The Glorious Messiness of Methodology: Speculation, Intra-actions… and Glitter

As you begin to imagine doing research, you might feel lost, afraid, or even not up to the task. These are experiences that the authors have shared while researching. Our individual and collective unease comes from the inherent messiness of emergent research designs, its periodic dirtiness, and all the decision-making forks in the road that researchers must address. Yet this unease can be matched with an optimistic sense of how to generate fulsome and inclusive research. This is one way of mobilizing dirty methods, as discussed in the introduction and here, including finding ways of incorporating or at least addressing multiple ontologies (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999) and developing both an ethic and practices of care (Blakely, 2007; Luka & Millette, 2018). Here, we explore how care and compassion can help achieve the goal of developing a useful methodological configuration for the research at hand. Methodological development and design is precisely the process of creating specificity out of possibility, while respecting one’s epistemological standpoint and dealing with the pragmatics of field work. We have all struggled with this at one time or another, not just while doing a Master’s or PhD, but also at the beginning of most research or professional projects. We can still feel this way when something doesn’t go as planned — which is almost always the case in research. 

Quite often, students or new researchers say that they don’t ‘get’ methodology, which is interesting, because it demonstrates that there is a level of belief that there is some kind of recipe for every research situation. They express how hard it is to identify what has to be or should be done and how. They are correct; it can be very hard, and it can be very hard on an ongoing basis. At its most straightforward, methodology encompasses the decisions made to choose and develop methods to gather information about an object of study and the way they are applied, as well as the methods to analyze and interpret data (e.g., Cresswell, 2014; Lazar et al., 2017; Seale, 2004; 2012). While most methodological approaches attempt to build coherence with the epistemological (disciplinary) “standpoint” of the researcher (Collins 1998; hooks 1984), approaches that incorporate a social justice foundation also aim to identify and acknowledge a social, political, and cultural positionality (Sprague, 2005). From our perspective as researchers, while methodology means making all of these kinds of choices, it also means taking responsibility for ways of knowing (e.g. see Kovach, 2005; Todd, 2016). Three of the most challenging aspects of this process are: 1) to become aware of how you position yourself within your discipline but also in terms of your values and commitments; 2) to create ethical relationships with people (in the world) whose realities your research journey concerns; and 3) to take the time needed to do the work required. Not all methodological approaches work in this way, but these are the three aspects addressed here as a starting point.

We hope to contribute to a broader social justice and intersectional feminist research enterprise by providing illustrations from two previous research projects to more clearly unpack the process of making methodologicial decisions. This is what the following is about. We want to show how necessarily dirty the development of methodology can be, in contrast with how it is often presented as a clean, neat, methodological plan after the fact, in publications, presentations, and conversations. We also want to illustrate how the research design process is an opportunity to improve the social justice capacity of research. To do so, we refer to feminist materialism as a set of commitments and practices, and we mobilize our backgrounds in research to share our experiences and make sense of these messy but also dirty — in the sense of careful and compassionate (Gibson et al., 2021) — processes to navigate the dirtiness of research. Dirt is not necessarily a bad thing in research; in fact, it can be downright helpful. We draw on the metaphor of glitter to express the optimistic nature of such dirt. 

But why use glitter? How does glitter relate to the materiality and dirtiness of the research process? To answer these questions, think about how children use glitter in collage as a way to express identity, pleasure, or complex ideas (Coleman, 2019). Or how some people love to add sparkles on their skin or nails or wear sequins on their clothes. Sequins and sparkles reflect both light and touch, which is amazing and piques curiosity. But glitter also sticks to everything, and leaves glimmering traces on anything it comes into contact with — whether we want it to or not. It’s beautiful, and it’s messy – and some people don’t like it because they think it’s dirty and disruptive. But as a metaphor, glitter is a concrete and ultimately promising reminder of the potential deliciousness embedded in the down and dirty material practices of research and creative processes in relation to people and ultimately of the messy potential for social change (e.g. Cowan, n.d.), whether those processes and practices relate to personal expression through artwork, to co-creative research with participants, or to exposing surveillance or racism, for example. Glitter touches what it isn’t supposed to, sticks to unexpected places, and draws out beautiful and dirty outcomes in weird corners, leaving residues to admire or wipe away. In line with Michele White (2015), who equates glitter with both dirt and negative framings of unruly femininity, we suggest an embrace of glitter’s destabilization of order and stability and to forget about ‘cleaning up’ the places where glitter drifts. 

This holds out in our research practices, where we have partnered and engaged directly with various publics, grassroots community organizations, funding bodies, corporate media organizations, policymakers, and a range of other professional stakeholders. Not all of these relationships are comfortable. Many hold tensions based on varied worldviews, social justice commitments or approaches to research itself. 

Here, we look at the experience of research-creation artist group Narratives in Space + Time Society (NiS+TS) in Halifax, Nova Scotia over a five-year period ending in 2017. NiS+TS (which Luka co-founded) looked at the social engineering decisions and storytelling mythologies that obfuscated discriminatory urban redevelopment processes following the tragedy of the explosion in the Halifax harbour in 1917, 100 years after that event. While the outcomes of that historical event may have originally seemed immutable, the lived experience of working on ways to challenge that immutability that took place over the five-year period ending in 2017 actually changed the narrative of Halifax as an urban centre and helped create conditions for present-day decision-making that could be more inclusive and empowering. 

The other research project used to illustrate how care and compassion can work as a dirty research method was developed by Millette for her PhD. From 2011 to 2015, she conducted research on the political uses of social media in French-speaking minorities outside Québec. This period of time was marked by discussions about the future of French in Canada based on the drastic changes to Federal bilingualism policies enacted by a politically conservative Federal government led by Stephen Harper. During this time, funding for minority language local papers was cut, support for bilingualism was eliminated or significantly reduced everywhere, and key positions were given to unilingual anglophones (and white males) such as Angelo Persichilli (Director of Communications), Michael Moldaver (Supreme Court), and Michael Furguson (Auditor General). During this period, the Conservative government also revised the Roadmap for Official Languages, a linguistic federal policy revisited every five years, more or less, where the government addresses the specific needs of French-Canadian minorities to support their economic and cultural growth. For the duration of this research, Millette would immerse herself in the local French news and provincial issues about access to educational and health services in French. Online, she followed French-Canadian citizens who were debating these crucial topics, criticizing politicians and policies, interacting together or promoting their culture. In both research projects, being able to navigate diverging agendas and emergent constraints entailed dirty processes that are not often discussed in detail, and, as we suggest below, also helpfully involve speculation, intra-action and glitter analyses. Feminist materialism provides the conceptual framework for this work and acts as the epistemological standpoint from which we propose to envisage methodology. With a strong commitment to ethical and inclusive research, we reflect on the related concepts of diffraction, refraction and intra-action to enact speculation as a carefully dirty method and as a way to deal with the decision-making forks we encounter. The intention is to demonstrate different ways to adapt a research plan into what can become a more responsive and full methodological design. Later, we complicate the methodological design process by enlarging it to address how data is constituted, how glitter can provide visible and useful traces of process, and how we can more carefully and compassionately situate ourselves as researchers and citizens. 

Speculation as dirty method

We come to speculation from a feminist materialism perspective. Feminist materialism places gender alongside class and material conditions — including capitalism and economic disparities and their organizing capacity — at the base of the analysis of power relations. Intersectionality makes such an approach more complex and more visible by drawing attention to the way in which race and other demographic and social factors cannot be separated from gendered oppressions realized within power relations (Crenshaw, 1989). Even though feminist materialism has mainly been understood as a ‘high theory’ conceptual field (Coleman et al., 2019, para. 1), it also provides a pragmatic framework to address the real, material, human, and non-human challenges of fieldwork, using speculation as method.   

Speculation as method (e.g., Asberg et al., 2015) borrows the notion of our own stance as one among many from second- and third-wave feminism, and applies it to the conduct of research at every stage of the process: from the moment of conceiving research questions, through to the collection of data, analysis, presentations of analyses, and eventually to making material changes in society that aim to shift power dynamics. Understanding our own positionality requires us to acknowledge that while there are varied positionalities for everyone involved in research as well as us — whether we are researchers, researched, interested parties or potential audiences (or some combination of all of the above) — we are also actually practicing research in different ways. Speculation, as a part of methodology, is useful because it asserts the importance of examining and enabling diverging material practices (how we do things), political commitments (why we do things the ways we do), and the many specific stances that we all take in relation to the research being conducted (Luka & Millette, 2018). As we have previously argued, speculation as “method is not [just] a set of rules but a gathering of possibilities” (Luka & Millette, 2018, p. 5). This means that we can imagine how conflicting or incompatible political commitments involved in the investigation of phenomena not only include distinct power dynamics and material conditions at particular moments in time, but in what ways this is helpful. More specifically, this methodological approach can help us imagine and redistribute knowledge-as-power in research, when used to address subjectivities, oppressions, and the many complicating dynamics involved in a situation or phenomenon under research. 

Behind these concepts lies two core ideas. One is that research can be conducted with care and compassion at its very foundations. The other is the idea that doing research comes with a certain power (at the very least, the power to develop and disseminate knowledge). Such power places us in specific relation to various phenomena, and our ability to recognize and resituate or re-place/re-insert ourselves in different ways than how we are traditionally or habitually boxed into is useful. Making power dynamics visible and also addressing or changing them embodies what we mean by the use of intra-actions as a methodological commitment, as shown in the examples below. In the push to stick to an initial research plan no matter what, even if the relationships developed throughout the project or fieldwork suggest otherwise, we will miss important — or at least telling — signals that we are relying too heavily on one aspect of the research topic, or on our assumptions about what we think we are seeing in our research. Since speculation is closer to a mindset than it is to a rigid, pre-determined method for collecting or analyzing data, embracing a compassionate form of speculation through diffraction, refraction or intra-action (as we illustrate below with examples from the field) helps to take ourselves out of our usual habits, particularly those that enable ourselves, participants or co-researchers to be emboldened and cared for in the process, and to question what we are looking at, and ask what our sense-making is addressing.

To mobilize speculation as a mode of an operational methodology opens the door to more balanced and aware commitments about and to social justice than a more traditional definition of methodology offers. We can observe and conceptualize the many failures, changes, and forks along the road of research as opportunities to adapt, react, and realign with this commitment. We borrow from physics and the work of Karen Barad (2007) to build metaphors from phenomena such as diffraction, refraction, and thereby to intra-action, as ways to navigate an adapted, workable, and ethical methodological research design. 

From an everyday understanding of physics, we know that diffraction occurs when a wave bends from its original trajectory as it encounters an obstacle. Refraction refers to a wave or ray of light changing its direction while passing from one medium to another, like water to glass. By thinking of our research in the form of waves, we can realize that we need to adapt our research design to address and sometimes incorporate these obstacles. When it comes to relationships in and through our various research projects, we might also need intra-action. Intra-action is a form of inter-relationship(s) that acknowledges that we are inside the investigation underway, in contrast with interactions, which suggests that we are somehow outside of/standing apart from/not involved in what we are investigating (Coleman et al., 2019). Operationally, 

diffraction and intra-action [are] two key concepts in feminist new materialisms, which draw attention to the possibilities of connectivity and relationality between seemingly distinct or autonomous entities, perhaps with surprising or productive affects. (Coleman et al., 2019, para. 25)

As we explore below, using examples from the field, we mobilize diffraction and intra-action as ‘attitudes’ to enact speculation that can ground research in relationships that link materialism and affect.

To speculate: diffraction, refraction and intra-action at work in research

Originally formulated by feminist physicist Karen Barad (2007), intra-action as a theoretical concept was meant to be transdisciplinary, combining (among others) feminist theory with quantum phyisics and Marxism. In her quest to understand what it means to be physically present in the world, Barad (2007) exposes agential realism — a holistic point of view to integrate the roles of matter and discourse, human and non-human, as well as cultural and natural aspects in research and intellectual attempts to understand our world. Intra-action is a concept proposed to tackle the dynamic and connected dimension of relations, and the agency that comes with this particular configuration of relations in a specific situation. Barad contrasts the concept of intra-action with that of interaction, where agency is attributed to each independent body. Thus, intra-action describes the relationships of everyone and everything in the research in terms of holistic agentivity, capacities, and possibilities.  

To operationalize diffraction and refraction as methodological attitudes, or responses to particular research circumstances (e.g., a participant’s opinion that doesn’t fit the methodological design; or a set of data that cannot be explained), it’s useful to consider how these work in the conduct of research. For example, when we undertake research and gather data, including connecting with people involved in what we are studying, we are often involved in a diffractive exercise. Here, research is an open process capable of change by responding to the situation (diffraction), but can also be redesigned by filtering our activities through multiple points of view (refraction). We can create a space where subjectivity and unplanned events are part of the process, and we can pivot to new approaches (refraction), especially when we discover that we have made assumptions that need to be challenged. Whether we approach this work diffractively or more refractively, we can also use these approaches to begin to identify how our research designs (and embedded assumptions) are still too often unconsciously predetermined. To illustrate this, for example, Annette Markham (2013) problematizes data as a basic component of research design, and asks us to look at data as an artefact constructed and developed in a certain way. Mobilizing metaphors such as ‘frames’ and ‘lenses,’ Markham points to the ways in which we can see and understand particular bodies of data and their representation as symbolic power, but we can also see how power works by revealing how data is collected, who collected it, and when it was collected. All of the authors have addressed these challenges in our own research, surfacing our own preconceived ideas, challenging the assumptions that undergird them and reworking them as best we can in the circumstances. Here, we start by becoming more conscious of the decision-making processes we employ in every moment of the research process.Just as datasets bring to light certain aspects of a phenomenon and leave others invisible, every decision we make along the research process brings some aspects to the forefront and leaves others aside — which is inevitably a dirty business that filters our projects and discards undesirable by-products. By acknowledging our own situatedness and the constant nature of the decision-making we are involved in as researchers, researched, analyzed and analysers, we can create a (more or less) favourable milieu for intra-actions to take place. Our research business won’t be any less dirty–and indeed, from the perspective of building care and compassion, we wouldn’t want it to be less dirty–but speculation as a constant mindset helps us to disrupt the assumptions and practices we might otherwise replicate in research without thinking about their biases. In other words, these actions enable the development of “more nuanced frameworks for what inquiry means as a process” (Markham, 2013, sec. 5). Below, we discuss three moments from our own research to illustrate how speculation, diffraction, refraction, and intra-action work in the field to develop more nuanced frameworks for inquiry and to conduct research in ways that allow the methodology to evolve with the circumstances at hand and the people involved. 

Activating diffraction and refraction

An example of how research using refraction and diffraction can develop into intra-actions as speculative practice can be found in the research that Mary Elizabeth Luka conducted as part of Narratives in Space + Time Society (NiS+TS: over a five-year period ending in 2017 (Luka, 2018; Luka & Lilley, 2018). NiS+TS is a locative media and site-specific artist group based in Halifax, Canada, that Luka co-founded. The group explored the remaking of the city following a tragic wartime accident on December 6, 1917 that killed and injured more than 20% of the population, known as the Halifax Explosion. While the recovery efforts included laudable social engineering activities such as the founding or strengthening of several social service organizations (e.g., the building of hospitals, founding of urban planning associations, and strengthening the Canadian National Institute for the Blind), the redrawing of city streets and commitments to improving living conditions also consolidated embedded social discrimation, and moved Black, Indigenous and working class communities out of the centre of the city. Over time, the heroic and anti-heroic stories that emerged in the scholarly literature and media reports glossed over these social engineering feats and decisions. But traces of them were left behind — in personal and government archives and in oral histories, for example. The NiS+TS efforts to surface and unpack these traces — this faded residue — of opaque, oppressive, and systemic social engineering decisions and outcomes, almost 100 years later, operated by prioritizing undertold stories, community-led voices, and an agenda that was developed with Black, Indigenous and working class communities through public art walks. By involving more than 120 collaborators, NiS+TS was able to link together these actions into a glittering set of intra-actions that included us as artists and researchers, but was driven by collaborators and did not minimize the challenges of rethinking the Halifax Explosion and its social and urban legacies. 

As the NiS+TS example begins to show above (and the Francophone minority communities example shows below), speculation as a method often leads to a co-constituted research project and a co-constituted dataset, because it requires researchers to include perspectives other than their own in the data, including as co-developers of undertold stories (in the case of NiS+TS). This is a coherent way to think about research and to grasp the construction of the data as a human-generated artefact (see Gitelman, 2013; Markham, 2013). Similarly, Cecilia Asberg, Kathrin Thiele, and Iris van der Tuin (2015) “insist on the co-constitutive role of the embedded observer, the perspective and the rich agentiality (multi-subjectivity) of context itself” (p. 151). But more is going on here. Data is not just being co-constituted by being included. It is also being diffracted and refracted.   

The NiS+TS activities resulted in both diffraction and refraction. Diffractive work included the hope-filled dissemination of undertold stories and histories in ways that were pointed and compelling. However, the dirtier version of this diffractive work more closely resembled the well-practiced art of deflection, where undertold stories continued to be denied or erased, even 100 years after the fact, including how the aftermath of the Explosion resulted in the racialized remaking of the north end of Halifax. More refractively, the stories given priority by NiS+TS in collaboration with artists and community members included some of the stories that were less well-known. Some of the more glittery forms of the dirty work undertaken here included challenging the ongoing circulation of heroic stories of Americans who rescued ‘those poor Maritimers’ by arriving three days after the explosion. Less well-known was the story of working-class railworkers from the Halifax and Truro region (today, an hour’s drive north of the city) — already suffering from enormous trauma — who had to dig out the train that brought these well-wishers to town. The recuperation of the undertold stories became both a diffractive and refractive effort to recentre the public narrative about the explosion in the Halifax harbour. This mattered 100 years ago, of course, but it also matters 100 years later because the working class community of 2017 was being priced out of the neighbourhoods they had rebuilt and helped keep secure for decades after the explosion. Talking about this became a form of refraction: the bending of historical stories to today’s social concerns. And the artists who contributed, shaped and presented stories that challenged the colonial histories of resettlement of this urban space — and its current manifestations — could also no longer afford to live in the area. This is a crucial turning point in the NiS+TS example, when the research transforms from diffraction and refraction, to intra-action. 

By researching and relaying the stories not just of those who were pushed out of the neighbourhood 100 years ago but also 50 years ago, 20 years ago, and today, the artists and collaborators involved became participants in intra-actions through the community. NiS+TS sometimes inadvertently dissipated the righteous anger over forms of embedded discrimination in urban resettlement by presenting these issues and challenges in accessible, enjoyable ways throughout the city rather than in confrontational or unresolved ways. But the loops and cycles of the walks as each annual anniversary approached brought new opportunities to dig a little deeper and more compassionately: a little more intra-actively. The city remains a work in progress.

Co-constituting data through intra-actions

Activating research by working with people rather than acting upon them (us) or observing them (us), reflects commitments to “practices of care” (Luka et al., 2017) that we argue must co-constitute a contemporary set of research obligations from an intersectional feminist perspective (Crenshaw, 1989; Luka & Millette, 2018; Mahumud et al., 2017). By using various modes of engagement (storytelling, song, mobile media app, social media, etc.) to attract and empower a wide variety of participants to intervene in the walks (and on a mobile app, which came later), NiS+TS built intra-action into the design process, blurring the line between research methods, social action, and performance. 

In this context, a second example of refraction and diffraction that turned into intra-actions may be useful. Filmmaker and Mi’kmaq elder, Catherine Martin, first became involved with NiS+TS by offering to share stories about and thereby honour her ancestors who had died during or shortly after the explosion during one of the public art walks. This evolved into a public performance of a song and stories during one of the NiS+TS walks. Perhaps more importantly, the stories also provided the opportunity for some caring reciprocity on an ongoing basis: for NiS+TS to provide support to the pre-existing Indigenous-led commemoration that Martin conducted for the Mi’kmaq community every year. By nurturing diffraction and refraction in the research processes, conditions were created that resulted in the accretion and seeding of a series of much more in-depth and consequential intra-actions. Throughout the experience, it was clear that such intra-actions with the Mi’kmaq community, and also with Africville former residents and descendents, as well as with immigrants, artists, musicians, storytellers, and working class residents, built lines of communication, spaces for listening to diverging perspectives, and opportunities to come together on short and longer-term issues and challenges in urban development and neighbourhood renewal. These were not without the dirty work of disjunctures, collisions, or disagreements, whether those took place within NiS+TS itself, between NiS+TS and its collaborators and funders, or among the community groups that became involved with NiS+TS. As the project developed, however, the gradual accretion of more and more intra-actions among active participants spoke to openings — no matter how messy — rather than to tidy closings-down.

The NiS+TS data-generating approaches allowed for the experience to be ‘thickened’ (Latzko-Toth et al., 2017) through intra-actions for participants, presenters and organizers, no matter whether each of these groups thought the walks (and Drifts, a social media software application based on the walks) were research, entertainment, neighbourly debate or some other form of social exchange or knowledge generation. This approach deeply informed the methods NiS+TS used to develop Drifts app. The app was a culmination of efforts that materialized diffractive, refractive, and intra-active data. These included the collaborative public and research-based walks, workshops with participants from various neighbourhoods, and the prioritizing of less-visible or new stories and narratives (as described above), as well as a ceaseless generation of photographs, videos, audio recordings and more. It also included participation across academic disciplines in the project itself or in academic settings, including computer science, architecture, critical communication and media studies, visual arts and design. But things didn’t always go perfectly and that too was part of the process — what we have been thinking about as a dirtying of the process. Arguments about which funders to approach or how to acknowledge them; figuring out who was in charge of which piece of the complex public art walks, documentation, collaborative relationships (etc.) involved; and running a non-profit society in order to secure funding in the first place — these were all prone to creating internal conflict. Remarkably, working with collaborators, conducting the public walks and creating the app were steps less subject to conflict, perhaps because the focus shifted to the perspectives of the communities and individuals we wanted to make sure were included rather than our own.

Moreover, what NiS+TS learned during the app design process was just how dirty the digital age actually was. Catherine D’Ignazio (2017) talks about the “data-haves and data-have nots,” pointing out that not everyone has access to digital services or the devices required to operate within them. NiS+TS used the public art walks, and shared digital devices for participants to use the app, as a workaround for the lack of wifi or big data packages and access to digital devices. NiS+TS also worked with two of its funders (the City of Halifax and the Department of Canadian Heritage) to build a website where people could experience the walks virtually instead of having to use smartphones and data packages. Furthermore, the decision was taken early on that data about participants on the website or in the app would not be collected, as a form of resistance to the fetishization of the digital. It is also a way of thinking through how an awareness of researcher and funder “standpoints” (Collins 1998; hooks 1984) can generate a practice of care that helps prevent the over-surveillance of community members. The refractive learning involved at NiS+TS was that designing, iterating, and executing research activity that can become more inclusive can be quite productively dirty.

Complementing big data research

One of the challenges in conducting research that aims to be intra-active and thereby to incorporate multiple viewpoints, frames, and levels of information is the dominance of ‘big data’ in the digital context as productivity in research (Latzko-Toth et al., 2017; Millette et al., 2020). Quantitatively-driven, big data methods are harder to reconcile with the type of methodological approach we propose. Big data works on massive amounts of information to highlight tendencies and draw predictions, thus they tend to flatten what lies in the margin of a social phenomenon and they also alter significantly important information to our approach such as experiences, memories, feelings, etc. (Latzko-Toth et al., 2017; Luka & Millette, 2018). Nonetheless, we can complement big data research by using speculative methods such as diffraction, refraction, and intra-action combined with qualitative or mixed methods. This allows us to adjust the research project as it develops by taking into consideration the experience of the people involved in the phenomenon we are examining, whether through scraping tweets, conducting interviews, or gathering life stories or artistic expressions — or using a blend of other (often mixed-method) techniques that ‘thicken’ the data collected and contextualized (Latzko-Toth, Bonneau & Millette, 2017; Latzko-Toth, Bonneau & Millette, 2020). A core challenge of speculation in research, and particularly of intra-active research, then, is that it takes time. 

In our experience, when co-constituting a dataset or developing research through a constant back-and-forth between the field and the research plan, it takes time and trust to develop an intra-active approach and to periodically realign what was planned with what should be done for rigorous and socially just research. 

An example from Mélanie Millette:

When I did my PhD on the political uses of social media in French-speaking minorities in English Canada (Millette, 2015), many times diffraction came into play through modifications to the research plan. To begin with, I wasn’t supposed to study French-speaking minorities! I was hesitant to study the political and cultural aspects of online fan communities or women’s blogging practices. And the dirty and mixed feelings of being, myself, a linguistic minority in academia reframed my whole take on the PhD project. I became deeply frustrated by participating in a couple of so-called bilingual (English/French) academic events where, basically, French-Canadians would speak English 80% of the time and a tiny part of English-speaking participants would make the effort to open their talks in French, and switch back to English right after. I shared this experience with fellow French-Canadian students who told me “well, this is how it always goes when you are the minority” at such events. In contrast, as a Québécoise in Québec, I had the privilege of experiencing French-Canadian language and culture from a majority perspective, since the province is Francophone. My encounters with “bilingual” academia made me realize that making my dissertation about this situation and how the Internet can constitute an opportunity for minority voices to be heard — or not! — would be meaningful as a way to educate myself as a Francophone citizen in this country. It might also be useful for French-Canadian citizens outside of Québec who continuously experience this form of minority status.  

While doing my PhD, I was well-aware of my own perspective, including the power dynamics of coming from a majority position (among French-Canadians) and a minority one (among the English-Canadians). My perception of my position in this research was connected to the political aspects of French-Canadian history, as the province of Québec did not participate in local battles for recognition in other French-Speaking communities across the country, after the Quiet Revolution in Quebec which focused on its own cultural and political independence. Thus, my interest in the situation of French-Canadians outside of Québec was seen as suspicious. I was told “ho, so you care about us now?” and all my good intentions were very lightweight compared to the injustice some had suffered. While I was not using the word “speculation” per se, I wanted the people concerned by the situation to be involved in the knowledge-building process. I did not co-constitute a specific dataset with the people researched but incorporated a validation step at every stage of my methodology. The first one came from people who had legitimacy in the minority French-speaking Canadian communities I wanted to examine, such as local community-workers or leaders. I shared my observations about the online practices with them, and then listened carefully to their take of my observations to select what would be the main site of my field work (it would be Twitter; details in Millette, 2015). In the final stage of research, after more than two years of online ethnographic observation (with permission) and having manually coded thousands of tweets, I also validated my findings and understanding of the phenomenon with people whose tweets and uses I had been following and studying. It took all this time of online observations and interactions with French-Canadian actors, and a couple of trips to urban and rural French-Canadian communities before I felt comfortable contacting some of them for the research. To me, it felt almost as if I had to demonstrate that I genuinely cared about the situation, and that I had invested the time needed to get to understand their positionality a bit more. These face-to-face interviews were a big moment in terms of intra-action development. Some of the people I had been following for months online became far more engaged in the project because I came to visit them and share their daily experience for a time. In these intra-actions, I learned much more about what it means to be living in French in Vancouver, Moncton, or Toronto, where the cultural and linguistic differences are made invisible and too often seen as irrelevant as “you understand English anyway.” This phrase (and many others like it) embodies what Francophone language minority groups are constantly told by political leaders, media outlets, and the different educational contexts of their respective province. It took me a while to understand why and how my experience of my fieldwork was messy, and even dirty sometimes. It was only a couple of weeks after the fieldwork was done that I was actually able to see the logic behind every step I had taken. But the diffractive and refractive work that I needed to do in order to complete this PhD with passion, compassion, purpose, and care was crucial. 

To take one of these examples as a way to better understand what we mean by a more holistic approach to intra-action, we could think about how we would use research about food security or cultural fundings as an indicator of changing patterns of urban settlement in a place like Halifax or in Francophone communities. This subject matter parallels efforts to better understand where we live (as became evident in the NiS+TS initiative) and have a roof over our heads (as became a broad social concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the drive to bake bread and garden (Ghoussoub, 2020)) or how we use Twitter (as with the Francophone minority communities). By thinking about how cities, non-cities, nature, etc. become sites where “food fundamentally influences the self and, at the same time, a person’s actions also significantly influence…the existing food and related systems,” Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Marcus Foth, and Greg Hearn (2014) exhort us to think about “healthy, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable food futures; and [to] support people’s engagement and collaborations in […] processes of contestation, engendering new forms of urban networks and experiences” (pp. 4-5). This is a messy site of material investigation, just as the colonial history of the city of Halifax is, or the efforts of Francophone communities to come together in virtual spaces continues to be. This is made all the more urgent by multiplying environmental crises and global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which have shown how non-human bodies (such as oil or a virus) can disrupt not just a research project but the communities it hopes to address and include.

Understanding that the research environment is complex has another impact on decision-making: how much time it takes to do the research in a socially just way. In the NiS+TS example, this could include considerations of who lives in and around the harbour and thereby affects the ocean. In the case of the minority Francophone communities, it could also include thinking about the educational system, which is key for cultural and linguistic minorities. In both cases, we could broaden the scope of the research to address climate change impacts of urban resettlement patterns on the earth itself, how the production of food systemically disadvantages particular groups as well as being a cultural marker, or how the proliferation of data servers helps communities gather and coalesce online but also impacts the environment (Hogan, 2015).

The examples we provide show that the kind of methodology and commitments that we discuss often leads to a slower, more in-depth approach, including consulting and working in complex ways with people as participants and shapers of research who are as concerned by the research goals and processes as we are ourselves. This returns us to a deeper consideration of the power dynamics of being researchers in the world.

Researcher in the world: try, try again as methodology

Being a researcher in the world is far from being the proverbial ‘intellectual in an ivory tower.’ To commit to being in the world brings us back to the material reality of our own subjectivities. This becomes more complex when we become supervisors of other peoples’ research. For example, during the summer of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, students that Millette advised ended up refracting their entire methodological plans. One had just been green-lit from both the university Research Ethics Board (REB) and an elders’ council to start field work with an Atikamekw community of Manawan in Québec to explore their uses of Facebook and the connection between online and offline identities. Another was about to start in-person interviews with non-urban TV viewers to document how they perceive their representation and subjectivities as depicted in a scripted series. Both are brilliant students, humble and devoted to achieving meaningful work with the people at the center of their project. Millette discussed with them the different scenarios, how to refract and rethink the whole plan to make it work in each case and to maintain the ethical and political commitments that they had placed at the foreground of their Master’s theses. None of these decisions were easy, as each represented a delay for their ability to complete their degrees. One of the well-known dirty secrets of academia is that we, as advisors, are often told that our students should be encouraged to finish their Master’s degrees as fast as possible, to increase the graduation rate. This is partly about maintaining a metric of success in the university system but also because they, as students, have to deal with precarity in academia and at work, often juggling part-time jobs or full-time contracts on top of doing their degrees. It was satisfying to see that the scenario each chose was one that truly allows for intra-actions. For one, it meant the postponement of field work until the Manawan Council was able to welcome them. For the other, it meant taking a moment to regroup and to rethink the interview design to be able to conduct them from a socially-appropriate distance or online. 

It is not just the complex human that we must contend with here but more inclusive worldviews from a methodological point of view. For example, Indigenous researchers such as Zoë Todd (2016) and Jennifer Wemigwans (2018) ask academia and every other sector of human activity — including intersectional materialist feminists — to enlarge our views of the world and acknowledge the impact we each have globally, from a more holistic, or ecosystemic, point of view. Similarly, political philosopher Jane Bennett (2010) considers the power dynamics of political ecologies as they intersect with non-human ecologies to comprise systems. Mobilizing an impressive range of philosophical theories, Bennett (2010) uses examples such as a major electrical shutdown in the United States in 2003 to illustrate the power of shared human and non-human “interrelations” (or, as we would suggest here, intra-actions). This is a philosophical position that deeply connects humans to all earthly matter as forces for action (p. viii). While such statements might seem radical for certain researchers, it has been a given for a long time in Indigenous epistemologies (Tallbear, 2017; Todd, 2016), and in eco-feminist scholarship, which mobilizes a broader notion of social justice, extended to non-humans and ecosystems (Haraway, 2003). In other words, an intersectional feminist materialist approach at methodology must take into account the impact of research not only on humans, but also on the ecosystem within which humans operate. 

Speculation as method — and its attendant attitudes, diffraction, refraction and intra-actions — is useful to being a ‘researcher in the world’, to adapting our plans to the conditions we find in the field, and to acknowledging and managing power dynamics. Speculation as method in feminist and intersectional materialism is pragmatic at heart: it asks us to try, and try again, until the dirty realities of doing research can be addressed, sometimes resolved, and sometimes left on the table to deal with at a future date. 

Glimmers of optimism: observing glitter

This leads us back to the question of how to responsibly and responsively observe, analyze, and participate in research by embracing speculation and intra-actions as approaches to research, within and outside academia, including how we can talk about serious everyday matters in productively critical yet optimistic ways, with less judgment and more inclusion. Social justice commitments in research draw attention to balances of power by surfacing potential ways of imagining research and data in co-constitutive ways that address social justice matters. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic amplified such global disparities not just in public health but also in economic and social power. As researchers, we aim to be aware of our responsibility to collaboratively identify the specificities of these inequities and also imagine where we could go from here. 

So we return to how speculation as method mobilizes Haraway’s (1988) notion of situated knowledges; that is, the “ability to partially translate knowledges among very different — and power-differentiated — communities” (p. 580, our emphasis). As a conscious act (e.g., through the practices of intra-action with Catherine Martin and the Mi’kmaq community in the NiS+TS example), the translation of varied knowledges requires us not just to consider positions other than our own but also to become supportive allies. Attuning ourselves and our methodological practices to surfacing our own biases, power dynamics, and identity positions, in relation to others, is not a form of self-flagellation but a way to assert heterogeneity and subjectivities, as shown in the examples of Francophone minority language and (below) LGBTQIA+ communities. These conscious actions compel each of us not just to unpack pre-existing conceptual frames and labels, but also to make interventions using the knowledges and practices that are shared among us. 

In this context, we propose that the use of speculation in methodology is a signal of optimism. We suggested earlier that alternative (sometimes incompatible) approaches to understanding social relations can co-exist; these are the messy and sometimes dirty conditions under which research takes place, especially when we want to shift the status quo. As researchers, we can acknowledge our own role(s) in shaping research through the lenses we apply, the data we prioritize, and the ways in which we operationalize our own social values. 

As a way to see how this works, Rebecca Coleman (2019) proposes that “following glitter” is one approach to visualizing how intra-action works as an optimistic gesture. In research with several 13- and 14-year old girls, she invited the students to imagine their futures through a research-creation exercise. She used collaging exercises that incorporated “a range of materials [… where] glitter emerged as particularly significant” (Coleman, 2019, para. 5). The glitter stuck to everything: people, images, the classroom walls and floors, as well as the notebook used by Coleman to document the process, and the bags that the notebook was dropped into, for weeks afterwards. For the researcher, the glitter served as a reminder not just to think about materialism theoretically, but also what it is that physically and materially clings to us in our engagements with the many intra-actions that come into our lives if only we will let them. She encourages us to take up: 

a feminist new materialist methodology of ‘following the material’; [… including], the movement of glitter across different socio-cultural spaces: specific classrooms, bodies, mainstream girls’ culture, LGBTQ protests. These cases are clearly distinct and involve the generation of different affects: enchantment, irritation, anger. In following the material, though, what is constant in these diverse examples is the vibrancy of glitter–-its ‘thing-power’. One of the implications of this methodological focus on glitter is that the emphasis is not so much on what glitter ‘is’ as what, as a material, it might do as a vibrant material. (Coleman, 2019, para. 13).

T.L. Cowan asks us to turn glitter into an even more active engagement with feminist and intersectional political work. For example, GLITTERfesto ( is Cowan’s manifesto, which asks us to consider glitter, and what it tells about our actions, as a foundation for a “revolutionary movement of activist performance based on the premise that social justice is fabulous.” Social justice is fabulous. And so what could be messier, stickier, and sometimes dirtier than the fabulously and socially just glitter we produce together in research? Paying attention to how our interactions with humans and environments can become intra-actions, dirtiness and all, provides us with opportunities to follow the glitter not just in the research, but in what comes after. In the case of the NiS+TS example, this includes our still-ongoing (sticky) relationships with 120 groups and individuals who became collaborators, but also all of our shared communities. It meant that the glittery traces of undertold stories were shared widely in two exhibitions, dozens of videos, a software app, and through the hallways of influential policymakers and funders, as well as through a ton of media coverage on the relationship between current urban development issues and their foundations in historical trauma. And it meant that the dirty difficulties of working through the project over a five-year period were worth it: not just because we all gained something as individuals (which we did), but because we learned together as a series of communities that used events to make our environment more socially just.

Millette has a final example to offer about how diffractive and refractive moments led to this kind of glitter; the kind that arises from the dirtiness of frictions, problems, obstacles, and what we can do to understand and overcome these. This example is from another research project:

One of my soon-to-be-finished research projects is about how some LGBTQIA+ groups and individuals use social media strategically for political and identity purposes. Our team, facilitated by amazing students, including self-identifying LGBTQIA+ group members, prepared for more than a year, carefully researching online public Facebook groups and blogs. But when we got to the next stage, we learned that the people involved in the groups wanted to stay among themselves in safe online spaces, and didn’t wish to be scrutinized. We were welcome as citizens, feminists, humans, but not as researchers. Everyone involved in the research team wanted to be transparent and fair, and sought more meaningful consent than what our university REB was asking for (also see On Power and Relationships: Making Kin with Research Ethics). It was out of the question for myself and the team to harvest data or even to include notes from online observation in the research analysis without asking permission. We know that analyzing public social media content brings a different context and attention to sometimes personal — or simply private — material, and it can drastically change the scale of visibility that the authors had in mind (Latzko-Toth & Pastinelli, 2017). It became obvious that we would have to radically refract the research design. 

We used speculation as a method to help craft new possibilities about what could be done and how. We regrouped and started to consult with self-identified LGBTQIA+ researchers and leaders to reorganize the original plans and align them with what would be more useful to the participants we were involved with, building up refractive options. I appreciated the lived experience of the students and participants who intra-acted with the team. Members of the team, including myself, decided to show their vulnerabilities and doubts and to listen to those of other team members. We had long, amazing, and sometimes dirty and confusing, discussions about ethical standards, our standpoint as individuals, and how to develop a nuanced collective standpoint as a research team, where everyone can respect our own respective positionalities. And even when it was intense, I remember telling myself that these moments were, somehow, precious. We were all stressed out and busy and tired… but also involved in urgent debates with brilliant students with diverse backgrounds: debates about epistemology, methodology, and social justice. My own beliefs and approaches were transformed as were those of the research project: this was definitely the creation of research glitter. Very precious glitter, as it all came from a major refraction of our research plans, involving brilliant intra-actions co-developed with students and aligned with what our consultations with the participating groups showed us to be useful.


Methodology is the making/thinking of research — and of being in the world — and therefore a site of power: what matters, how to frame what we see, how to develop knowledge from inclusiveness and how to contribute to social justice through research. When we examine urban settlement by producing an app (as in the case of NiS+TS), we examine the dirt of human and extra-human intra-actions at multiple levels of engagement over decades. When we pull together tweets and compare them to interviews in minority-language communities from a majority-language perspective (as in the case of Millette’s PhD project), we are considering health and social well-being as well as language and culture, and that street goes two-ways. When we ask graduate students to take their time in developing their research methods (as in Millette’s final example), we are asking them to take the time that is required to be respectful. In other words, methodologically, we surface, activate, and account for ways of being and characteristics through intra-actions, using familiar or unfamiliar processes, over time, place and space. This is a crucial point, particularly for early researchers. Part of what we are doing here is making ourselves aware of what, when, and how we are conducting research. We have to say what we are doing as well as doing it in order to illustrate how we intend to behave in relation to others. Moreover, we usually have to rethink and talk through what we are doing before we are in a position to evaluate how we did the work we set out to do. Such matter matters in human relations, but our actions related to these matters also matter in all earthly relations. Becoming aware of who we are, where we are in the world, and what we are doing, makes it easier for us to ethically see the parameters and limits imposed by our own and others’ assumptions, values and past practices, and also to see beyond them.

To do research from a feminist materialist perspective using a speculative stance invites us to be in the world as ethical researchers. Varying modes of research provide fertile breeding grounds to disrupt patterns of thinking and to respond to contingencies that emerge. We believe that to embrace speculation as an on-the-ground method in research, and to really engage in a materially-based research process that incorporates diffraction, refraction and intra-action is a useful, pragmatic stance to challenge oppressive drifts in power dynamics within research designs. That said, it would be naive to take for granted that this methodological approach will save us from the research pitfalls precipitated by power relations, since power is so often used in more instrumental ways. 

To actively cultivate critique and optimism in our research endeavours, we can acknowledge how challenging the conditions are under which we operate in relation to other humans and environments – not just in imaginary or metaphorical ways (though these are powerful ways of thinking and doing) but specifically, materially, everyday. What one does has an impact on others, whether directly or not. To ground this in terms of the dirtiness of research in the physical world, Bennett (2010) suggests that we are all “a material configuration, the pigeons in the park are material compositions, the viruses, parasites, and heavy metals in my flesh and in pigeon flesh are materialities, as are neurochemicals, hurricane winds, E. coli and the dust on the floor” (p. 112). Such a broad view of the material world might feel a bit overwhelming from time to time, but doing intersectional feminist research is about listening and documenting what exists in a certain way at a specific time, with a deep commitment to unpack power relations and surface varied perspectives in society and also in the research itself. It is also important to think about what society could be if life could be made more just, and to consciously push in that direction with research design itself. This is one reason why we are so passionate about methods and methodology. And when the dirt we find obscures what we want to do, or the multiple decision-making forks we choose along the way combine with our many attempts, failures, and little victories to confuse us; all of this challenges us to go back to the glitter and follow its traces to remember what we have done and why, in order to make sense of the dirt, the collective work and our place in the world, perhaps to write a (not too) clean version of what our methodology could be.


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