A new materialist approach to ethnography

Teggi, Diana (2018). A new materialist approach to ethnography. In: The Fourth Annual Qualitative Research Symposium, 31 Jan 2018, University of Bath.


This paper asks how new materialist onto-epistemologies (Braidotti, 2013) reshape our understanding of researchers’ positionality in ethnography.

This paper draws on the feminist strand of new materialism developed in the works of Karen Barad (2007), Rosi Braidotti (2013, 2006) and Donna Haraway (1988, 1991). Feminist new materialist approaches1 question two tenets of ethnographic fieldwork, interviewing2 and writing: 1) the generation and presentation of knowledge as from the point of view of the ‘studied subject(s)’, and 2) the erasure of researchers’ subjectivity in the process of knowledge-production (see Maso, 2014, p. 138; Stanley, 2014, p. 100).

Positivistic research paradigms, having major currency in the social sciences, induce qualitative researchers to obliterate themselves from their research output, even if they are part of it. The concepts of intra-action (Barad, 2007) and situated knowledges (Haraway, 1988) provide the grounds for the epistemological, ethical and political legitimacy of knowledges marked by positionality and co-produced through the (inevitably) asymmetrical social relations occurring in the field. This stance demands of and entitles researchers to be accountable for the power structures that shape the researcher/research participant(s) interactions (Foley, 2002). It also prompts researchers to be self-reflexive of the affective and emotional entanglements with their own research (Hockey, 2007; Valentine, 2007; Watts, 2008; Woodthorpe, 2011).

I will argue for a feminist new materialist approach to ethnography, and its potential to foster the insurrection of subjugated knowledges (Foucault, 2010), based on a meta-analysis of my research with institutionalised older adults living and dying in care homes. My M.A. dissertation at Humboldt University, Berlin (2016) was in fact the ethnography of an English nursing home for the aged. The focus of the ethnography lied on residents’ experience of living the last phase of their lives in institutional permanent care and with dependency, disability and chronic illnesses. To engage in conversation with the residents made me aware of the issues surrounding the neutrality, objectivity and detachment usually required of researchers.

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