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Theoretical Foundations of New Materialism in Discourse Analysis

Theoretical Foundations of New Materialism in Discourse Analysis - Discourse Analyzer

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New Materialism marks a significant paradigm shift in discourse analysis by integrating the philosophical traditions of materialism with contemporary theoretical innovations. This approach traces its roots from classical materialist philosophies, evolving through the influence of feminist theory and critiques of dualistic thinking. By examining the historical development of New Materialism, its entwining with feminist insights, and its challenge to traditional dualisms, this discussion sheds light on the foundational principles that redefine how material realities and discursive practices interact. New Materialism in discourse analysis offers a robust framework for understanding the dynamic and reciprocal effects between linguistic constructs and material conditions.

1. Historical Development of New Materialism

New Materialism represents a significant theoretical shift within various disciplines, including discourse analysis. It revisits and reinvigorates classical materialist philosophies, but with a novel focus on the agency of matter and the entanglement of the material and the discursive. To understand the historical development of New Materialism and its integration into discourse analysis, it’s helpful to trace its philosophical roots and contemporary adaptations.

1) From Classical to Contemporary Materialism

Classical Materialism originated in a historical context deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinking. Thinkers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels focused on the material conditions of human life and the economic bases of society. Their theory emphasized how material conditions, like the means of production, shape societal structures and individual experiences.

Moving from these roots, New Materialism emerges in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, influenced by post-structuralist critiques and scientific developments in fields such as biology and physics. Scholars like Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, and Jane Bennett have contributed extensively to this discourse, proposing a more dynamic interaction between matter and meaning. Unlike classical materialism, which often prioritized the socio-economic aspects, New Materialism considers the active role of matter itself—not just as a backdrop to human action but as a participant in the unfolding of events.

2) Key Theoretical Shifts

  1. Agency of Matter: New Materialism challenges the traditional dichotomies of subject/object and mind/body. It posits that non-human entities (such as animals, plants, or even objects) possess a form of agency. This perspective is crucial in discourse analysis as it expands the range of factors considered in textual and social analyses.
  2. Entanglement of the Discursive and Material: In classical materialism, there’s often a clear cut between material conditions and ideological superstructures. New Materialism, however, sees these domains as inextricably linked. Discourse is not merely a reflection of material conditions but is actively involved in creating and modifying those conditions.
  3. Performativity: This concept, especially articulated by Judith Butler in gender theory, is expanded in New Materialism to suggest that all matter performs. This performativity means that matter enacts or brings about realities through its capabilities and interactions.

3) Integration into Discourse Analysis

In discourse analysis, these shifts challenge researchers to consider not only the textual or spoken content of communication but also the material contexts and mediums through which this content is delivered. For instance, the physicality of a book, the digital interface of a social media platform, or the urban architecture surrounding a public speech can all influence the discourse and its effects.

Case Studies and Methodological Adaptations:

New Materialist discourse analysis might involve examining how scientific instruments participate in the production of knowledge in research articles, or how smartphones as physical objects influence the nature of communication in social media discourse.

The historical development of New Materialism in discourse analysis shows a broader trend in the humanities and social sciences towards more complex and interwoven understandings of reality. This approach doesn’t just add a layer to existing theories but reconfigures our understanding of what constitutes the “material” in materialism, making it a pivotal development in contemporary theoretical discourse.

2. Influence of Feminist Theory in New Materialism

The infusion of feminist theory into New Materialism has significantly reshaped how materialist approaches are understood and applied in discourse analysis. Feminist interventions have not only enriched New Materialism by introducing concerns about the body, gender, and power but have also helped reframe the concept of materiality itself, emphasizing the active role of material conditions in producing and sustaining social hierarchies and identities.

1) Feminist Contributions to New Materialism

Feminist theory’s impact on New Materialism is profound, focusing on several key areas:

  1. Embodiment and Materiality: Feminist theorists like Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti have emphasized the body’s materiality as a site of political and theoretical analysis. This focus has shifted materialist discourse from a purely economic or class-based analysis to one that robustly includes the body. In discourse analysis, this translates into a greater focus on how bodily experiences and the material environment influence and are reflected in discourse.
  2. Agency Beyond the Human: Feminist New Materialism often extends the concept of agency to non-human actors. This idea draws partly from ecofeminism, which sees the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women as interconnected processes. Karen Barad’s framework of “agential realism” posits that non-human entities are not merely passive objects but active participants in reality’s ongoing reconfiguration. This approach has encouraged discourse analysts to consider how non-human elements (like technologies or landscapes) actively shape discursive practices.
  3. Ethics and Responsibility: Feminist New Materialism is deeply ethical, concerned with issues of responsibility and the consequences of our interactions with the material world. This ethical stance challenges discourse analysts to consider the normative implications of discourse and its material conditions, urging a reflection on how discourses contribute to sustaining or challenging oppressive structures.

2) Theoretical Frameworks in New Materialist Discourse Analysis

Feminist contributions have led to the development of specific theoretical frameworks within New Materialism, including:

  • Performativity: Building on Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity, this idea has been expanded in New Materialism to suggest that all material configurations—including gendered bodies—have performative aspects that produce and maintain social realities.
  • Intersectionality: Feminist New Materialism often incorporates intersectional approaches, analyzing how different dimensions of identity (e.g., gender, race, class) are materially and discursively constructed and interlinked.
  • Situated Knowledges: Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledges argues that all knowledge is specific to particular times, places, bodies, and apparatuses. This has encouraged discourse analysts to be more reflexive about the positionality of knowledge production, including their own research practices.

3) Implications for Discourse Analysis

The feminist-influenced New Materialist approach in discourse analysis encourages a broader scope of analysis, one that considers how discourses are materially enacted through bodies and objects and how they perpetuate or disrupt existing power relations. For example, analyzing how medical discourse around gender transition involves not only the words used by doctors and patients but also the material technologies (like hormone therapies or surgical instruments) that enable these identities to be materially and discursively constructed.

Overall, feminist theory has been crucial in developing New Materialism within discourse analysis, adding layers of complexity and ethical depth to how material-discursive phenomena are understood and studied. This enriched perspective allows for a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between discourse, materiality, and social power.

3. Critique of Dualisms in Discourse Analysis

The critique of dualisms in discourse analysis, especially from the perspective of New Materialism, represents a fundamental shift in thinking about how we understand the relationships between language, people, and the material world. Traditional dualisms—such as subject/object, culture/nature, and mind/body—have long structured thought in the humanities and social sciences. New Materialism challenges these binaries, arguing that they oversimplify the complex entanglements of the world and obscure the ways in which various elements influence and constitute each other.

1) New Materialist Critique of Traditional Dualisms

1. Subject/Object: This dualism traditionally positions humans as subjects with agency and objects as passive and inert. New Materialism disrupts this divide, suggesting that objects (or non-humans) possess a form of agency. For example, in discourse analysis, this perspective might examine how technological devices are not just tools used by human agents but actively shape human behaviors and social interactions.

2. Culture/Nature: This dualism separates human cultural activities from the natural world, often elevating culture as a distinct and superior realm. New Materialists argue that culture is always interwoven with the natural environment and that human activities are as much a part of the natural world as any other phenomena. This perspective encourages discourse analysts to consider how discourses about “nature” or “the environment” can shape and are shaped by material practices, such as policy-making in environmental conservation or urban planning.

3. Mind/Body: Often, this dualism presents the mind as the site of cognition and rationality, separate from the body, which is seen as the realm of emotion and physicality. New Materialism contends that cognition and intelligence are distributed across body and environment, not confined to the brain. In discourse analysis, this might lead to examining how physical sensations and bodily experiences are integral to how people understand and engage with discourses.

2) Theoretical Foundations Supporting the Critique

Karen Barad’s Agential Realism: Barad’s framework is particularly influential in New Materialism for its concept of “intra-action,” where entities do not precede their interactions. Instead, identities and agencies emerge through specific interactions. This theory suggests that discourses are not merely linguistic but are materially enacted and have real effects on the formation of subjects and objects.

Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: Bennett argues that non-human materials such as food, waste, metals, or electricity exhibit vibrant lives of their own and play crucial roles in human and non-human assemblages. Applying this to discourse analysis involves recognizing how physical and material contexts—not just linguistic content—shape discursive outcomes.

3) Implications for Discourse Analysis

By critiquing these dualisms, New Materialism in discourse analysis prompts researchers to think about language and discourse as active participants in the material world. For example, a New Materialist approach might look at how scientific discourses about climate change are not only about the exchange of information but also participate in shaping policies and practices that materially affect the environment.

Furthermore, it encourages an analysis that sees discourses as performative and constitutive, capable of creating, shifting, and dissolving the boundaries between subjects and objects, culture and nature, mind and body. This theoretical stance enhances our understanding of discourse as dynamic and impactful, capable of both reflecting and shaping the material conditions of existence.

In sum, the critique of dualisms within a New Materialist context in discourse analysis not only broadens the scope of what can be considered when studying discourses but also deepens the analysis by highlighting the interconnectedness and agency of all elements involved. This shift encourages a more holistic and integrated approach to understanding how human and non-human forces co-create reality.


The theoretical foundations of New Materialism in discourse analysis provide a critical lens through which to examine the complex interplay between language and material reality. Historically developed from classical materialism and enriched by feminist theory, this approach offers a profound critique of entrenched dualisms such as subject/object and culture/nature. New Materialism challenges these binary distinctions, promoting a more integrated and holistic understanding of how discursive practices are materially instantiated and how they, in turn, influence material conditions. By foregrounding the agency of matter and recognizing the entangled nature of material-discursive phenomena, New Materialism not only advances discourse analysis but also fosters a deeper engagement with the ethical, environmental, and political implications of our discursive practices. This approach revitalizes discourse analysis with fresh perspectives and methodologies, making it a crucial tool for addressing contemporary social and philosophical questions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is New Materialism?

New Materialism is a philosophical framework that integrates material realities with discursive practices, challenging traditional dualisms like subject/object and culture/nature. It emphasizes the agency of matter and the material-discursive entanglements that shape phenomena.

How did New Materialism evolve from classical materialism?

New Materialism traces its origins to classical materialism, which focused on the physical substance of the world. It evolved through engagements with dialectical materialism, phenomenology, and post-structuralism, adopting a more dynamic view that emphasizes the interplay between material conditions and discursive practices.

What role does feminist theory play in New Materialism?

Feminist theory has significantly influenced New Materialism by highlighting the material dimensions of gendered bodies and environments. It has brought attention to how identities and power dynamics are both materially and discursively constructed, advocating for a holistic approach to understanding societal phenomena.

How does New Materialism critique traditional dualisms in discourse analysis?

New Materialism critiques traditional dualisms by arguing that material and discursive elements are not separate but co-constitutive. This perspective challenges the separation of mind and body, culture and nature, suggesting that these elements interact continuously to shape reality.

What are the implications of New Materialism for discourse analysis?

New Materialism encourages discourse analysts to consider the material aspects of discursive practices, recognizing how physical contexts, bodies, and objects contribute to and are shaped by discourse. This approach broadens the scope of discourse analysis to include the influence of tangible material conditions.

How does New Materialism address the agency of matter?

New Materialism posits that matter has agency, meaning that it participates in and influences social phenomena. This view extends the concept of agency beyond humans to include non-human and inanimate objects, acknowledging their role in shaping cultural and social dynamics.

What is meant by “material-discursive entanglement”?

Material-discursive entanglement refers to the idea that material conditions and discursive practices are intricately linked and cannot be understood in isolation. This concept is central to New Materialism and highlights how material and discursive elements influence and determine each other.

How does New Materialism influence research methodologies in the humanities and social sciences?

New Materialism influences research methodologies by encouraging scholars to incorporate material conditions into their analyses. This includes examining how physical environments, technological artifacts, and bodily experiences affect and are affected by discursive processes.

Can New Materialism be considered a response to post-structuralism?

Yes, New Materialism can be seen as a response to post-structuralism, particularly in its emphasis on the material aspects of discourse. While post-structuralism focused on language and power, New Materialism brings the material back into the conversation, addressing what some critics see as the neglect of the physical in post-structuralist thought.

What challenges does New Materialism face in its application?

One of the main challenges for New Materialism is integrating its theoretical insights into practical research frameworks without reducing complex interactions to simplistic explanations. Additionally, balancing the emphasis on materiality with the critical insights of discursive analysis without privileging one over the other remains a critical task for scholars adopting this perspective.

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