external measure of space and of time. But rather that time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future.”
Barad (2010, p. 251) commented that “being/becoming is an indeterminate matter: there simply is not a determinate fact of the matter.” Barad explains that quantum entanglements “defy commonsense notions of communication ‘between entities ‘separated’ by arbitrarily large spaces and times”, undoing “duality, unity, multiplicity” (2010, p. 251). According to Barad (2007, p. 33), intra-action“signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies.” As an example, in contrast to the way in which “interaction” in research interviews is typically taken to have occurred (i.e., it assumes that there are “separate individual agencies that precede their interaction”), “the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (Barad, 2007, p. 33). Kuntz and Presnall (2012) have explored this idea in their article on reconceptualizing interviews as “intraviews.”
Philosophers of new materialisms challenge the dichotomy between “being” (ontology) and “knowing” (epistemology), arguing that “knowing” cannot be separated from “being,” and that the non-human is implicated in knowledge production. From this viewpoint, “epistemology” and “ontology” are not separate, thus the term “onto-epistemology” is used. Karen Barad wrote:
“Practices of knowing and being are not isolable; they are mutually implicated. We don’t obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming. The separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse. Onto-epistem-ology—the study of practices of knowing in being—is probably a better way to think about the kind of understandings that we need to come to terms with how specific intractions matter. Or, for that matter, what we need is something like an ethico-onto-epistem-ology—an appreciation of the intertwining of ethics, knowing, and being—since each intra-action matters, since the possibilities for what the world may become call out in the pause that precedes each breath before a moment comes into being and the world is remade again, because the becoming of the world is a deeply ethical matter” (Barad, 2007, p. 185).
Barad’s idea of new temporalities, or spacetimemattering (Barad, 2014) conveys the inseparability of space, time and matter. Barad (2010) asserted that “Phenomena are not located in space and time; rather, phenomena are material entanglements enfolded and threaded through the spacetimemattering of the universe” (p. 261, italics in original). Barad (2010) continues: “Multiple heterogeneous iterations all: past, present, and future, not in a relation of linear unfolding, but threaded through one another in a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering, a topology that defies any suggestions of a smooth continuous manifold” (p. 244).
Barad’s idea of spacetimemattering challenges our understanding of time. Barad (2010) wrote: “There is no overarching sense of temporality, of continuity, in place. Each scene diffracts various temporalities within and across the field of spacetimemattering. Scenes never rest, but are reconfigured within, dispersed across, and threaded through one another” (p. 240).
Rather than inert, matter is seen as dynamic and “vibrant” (Bennett, 2010). Jane Bennett wrote about “vital materiality”:
“By ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own. My aspiration is to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (Bennett, 2010, p. viii).
Similarly, Karen Barad (2010) asserted that:
“The very dynamism of matter (unto ‘itself,’ as it were, without the need for some supplement like culture or history to motor it), its agential and affirmative capacity for change with every doing, is its regenerative un/doing. Matter is always already open, heterogeneous, noncontemporaneous with itself. Matter is always shifting, reconfiguring, re-differentiating itself. Deconstruction is not what Man does (it is not a method), it is what the text does, what matter does, how mattering performs itself. Matter is never settled but is agentive and continually opens itself up to a variety of possible and impossible reconfigurings. Matter is ongoing hauntological transformation” (Barad, 2010, p. 268).
Much has been written about each of the concepts listed here. To learn more about how scholars apply these in research, take a look at any one of the special issues below. You’ll find lots to think about — happy reading!
Cultural Studies « Critical Methodologies. 2016. 16(2). Theme of issue, “New Empiricisms/New Materialisms”
Cultural Studies « Critical Methodologies. 2016. 16(5). Theme of issue, “Alternative Ontologies of Number: Rethinking the Quantitative in Computational Culture.”
Cultural Studies Review. 2015. 21(2). Theme of issue, “New Materialisms: Movement, Aesthetics, Ontology.”
Gender and Education. 2013. 25(6). Theme of issue: “Material Feminisms: New Directions for Education.”
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 2013. 26(6). Theme of issue, “Post Qualitative Research.”
Qualitative Inquiry, 2014. 20(6). Theme of issue, “Qualitative Data Analysis After Coding.”
Qualitative Inquiry. 2017. 23(9). Theme of issue, “Concept as Method.”
Qualitative Inquiry. 2022. 28(5). Theme of issue, “Posthuman Creativities: Pluralist ecologies and the question of how.”
Theory, Culture & Society. 2017. 34(2-3). Theme of issue, “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene.”
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Barad, K. (2010). Quantum entanglements and hauntological relations of inheritance: Dis/continuities, spacetime infoldings, and justice-to-come. Derrida today, 3(2), 240-268.
Barad, K. (2014). Diffracting diffraction: Cutting together-apart. Parallax, 20(3), 168-187. doi:10.1080/13534645.2014.927623
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC, & London: Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. (2020 ). The promises of monsters: A regenerative politics for inappropriate/d others. In J. A. Weinstock (Ed.), The Monster Theory Reader: University of Minnesota Press.
Kaiser, B. M., & Thiele, K. (2014). Diffraction: Onto-epistemology, quantum physics and the critical humanities. Parallax, 20(3), 165-167. doi:10.1080/13534645.2014.927621
Kuntz, A. M., & Presnall, M. M. (2012). Wandering the tactical: From interview to intraview. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(9), 732-744. doi:10.1177/1077800412453016