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Case Studies in New Materialism and Discourse Analysis

Case Studies in New Materialism and Discourse Analysis - Discourse Analyzer

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The integration of New Materialism into discourse analysis illuminates the profound influence of material conditions on discursive practices across various fields. This examination through case studies of influential scholars—Karen Barad, Diane Coole, Samantha Frost, Jane Bennett, and Rosi Braidotti—showcases the depth of material-discursive interactions, ranging from scientific labs to political arenas, medical research, ecological policymaking, and the concept of posthuman subjectivity. Each case provides a unique perspective on how physical and material entities co-construct and engage with discourse, offering insights that challenge traditional dichotomies between the material and the discursive in shaping human understanding and societal structures.

1. Karen Barad on Laboratory Practices

Karen Barad’s work, particularly her concept of “agential realism,” provides a profound basis for analyzing the material-discursive interactions in scientific laboratories. Her approach in Discourse Analysis extends beyond the textual to include the material aspects of human and non-human actors. Barad emphasizes the entanglement of matter and meaning, which becomes particularly salient in the context of scientific laboratories, where the material apparatus, the human agents, and the discursive constructs are deeply intertwined.

1) Overview of Agential Realism

Barad’s agential realism posits that reality is constituted through the intra-action of various components, rather than interaction that assumes pre-existing separate entities. In this framework, both the material and discursive elements (such as scientific equipment and the language used to describe scientific phenomena) are mutually constitutive. This means that scientific outcomes are not merely uncovered through experimentation but are co-constructed by the experimental apparatus, the scientists, and the discursive practices employed within the lab.

2) Case Study: Particle Physics Experiments

A relevant case study that illustrates Barad’s theory involves the analysis of particle physics experiments, such as those conducted at large particle colliders. In these settings, the apparatuses used in experiments (like particle detectors) are not seen merely as passive tools but as active agents that help constitute the phenomena being studied. Barad argues that the boundaries and properties of particles become determinate only through specific material-discursive apparatuses that perform the measurements.

The apparatuses in these experiments shape what is “seen” or detected. The design of the experiment, the construction of detectors, and the interpretive frameworks provided by theoretical physics all contribute to what is ultimately observed. Here, the discursive practices—formulas, hypotheses, data interpretation strategies—are entangled with the material setup, influencing the kind of scientific knowledge produced.

3) Analyzing Material-Discursive Interactions

In the context of Discourse Analysis, using Barad’s approach means looking at how scientific knowledge is not merely discovered but is actively produced through these material-discursive intra-actions. Analysis would focus on:

  • The role of the apparatus: How does the specific design and functioning of scientific equipment influence the results and interpretations of scientific experiments?
  • Laboratory practices: How do the routines, protocols, and behaviors in a lab influence the way scientific data is generated and understood?
  • Discursive frameworks: How do the theoretical and conceptual frameworks guide the design of experiments and the interpretation of their outcomes?
  • Ethical and social implications: How do these practices and discursive/material entanglements influence broader ethical and social issues? For example, how do they affect policy decisions, funding allocations, or public understanding of science?

Barad’s conceptualization of material-discursive practices provides a robust framework for analyzing scientific laboratories in Discourse Analysis. It compels scholars to consider how knowledge is not just constructed socially through discourse but is also materially co-constructed, with significant implications for our understanding of scientific practice and the nature of reality itself. This approach enriches traditional Discourse Analysis by bringing the materiality of the laboratory—the instruments, the physical layouts, and the non-human entities—into the analytical fold, highlighting how they are active participants in the knowledge production processes.

2. Diane Coole on Political Bodies

Diane Coole, as a prominent theorist in New Materialism, offers insightful perspectives on how material conditions influence political bodies, expanding the scope of traditional discourse analysis to incorporate the vital role of materiality in political dynamics. Her approach is particularly useful in examining how physical bodies and environmental contexts are not just passive backdrops but active participants in political discourses.

1) Conceptual Framework

Coole’s work often emphasizes the entwinement of the physical, material existence of bodies with their political representation and treatment. This approach challenges the conventional separation of the material from the ideological, arguing instead for a perspective that sees these dimensions as co-constitutive. In her analysis, political bodies are not merely shaped by discourse but also by their material—biological, physiological, and ecological—conditions.

2) Case Study: Environmental Politics and Human Bodies

A compelling application of Coole’s theories can be found in studies of environmental politics, where the material conditions of the environment directly influence the political agency and discourses around human bodies. For instance, consider the impact of pollution or climate change on communities. Here, Coole would suggest that the physical changes in the environment (rising temperatures, increased pollution) are not just external conditions but actively reshape political engagement and discursive practices concerning health, rights, and governmental responsibilities.

Analysis Approach

In analyzing such a scenario through a New Materialist lens, one might focus on:

  • Interactions between physical and political vulnerabilities: How do changes in the material environment (like air quality or heatwaves) affect the physical health of individuals and, by extension, influence political mobilization and discourses around public health and rights?
  • Material agency of the environment: How does the environment itself act as an agent influencing political policies? For instance, how might frequent flooding reshape urban planning discourses or policies?
  • Embodiment in political discourse: How are the physical experiences of individuals under specific material conditions reflected in political discourses? How do these experiences challenge or reinforce existing political narratives?

3) Case Study: The Materiality of Protest Movements

Another relevant study could involve the physicality of protest movements. In this context, Coole’s insights could guide an analysis of how the material conditions—such as the physical space of the protests, the body’s endurance during long demonstrations, and the sensory experiences of loud chants and crowded spaces—affect and constitute the political identities and discourses of the participants.

Analysis Approach

Key focus areas might include:

  • Physicality and agency: How do the physical demands and risks of participating in protests (like physical exhaustion, police brutality) shape the identities and discourses of protestors?
  • Spatial dynamics: How do the material aspects of space (urban design, location of protests) influence the formation and evolution of political discourses during protests?
  • Material-symbolic interplay: How do physical symbols (like flags, clothing) used in protests carry both material and discursive significance that affects political messaging and identity?

Diane Coole’s New Materialist approach invites a deeper understanding of how political bodies are not just discursively but materially constituted. By focusing on the interplay between material conditions and discursive practices, her perspective helps illuminate the complex dynamics that shape political identities and actions. This approach not only broadens the analytical scope of Discourse Analysis but also enhances its relevance to real-world political phenomena, providing a more holistic understanding of the forces shaping political discourse and engagement.

3. Samantha Frost on Human Tissue Research

Samantha Frost’s work in New Materialism, especially her focus on how material entities like human tissues are both subject to and an integral part of discursive practices, provides a nuanced framework for examining medical research contexts. Her approach is particularly suited to exploring how biological materials are not merely passive objects studied by science but active participants in shaping medical discourses and practices.

1) Conceptual Framework

Frost suggests that human tissues, as living matter, are not static entities but are dynamic and responsive. They interact with their environments and the technologies used to study them, influencing the outcomes of research. This perspective challenges the traditional biomedical view of tissues as inert samples and highlights their agency in medical research settings. Frost integrates this material agency with the discursive practices of medical science, illustrating how scientific knowledge about human tissues is co-produced through these interactions.

2) Case Study: Biobanking

A relevant application of Frost’s theories can be examined in the context of biobanking—where human biological materials are collected, stored, and used for future research. This setting provides a clear view of how human tissues are embedded within and influence a complex network of material and discursive practices.

Analysis Approach

In analyzing biobanking through a New Materialist lens, one might focus on:

  • Material agency of tissues: How do the properties of stored tissues—such as their viability, integrity, and the conditions of their preservation—affect the types of research questions that can be asked and the kinds of scientific knowledge that can be produced?
  • Discursive frameworks: How are the protocols, consent forms, and informational materials used in biobanking informed by and informing discourses of ethics, ownership, and scientific value?
  • Interactions between material and ethical discourses: How do material realities (e.g., degradation of samples over time) influence ethical discussions and policies in biobanking? How do these material conditions shape the discourse around the potential uses of these tissues?

3) Case Study: Clinical Trials

Another insightful case study might involve the use of human tissues in clinical trials. Here, Frost’s insights could be used to explore how tissues not only serve as subjects of study but also actively shape the trajectories of research and treatment protocols.

Analysis Approach

Key focus areas might include:

  • Tissue responses and trial outcomes: How do the biological responses of tissues to treatments influence the discourses surrounding the effectiveness of a drug or a therapeutic approach?
  • Embodiment and discourses of efficacy: How does the material performance of tissues in clinical settings influence the discourse around patient outcomes, treatment success, and future research directions?
  • Regulatory and ethical discourse: How do material interactions in clinical trials (e.g., unexpected tissue reactions) affect regulatory discourses and ethical considerations in medical research?

Samantha Frost’s approach to New Materialism in the context of human tissue research illuminates the active role of material entities in shaping medical discourses and practices. By acknowledging the agency of human tissues, Frost’s framework enhances our understanding of the complexities involved in medical research, where material and discursive elements are deeply intertwined. This perspective not only broadens the scope of Discourse Analysis but also provides a more comprehensive understanding of how scientific knowledge and medical practices are co-produced, reflecting the dynamic interplay between biological matter and human inquiry.

4. Jane Bennett on Public Policy and Ecological Matters

Jane Bennett’s work in New Materialism provides a valuable lens through which to analyze how material ecologies influence public policy discourse. Her focus on the vibrancy and agency of non-human materials offers a unique perspective on the interconnectedness of human and non-human actors within policy-making processes, particularly in the context of ecological matters.

1) Conceptual Framework

Bennett’s concept of “vibrant matter” suggests that non-human materials—ranging from rivers and forests to pollution and waste—possess a form of agency that can influence political decisions and cultural practices. In the realm of public policy, this idea challenges traditional anthropocentric perspectives that view non-human elements merely as passive resources or backdrops to human activity. Instead, Bennett argues that these materials actively participate in the networks of relations that constitute public policy.

2) Case Study: Urban Water Management

An illustrative case study for Bennett’s theory can be found in urban water management policies. In many cities, issues such as flooding, pollution, and water scarcity are not only ecological and technical challenges but also key elements in policy discourse.

Analysis Approach

In analyzing urban water management through a New Materialist lens, one might focus on:

  • Material agency of water: How does water itself—its paths, its quality, its behaviors under different conditions—shape policy decisions? For instance, the way water flows and collects can force changes to urban planning and infrastructure projects.
  • Interactions between policies and material conditions: How do material conditions like rainfall patterns and river health inform and reshape policy narratives and practices? How do policies adapt to the agency exhibited by these ecological elements?
  • Policy discourses and ecological outcomes: How do discourses around sustainability, conservation, and urban development reflect and respond to the vibrant agency of water? How do these discourses affect public and political engagement with water management issues?

3) Case Study: Air Quality Regulation

Another pertinent example involves policies related to air quality. Air pollution, as a material phenomenon, has direct impacts on human health and the environment, which in turn influence policy frameworks and public discourse.

Analysis Approach

Key focus areas might include:

  • Agency of air pollutants: How do the behaviors and effects of various pollutants influence public policy discourse? For instance, the emergence of smog in a city can catalyze new discussions on environmental standards and automotive regulations.
  • Material-discursive feedback loops: How do policies aimed at reducing emissions affect both the material composition of the air and the discursive practices related to environmental health and urban life?
  • Public and political engagement: How do material effects of air quality shape public opinion and policy debates? How do these material impacts encourage or discourage political action and regulatory change?

Jane Bennett’s approach to New Materialism encourages a reevaluation of how non-human forces like ecological systems are integral to public policy discourses. By recognizing the active role of material ecologies in shaping policy, her perspective broadens the scope of Discourse Analysis, providing deeper insights into how human and non-human elements co-produce political realities. This approach not only enriches the analysis of ecological matters but also fosters a more holistic understanding of the complex interdependencies in policy-making processes.

5. Rosi Braidotti on Posthuman Subjectivity

Rosi Braidotti’s work on posthuman subjectivity offers a profound exploration of how New Materialism intersects with discourse analysis to reconceptualize notions of subjectivity. Her approach challenges traditional human-centered philosophies and emphasizes a posthuman perspective where subjectivity extends beyond the human to include the non-human, the inorganic, and the technological. Braidotti’s theories provide a critical framework for investigating the ways in which subjectivity is not only discursively but also materially constituted.

1) Conceptual Framework

Braidotti advocates for a posthuman subjectivity that is a complex assemblage of human, non-human, organic, and technological components. Her approach is rooted in a critical posthumanism that seeks to move beyond the limitations of anthropocentrism and speciesism, suggesting that subjectivity is a transversal phenomenon across different entities. This perspective foregrounds the materiality of bodies and how these bodies affect and are affected by discursive processes.

2) Case Study: The Role of Technology in Shaping Subjectivities

One application of Braidotti’s theories can be seen in the analysis of how technology, especially digital media and artificial intelligence, shapes modern subjectivities. This topic is ripe for a New Materialist discourse analysis as it vividly combines material technologies with human and non-human interactions.

Analysis Approach

Key areas of focus might include:

  • Material-discursive interactions: How do technologies like smartphones, wearable devices, and AI influence our sense of self and our bodily experiences? How do these material technologies interact with discourses about privacy, surveillance, and personal freedom?
  • Transformation of human subjectivity: How does the integration of technology into daily life reshape what it means to be human? How are traditional boundaries between body and machine, natural and artificial, being renegotiated in discursive practices?
  • Ethical and political implications: How do these techno-material entanglements affect issues of identity, rights, and responsibilities? What new forms of subjectivity are emerging, and how are they recognized or contested in societal discourses?

3) Case Study: Environmental Crises and Human Identity

Another relevant case study involves examining how environmental crises impact human subjectivity. Braidotti’s perspective encourages an exploration of how material conditions such as climate change and biodiversity loss reconfigure the discourses surrounding human identity and our relationship with the Earth.

Analysis Approach

Research could focus on:

  • Material impacts on identity: How do changes in the environment (e.g., extreme weather, loss of habitats) affect people’s perceptions of themselves and their roles in the world? How do these material conditions alter narratives about human dependency and resilience?
  • Interconnection and interdependency: How do discourses around environmental sustainability and ecological crises reflect a posthuman understanding of human subjectivity? How are responsibilities and ethics being reshaped in light of these crises?
  • Policy and discourse shifts: How do policies aimed at addressing environmental issues reflect new conceptions of human subjectivity that acknowledge the material interconnectedness of human and non-human actors?

Rosi Braidotti’s framework for posthuman subjectivity enriched by New Materialism offers a nuanced lens through which to examine the entanglements of material and discursive elements in shaping contemporary subjectivities. Her approach not only broadens the analytical horizon of discourse analysis but also encourages a rethinking of subjectivity in an era marked by significant technological and environmental changes. This perspective is invaluable for understanding how identities are co-constructed through both human and non-human means, providing insights into the complex dynamics of modern lives.


The case studies in New Materialism and discourse analysis by scholars like Barad, Coole, Frost, Bennett, and Braidotti provide compelling evidence of the dynamic interplay between material realities and discursive formations. From the structuring of scientific inquiry in laboratories to the embodiment of politics, the material mediation of human tissues in research, the ecological impacts on public policy, and the redefinition of subjectivity in a posthumanist framework, these studies highlight the integral role of material conditions in shaping discourse. This synthesis not only enriches our theoretical grasp of New Materialism but also enhances practical methodologies in discourse analysis, urging a reevaluation of how materiality and discourse are intertwined in continuously shaping social and scientific landscapes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Karen Barad approach the study of laboratory practices in Discourse Analysis?

Karen Barad uses her framework of agential realism to examine laboratory practices, focusing on how material-discursive interactions shape scientific knowledge production. She analyzes how both human and non-human agents (like scientific instruments and experimental setups) contribute to and are integral parts of scientific discourses.

What is the focus of Diane Coole’s study on political bodies in Discourse Analysis?

Diane Coole’s study focuses on how political bodies are not just influenced by ideological discourses but also by material conditions such as geography, bodily presence, and physical expressions. She investigates how these material aspects interact with and shape political discourses and practices.

What does Samantha Frost’s research on human tissue involve?

Samantha Frost explores the interplay between discourse and materiality in the context of medical research, particularly in the study of human tissues. Her research examines how biological materials and the discourses surrounding them influence medical practices and scientific understanding of the human body.

How does Jane Bennett’s work relate public policy to ecological matters?

Jane Bennett’s analysis involves studying how material ecologies—such as natural resources, environmental changes, and urban infrastructure—impact and are impacted by public policy discourses. She argues that policy-making is deeply entwined with material conditions and that recognizing this can lead to more effective ecological governance.

What is Rosi Braidotti’s approach to posthuman subjectivity in Discourse Analysis?

Rosi Braidotti explores posthuman subjectivity by examining how both discourse and material conditions contribute to the formation of subjectivities beyond traditional humanistic perspectives. She emphasizes the role of technology, biology, and ecology in shaping new forms of subjectivity within and through discursive practices.

What methodologies are commonly used in these studies of New Materialism and Discourse Analysis?

Methodologies in these studies often include ethnographic fieldwork, content analysis, and case studies that consider both linguistic and non-linguistic elements. These approaches allow researchers to observe and analyze the interactions between material conditions and discursive practices.

How do these studies challenge traditional views in Discourse Analysis?

These studies challenge traditional views by demonstrating that discourses are not solely products of language and social constructs but are also deeply influenced by material conditions. This perspective encourages a more holistic view of discourse that includes the physical and material dimensions of existence.

What are the implications of these studies for understanding scientific and political discourses?

The implications include a better understanding of how material realities shape scientific and political discourses. For instance, recognizing how laboratory instruments affect research outcomes or how physical environments influence political actions can lead to more nuanced interpretations and policies.

How do these case studies contribute to broader debates in Discourse Analysis?

These case studies contribute to broader debates by providing empirical evidence and theoretical insights that support the integration of materialist perspectives into Discourse Analysis. They help expand the field by incorporating considerations of material agency and the non-human in analyzing discursive processes.

What future research directions are suggested by these case studies?

Future research might further explore intersections with other disciplines such as ecology, biology, and technology studies. Researchers might also investigate other areas where material conditions significantly influence discourse, such as in digital media, urban planning, or international relations.

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