TSElosophers meeting 15.5.2020. Ekaterina Panina, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Toni Ahlqvist

Barad, K. (1996). Meeting the universe halfway: Realism and social constructivism without contradiction. In Feminism, science, and the philosophy of science (pp. 161-194).


Inspired by the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, Karen Barad introduces the new notion of realism, which she calls agential realism. She positions herself in relation to scientific realist and feminist-constructivist approaches, and argues for inseparability of ontological and epistemological issues. Barad’s insightful reading of Bohr’s understanding of quantum physics preludes the introduction of the onto-epistemological framework of agential realism. By considering such broad philosophical issues as the role of natural and cultural factors in scientific knowledge production, conditions for objectivity and the efficacy of science, Barad proposes a framework that is widely applicable across disciplines.
The framework of agential realism consists of four clearly drawn-out points.

  1. Agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences: objectivity is literally embodied.
  2. Agential realism privileges neither the material nor the cultural. The apparatus of bodily production is material-cultural, and so is agential reality.
  3. Agential realism entails the interrogation of boundaries and critical reflexivity.
  4. Agential realism underlines the necessity of an ethics of knowing.

The first point involves one of the central themes of feminist philosophy – the idea of embodiment. This idea refers to a constitutive relationship of the lived body to thought, contrary to Cartesian mind-body duality. Hence, in agential realism objective knowledge is situated knowledge.

The second point emphasizes the absence of opposition between materiality and social construction. Barad introduces the concept of intra-actions, which are contextually decided and enacted in-phenomenon. This concept describes reality as being in-between, and the inseparability of nature-culture, physical-conceptual and material-discursive.

According to Barad’s philosophy, a phenomenon is an instance of a wholeness, which includes both an object and agencies of its observation. However, there is no agential reality without constructed boundaries. The definition of theoretical concepts happens within a given context, which is specified by constructed boundaries, necessary for developing meanings. In addition, the described human conceptual schema becomes itself a part of a phenomenon.

Finally, agential realism emphasizes that constructed knowledges have real material consequences, which introduces the topics of accountability, responsibility, and ethics of knowing.

Our discussion

Overall, TSElosophers really liked the ideas represented in this paper and could buy almost all the arguments for reconciling realism and social constructivism approaches. Participants particularly took notice of the pragmatic approach to science, the view that knowledge systems should be a reliable guide to action. Agential realism seems to underline the efficacy of science and establish the direction towards which the knowledge is created, taking into account the constructive nature and ethical issues of scientific activity.

TSElosophers appreciated Barad’s development of an argument at the broadest level, being applicable to all scientific fields. Many in our group noticed similarities with other approaches, such as Actor-Network Theory (Latour), Social Systems Theory (Luhmann), and Process philosophy (e.g. Rescher, Chia). We discussed that this notion of the inseparability of nature and culture could be a more ‘natural’ and widely accepted principle in social, business and organizational studies, than in natural sciences. However, TSElosophers considered the discussion on ontological issues still relevant today, despite the article dating back over 20 years.

The majority of the discussion centered around the first point of Barad’s framework: agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences. Does the notion that knowledge is embodied and local impede theorizing? Some of the participants felt that agential realism has similar limitations in theorizing as ANT, while others emphasized that in agential realism theorizing happens in the detailed description of physical apparatus, as a description of the agentially positioned constructed cut between the object and the agencies of observation. One of the interesting points of agential realism is its emphasis on the agency of the material, as well as the interlinked agencies of the object and the observer. In addition, the locality of knowledge does not necessarily mean its spatial position, but relates to the constructed boundaries, so theorizing also happens in the boundary-making. Framing and focus matter, and they also have real-life implications. According to the third point of the framewor
k, the theorizing also happens in-phenomenon, and hence detailed descriptions and framing become a part of theory building.

Another issue that has brought interesting discussion is Barad’s notion of objectivity as reproducible and unambiguously communicable (in contrast to Newtonian objectivity indicating observer independence). TSElosophers wondered if even this conception of objectivity might not be suitable for social science. When the object of research are humans with their own subjective meaning-structures, the question of reproducibility becomes a difficult one. Developing on Heraclitus’s thought: “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, one can wonder if even with unambiguous communication the reproduction of social phenomena is impossible and hence objectivity is impossible to reach. The subjectivity of the researcher and the concepts seem to be underexplored in this paper, perhaps due to the fact that some of the starting points of paper are in physics. As a counterargument, TSElosophers emphasized that the significance of differences in the object of study should be questioned and included in the description of the boundaries. What are the consequences the differences in the reproducible object of study make? What matters? The objectivity here relates to the description one is making, to drawing the boundaries. Objectivity in terms of unambiguous communication and critical reflexivity is more important here than perfect reproducibility.

Finally, TSElosophers returned to the fourth point of Barad’s framework – the implications of knowledge. We discussed the ethics of knowing and importance of considering material consequences of knowledge production.

Further reading

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

Kakkuri-Knuuttila, M. L., Lukka, K., & Kuorikoski, J. (2008). Straddling between paradigms: A naturalistic philosophical case study on interpretive research in management accounting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(2-3), 267-291.