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Doing Data: The principles underpinning the practice

The materiality of the data entanglements in this study were explored through the principles of diffraction. The tenets engaged with for this thesis materialises the data ‘that speaks’ in response to the research question (Murris & Haynes, 2018a; C. A. Taylor, 2013). When the data is given voice and agency through this process, the data emerges as a theory-making practice (Gullion, 2018); said differently, a process of “flattening and folding” that recoils from interpretivist notions of data analysis and “embraces the mutually constitutive nature” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2011, p. 11) of diffraction.


Conventional approaches to data analysis, effectively interpretative approaches to coding and categorising the data according to commonalities, are in disaccord with diffractive theorising where the data is “attentive to how differences get made and what the effects of these differences are” (Bozalek & Zembylas, 2017, p. 2). Diffraction pays homage to the “relations of difference and how they matter” (Barad, 2007, p. 71). Moreover, the process of making data entanglements refutes the separation of data collection and data analysis techniques by acknowledging the iterative and dynamic processes involved in data making.


In this study, the data guided and led the process of exploration; data resist interpretation, being condensed and packaged up neatly. The data were given opportunity to expand thought and inquiry into (yet) unknown and potentially uncomfortable spaces to be explored. This is the making of diffractive data entanglements that pushes beyond traditional boundaries and practices in an adventure of uncharted exploration and a childhoodnature inquiry of what is yet to find and know (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2020).


Drawing upon a comprehensive analysis of diffractive approaches to doing data (Barad, 2014; Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Jackson & Mazzei, 2011; Lenz Taguchi, 2012; Mazzei, 2014; Murris & Bozalek, 2019; Palmer, 2011; C. A. Taylor, 2013) , I proposed a suite of eight principles of diffractive methodology that were contextualised and experimented with for the purpose of this study (see figure below).

Diffractive Data Entanglements.jpeg

1. Data is lively

Data is designed to be in constant intra-action with other data, other bodies, other matter. Data is an agentic material – it has its own set of discursive practices that enact upon everything else. This changes the way data is viewed from traditional accounts of data as “inert, passive ‘stuff’ we (humans) go out and ‘collect’, return with and then pore over to analyse, code and thematise” (C. A. Taylor, 2013, p. 691), to the materiality and therefore, the aliveness and agency of data as a valued and an integral part of the research process. In the context of this research, data-as-matter was not ‘left behind’ in the past but continually returned to, reworked and reconceptualised independent of spacetime (Barad, 2014). Through the process of returning, reworking, reconceptualising the lesson participation, video-stimulated recall teacher conversations and visual-journal entries, data from participating schools engaged in a form of discourse with each other. This discourse of the data or, dance of the data, demonstrates the relationality between places, spaces and times. Diffraction is an iterative process that grants the data its inherent agency (its materiality) within the scaffolds of the ethnographic methods that it is entangled with. This means that the data is material and therefore, is discursive (it speaks) and when data is known, it constitutes a rich way of doing data that focuses on the human/nonhuman.


2. The researcher is always already entangled in the research: Fracturing the subject-object binary

Despite the attempts of science to make the researcher an objective viewer of the research from the outside, the effect of the researcher on the data and the data on bodies and lives is recognised in qualitative research (Barad, 2007; C. A. Taylor, 2013). In addition, transqualitative research does not pretend the participants’ data is pure and untouched; it highlights that interview data (for example) is already an interpretation as the participant has already “filtered, processed and interpreted each happening themselves – they are not the victim of some ‘thing’ happening to them” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 3).


The entanglement of the researcher and the data in this study was particularly apparent through the diffractive analysis. As Barad (2007) proposes, diffraction is “a way of understanding the world from within and as part of it” (p. 88) rather than the reflective and reflexive methodologies that attempt to separate the object at a distance from the world of which they are inevitably a part. Diffraction and reflection are considered visual metaphors and thinking tools for use in methodological approaches (Barad, 2007). A reflection implies an accurate mirror “image or representation” such that in scientific methodologies knowledge is considered to accurately represent physical reality while in social science research, knowledge is “understood as a reflection of culture, rather than nature” (Barad, 2007, p. 86). In traditional ethnography, reflexivity is championed as the validity touchstone for the researcher being a part of the world that they study (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). However, reflexivity only accounts for the “arrangement between objects, representations, and knowers” (Barad, 2007, p. 86) without considering crucial social factors and their dynamic nature. Moreover, “reflexivity, like reflection, still holds the world at a distance” (Barad, 2007, p. 87), and its focus on representation is largely problematic for the assumption that it is an accurate reflection of reality. As troubled by Haraway (1997, as cited in Barad, 2007),


Reflexivity has been recommended as a critical practice, but my suspicion is that reflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere….What we need is to make a difference…Diffraction is an optical metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world…Diffraction patterns record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference. Diffraction is about heterogeneous history, not about originals. Unlike reflections, diffractions do not displace the same elsewhere, in more or less distorted form….rather, diffraction can be a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness…one committed to making a difference and not to repeating the Sacred Image of Same. (p. 72)


In this study, I accept and assume my position as researcher as an active agent in the research creation process, not attempting to hide my subjectivity and indeed, highlighting the value and strength of being deeply entangled with/as the data. Moreover, I have not sought to validate my data in an attempt to quell assumptions proposed by quantitative research regimes that hungover into qualitative research practices. The data was presented and created following the diffractive protocol (see below) designed from the diffractive analysis data.


Returning to the opening quote in this Turn, Barad (2014) explains the sometimes seemingly elusive process of diffraction as a data analysis tool. Barad uses the earthworm metaphor literally ‘earthing/grounding’ this process for (un)doing data and detailing the way earthworms intra-act with the earth to illustrate the way data can be played with too. The worm does not merely look at the soil as a passive observer; rather it is a part of the soil, altering its form and composition. This can be similarly said for the researcher (as the worm) and the data (as the soil). The worm (researcher) does not reflect on the soil as a passive object of the past but iteratively turns and re-turns the soil (data) over and over again, a ‘multiplicity of processes’ of becoming engaged through diffractive patterns. The data is active and dynamic; it is reconfigured with each turn. The researcher plays a part in the performance of the data that cannot be denied. This is despite traditional data analysis methods that attempt to position the researcher as an objective ‘do-er’ or more recently, post qualitative approaches that seek to present data without interpretation. The researcher is always already entangled with/in/through the data in a multitude of ways that are integral to the diffractive data entanglements. 


Objectivity is not about trying to interpret the data from the outside, but purposefully acknowledging the way the researcher intra-acts with the data in the inside as a significant and valid contribution. This approach recognises the influence of the researcher on the data and attempts to reconcile the challenges of data validity. For example, if a different researcher were to undertake the same project, the data would not be the same, as the researcher is making the agential-cuts to the data. Here, the diffractive data entanglements are an ethico-onto-epistemological practice which is “about accountability to marks on bodies, and responsibility to the entanglements of which we are a part” (Barad, 2012, p. 52). In this study, this was achieved through being transparent about my contribution to the data. In adopting this approach, I sought to enact an ethic of trust between myself as researcher and the participants.


Diffractive data entanglements are a way to describe the entangled nature of the data: the inherent and iterative process of being a part of the data’s journey of becoming. Traditional data analysis justifies the separation of subject and object, however, through this turn, and as espoused by quantum mechanics, subject and object are an entanglement. The entanglement of the researcher in the research data, in a move away from the subject-object binary, is the key to explaining how diffractive methodological approaches differ from traditional interpretivist analysis processes: diffraction is itself an entanglement of mapping data movements in spacetime. Diffraction seeks to mark the patterns, the ripples of difference, that the data makes. Rather than looking-back over data to identify the areas of sameness, diffraction marks the patterns created when the data intra-acts with an interference: the diffraction gratings. Moreover, diffractive readings create “agential cuts” – openings of possibilities that “bring inventive provocations; they are good to think with. They are respectful, detailed, ethical engagements” (Barad, 2012a, p. 50). The process of diffraction is “suggestive, creative and visionary” rather than reflective practices that seek to identify sameness (Barad, 2012a, p. 50). This inquiry adopted three diffraction gratings with which to view the data (see figure 4.1). The way data intra-acted with the concepts proposed (the diffraction gratings) and then further intra-acted with each other, through the diffraction ripples, aptly illustrated a metaphor for the data making process that adopts the notion of mapping data movements in spacetime.


3. Knowledge construction is not linear

Just as diffractive lines ripple outward from a central point such as when water is pushed through a diffraction grating, so too does data affect other data. Human and nonhuman matter, including the researcher, intra-act in non-linear ways, as described in the previous principle. A deeper layering of this approach considers data as not accounted for sequentially, but instead as transcendent of spacetime (Barad, 2007). Data entanglements are synthesised against other data that was not necessarily a linear progression from-to, but based on relationality. That is, the intra-activity of matter.


4. The choice of data matters

As discussed above, an integral aspect of a diffractive ethnography is determining what counts as data. C. A. Taylor (2013) draws on Barad’s idea of the ‘agential cut’,


An analytic practice which both separates out ‘something’ – an object, practice, person – for analysis from the ongoing flow of spacetimemattering, but which, at the same time as separating and excluding, entangles us ontologically with/in and as the phenomena produced by the cut we make. (pp. 691 – 692)


Each set of empirical data will influence and somewhat guide the research process such that “data have their ways of making themselves intelligible to us”, where data “makes you feel kind of peculiar” and “agency feels distributed and undecidable, as if we have chosen something that has chosen us” (MacLure, 2013, p. 661). MacLure (2013) describes this as the data that ‘glows’ and ‘glimmers’: the researcher’s embodied and affective response to the data.


5. Diffraction as a mapping of patterns of difference, and not a reflection

It has long been proposed (Haraway, 1992) and further argued (see for example Barad, 2007) that nothing can be recreated in the mirror image of the original and as such, there is no true reflection in conceptualising nature, and the world, in different and unrehearsed ways. As a pushback against the dominant rhetoric outplayed in traditional research narratives, Haraway (1992) introduced the concept of diffraction as a more apt way to describe worldly understandings that seek to explore the ‘something else’ of research. Barad (2007; 2014) used Haraway’s conceptualisation of diffraction to propose an application to research data in diffractive analysis through the quantum physics lens.


Haraway (1992) highlights how diffraction does not produce ‘the same’ as is shown through other scientific phenomenon such as reflection and refraction but seeks to map where the effects of differences appear (Haraway, 1992, p. 300). In traditional qualitative data analysis, the researcher seeks to find the themes through the process of coding – the areas of sameness – that are presented by the data (Lofland & Lofland, 2006). As Haraway (1992) describes, this is shown through the process of reflection and refraction, where data is looked back upon and studied from afar. The move to a diffractive methodological approach, and indeed why it is considered transqualitative, is because diffraction tends to the differences. These differences are the data entanglements (i.e. data ‘waves’) from the agential cuts – the interference or intervention – that I as the researcher purposefully enact. I apply the concepts that act as diffraction gratings and agential cuts and then map the interference patterns (Barad, 2007) created by those differences (Haraway, 1992, p. 300). Due to the positioning of the researcher in the diffractive process, where rather than the researcher mapping the interference patterns from the outside, an ethico-onto-epistemological position acknowledges that the researcher is entangled in revealing and more correctly, making the research findings.


Diffraction fits suitably in the transqualitative paradigm through seeking the ‘new now’, the always already, and being open to the possibilities of what is not expected, known or predicted. The meeting of quantum physics and posthuman theories attempts to provide a juncture for the entanglement with transqualitative methodology.


Barad (2007) further contributes that diffraction through the quantum theory lens “investigates the material-discursive boundary-making practices that produce ‘‘objects’’ and ‘‘subjects’’ and other differences out of, and in terms of, a changing relationality” (p. 93). This displaces the role of the ‘objective’ researcher in the traditional object-subject arrangement to enact the exploration of relationalities that are not bound by these structures. This again highlights the overarching importance of responsibility and accountability for the researcher’s part in making agential cuts that are meaningful in exploring the research data. In the case of this study, this involved the three concepts acting as diffraction gratings (see figure 4.1). Since Haraway, and then Barad, founded diffraction as a methodological approach, it has seen a slow but steady rise in educational research  (see, for example, Blom & Crinall, 2020; Bozalek & Zembylas, 2017; Crinall, 2017a; Davies et al., 2013; Lather, 2013; Lenz Taguchi, 2012; Mazzei & Jackson, 2012; Mitchell, 2017; Murris & Bozalek, 2019; van der Tuin, 2011; Verlie, 2018).


6. Diffractive data entanglements are non-reductive

Traditional ethnographic approaches to data analysis propose that data is funnelled down into a concise summary of the collected data. In effect, the data is ‘crunched’ through a process where the “raw data are examined closely, passed, coded, counted, tallied, and summarized” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2012, p. 14). The purpose of data analysis in this method is to reduce and summarise data to bring order to the data, through coding and finding themes.


On the contrary, diffractive data entanglements promote the expansion of data, where “each moment is an infinite multiplicity” (Barad, 2014, p. 169). Rather than attempting to condense data, diffraction is open to and opens up the possibilities of the data.


7. Disrupting distinctions between data collection and analysis

The distinctive processes of data collection and data analysis become blurry in transqualitative inquiry which is why these entangled processes are known as data entanglements in this PhD study. Transqualitative practices of diffractive data entanglements disrupt distinct moments of data collection and data analysis. The process of ‘data entanglements’ is that everything is data in an iterative process of collection and analysis where the two processes overlap and become one in a messy, iterative and dynamic process of material data making, data entanglements. Data, like other phenomena, are not “independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties” (Barad, 2007, p. 25), but an ongoing intra-activity.


The data entanglements are moments in spacetime where a single intra-action is a multiplicity of parts contributing to the data’s becoming. In this study, this included, but was not limited to, for example, my intra-actions with the lesson participations, video-stimulated recall conversations, photos, video recordings, the visual-journal entries along with the material-discursive practices that inform my movements such as being a PhD candidate, a teacher, a mother, a woman, my age, my socio-economic position, my relationship with nature… All of these ‘parts’ –the material-discursive forces - that also inform other bodies in the study and that may be considered to identify me as an individual ‘self’, have an effect on movements and ethico-onto-epistemologies. Data entanglements are made under the impression of these influences.


8. Transqualitative Research Challenges the Concept of ‘New’: Time is diffracted as past, present, future collapse through the concept of spacetimemattering

The researcher is responsible for the agential-cuts, the “boundary-making practices” (Barad, 2007, p. 136) that become the data. The practice of deciding where making data ends is at my discernment as a researcher; I propose once all opportunities, possibilities and potentialities have been exhausted. One of the challenges in transqualitative inquiry is the responsibility the researcher holds in the marks made on bodies and entanglements, the ones that they are a part of. In enacting this mark-making practice in a transqualitative study, which adopts a posthuman theoretical position that includes a diffractive approach to doing data, there is no ‘new’; there is only a “(re)configuring of patterns of differentiating-entangling. As such, there is no moving beyond, no leaving the ‘old’ behind…. There is nothing that is new; there is nothing that is not new” (Barad, 2014, p. 168; emphasis in original).


When diffractive patterns are being generated and formed, everyday language would describe them as being new (e.g. ‘new waves are formed’). However, this matter and the energy driving and within it, is constantly being returned to in a way where nothing is new, just as in the cycle of life and of matter cycling through the diffractive process. The notion of ‘nothing being new’ is described in classical science as The Law of Conservation of Energy: matter is neither created nor destroyed but transformed or transferred from one form into another. Moreover, quantum mechanics describes the de-linearisation of time, such that “there is no absolute boundary between here-now and there-then” (Barad, 2014, p. 168). Time is diffracted where each moment represents an infinite myriad possibilities and potentialities that are intra-connected to all others in spacetime. This is important as time is often a reductive measure applied to traditional research methodologies, whereas diffracting time enables the emergence of the (re)configuring of possibilities in each mo(ve)ment.


The dynamic nature of this work is emphasised here. This work is never done: ground-making, paradigm-shifting work is not strictly timeless, but in a sense, it is. Work that has forged unpaved roads, created a disturbance in the landscape in an authentic way, is revisited respectfully and reverently to contribute to new knowledge and new understandings. The data becomes an iterative performance that contests the boundaries of time and serves as the soil for other data stories to be grown and also, to borrow from Barad’s analogy, for other worms to play in. The matter is cycled and the worm – symbolic of the researcher intra-acting with the data – revels in the revelations that can be seen with each (re)turn to the data.

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