“We come in as ‘the nothing’”: Researching non-intervention in palliative care

Borgstrom, Erica; Cohn, Simon and Driessen, Annelieke (2020). “We come in as ‘the nothing’”: Researching non-intervention in palliative care. Medicine, Anthropology, Theory (In Press).


Our ethnographic study about palliative care in a UK medical setting and instances when medical staff do not do something that we have called ‘non-intervention’, raised an obvious question: how does one study something that is not happening? In this think piece we outline three ways in which we have tried to engage with this methodological question - from the initial grant application process to the point we are at now: first, a somewhat positivist approach, which allowed us to delineate the phenomenon of our study. Second, a following technique, adopted to understand non-interventions as and when they are conceived of by our informants. And a third approach to try and ‘trace enactments of non-doing’ by mapping the range of different practices, and understanding how not doing invariably occurs alongside other forms of doing. We describe what these approaches have taught us so far, and reflect on the limits of each. We do so in the hope to provide others with starting points for studying nothings, not-doings and absences.

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