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International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education

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Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual

data: a relational materialist methodological
approach to educational research

Karin Hultman & Hillevi Lenz Taguchi

To cite this article: Karin Hultman & Hillevi Lenz Taguchi (2010) Challenging anthropocentric
analysis of visual data: a relational materialist methodological approach to educational
research, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23:5, 525-542, DOI:

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International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
Vol. 23, No. 5, September–October 2010, 525–542

Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual data: a relational

materialist methodological approach to educational research
Karin Hultman* and Hillevi Lenz Taguchi

Department of Education, University of Stockholm, Frescativägen 54, SE-106 91

Stockholm, Sweden
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(Received 15 September 2009; final version received 9 June 2010)

Taylor and Francis

of Qualitative
Studies in Education

The purpose of this paper is to challenge the habitual anthropocentric gaze we use
when analysing educational data, which takes human beings as the starting point
and centre, and gives humans a self-evident higher position above other matter in
reality. By enacting analysis of photographic images from a preschool playground,
using a relational materialist methodological approach, we put to work concepts
that open up possibilities to understand the child as emergent in a relational field,
where non-human forces are equally at play in constituting children’s becomings.
In the second part of the paper, we discuss how the decentring of the child may
also be applied to researchers as producers of knowledge. Such a decentring,
where the data itself is considered to have a constitutive force and be working
upon the researcher as much as the researcher works upon the data, has both
methodological and ethical consequences for research.
Keywords: anthropocentrism; relational materialism; feminist poststructuralism;
research ethics; Gilles Deleuze; Felix Guattari; Karen Barad; Claire Colebrook;
Elizabeth Grosz

During the last two decades a vast body of poststructuralist and feminist poststructural
education research has problematised the humanistic notion of the child and learner as
an autonomous subject, independent and detached from its environment. This litera-
ture has instead engaged in theorising the child as situational, contextual and discur-
sively inscribed. As adherents to this research, we were very intrigued with our own
preliminary analyses of photographs in our project (Hultman 2010a). Although our
aim was to specifically look for the force of the material environment, our gazes were
nevertheless persistently drawn to the individual child in each photograph. The chil-
dren in the images seemed to have a magnetic power over our gazes: they stood out
from the background and seemed to rise above the material environment. The sand
and the climbing-frame and all other non-human matter visible in the photographs
seemed inactive, and in our eyes, merely the backdrop for these children’s actions and
competences. Regardless of how theoretically informed we were of poststructural
thinking about children as contextual and situational, our perceptual style and our
habits of seeing still seemed to be guided by the same liberal humanistic notions of
the child that we so long had sought to escape. These notions not only made us see the

*Corresponding author. Email:

ISSN 0951-8398 print/ISSN 1366-5898 online

© 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2010.500628
526 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

child, but also ourselves as humans, as the centre of attention and the origin of all
knowing. As feminist researchers, our awareness of what can be understood as an
anthropocentric gaze, a gaze that puts humans above other matter in reality, that is, a
kind of human supremacy or humanocentrism, became even more problematic to us.
Claire Colebrook (2002) writes that Deleuze throughout his work refers to the ways
in which Western philosophy has privileged a certain ‘optics’ that begins with the
human subject viewing the world from a privileged and foundational ‘point of view’.
Such ‘optics’ assume a strict distinction and hierarchical relationship between viewer
and viewed, which ties it to an ontology of transcendence (Colebrook 2002, 161–2).
As feminist theorists, both Claire Colebrook and Elisabeth Grosz show us how
Deleuze’s and Guattari’s philosophy can help us move away from reading the world
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from foundational points of view. Instead we need to accept one plane of being, where
difference is creative, positive and productive, and ‘not the differentiation of some
grounding identity (humanity), nor difference between male and female identities’
(Colebrook 2004, 189). This might enable us to produce a different kind of knowing.
In this paper, we want to connect theories and concepts that in different but
compatible ways contest the anthropocentric notion, which still seems to inform a
taken-for-granted ‘optics’ and perceptual style of seeing and knowing the world
around us. What we call a relational materialist approach is based on the recent
feminist poststructural attention to and reactivating of the kind of materialism that
Donna Haraway (1997, 2008), Karen Barad (1998, 1999, 2007, 2008) and Elisabeth
Grosz (1994, 2005) have been advocating since the early 1990s, as well as transgres-
sive science theory and action network theory by Bruno Latour (1996, 2005). It is also
strongly influenced by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and his co-writer Félix
Guattari (1987, 1994). These philosophers and theorists have been described as central
to what has been conceptualised as ‘the material turn’, ‘material feminisms’, a ‘post
humanist turn’, a ‘new empiricism’, and even a ‘new settlement’ (Alaimo and
Hekman 2008). Myra Hird writes about the emergent analysis of material feminisms
that they do not merely take into account everyday life of living women under the
subjection of material or discursive realities as in more familiar feminist writings, but
also engage with affective physicality, human-nonhuman encounters and a keen
interest in what emerges in mutual engagements with matter (2009, 329–30). This
resonates with recent critique of social constructionist and poststructural research
where language and discourse is often taken to be the only possible starting point,
arguing that human meaning-making and discourse is what constructs bodies, matters,
realities and the material world around us (Alaimo and Hekman 2008). Since humans
are considered the only possible constructors of language and discourse, the binaries
of human/nonhuman and discourse/matter cannot easily be transgressed and undone
(Alaimo and Hekman 2008). Claire Colebrook writes:

Despite the fact that poststructuralism was always opposed to the idea that ‘we’ construct
the world through language, or that ‘we’ are effects of language, the reading of post-
structuralism in the English-speaking world has been language dominated. (2006, 154,
emphasis in original)

Although discourse is indeed understood to transform matter, matter itself is not

granted active agency or considered mutually agentic in transforming discourse,
discursive practices and human subjectivities (Alaimo and Hekman 2008; Barad
2007). This reduces our world to a social world, consisting only of humans and
neglecting all other non-human forces that are at play.
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 527

The purpose of this paper is to challenge our habitual and anthropocentric ways of
seeing that are most often taken for granted in analysis of educational data. In the first
part of the paper, we engage ourselves in a different style of seeing and thinking when
analysing two photographic images taken in a preschool playground. We put to work
concepts that open up possibilities to understand the child as emergent in a relational
field (Olsson 2009, 32): a space in which non-human forces are equally at play and
work as constitutive factors in children’s learning and becomings. In the second part
of the paper, we discuss this different style of seeing and thinking in terms of a diffrac-
tive seeing and nomadic thinking. Moreover, we argue that this decentring of the child
also applies to the researcher as a producer of knowledge. We discuss some of the
methodological implications of considering the data itself as a constitutive force,
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working upon the researcher as much as the researcher works upon the data.
The photographs are taken by a professional photographer who has been hired for
the project that this paper is a part of (Hultman 2010a) to take images of children in
action with different kinds of materials in outdoor and indoor environments in
Swedish preschools. The data contains images of children playing in different settings,
as well as experimenting or playing with different materials inside the preschool. The
three images used in this paper have been chosen on the basis that they stand out as
not being over-crowded with institutional, cultural or pedagogical notions or codes.
Apart from the obvious feminine design and colours of the clothes, these images can
be understood as more or less de-contextualised. They could have been taken from
almost any wall or photo-album from almost any Western preschool or home in the
twenty-first century. This helps us focus on the purpose of this paper of challenging
the anthropocentric way of seeing and doing analysis of educational data, which is
heavily contaminated by our everyday watching children around us.

A girl in a sandbox or overlapping forces that come into play with each other
Let us have a look at the first photograph (Figure 1). What we see with a habitual
anthropocentric style of seeing is a girl in a sandbox who is playing with sand. The
girl as the subject of the photograph is separated and detached from the sandbox,
which merely becomes the backdrop. In this way of looking, our reading of the image
relies on a subject/object binary divide. This also applies to the researcher as the
subject of seeing who understands herself or himself as separated and detached from
the photograph as the object to be analysed. Moreover, this constitutes a foundational
division between subjects understood as humans (subject-humans) and objects under-
stood as part of nature (objects-nature) (Mol 2002, 33). This division is asymmetrical
in terms of value, that is, the girl playing with sand is given a far greater value and is
seen as superior to the sand, the bucket and the sandbox. She is active and the sand is
passive. As a subject she acts out her intentions and competences.
With this somewhat simplified outline of an anthropocentric gaze, let us now
Figure 1. Girl and sand in sandbox.

engage in connecting to some other concepts to see what they can do to our seeing.
What happens if we look at the image thinking that not only humans can be thought
upon as active and agentic, but also non-human and matter can be granted ‘agency’?
This troubles the notion of a distinct border and clear division between humans and
non-humans, between the sand and the girl. In the feminist science theorist and phys-
icist Karen Barad’s agential realist thinking, both the girl and the sand can be thought
upon as performative mutually intra-active agents (Barad 2007, 2008). We will get
back to introducing these concepts further on in this section. For now we want to
528 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi
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Figure 1. Girl and sand in sandbox.

challenge an anthropocentric thinking by referring to Jane Bennett, who states that

also non-humans ‘perform actions, produce effects and alter situations’ (2004, 355).
To challenge the view that humans are clearly separate and divided from non-human
entities and forces is not to argue that humans and non-humans are all the same, and
that there are no differences between the girl and the sand and the sandbox. However,
it does mean that we need to enter into a new kind of thinking about the concept of
Thinking with Deleuze, different bodies, human life and matter are different in that
they have what he calls different styles of becoming: they become different in their
own different styles depending on the qualities by which they actively differentiate in
themselves (Colebrook 2002, 84). Colebrook discusses changes in viruses and
languages to exemplify this. Mutating viruses will differentiate in themselves in a
different style than the particles of language will. Their transformation depends upon
the multiple connections that each of them will make in their specific environments.
In one environment a language or virus will differentiate and transform at a higher
speed and with greater intensity than in another. What is absolutely central to
Deleuze’s (1994) philosophy is that difference in itself is what is primary.
In a somewhat simplified way of understanding Deleuze’s concept of difference,
we think of it in terms of how we differentiate in ourselves in our inevitable and ongo-
ing process of transformation, rather than the difference between things, and being
different from each other. ‘[I]t is from difference that different beings are subsequently
identified’, as Colebrook concludes (2002, 82, emphasis added). Deleuze shows us
how a philosophy of transcendence relies on a negative difference, whereas his own
thinking instead relies on a difference that can be understood as positive. To under-
stand this, we need to have a closer look at what he takes to be a negative difference.
There are multiple aspects of negative difference and we will only touch on the abso-
lutely most essential aspects of this extensive and central part of Deleuze’s philosophy
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 529

(Deleuze 1994). In doing so we first must rely on Colebrook’s (2002) accessible

introduction to Deleuze’s thinking. The most obvious way of understanding negative
difference is that it separates or divides one meaning from the other for something to
become meaningful, for instance male from female, active from passive, or inside as
a difference from what we understand as outside. This is a difference that cannot be
experienced in itself and which means nothing, but is about negating in order to create
meaning within a system of meaning such as our languages (Colebrook 2002, 15–17).
I can only understand myself as a subject through such systems of meaning, according
to this logic of thinking. I am installed into, and thus become an effect of this system
of signifiers in the language, which I use to speak and think myself into existence.
This negative difference can also be understood to rely on something absent that
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signifies a promised or deferred presence outside our language system to which all
speech is referring, that is a transcendental signifier that lies forever out of our reach
(Colebrook 2002, 17–20; May 2005).
Contrary to such thinking, Deleuze offers us to think of another kind of difference
that is about differenciation – difference as itself different in each new event taking
place. This means that difference is a continuum and a multiplicity, rather than a
difference in a system of separations and divisions. Difference, in Deleuze’s way of
thinking, is positive because life itself is differential and in a constant state of becom-
ing or differentiation. Moreover, difference is singular because each event of life
differentiates itself differently (Colebrook 2002, 28). Difference is thus caused by
connections and relations within and between different bodies, affecting each other
and being affected, whether it is viruses, humans or sand. This makes each of these
bodies differenciate in themselves, continuously – one singular event after the other.
(When we hereafter talk about bodies, we refer to a body as understood in physics that
can be any kind of body; a human body, an organ, an artefact or any kind of matter.)
In line with this thinking of positive differences emerging as bodies that affect and
are being affected by one another in their encounters, the relationship between these
bodies ‘needs to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically
as a hierarchy of being’, as John Frown writes (2001, 283). Human and non-human
bodies can thus be thought upon as forces that overlap and relate to each other. In
doing so, they can be understood to borrow or exchange properties with each other, as
Latour suggests (1996). They should, in this sense, be understood in terms of continu-
ity rather than as in opposition to each other or in terms of discrete units (Grosz 2005).
Multiple forces are at work in the construction of the world where discourse is only
one such force. As a consequence, our reality cannot be thought upon as socially
constructed involving humans only, as is so often the case in educational research.
Non-human forces are always involved in this construction. Neither the human subject
nor discourse can be understood as a privileged starting point for analysis, writes
Karen Barad (2007) and thus connecting to Deleuze’s position already addressed in
the introduction of this paper. Questioning the human position as privileged is also
important to the critique of social constructionist research and a vast body of post-
structural research, put forward by material feminisms (Alaimo and Hekman 2008).
As part of this critique, Karen Barad writes on how we can understand the relationship
between discourse and matter in line with a material feminist thinking:

Discursive practices and material phenomenon do not stand in a relationship of external-

ity to each other; rather the material and the discursive are mutually implicated in the
dynamics of intra-activity. The relationship between the material and the discursive is
530 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

one of mutual entailment. Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are
ontologically or epistemologically prior. Neither can be explained in terms of the other.
Neither is reducible to the other. Neither has privileged status in determining the other.
Neither is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are
mutually articulated. (2007, 152)

Barad (1999, 2007) introduces to social science research the concept of intra-activity.
Intra-activity is different from inter-activity, which refers to inter-personal relation-
ships between at least two persons or entities that are understood to be clearly and
inherently separated from each other. Intra-activity relates to physicist terminology
and to a relationship between any organism and matter (human or non-human), which
are understood not to have clear and inherent boundaries, but are always in a state of
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intra-activity of higher or lesser intensity or speed. In this thinking we can see the
strong correspondence to Deleuze’s (1994) thinking on difference in each body as an
effect of bodies connecting and overlapping in a relational and horizontal field.
When we read the photographic image of the girl and the sandbox horizontally
instead of vertically, as suggested above, we are able to think that the sand and the girl
are doing something to each other simultaneously. They transform as an effect of the
intra-actions that emerge in between them. Thus, all bodies in the event are to be
understood as causes in relation to each other (Deleuze 1990, 4). In another way of
understanding this, the sand offers certain possibilities in its relations with the girl. In
the intra-action between the girl and the sand, new problems to be solved emerge as
an effect of their mutual engagement. This can be understood metaphorically as if the
girl and the sand simultaneously ‘pose questions’ to each other in the process of trying
to make themselves intelligible to each other as different kinds of matter involved in
an active and ongoing relation (Barad 2007). The girl and the sand have no agency of
their own. Rather, what is understood as ‘agency’ in a relational materialist approach
is a quality that emerges in-between different bodies involved in mutual engagements
and relations: muscles lifting the arm and hand which slowly opens up and lets go of
the sand, which by the force of gravity falls with specific speed into the bucket, where
it lands – one grain upon the other with force causing it to roll over and down and
simultaneously constructing a hill of sand in the middle of the bucket. The uneven
foundation of the sandbox forces the body of the girl to adjust to find the perfect
balance to be able to perform her task. She directs her whole body around the sand.
The force of gravity, the uneven foundation, the bucket and the quality of the grains
of sand are all active forces that intra-act with her body and mind and that she has to
work with and against. She is most obviously active, but in a relational materialist
perspective she cannot be thought upon in terms of a superior autonomous and inten-
tional humanist subject. Rather, in line with Deleuze’s (1990) thinking, the sand and
the girl, as bodies and matter of forces of different intensities and speed, fold around
each other and overlap, in the event of sand falling, hand opening, body adjusting and
balancing, eyes measuring height and distance and observing the falling movement of
the glittering sand into the red bucket. Thus, in a relational materialist understanding,
the sand can be understood as ‘active’ and ‘playing with the girl’ just as much as the
girl plays with the sand. They come into play. The girl is in a state of becoming with
the sand, and the sand is in a state of becoming with the girl (Deleuze 1990). To be
able to see this, we need to think of a relational field of immanence, where there is no
absolute or inherent border between the sand and the girl in this event. Each change
in either of them will resonate in the other. Hence, not only the girl but also the sand
can be understood as a force evoking difference and transformation in its intra-actions
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 531

and relations to other bodies. To repeat again Deleuze’s words: all bodies in an event
are understood as causes (1990, 4).

Children as inevitably dependent in forming assemblages with other bodies

In the framework of educational practices in preschools and schools, children are often
understood in terms of lack, incompleteness and dependence on other humans (Lee
2001). The role of education is then to guide the child towards adulthood, understood
in terms of independence, competence and completeness (Prout 2005). Contemporary
discussions on children often set out to contest such a view. The child is conceptual-
ised as competent, autonomous and strong (Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence 1999).
Relational materialism offers another path. Instead of debating whether children are
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in fact incomplete beings who should be socialised into competent and independent
adults or whether they in fact already are competent and independent, Nick Lee (2001)
suggests that we should turn our attention to the supplements and extensions that the
children, just as adults, constantly connect to in different ways. Drawing on Deleuze
and Guattari he writes: ‘humans find themselves in the midst of an open-ended swirl
of extensions and supplementations, changing their powers and characteristics as they
pass through different assemblages’ (Lee 2001, 115). A child, in this perspective, does
not enter the preschool or school as competent or incompetent. Children, just as non-
humans and things, emerge through, and as a part of, their entangled intra-actions with
everything else (Lenz Taguchi 2010a). This means that we can reconsider dependence
to mean an inevitable and positive dependence on other bodies and matter in the
child’s ongoing and specific style of becoming human (Colebrook 2002, 82–5;
Hultman 2010b). Let us look at the second photographic image (see Figure 2).
Now, the focus is no longer on the girl as the subject standing out and above every-
Figure 2. Climbing-frame-girl.

thing else, exhibiting braveness or competence. Looking at this photograph, we cannot

hope to know anything about her as a separate entity; her inner maturity, competences
or flaws. This is, as Barad suggests, because: ‘Existence is not an individual affair’; there
is ‘no independent, self-contained existence’ in the world (2007, ix). Therefore we do not
pre-exist our interactions with the world (2007, 160). This is very much in line with
Deleuze’s (1988) philosophical immanence, where all organisms and matter are under-
stood as inter-dependent in a non-hierarchical fashion. Hence, the girl in the climbing-
frame does not exist unaltered over time, or outside of the connections she makes with
the climbing-frame in the event of climbing it. In Elizabeth Grosz’ words: ‘The body
does not hide or reveal an otherwise unrepresented latency or depth but is a set of oper-
ational linkages and connections with other things, other bodies’ (Grosz 1994, 120).
This means that the subject is not understood as autonomous, unitary and coherent.
The girl, as we know her as a humanist subject, becomes undone, as St. Pierre writes
(2008, 188). Deleuze uses Alice from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures Under-
ground as an example of how the anthropocentric notion is manifested in the word ‘I’
(the self) as the basic manifestor, which all other signified concepts are always read in
relation to (1990, 13–14). The ‘I’ and the Cogito are all about ‘Savoir’ and knowing
who the ‘I’ (Alice) really is. Deleuze shows in his reading of Carroll’s book how it
opens up for contestation the idea of fixed identities and the notion that identity relies
on ‘deep’ structures. Instead Deleuze shows how to understand identity as an effect of
events that so to speak take place on the ‘surface’. He comments on what becomes of
identity and the subject when thinking this way: ‘Depth having been spread out becomes
width’ (1990, 9). So, instead we have the subject as an effect of an event on a relational
532 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi
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Figure 2. Climbing-frame-girl.

field: an assemblage of overlapping and intra-acting forces. In the event the subject
can no longer be understood as a fixed being, but rather a ‘way of being’ – a verb rather
than a noun. The subject is an effect of multiple encounters that entails the history of
previous encounters, the present and the potentialities of the future encounters that might
take place (see Deleuze 1990 for full discussion on his concept of time).
Looking again at the image, we see the rope of the climbing-frame and the girl in
a state of inseparableness and intertwinement – the girl becomes with the frame and
the frame becomes with the girl. The girl and the frame of steel and plastic rope
become an assemblage of a multiplicity of encounters – the climbing-girl-frame
assemblage is a mixture of different bodies and matter co-existing (Deleuze 1990, 6;
Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Colebrook (2009) writes with reference to Deleuze and
Guattari that the subject as an assemblage is a coordination of multiple enactments in
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 533

a state of repeated modifications and continuous transformations and becomings.

Evidently, different bodies transform with different intensities and force, always
running like waves or vibrations through all kinds of bodies at different speed. The
iron of the climbing-frame wears down very slowly and is moving slightly from the
weight of its climbers and with changes in the ground on which it stands, whereas the
plastic rope is transformed with relatively higher speed than the iron frame; the plastic
drying as an effect of its intra-action with cold, sun and wetness, and it will wear out
much faster than the iron and eventually be torn apart. High speed of transformation
also applies to the body of the young girl of multiple organs, blood and oxygen intra-
acting intensively as she climbs to the top of the frame. As pointed out above, different
bodies have different styles of becoming depending on the qualities by which they
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actively differentiate in themselves (Colebrook 2002, 84) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Girl as climbing-frame-top.

Figure 3. Girl as climbing-frame-top.

534 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

In line with Deleuze’s thinking, both Annemarie Mol (2002, viii) and Dorothea
Olkowski (2009, 62) suggest an understanding of subjectivity as a ‘crowd’ of intra-
acting organs, affect and perceptions. Hence, the girl as a separable entity is no longer
easily located. All those concepts, which are so strongly related to the individual
subject, as thinking, reflecting, intention and will, are in this perspective thought upon
as distributed in assemblages, as Bennett (2005) writes. It is important to note that this
‘undoing’ of the subject does not mean that we cast the subject away altogether. Felix
Guattari comments on his and Deleuze’s thinking on subjectivity as plural and
polyphonic in the following way:

[this] is not a question of anti-humanism, but a question for whether subjectivity is

produced solely by internal faculties of the soul, interpersonal relations, and intra-famil-
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ial complexes, or whether nonhuman machines, such as social, cultural, environmental,

or technological assemblages enter into the very production of subjectivity itself.
(Guattari, cited in Philip Goodchild 1996, 151)

Why should we want to understand the subject in any other way than in terms of a
unitary and coherent ‘I’, asks Elizabeth St. Pierre (2008, 190), and continues: ‘How
does one think/live outside “I”?’ She responds to her own questions by saying that
Deleuze would have answered ‘that we might live differently if we conceived the
world differently’ (2008, emphasis added). In the context of this paper, what we are
getting at is that we as researchers also might see and understand our research data
differently. This brings us to the part of the paper where we will discuss the process
or movement of doing relational material analysis and how to understand the
researcher when involved in this process.

A relational materialist approach to analysing educational data

A relational materialist methodological approach has strong implications not only for
the ways we think about the children and the educational practices we research, but
also for the way we think about our research and ourselves as researchers. If we under-
stand ourselves as emerging from our co-existence with the world, what implications
does this bring to methodology? In this second part of the paper, we will discuss the
research practices of seeing and producing knowledge from such seeing. We will also
discuss how the data itself can be understood as a constitutive force, working upon the
researcher, and the processes of transformation that we can engage in as researchers,
when using a relational materialist methodological approach. This is because when we
read images with what we will refer to as a diffractive methodological strategy (Barad
1995, 2007; Haraway 1997), we do readings in an event of becoming-with the data.
We will get back to this shortly but we first need to reconnect to more familiar ways
of seeing and reading images or data.

Reading with a representational view…

In science, scientific realists believe that scientific knowledge is a mirror of physical
reality and can thus be understood to be a representation of it (Barad 2007, 86). For
Deleuze, writes Colebrook, philosophy has been governed by the corresponding
dogmatic idea of a subject who passively and dutifully recognises and represents the
world (2002, 2). In correspondence, photographic images have traditionally been
understood to mirror the photographed objects, providing an accurate image or
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 535

representation which is a faithful copy of that which is being mirrored. However,

according to Barad, the ‘seeing’ we do as researchers is not a matter of simply looking
and passively gazing on something as a neutral spectator. Rather, it must be consid-
ered an achievement that requires a complex set of practices to be accomplished,
writes Barad (2007, 51). ‘Seeing’ in scientific experiments must be learnt by a doing
and an iterative practising. Such practice involves learning how to discriminate in
your ‘seeing’ that which is not important in relation to what you have convinced your-
self to see: conviction about what to see is thus a precondition for seeing in the repre-
sentational paradigm, writes Barad (2007, 51). Convictions run along what Deleuze
and Guattari (1987) call molar lines that are generally heavily coded and regulating
people’s relations and thinking into taken-for-granted routines and habits. This means
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that they bring together different elements of power into a particular arrangement. In
this case, as researchers reading data, these arrangements will structure and regulate
our relationship to the data and our seeing and thus determine what it is we see. This
is how following taken-for-granted routines turns research methodology into what
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) have written about in terms of an ‘over-coded-machine’.
It is these strategies that work as ‘over-coded-machines’ that a diffractive
methodological strategy is trying to get away from.

… and reading diffractively

By contrast to seeing based on conviction and perhaps rigid, over-coded molar lines,
we can learn to practice another kind of seeing: a diffractive way of seeing. We do this
by engaging with Deleuze’s concept of the event, as well as Deleuze’s and Guattari’s
(1987) notion of nomadic thinking. Then we try to make these concepts productive in
relation to Barad’s (1995, 2007) and Haraway’s (1997) taking up of the physicist
concept of diffraction and their united call for a diffractive methodology. Let us start
with the latter.
Diffractive methodology is related to the physicist notion of diffraction, which has
inspired both Barad (1995, 2007) and Haraway (1997) in their writings. Diffraction is
best illustrated with the rolling, pushing and transformation of waves in, for example,
the sea. In physics it deals with any kind of waves, like sound waves and light waves.
Barad writes that, ‘diffraction has to do with the way waves combine when they over-
lap and the apparent bending and spreading of waves that occurs when waves encoun-
ter an obstruction’ (Barad 2007, 74). She shows the example where barriers in the sea,
such as huge stones, serve as an apparatus of diffraction where the waves are forced
into bending and overlapping (74–5). It is this movement of overlapping where the
waves change in themselves in intra-action with the obstacle of the stone, and with
each wave accumulating, which signifies diffraction. In other words, diffraction
effects are effects of interferences, where the original wave partly remains within the
new wave after its transformation into a new one, and so on, wave after wave (Barad
2007, 71–83). This can be related to Deleuze’s thinking on how subjects can be under-
stood as assemblages of encounters that will differentiate with each new encounter (or
interference) in their continuous processes of transformation.
When reading diffractively, seeing with data, we look for events of activities and
encounters, evoking transformation and change in the performative agents involved.
In our examples above (Figures 1–3), diffractive interference can be said to take place
when the girl interferes with the sand, picking it up and letting it go. Or, when the
climbing-frame interferes with her bodily movements, forcing the girl to adjust her
536 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

body, and when the ropes of the frame adjust to her weight while climbing. The sand,
the body and the rope all become different in themselves as a result of the intra-action,
while what they were before the intra-action still remains in what emerges and
becomes: each body becoming anew. In the event of diffractive seeing, the
photographic image can be understood as an obstacle or an interference that overlaps
with my embodied affective and theoretical thinking as researcher, causing me to read
diffractively one through the other. An event in Deleuze’s thinking (1990) is an ‘incor-
poreal entity’ evoked as an effect in the encounters between different bodies and
matter. This makes the event something radically different from the facts or things that
might evoke them as they overlap and intra-act. In this unhierarchical relation between
intra-acting bodies there can be no classical cause-and-effect relationship, writes
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Deleuze: rather, as has been referred to twice above already: ‘all bodies are causes –
causes in relation to each other and for each other’ (1990, 4).
To be able to further unfold the strategy and consequences of a diffractive seeing
we need to say something about how it differs from a reflexive methodology within
qualitative research. Both the diffractive and reflexive methodologies resist the idea
that the researcher can be thought upon as a neutral and objective spectator as in the
representational paradigm sketched above. Moving from a representational seeing, a
reflexive methodology wants to take into account the third party in the arrangement,
namely the researcher. The researcher needs to be meta- or self-reflexive in relation to
her/his own seeing and thinking. However, as Barad writes, ‘reflexivity, like reflection,
still holds the world at distance’ (2007, 87). Reflection is thought to be an inner mental
activity apart from the image: the researcher takes a ‘step back’ and reflects about how
and what s/he sees or thinks. The researcher is understood to make her/his reflections
at a distance from or from the outside of the data (Barad 2007; Jones and Jenkins 2008;
Mol 2002). Subjects (knowers) and objects (known), as well as discourse and reality,
words and things, are still seen as separated entities. Hence, reflexivity, argues Barad,
cannot bridge the epistemological gap between the knower and the known (2007, 88).
In contrast, a relational materialist perspective is critical to the idea of thinking and
reflection as inner mental activities inside a separated human being, with its obvious
connection to an anthropocentric notion. We can never reflect upon something on our
own; to reflect means to inter-connect with something. This corresponds to Latour’s
concept of infra-reflection that takes into account that reflection is always done in the
midst of a complex network and thus immanent to a vide variety of forces and never
the product of an isolated individual that reflects upon something from an external
point of view (see Latour 1988). Thinking is not something that is grounded on a deci-
sion or a rational cataloguing of different external objects: rather, it is an event that
happens to us – it ‘hits us’ or ‘invades us’ (Colebrook 2002, 3). Deleuze writes:
‘Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recog-
nition but of a fundamental encounter’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 139, emphasis
added). Hence, thinking can be understood to take place in-between heterogeneous
bodies and agents, rather than being something localised inside the mind of an isolated
agent. Thinking is to be understood as distributed in networks and assemblages of
matter, organisms and discursive meaning in an encounter, rather than being based on
recognition, representation or everyday common sense (Colebrook 2002). As a conse-
quence of this, a diffractive strategy takes into account that knowing is never done in
isolation but is always effected by different forces coming together, or in Barad’s
words: ‘knowing is a matter of part of the world making itself intelligible to another
part of the world’ (Barad 2007, 185).
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 537

A diffractive seeing is not in any way limited to the gaze of the eye, or understand-
ing an image as reflections (of a child in a sandbox), nor as mirroring and representing
the world – as self-reference (Barad 2007, 88). On the contrary, a diffractive ‘seeing’
or ‘reading’ the data activates you as being part of and activated by the waves of rela-
tional intra-actions between different bodies and concepts (meanings) in an event with
the data. As you read the data diffractively you install yourself in an event of ‘becom-
ing-with’ the data (Haraway 2008, 16). Diffractive ‘seeing’ and ‘reading’ data
encompasses all of your bodymind, to use a concept that Floyd Merrell (2003) has
constructed in an entirely different context. In diffractive ‘readings’, you need to acti-
vate all of your bodily affective perceptions when intra-acting with the photographic
image. Importantly, the event of installing yourself in the event of reading and
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becoming-with the data and analysing what is produced in this event is not about
uncovering what happened in that moment when the girl climbed the frame or let go
of the sand into the bucket. The event of diffractive ‘seeing’ and ‘reading’ the data is
an entirely other event, emerging only with the reading of the data. We can never read
the data in order to unfold ‘what actually happened’, as if reading the event ‘behind’
or ‘before’ the photographic image. Moreover, this does not mean that the knowing
we produce corresponds to the knowing we could have produced when engaging in
participative observations of children in the playground: sitting in the sandbox, play-
ing with the sand and climbing the frame ourselves. Hence, this is not about imagining
‘being the child’ or the sand, or trying to ‘be’ in the image itself. It is an event of
becoming-with the material artefact of the photograph, while engaging in diffractive
‘seeing’ and ‘reading’ with it. A diffractive ‘reading’ is thus not a reading of a
photograph as in the taken-for-granted understanding, but a reading with the photo-
graph in your encounter with it. In this event something new is created with the data.
It is an effect of being affected where thinking exceeds us as subjects (Deleuze 1990).
This is because, as Deleuze and Guattari (1994) write, the subject and thinking are
both an effect of the given forces affecting and being affected by each other, and thus
transforming and exceeding themselves.
To further establish how a diffractive reading diverges from a self-reflective or
pheonomenological reading of data, it is important to understand the researcher as
being part of and a performative agent in an event where her/his bodymind percep-
tions and sensations move like a wave flowing in-between different qualities: the
researcher is trying to say something about the intertwined relationship and mutual
transformations in this flow of encounters taking place, rather than trying to reveal
and incarnate a specific phenomenon or quality of ‘being-in-the-world’. So, contrary
to phenomenological analysis, where the human subject is seen as the centre of mean-
ing-construction, where perceptions and sensations always refer to an incarnated
bodily ‘being-in-the-world’, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s understanding of perceptions
and bodily sensation refers to a flow of intensities through bodily organs (Lapoujade
2008). We engage our whole bodyminds to try to read the flows and passages where
life continuously emerges in an immanent flow of potentialities and becomings,
rather than trying to uncover the constitutive phenomena for our ‘being-in-the-world’.
Colebrook (2002, 163) writes on how to, as for instance a researcher, deal with such
flows of intensities to make any kind of meaning: she writes that there are ‘points of
imagining’ where one flow intersects with another, and where we can slow down the
temporal flow of duration that constitutes life: ‘When a human being (or any
perceiver) experiences an object, there is an event of imagining or perception. One
flow on the univocal plane of being is affected by another’ (2002, 164). Our
538 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

perception thus constitutes a delay of the ongoing flow of perception in the flow of
life, in order for us to image ourselves as subjects, writes Colebrook (2002, 163). In
this decentred state, doing research becomes something entirely different: a knowing
in being that we have just begun to unfold.

Engaging in nomadic thinking as researcher – a knowing in being

The event of doing research in terms of becoming-with data as decentred researchers
can also be understood in terms of nomadic thinking. With a nomadic ‘thinking’ we
try to engage with our data without a thinking that formulates itself from a hierarchic
division between humans and non-humans, between what should count as objects and
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subjects. The educational theorist Ronald Bogue (2009) writes that learning and
knowing in Deleuze’s thinking is what takes place as one organism immerses itself
within another element and opens up to an encounter with signs. These signs work like
interferences that might disorient or even shock the organism and, writes Bogue
(2009, 11): ‘forcing thought to deal with experiences that disrupt the common, coor-
dinated functioning of the senses and faculties’. Grosz, just as Bogue, offers us a view
on knowing and learning that is about engagements of bodily affects and that has very
little to do with the autonomous knower that knows from a distance:

Pleasure and pain are the corporal registrations of the forces of the world, the visceral
impact of forces what we use to struggle with and against, in order to become more and
other. They are the most powerful aids to learning and the most direct and effective stim-
uli for action, and thus the expansion of force. (Grosz 2005, 190)

Thus, nomadic thinking produces another kind of knowing: knowing of what emerges
in-between. It does not assume that individual human beings or discourse are the only
proper ontological units or locations from which to produce knowledge (Barad 2007;
Colebrook 2002; May 2005; Mol 2002). On the contrary, says Deleuze (1988):
consciousness can only register effects. What cause the effects are bodies and ideas in
extension and relation, where a body or an idea encounters another body or idea. They
compose to become something else, new and more, or decompose: ‘As conscious
beings, we never apprehend anything but the effects of these compositions and
decompositions … the effect of a body on our body, the effect of an idea on our idea’
(Deleuze 1988, 19) – like waves of diffraction (Barad 2007). Thinking and knowing
is, so to speak, part of living and becoming: it belongs to a philosophy of immanence
and a kind of (transcendental) empiricism that is an inquiry of our inter-connectedness
with the world – where the researcher or philosopher is a consciousness without a
‘self’ (as we know it) as suggested by Deleuze:

It [the transcendental field] appears therefore as a pure stream of a-subjective conscious-

ness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness
without a self. (Deleuze 2001, 25)

The consequence of thinking with Deleuze in this fashion is that we go beyond the
human/non-human divide and acknowledge our co-existence with the rest of the world.
The philosopher Todd May writes that this is a different way of seeing the world and
the ‘subjects’ within it: this Deleuzian world of immanence is composed, not of iden-
tities that form and reform themselves, but ‘of swarms of difference that actualise
themselves into specific forms of identity’ (May 2005, 114). These swarms of
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 539

identities are ‘of the world’, he continues, and as such they are material and open to
novelty and change from within themselves in forming new relationships with the
world around them (May 2005).
It is easy to see the connection between Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence, with
its decentred subject and his empiricist methodology of thinking and creating new
knowledge, to Barad’s (2007) clear statement that knowing and being cannot be
separated. She suggests that we need to rid ourselves of thinking of ontology and epis-
temology as separated from each other. We must instead think of them as in a state of
interdependence as an onto-epistemology, which can be defined as ‘the study of
practices of knowing in being’ (2007, 185, emphasis added). Barad writes:
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We don’t obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are of
the world. We are part of the world and its differential becoming. (2007, 185, emphasis

This means that practices of knowing cannot, as she writes:

fully be claimed as human practices, not simply because we use nonhuman elements in
our practices but because knowing is a matter of part of the world making itself intelli-
gible to another part. (2007, 185, emphasis added)

An onto-epistemological thinking thus clearly decentres the researcher as knowing

subject and takes us beyond the dominating subject/object, human/non-human, as well
as the discourse/matter and nature/culture dichotomies: it becomes impossible to
isolate knowing from being and discourse from matter; they are mutually implicated.
In terms of producing knowing as an educational researcher, this is about ‘understand-
ing the world from within and as part of it’ (Barad 2007, 88). It is about taking notice
of the differences and transformations that emerge in specific events. This will make
us investigate and do research and write our analyses in quite a different way, using
quite a different language from that which we used when writing within a reflexive or
discursive paradigm (not to mention the representational paradigm). Changing our
methodologies and ways of doing and writing up our analyses is of course a difficult
endeavour and has its risks and problems. As others have already stated (Alaimo and
Hekman 2008), such research and analysis has only begun to surface in the social and
educational sciences. Our contribution in this paper is very marginal and modest in
relation to what we imagine it is potentially possible to do. We refer to other papers
in this issue and elsewhere for more examples of what is presently going on in the
educational field (Hultman 2010b; Lenz Taguchi 2010a, 2010b; Olsson 2009; Palmer
2010, forthcoming; Sellers 2009).

Concluding thoughts on ethics and potentialities as we move away from

anthropocentric seeing and knowing
Research in the field of education is carried out while informed by many different
theoretical perspectives. What, however, most of these perspectives have in common
is that they take humans or human meaning-making as the sole constitutive force. From
a relational material perspective this anthropocentric position is of course problematic.
It reduces our world to a social world and neglects all other non-human forces that are
at play. A turn to relational materialism, where things and matter, usually perceived
of as passive and immutable, are instead granted agency in their intra-activities, can
540 K. Hultman and H. Lenz Taguchi

be understood as promoting a more ethical research practice. This is because of its

active engagements with what has previously been considered as minor, that is non-
human matter and artefacts (Hird 2009). In educational research, it might, for example,
increase our attentiveness to children’s strong relations to the things, artefacts and
spaces in pre-schools and schools that are often overlooked in favour of the social or
interpersonal relations. Importantly, we are not referring to an attentiveness that seeks
to fully understand, organise or capture the essence of these material-discursive intra-
activities. This is impossible. Rather, this is an attentiveness that might give us the
possibilities to be affectively engaged with and moved by that which seems to enchant
and move the children (Hultman 2010b; Lenz Taguchi 2010b; Palmer 2010, forthcom-
ing). Inspired by Deleuze, Bennett claims that to become enchanted is to be understood
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as a strategy of knowing the world in new and previously unthought ways. She writes
about the concept of enchantment as follows:

Enchantment consists of a mixed bodily state of joy and disturbance, a transitory sensuous
condition dense and intense enough to stop you in your tracks and toss you onto new terrain
and to move you from the actual world to its virtual possibilities. (Bennett 2001, 111)

Enchantment entails an interest for what a child, a teacher, a school or preschool, and a
learning event might become in its intra-activity with the surrounding world. What
Deleuze (1988, 1990) calls the virtual is the reality of the potentialities in all bodies in
their inter-connectedness. Drawing upon Deleuze, we do not look for what a child ‘is’
but we look for the virtual potentialities of a child or an event (Lenz Taguchi 2010a). This
allows for the child (and yourself as researcher) to reinvent yourself by ways of your
engagement and enchantment with what emerges in each event. This is about a positive
instead of a negative understanding of difference, writes Colebrook (2009), referring to
how the concept is understood in an ontology of immanence rather than in an ontology
of transcendence. A positive difference is affirmative of learning and transformation as
a state of continuous becoming. The consequence of this way of thinking is that we are
no longer interested in defining an organism or body by its limitation, separatedness or
form. Instead, we must extend and expand ourselves to that which is not yet. We look for
what emerges in-between and each agent’s capacities for affecting and being affected
in relation to other organisms/bodies in the world (Deleuze 1988, 123–5). To conclude
this paper we turn, again, to Barad (1999), who points out that our engagement with
the world, as researchers, has real consequences. These are consequences that might
evoke new realities and new ways of being, which, in a feminist and political perspec-
tive, is of vast importance (Lenz Taguchi 2010b). What we do as researchers intervenes
with the world and creates new possibilities but also evokes responsibilities. If we
think in this way, we might not just live differently, as Deleuze suggests (St. Pierre 2008),
but do our research and analysis differently, in order to perhaps make it possible for
others (humans and non-humans) to live differently in realities yet to come.

Notes on contributors
Karin Hultman is a PhD student in education at the Department of Education, University of
Stockholm. Her PhD project explores questions about the relation between materiality and
subjectivity in educational settings.

Hillevi Lenz Taguchi is an associate professor at the Department of Education, University of

Stockholm. Her research interests are in higher education and early childhood education,
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 541

working with feminist poststructuralist and relational materialist approaches in research and in
her feminist teaching practices.

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