[Image Description: A man (Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder) in a brown top hat, with purple velvet suit, a purple paisley shirt and a large beige bowtie. He stands with his head propped on his right hand, looking at a person to the right of the screen. Text reads: ‘Post-qualitative methodologies? Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination and there you can be free’.]
The Children Young People and their Communities (CYPC) Provocations series is intended to build new conceptual, theoretical and methodological knowledge around a topic of interest to the group. This is the first in a series of methodological provocations.
~ Compiled by Professor Amanda Keddie, CYPC Program Leader
Provocation 1: Post qualitative research: towards post enquiry
Elizabeth Adams St Pierre
The huge lecture theatre was packed. We all sat enthralled listening to her keynote address. Small and slight, she spoke to us in a cultivated American twang: ‘traditional qualitative research is ruined,’ she told us, ‘it is incommensurable with the ‘posts’ and we must imagine new ways of doing qualitative research that is different from the beginning…’ Elizabeth had just thoroughly chewed up and spat out all manner of positivist research especially the recipe-like structure of traditional qualitative research. I looked around the room from my vantage point in the front row. Some of us ‘posties’ (or wannabe posties) were nodding wisely, maybe even feeling a bit smug. We knew and loved Betty’s work (enough, indeed, to call her Betty). Amid the slightly smug smiles, we were also feeling troubled and more than a little clueless (well I certainly was!) about what something different from the beginning could possibly look like. Others in the audience were shifting in their seats a bit uncomfortable about what she was saying (maybe these were the qual people who used NVivo), others were frowning and feeling a bit indignant (maybe they were mixed-methods or quant people), yet others seemed completely lost (maybe they had never heard of post qualitative research).
In her address, whatever our response, we were challenged to think about the problems of inserting our research into the recognizable structures we were comfortable with. These structures, she told us, could never do anything but reduce, distort and misrepresent the worlds we were trying to capture. She made us uncomfortable.
The idea that traditional qualitative research is ruined – that it is incommensurable with the ‘posts’ – is not a new one and has been thoroughly debated by many academics and researchers. But it is an idea that, as researchers who align with and draw on the ‘posts’, we must continue to grapple with. These tensions were the focus of our first provocations session for our CYPC (Children Young People and their Communities) group where we discussed an Adams St Pierre reading: A Brief and Personal History of Post Qualitative Research. In this paper, she argues the impossibility of an intersection between conventional humanist qualitative methodology and ‘the posts’. In our discussion we talked about the significance (as Adams St Pierre argues) of aligning ontology and epistemology with methodology – ‘methodology should never be separated from epistemology and ontology (as if it can be) lest it become mechanized and instrumental and reduced to methods, process, and technique’ (2014, p. 2). We reflected on our own experiences, on the flawed nature of our research and on how we could to do things differently.
We began by considering the matter of misalignment – perhaps best illuminated in the existence of positivist qualitative methodology. We noted our experiences of reading research that purported to be poststructural but didn’t follow through in its form and design. We noted the times when we felt uncomfortable with methodological certainty and with times where we had to abandon or temper our ‘posts’ to fit conventions.
…we’ve just had an experience recently with one of the top ranked international journals in our field where we submitted a paper and it wasn’t even sent out for review because we needed to make more explicit our methods and our methodology … but all the stuff was kind of in there, it was using a feminist kind of post-structural lens around what we were doing and we kind of grappled with it but the comment that we made at the end of it was ‘Okay, this is the game’, you know this is what we have to do, and we re-wrote it, we framed it in the language that they speak to and it’s now gone out for review…
Reflecting on this tempering of our posts, we thought about the importance of playing the game – it’s safe.
I think we do go for tried and true and proven methods and accepted things, because it’s safe.
Tried and true. Certainty in methods, process and techniques. No messiness, no fragments, not too many complexities. A nice neat little 7000 word package.
…all of those things you do and know are actually reinforced through the field. They’re recognised through the field. They’re the orthodoxies of the field, and they get you published, they get you grants, they do all that stuff, so they become safe in lots of ways that restrict us from thinking of unsafe spaces, you know if the opposite to being safe is unsafe we’re not gonna to choose unsafe.
…the field constrains itself in lots of ways. The convention of the field is very restrictive. Ultimately I’m restricted by language. I’m ultimately gonna write it or say it in some form and that is inherently constraining. Ultimately the materiality of language restricts what actually happens, what is say-able and doable.
Ok, we agreed, our research is contained and curtailed by certain orthodoxies and our research is necessarily flawed by these orthodoxies and the language we use to pin it down. So, is the point to good poststructural research to recognize this?
I mean you’ve got to recognise it’s flawed. And I think that the posts do recognise that … any account is unstable, it’s contextual, it’s contingent it’s all those things … it’s only a momentary account of something; you could ask me the same thing a week later and you could possibly get a different response to it. There is a flaw in trying to render it so that it’s methodologically secure. So we end up with tools [to try to reflect security/certainty] … I’ll interview them and talk to them because that will get their understanding, but we know that … through the posts that we can’t – there is no absolute understanding, you know? It’s all provisional, it’s all contingent, it’s all contextual and it’s all unstable, you know? It’s knowable and thinkable for this moment in these confines. If we can accept that, we can move forward.
But can we move forward, we thought? What if we become stuck?
…we can become immobilised by the contradictions … the posts overwrite humanists and you end up with humanist methodologies with post lenses through them to unsettle them and you know? Um the issues of authenticity, issues of critique and all those sorts of things, validity … those things become de-stabilised. And I think all of us accept that, and grapple … and recognise that; it’s taking it to that next level and saying ‘Well what would it look like if you were true to it?’ It’s bloody tricky! You know?
Well, what would it look like? What would it take? How might we step outside and produce knowledge in different ways?
Bad habit: inserting our work into the recognizable, comfortable structure of humanist qualitative methodology.
Good habit: not inserting our work into the recognizable, comfortable structure of humanist qualitative methodology. We must unlearn our humanist habits.
…it’s the ‘unlearning’ which is so critical to this. It’s unlearning all the habits.
…we do tend to repeat the ways that we know the world, even if we pretend we’re not.
Good habit: we must be transparent and critical about our positionality.
…we are historical, and we are embedded, and you always will be and you bring those with you to that moment.
not in a normative way.
…transparency is not a tool of validity. To use it as such is disingenuous because it’s trying to occupy a normative position and it can’t, you know?
or a confessional way.
…it’s as if you could lay yourself bare on a table and almost essentialise yourself by a purge, and now I move forward having done this sort of confessional validity of all my flaws, and all my limitations … ‘Here I am! Now you know me!’
or an uncritical way.
…just because they’ve lived it and been in it, and formed ideas doesn’t mean what they think about it is right or wrong for that matter. You’re actually putting stuff out there to have others evaluate how you’ve come to know something. And some of the, I guess ‘dilemmas’ around reflexivity, or, or, you know, declarations, or however you want to put it is that people often equate that with ‘Okay’ … but there’s a level of uncriticality to some of that.
Ok, we need to be clear about our researcher positionality in a non-normative, non-confessional and critical way. We wondered whether this was what Adams St Pierre meant by a critical ontology of the self. In her paper she speaks of encouraging her students to ‘practice a critical ontology of themselves to experiment with what is yet to come. To summon those still missing people. Might that exquisitely empirical work be post-inquiry,’ she asks?
Yeah, I’m trying to work out what she means by that.
…I wonder if that’s what she’s actually meaning as a starting point? Or is it something different? So … and whether it … it can be anything but normative? I don’t know, I’m struggling with that … to me that suggests what you were just saying about questioning, or being transparent about your own subjectivities, and critiquing those and where they’re coming from. And being aware of how they shape the research processes and products, um, which you know is not something new. I’m just wondering, am I getting that wrong? What is a critical ontology of the self, if not that?
I don’t think that’s what she’s asking for … she refers to the critique of that stuff that’s already been done, and pointed out some limitations sort of thing. So maybe, maybe, I think she’s probably calling for a new version of it or something, and I don’t know what it looks like.
Maybe, it’s all about her point that we must begin with theory, we thought. Theorizing ourselves? Maybe we are the missing people?
I mean this is where I bring, I come back to queer theory, which is about imagining, you know kind of quite radically re-configuring, re-imagining what it means to be human or what might constitute a human or a kind of intelligible human, so I wonder if it’s something to do with that?
Good habit: beginning with theory.
…I really like the bit where she says … something about ‘To think with theory one must first read with theory’
at deep level.
…so I think this whole thing about dabbling in the post-structural theorists without necessarily reading them in all that much depth is a problem… I don’t know how much people really read it.
If you want to use Foucault, you must read everything Foucault wrote!
not a superficial level.
…not theoretical hairspray, a bit of Bourdieu, a bit of Foucault.
not as an abstraction.
‘Know this theory, know that theory, here’s this or that theory, you choose … disconnected abstracted. Rather than, ‘Why do you need theory?’, ‘What would theory help you do?’, and ‘To understand yourself as a researcher, what does theory, how does theory help you?’
Ok, we need to begin with theory, but at a deep level, not in superficial ways and not in abstracted ways.
What would Foucault do?
…no recipes or formulas. We must refuse to repeat the same descriptions. We must be-do-live something different. We must refuse what we are, what we do, the world we create. Once we understand that, our work becomes very urgent, very difficult and quite possible (Adams St Pierre, 2014).
What can we imagine? You can be free if you truly want to be.
Last night on the news, they had a story about Gene Wilder dying, and they played that scene out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where he’s singing that song about pure imagination. When I heard that last night I was thinking about academic work, and academic life, and how …. ‘cos the song goes something about ‘Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination and there you can be free, if you truly want to be’. Sometimes I think that part of this is trying to push toward a practice of freedom and a way of thinking that … we’re not even able to imagine a different kind of reality or a different, kind of way things could be done … if we really deeply engage with the posts, they can help us re-imagine how things are and then maybe we can know things differently.
[Image Description: A man (Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder) in a brown top hat, with purple velvet suit, a purple paisley shirt and a large beige bowtie. He stands with his head propped on his right hand, looking at a person to the right of the screen. Text reads: ‘If we really deeply engage with the posts, they can help us re-imagine how things are and then maybe we can know things differently, we can be free’.]