Research questions, methodologies and methods and analysis

Materialist methodologies suggested by Fox and Alldred (2017) propose an ontological orientation towards matter as opposed to texts or structures; a concern with what matter does, not what it is; a post-anthropocentric focus on capacity of all matter to affect; recognition that thoughts, memories, desires and emotions have material effects; power and resistance operates at the local level of action and events - rather than top down; changes how we think or claim change occurs (Aranda, 2018). Given this, research becomes conceived as an assemblage. As sets of performative practices or assemblages of actors, tools, technologies, emotions, desires, motivations, meanings, skills, knowledge, bodies, memories, place or history, research works with understandings of agency as distributed. Action, free will or experience, behaviour or intent is not located in humans and their bodies but is to be found instead in relational networks of materials, meanings, competencies and affects (Fox & Alldred, 2014).

More recently, Lupton (2019) has argued more specifically for inspiration from these new materialist, material feminist theories of the more than human world offer for health related research. Using her own empirical research in digital health technologies designed to monitor and promote health, she explores this potential. She aims to address the ‘vagueness or even mystique’ around how to do applied feminist material research. Arguing for these novel ways for analysing human subjectivities, embodiment, agency and power relations in a more than human world (Lupton 2019, p. 1), she documents her approach to show how these theories impact on research questions, bring into view different research materials and produce fresh insights.

Lupton (2019) shows how different questions become possible as these are inquiries over the key human and nonhuman practices, imaginaires, assumptions and discourses operating across différent sites and spaces relating to health. She asks how health, care and illness are configured and enacted; or what can human bodies do when coming together with things and places? As importantly, these theories enable questions about the potentials for thinking or doing otherwise. In her research with health technologies, these theories help identify the micropolitical dimensions of people’s engagements with things, spaces, and places. This allows for attending to the complexities and details of how people come together with healthcare, with other practitioners and the roles of politics, technologies or objects in places so deepening understandings of these enactments (Lupton 2019, p. 5). In asking what bodies can do when they assemble with nonhumans, fresh insights concerning agential capacities, affective forces and relational connections. Her research insights include confirming the significance of biographical experiences, or relational connections to desires for health, fitness, enjoyment of nature and movement through exercise. She concludes instead of research method, qualitative health researchers using these theories should consider an approach of‘lively assemblages of thinking and doing’ for how to go about research (Lupton, 2019, p. 10).

Critical physiotherapists draw upon new materialist ideas to further these detailed micro-political accounts. Conceiving of technology as part of more or less stable assemblages of bodies, things and spaces that have the capacities to enable or constrain, Gibson et al. (2016) explore the experiences of young people with disabilities. Using these theories décentres the autonomous subject of western neoliberal healthcare to allow analysis of the interactions between humans and nonhuman entities, but without privileging one over the other. This they suggest creates a space to interrogate how people’s abilities/inabilities are produced — and how different subjects are enacted through various configurations of elements (Gibson et al., 2016). In challenging biomedical accounts these theories offer opportunities for changes in rehabilitation practices, through fine-grained analysis of socio-technical interactions (Gibson et al., 2016, p. 4).

A further health related example of the importance of full context and materials can be found in Mol’s (2008) work on competing logics of choice and care in healthcare systems. Using these theoretical frames, the whole context comes to the fore in order to follow the sociomaterial orderings or configurations of meanings and matter that comprise practices of logics of choice and care. Interviews were not about asking people about their opinions but about the events and activities they were involved in. In this way, patients and staff offered knowledge about the treatment involved in living a life with diabetes. Mol separates out good care from messy practices. She argues that gathering knowledge is not matter of providing better maps of reality but of crafting more bearable ways of living with or in reality (Mol 2008, p. 53).

Although not health related research, in thinking with theory in qualitative research, Jackson and Mazzei (2012) draw upon Barad to analysing data using ‘diffraction’ from these new materialist perspectives. They argue diffraction removes us from habitual or normative readings of data or texts, in similar ways to a discursive approach, but here discourse is more than language. Meaning is always already material, but so too is the material world always already discursively constituted. This mutuality of constitution is similarly evident Band’s concept of intraaction. The term inter-action concerns two separate bodies or entities, whereas for Barad the term intra-action captures the entanglement of relations with both the dynamic nature of material and meaning. For example, the body in healthcare is frequently conceived as produced by and entangled in sociomaterial or affective relations that constitute embodiment (Draper, 2014; Aranda, 2018).

In new materialist theories bodies are understood as temporal and emplaced, emerging from and entangled in both material and discursive relations. A further Baradian tenn they draw on is agential realism. This concept aims to more adequately capture the dynamic distributed properties of agency. Agency becomes ascribed not only to humans, but to the nonhuman, the material and discursive, natural and cultural worlds and other sociomaterial practices (Barad, 2007). Agency is then not an attribute or property of anything or subject. This is the landscape for research; of dynamic configurations, and reconfigurations, entanglements and rela-tionalities and re-articulations that become the units of analysis, not through words, but in the discursive material practices that enact this flow of agency. There are no individual effects of either discourse or matter, they are intertwined and together constitute the intra-action that is agency in the world.

These theories mean more than inserting the material into the data or meaning making in a qualitative study (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). This theoretical frame shifts the focus from the way individuals make choices or acting, to how forces of material conditions, such as location or size of home or an office and the materiality of bodies work together. This is a movement from ‘what is told’ to ‘what is produced’. This is inclusive of non-human and human bodies, identities or subjectivities and things seen in artefacts such as furniture, rooms, books, space and clothes (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012).

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