‘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, 7(2) pp. 202–213.

DOI: https://doi.org/10/17157/mat.7.2.769


In our ethnographic study of palliative care in a UK medical setting, we concerned ourselves with instances when medical staff chose not do something, which we came to call ‘noninterventions’. Such instances raised an obvious question: how does one study something that is not happening? In this Position 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 noninterventions as and when they are conceived by our informants; and third, an approach that tries to trace enactments of ‘not doing’ by mapping the range of different practices and, in so doing, elucidates 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 of providing others with starting points for studying nothings, ‘not doings’, and absences.

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