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Diffractive ethnography

In a diffractive ethnography, the researcher is a presence, and active force, in the assemblage that becomes the research. (Gullion, 2018, p.122)

In this opening quote, Gullion highlights that diffraction decentres the human while also acknowledging that objectivity is not about taking the subject out of the research (Murris, 2020a), but taking responsibility for our entanglements (Barad, 2007). The researcher is indeed “a presence, and active force” that cannot be removed or silenced from the research they are undertaking. Diffractive ethnography as a methodology is proposed for this study to mediate the issues associated with traditional ethnography namely “the missing voice in that discourse – the silence of matter” (Gullion, 2018, p. 1). Conceptually, a diffractive ethnography enables research that considers the materiality and relationality of matter in a move away from the humanistic focus of traditional ethnography. It seeks to achieve this by reconceptualising conventional ethnographic methods through the posthumanist lens. For example, lesson observations are reframed as lesson participations that consider not only the human participants[1] but also the nonhuman participants and the nonrepresentational aspects such as the social, cultural and other material-discursive forces. This is a necessary practice of reconceptualisation in posthumanist research (Murris, 2020a), and there is more on this to come in the discussion on methods.


Gullion (2018) draws on theories of assemblages, difference and becoming as described by Deleuze and Guattari’s network actor theory and associations from Latour, and entanglements as offered by Barad. Gullion (2018) defines that the concepts of assemblage, entanglement and mangle will be used interchangeably. In respect of the scientific theories of quantum mechanics underpinning my PhD research, I focus here solely on entanglements (as was justified earlier in this Turn). The purpose is to dive deeply into the complexity of ‘entanglements’ as a key concept in Barad’s work without reducing or negating its meaning by interchanging it with other terms such as enmeshed, assemblage or network. The concept of entanglements in diffractive ethnography aligns with the posthumanist theoretical perspective underpinning this study. In particular, diffractive ethnography encourages the questioning of the individual self where “existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (Barad, 2007, p. xi).


Diffractive ethnography shifts thinking away from traditional ethnographic inquiry “describing people and the things they do” to asking questions about the nature of entanglements and “how boundaries are configured and reconfigured” (Gullion, 2018, p. 121). What sets diffractive ethnography apart from its foundations in traditional ethnography is that it does not focus on studying and analysing people, cultures or groups, rather it seeks to explore phenomena (Gullion, 2018) that include relationality with human and nonhuman alike. Thinking through diffractive ethnography follows posthumanist research traditions where phenomena are studied in their multitude of complex relations (Ulmer, 2017).


The challenge in enacting a diffractive ethnography lies in the reconceptualisation of traditional ethnographic practices. It pushes researchers to consider the entanglements of materiality and relationality of matter and to seek the dynamic mo(ve)ments of becoming that make themselves known with/in the data. It seeks to explore “how things come to matter in the ways they do” (Davies et al., 2013, p. 680). A diffractive ethnography explores the flows and patterns of diffraction rather than conventional cause and effect models  (Davies et al., 2013; Gullion, 2018; Mitchell, 2017; Ulmer, 2017), and such an exploration can create tensions for researchers who hold dear traditional ways of doing research. Moreover, diffractive ethnography must contend with and trouble ways of data presentation in what is often considered a nonrepresentational paradigm  (Davies et al., 2013; Gullion, 2018; Mitchell, 2017).


In the following passage, Gullion (2018) elucidates the nature of diffractive ethnography, including reconceptualising society and ethical responsibility:


In the ontological turn, we can reconceptualize the social world as an enchanted place of entanglements…of dynamics and movements that include humans and others. Thinking with entanglements…incites issues of ethics and justice…Harm to entities that are entangled with us harms us directly as well… When an object is entangled, distance is erased. Boundaries between entities are enactments; indeed, to bound an entity itself is an enactment, and we are responsible for those enactments. I should be clear, however, that these are discursive; there are no ‘real’ boundaries between us. Speaking in quantum terms, there is no separation between entities. We are entangled. (p. 156)


This passage explains the entangled nature of diffractive ethnography and how it offers a methodological approach to research that constantly shifts the angle of perception of ways of knowing and being in the world. Diffractive ethnography not only studies the human actors but acknowledges the agency of all materiality, where nonrepresentational forces are also agentic. Diffractive ethnography explores the way that human bodies are entangled with material-discursive forces in a continual becoming-with. As such, diffractive ethnography aligns with an ethico-onto-epistemology where human bodies are not perceived in isolation as traditional ethnography proposes. Diffractive ethnography deconstructs notions of the self or ‘I’, where individuals “emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (Barad, 2007, p. ix). Indeed, there are no individuals as “the boundaries that we perceive are not real” (Gullion, 2018, p. 112). Diffractive ethnography accepts the entanglements that produce the phenomena of the human bodies in each mo(ve)ment.


Diffractive ethnography accommodates traditional qualitative ethnographic methods with their humanistic focus, by pushing them through a diffractive lens – the ReTurning Learning theoretical framework as a series of diffraction gratings (see figure 4.1). Diffractive ethnography tends to the uncertain and indeterminate, by entangling the posthumanist theorising of diffraction with the qualitative tradition of ethnography to reconceptualise the complexity, intra-activity and agency of data in research.


The e/mergence of diffraction and ethnography in a diffractive ethnographic approach proposed theoretically by Guillion (2018) and adopted in this study, was still in infancy at the time of writing this thesis. While I acknowledge the efforts and early hints of diffractive ethnography that were proposed by earlier researchers such as Schneider (2002), and Mellander and Wiszmeg (2016), the grounding of diffractive ethnography has been largely evident through the book, Diffractive Ethnography, released by Gullion in 2018. A Google Scholar search for “Diffractive Ethnography” anytime until 2017 returned 31 hits. This compares with the 42 hits since the book’s release in 2018. Therefore, while this is an emerging and burgeoning area of research, there are still few empirical studies that have utilised diffractive ethnography in practice. This PhD study is therefore significant in grounding the practical implementation of diffractive ethnography. Furthermore, this research makes a unique and novel contribution to the field of environmental education as this approach to research has not been utilised in this educational area to date.


[1] I acknowledge that often in traditional ethnography, the people being studied are called ‘informants’. However, the term 'participants’ has been adopted in this study to denote the role and position of the human actants more accurately in this study. This concept is explored more fulsomely in section 2 of this Turn under the subheading of ‘participants’.

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