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There are many “posts” in research. Educational research has embraced poststructuralism; postmodernism; and in some quarters post inquiries being labeled ‘postqualitative’ or ‘posthumanist.’ The postqualitative turn occurring in educational research is the topic of Elizabeth St. Pierre’s 2014 article “A Brief and Personal History of Post Qualitative Research: Toward ‘Post’ Inquiry,” published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. Those interested in a brief historical examination of one researcher’s relationship to post inquiry will find the article useful, informative, and thought-provoking.
In this piece, St. Pierre (2014) situates postqualitative research in her personal struggle to reconcile what she terms “conventional humanist qualitative inquiry” (p. 3) with theoretical conceptualizations from Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault that make concepts such as “method” an impossibility. What we think of as qualitative research was largely invented during the 1990’s, according to St. Pierre, though she is careful to also discuss the importance of the post World War II era broadly, particularly the interest in understanding how “knowledge” is created, situated, and viewed from different cultural perspectives.
The first decade of this millennium saw a backlash against qualitative methodologies, fueled largely by increasing desire in society for accountability, measurement, and predictability in education. St. Pierre specifically points to the No Child Left Behind legislation in the United States, as well as a 2002 report from the National Research Council, Scientific Research in Education, as moments-texts inflicting “damage. . .that can’t be unwound” (p. 8) on qualitative inquiry. In particular, qualitative inquiry has become too rigid, methodical, quantifiable, creating “pedestrian, insignificant work” (St. Pierre, 2008, p. 8) as researchers sought legitimacy within a political-discursive environment privileging epistemological knowledge and certainty. St. Pierre (2014) even articulates this regime as “oppressive” (p. 10).
St. Pierre’s critique of traditional qualitative inquiry draws on Foucault’s conceptualization that critique is not about right or wrong, but rather about questioning the undergirding assumptions of practices. Postqualitative inquiry disrupts the privileging of the human and the epistemological.
Decentering the practice of privileging a knowing human subject recognizes that traditional approaches to qualitative inquiry – methods, interviews, coding, representation, results, validity and reliability – are unthinkable.
What is possible, however, is (re)engaging theory, utilizing concepts from theorists and theory bases to “think” about problems in education (a position also advocated by scholars such as Alecia Youngblood Jackson and Lisa Mazzei ). St. Pierre (2014) describes her development of theory courses designed to provide space for student-scholars to use “concept as method” (p. 7). However, she is careful to point out that there is not, and should not be, a textbook for postqualitative inquiry. Such an approach would only reify structures privileging positivist approaches to knowledge production. Rather, “one must read and wrestle with texts. . .with ideas that upend one’s world” (p. 10).
The second possibility involves engaging the ontological – a project St. Pierre (2014) admits may completely upend conceptualizations such as “researcher” or “inquiry.” Such ontological engagements are being (re)examined by new empiricists and new materialist researchers. For St. Pierre (2014), embracing the so-called ontological turn means we could never separate or privilege a knowing human subject from embeddedness in the world, text, with material objects, sentient and non-sentient becomings [this is my own conceptualization].
Challenges associated with post-inquiry
Doing this work comes with several distinct challenges. First, the structuring of research within academic assemblages means we are often forced “to abandon the assumptions that organize post theory in order to insert our work into recognizable, comfortable structures of humanist qualitative inquiry” (p. 10). St. Pierre (2014) is alluding here to removing ourselves from the training we’ve received – to think about method and knowing as paramount – in order to be lost in the process of simply becoming-through-with-in thinking. For me, what I think of when St. Pierre discusses the challenges of “insert[ing] our work” into current structures, I think about the juggernaut of the academic publishing industry: professional journals, in particular, which often stymy post inquiry in their desire for knowledge, certainty, implications, methodological replicability.
The second challenge cited by St. Pierre (2014) is simply the difficulty of “being” human while attempting to decenter the knowing human subject. This may be an impossible task – but thinking about how this might occur leads to questions that close out St. Pierre’s article – questions such as whether inquiry, method, or “I” are even possible.
Jackson, A. Y. & Mazzei, L. A. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.
St. Pierre, E. A. (2014). A brief and personal history of post qualitative research: Toward “post inquiry.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(2), 2-19.
About Scholarly Shorts
Scholarly Shorts are my attempt to think about theoretical and philosophical concepts, as well as research employing such concepts, both in writing and speaking. Each short will attempt to unpack articles or conceptual ideas in under 1000 words and 10 minutes of speaking.