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Diffraction as a Feminist Research Method

This publication highlights the way in which the Full Stack Feminism research project applies diffraction as a specific research method. We define diffraction and explore the ways in which our methods of working reflect our Full Stack research principles and methods.

Published onJul 11, 2023
Diffraction as a Feminist Research Method

‘…diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction’.1


 A diffractive methodology is a feminist approach to research. It challenges the hierarchy between researcher and “researched”, as well as disrupting other binaries between theory and praxis; data and research apparatus; past and present; as well as memory and evidence.2 Diffraction in a research project complicates what counts as knowledge and who gets to produce it. In this regard, diffraction echoes key feminist principles related to full stack feminism, particularly decentring expertise and knowledge production, as well as feminist listening and an ethics of care. As a research approach, it offers a crucial intervention with respect to research ethics and knowledge generation. It actively embraces tension, difference and disruption, thus promoting a critical exploration of these concepts.

Diffraction, as a method, represents historic feminist praxis stemming from Donna Haraway.3 Recognised as the ‘founding feminist mother’ of ‘diffraction’, they invoke the concept as a ‘re-visioning of the masculine gaze of optics’ which acknowledges the embodied and entangled nature of research data, methods and findings.4 More recently the theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad5, drawing from the work of Niels Bohr6 and Haraway7, among others, invokes the two-slit diffraction experiment of quantum mechanics (see Figure 1 below) as a metaphor for accounting for the co-constitution of ethics, epistemology (what counts as knowledge) and ontology (the nature of being).

We use diffraction as a research method to analyse research data and as a feminist praxis of working. Firstly, diffraction is a means to disrupt the concept of the “full stack”, pushing the boundaries between the stacks and recognising that they are iterative and accretive; non-linear and co-constitutive, rather than being discrete and sequential. This represents an example of how diffractive thinking, as articulated by Barad, helps to queer boundaries within the research process.8 In this publication, we unpick diffraction as a metaphor and provide examples of how it offers a useful feminist research method.

What is diffraction?

Diffraction derives from the Latin verb ‘diffringere’, literally meaning ‘to break apart’.9 In this sense it represents difference and necessitates the application of multiple lenses for data creation and analysis, research methodologies, ethical frameworks and processes, among others. Barad understands and represents diffraction ‘not as an absolute boundary between object and subject, here and there, now and then, this and that’ but rather something which ‘queers the binary type of difference’.10 This reflects Barad’s understanding of diffraction as highlighting the ‘entangled nature of differences’,11 both in terms of questions of identity but also in relation to the dominant systems and structures that feminism is challenging, namely what bell hooks refers to as the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’.12 According to Barad, ‘a diffractive methodology…is a commitment to understanding which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom’.13

Full stack feminist thinking and methodologies queer differences through, for example, disrupting the following binaries traditionally associated with the research process and knowledge production: data and lived experience; knowledge and speculation; memory and evidence; past and present; researcher and research apparatus; researcher and research subject; objectivity and subjectivity; digital and material; sameness and difference; expert and practitioner; theory and praxis; qualitative and quantitative. In these ways and more, our approach to research is consistent with a diffractive methodology.

Diffraction as a feminist methodology

A black and white image of the two-slit diffraction experiment containing waves emanating from a light source, through two slits on a metal sheet, resulting in overlapping waves that produce a pattern of light and darkness on a screen to the right of the image.

Figure 1: Two-slit Diffraction Experiment (Found at: ).

When the two-slit diffraction experiment (Figure 1) is invoked as a metaphor for the research process, the light symbolises the research data, while the slits (the two narrow gaps on the metal sheet where the light passes through) depict the research methods, theories and practices. The slits, therefore, illustrate the research questions posed, the theories adopted, the apparatus used, the positionality of the researcher, as well as the ethical framework applied.14 Furthermore, the pattern reflected on the screen (to the right of Figure 1) elucidates the effects or outcomes of all of these factors involved in the research process. Consequently, if the number or position of the slits is changed, so too is ‘the interference pattern that is the result of the diffraction’15 as well as the pattern that appears on the screen (namely the research findings). This speaks to Barad’s call to place different inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches ‘in conversation with one another’.16 Diffraction, as a research methodology, therefore, facilitates ‘alternative patterns’ to become visible.17

It is important, however, to ask in what way does a diffractive methodology differ from a feminist one? This question is particularly pertinent in relation to intersectional feminism, as this approach already draws from different theoretical traditions beyond feminism, such as post-colonialism, anti-capitalism, environmentalism, anti-ableism, queer theory and more. Firstly, our research project is not abandoning a feminist approach to research. Instead, alluding to Barad, we are placing intersectional feminism in conversation with diffraction. In addition, there are many synergies between these methodologies and frameworks such as acknowledging the embodied and embedded nature of the researcher in the research process, in contrast to the ‘“view from nowhere” approach, the objective seer’ which ‘perpetuates and sustains heteropatriarchal, classed, and raced hierarchies of power’.18

Moreover, a diffractive methodology, as articulated by Haraway, for instance, draws from feminist critical approaches that move beyond reflection as a methodology such as Haraway’s own ‘situated knowledges’ and Sandra Harding’s ‘critical reflexivity’ and ‘strong objectivity’.19 In this sense, a diffractive research methodology is not inconsistent with an intersectional feminist one in any way, instead diffraction invites feminist researchers to fully acknowledge the entangled nature of the researcher in the research process, making it ‘impossible for the bottom line to be one single statement’.20 It is for this reason that Haraway notes that ‘diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction’21, which embraces difference, contradiction and messiness.

Our full stack feminist and diffractive methodologies for research include an ethics of care, feminist listening and radical empathy, all of which enable a more considered approach to difference, lived experience, representation, and the entanglements of identity. Across our research we invoke “entanglement” as a means to explore the ways in which our digital systems are entanglements of various power structures - patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, technological monopolies and globalisation. Diffraction then, complements these as a method to rethink boundaries, research process, as well as research subject/object. It pulls at the threads of research, disentangling the threads that bind, and explores the difference in each. It identifies and acknowledges our positionality within these power structures. It is from this position of “knowing”, we can disrupt and challenge.

The diffractive methodology outlined above can be seen across our project, from centring the expertise of community archivists through our archives forums; to providing free creative making and coding workshops (in an effort to challenge the cult of the ‘tech-bro’ that often pervades traditional coding workshops); to recognising the novel role that digital art can play in knowledge production, through our artists-in-residence programme and end-of-project art exhibition; to holding team qualitative coding sessions, which prioritise the multiple perspectives and varied expertise of our team; to having a trans-disciplinary research team comprised of members from inside and outside of academia, with experience in coding, digital art, community archives, as well as DH scholarship.


Our application of diffractive analysis is attentive to the contradictions, tensions, challenges, collaborations, messiness, playfulness, precarity and the decentring of knowledge that manifest across our research project as well as within the communities of scholars and practitioners with whom we engage through our series of interviews, archives forums, workshops, seminars and more. In this sense, we employ varied research methodologies that prioritise community engagement as a way to not only challenge a white supremacist and patriarchal notion of ‘expertise’ and knowledge production but also to recognise that employing different methods, applying different theories and forms of analysis, including qualitative and quantitative approaches, contributes to research findings that endeavour to be nuanced, critical and trans-disciplinary, as well as (or including) those that are messy, contradictory and complex.


Barad, Karen. (2014). "Diffracting diffraction: Cutting together-apart." parallax 20, no. 3: 168-187.

Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Barad, Karen. (2003). "Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter." Signs: Journal of women in culture and society 28, no. 3: 801-831.

Haraway, Donna. (2008). "Companion species, mis-recognition, and queer worlding." Queering the non/human: xxiii-xxxvi.

Haraway, Donna.(2000). "Diffraction as a Critical Consciousness." How Like a Leaf. An Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.

Haraway, Donna. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_ OncoMouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna. (1992). "The promises of monsters: a regenerative politics for inappropriate/d others." Cultural studies: 295-337.

Hill, Cher M. (2017). "More-than-reflective practice: Becoming a diffractive practitioner." Teacher Learning and Professional Development 2, no. 1.

hooks, bell. (2012). "Bonding Across Boundaries." In Writing Beyond Race, 143-152. Routledge.

Lapp, Jessica M. (2023). "“The only way we knew how:” provenancial fabulation in archives of feminist materials." Archival Science 23, no. 1: 117-136.

Lazar, Amanda, Ben Jelen, Alisha Pradhan, and Katie A. Siek. (2021). "Adopting diffractive reading to advance hci research: A case study on technology for aging." ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 28, no. 5: 1-29.

Schneider, Joseph. (2002). "Reflexive/diffractive ethnography." Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies 2, no. 4: 460-482.

Sefyrin, Johanna. (2012). "From profession to practices in IT design." Science, Technology, & Human Values 37, no. 6: 708-728.

Taguchi, H. L. (2012). A diffractive and Deleuzian approach to analysing interview data. Feminist theory, 13(3), 265-281.

A Reply to this Pub
Inclusive Data: Metadata and Descriptive Language
Inclusive Data: Metadata and Descriptive Language

A resource to help develop more inclusive metadata descriptions. Particularly focused on controlled vocabularies. Linked to Stack 1, and Stack 2. Reviewed by Dr Kevin Guyan (July 2023) and Bri Watson (July 2023) - thank you both for your insights, recommendations and suggestions.

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