Collaborative Research Inquiry: A Few Entanglements, Which Take a Long Time to Work Out

From the Series: Correspondence

Photo by karen_od, licensed under CC BY.

Karen Barad (2003, 815) has developed the concept of intra-action, which she contrasts with a model of interaction that “presumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata.” For Barad, “it is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of the ‘components’ of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful.” Exploring this concept as it relates to sensorial knowledge practices and affect, I came to realize that practices of sustainable future-making go beyond spotting trends and making projections. The dialogic contexts of intra-action allow for participants to be actively involved in their own practice of learning and research. Importantly, research itself becomes a practice of future-making.

Building sustainable futures entails reflexively attuning and thus transforming design processes and future-making practices to respond to emerging conditions. For Barad, response-ability is “not about right response”; instead, it is “a matter of inviting, welcoming and enabling the response of the Other.” Rather than “a calculation to be performed,” it is “a relation always integral to the world’s ongoing intra-active becoming and not becoming” (Kleinman 2012, 81).

In opening collaborative research inquiry up to design processes and practices of future-making, I argue that it is necessary to build relations between movements of design and movements of ongoing intra-action. This also involves challenging narrowly technical design interventions that follow a causal, problem–solution logic. Here, the architectural theorists Alberto Arlandis and Oren Lieberman’s (2013a) distinction between intravention and intervention provides further inspiration. These scholars explain that “although it is only a matter of a couple of letters, intra’s focus on ‘within’ clearly establishes intraventions as already a part of the space and times in which they are intravening" (Arlandis and Lieberman 2013b, 6). By way of contrast, intervention implies the act of putting or inserting into, carrying with it the potential to create rupture.

How, then, might the intra of both Barad and Arlandis and Lieberman inspire methodologies and tools that can adequately respond to changing conditions? How might these necessarily improvisational skills serve practices of sustainable future-making that allow for “an ongoing reworking of the very nature of dynamics between peoples” (Barad 2003, 818)? In this post, I want to explore how approaching design in this way affords a broader understanding of the future by revealing different versions of the present.

Sensorial Knowledge Practices and Affects

Let me unpack what I mean in reference to recent research that I carried out in collaboration with Ann Heylighen and Dirk Saelens, which was concerned with the affects and effects of architectural engineering design processes and future-making practices on patients, hospital staff, and visitors who engage with hospital settings in Belgium. Our research, entitled "An Anthropological Inquiry by Design toward Improving Indoor Air Quality within Hospital Settings," grew out of a longer-term interest in understanding how people’s sensory experience and perceptual acuity can be engaged in both design and future-making. For this research we focused, in particular, on patient, staff, and visitor sensory experiences of indoor air quality. From the outset, we sought to ground our inquiry in the sharing of sensory worlds, rather than mental representations, by combining qualitative and quantitative methodologies (see Fors, Bäckström, and Pink 2013; Ingold 2014).

This collaborative research built on findings from the “Designing for Growth and Well-Being” Workshop, which was carried out with a multidisciplinary group of researchers in April 2016 at the University of Sussex. During the workshop, we asked: could involving both biotic and abiotic elements improve air quality in hospital interiors? Two graduate students, Torenholt and Wint Htet, made a variety of design materials available to workshop participants so that they could become familiar with the limits and potentials of applying bioclimatic principles to the design of hospitals. In parallel, a group of first-year interaction design engineering students at the University of Southern Denmark had devised a series of tangible bioclimatic experiments to carry out at the workshop. These experiments drew on Christopher McCarthy and Howard Gilby’s ongoing research into the insulation and air-cleansing properties of plant roots, the light-capturing and shading capacity of algae, and the potential for growing plant walls with water aeration flushing systems. The experiments served to instigate curiosity among workshop participants, who were divided into groups and asked to collaboratively build three design propositions for improving indoor air quality in hospitals, drawing on the experiments and excerpts from a series of interviews conducted by students with hospital staff.

Building propositions enabled participants to contribute to collaborative research inquiry. Further analysis of the materials generated during the workshop provided researchers an opportunity to investigate how understandings of sensory experience and perceptual acuity within the hospital were disclosed to different members of a design-led research team, bearing in mind their divergent interests. Within such dialogic contexts of intra-action, the transdisciplinary practice of building propositions allows participants to engage with and take seriously sensorial and affective aspects of research. Building together means connecting with temporalities, uncertainties, and unstable objects that influence experiences of air quality that, in turn, result from architectural and engineering design. It also means recognizing limits of existing methodologies for responding to ongoing changes in hospital environments. For us, such a transdisciplinary approach provided a way to move collaborative research inquiry into architectural and engineering design processes. We conceptualized it as a way of joining from within amid the ongoing lives of research participants in a forward-looking, experimental, and collaborative process of shaping futures through research design intra-ventions.

When carrying out anthropology by means of design, where design is itself the process of research inquiry, experimental tools for engagement can address design problems relationally. Forms emerge out of the continuous reconfiguration of boundaries, out of relations between people, and out of the interests of the various actors involved in a process of inquiry. Taking such an approach means recognizing research participants as not only informants but as people with whom the researcher is carrying out research. In the process of learning from each other, this emergent community of practice establishes relations of what the contributors to this series have termed correspondence (see Gatt and Ingold 2013; Ingold 2017).

People’s sensory experiences and perceptual acuity often exceed architectural design processes and practices. Often, this is due to the limited materialities of design methods, which restrict “the extent to which other realities can be enacted” (Law 2004, 147). Here, the realities of Others are reduced to preconceived, inscriptive forms of knowledge production. The methods we as academics use also play a role here by determining what is considered a proper research output. Too often, the forms in which we present Others’ realities result in the production of “particular realities: presences that (are taken to) describe, mirror, correspond or work in relation to specific and singular realities” (Law 2004, 148). Yet including some realities and not others comes at a cost. As the sociologist John Law (2014, 148) puts it: “Others’ imaginaries, fluxes, indefinitenesses, and multiplicities recede into the background despite researchers drawing upon them.”

Drawing upon Caroline Gatt and Joss Allen’s “sketches for regenerative scholarship,” I propose that design processes and practices of future-making attuned to the intra must bring human and nonhuman worlds into the same frame of analysis. Doing so requires rethinking relations with nature, matter, materials, and people as emerging relationships. At the same time, we must find ways to design conceptual frameworks (both generational concepts and frameworks of analysis) that, in turn, inform processes and practices equipped to relationally respond to emergent conditions.


Many thanks to Theresa Torenholt and Zin Wint Htet for making the workshop design materials, coaching interaction design students, and assisting with the final delivery of the “Designing for Growth and Well-Being” workshop at the University of Sussex in April 2016. Thanks to the 2016 cohort of first-year interaction design engineering students from the University of Southern Denmark for contributing tangible bioclimatic experiments to the workshop. I would also like to thank the workshop participants. Their input and enthusiasm have opened lines of inquiry for future research on air quality in hospitals.


Arlandis, Alberto, and Oren Lieberman, eds. 2013a. Intravention, Durations, and Effects: Notes of Expansive Sites and Relational Architectures. Baunach, Germany: Spurbuchverlag.

_____. 2013b. "Immediate Architectural Interventions, Durations And Effects: Apparatuses, Things, And People In The Making Of The City And The World." In Rethinking the Social in Architecture: The Reader, edited by Staffan Lundgren, 119–21. Stockholm: Umeå School of Architecture.

Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward An Understanding Of How Matter Comes To Matter.” Signs 28, no. 3: 801–831.

Fors, Vaike, Bäckström, Åsa, and Sarah Pink. 2013. “Multisensory Emplaced Learning: Resituating Situated Learning in a Moving World.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 20, no. 2: 170–83.

Gatt, Caroline, and Tim Ingold. 2013. "From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time." In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel C. Smith, 139–58. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ingold, Tim. 2014. “Resonators Uncased: Mundane Objects Or Bundles Of Affect?HAU 4, no. 1: 517–21.

_____. 2017. “On Human Correspondence.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, no. 1: 9–27.

Kleinman, Adam. 2012. “Intra-actions: Interview of Karen Barad.” Mousse 34: 76–81.

Law, John. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.