Contra-Positivism: Reflecting and Expanding on Post Qualitative Research
This paper traces the emerging methodological paradigm known as post qualitative research, beginning with an overview of its underpinning concepts and the points of departure it introduces. A critical review of doctoral theses follows, giving insights into its application and the challenges that arise. The paper culminates by arguing for caution. The foundational element of post qualitative is the centrality of the researcher. In the struggle for academic credibility post qualitative theory is frequently misread, taking on the authoritative hues of textbook omnipotence. Such misapplication undermines the ontological / methodological openness that constitutes the very advancement from traditional qualitative methodology.
The telos of research is what Heidegger refers to as un-concealment, the unambiguous communication of the truth. When placed inside paradigms like postmodernity and post-structuralism, challenging the binarity of truth and pointing to multiplicity, questions emerge: Whose truth does my research represent? What reality does it capture? Can it be reproduced? Is it original? It is from this aporia that post qualitative leads methodology out, through suggesting a different understanding of what research is. As noted by St. Pierre (2011, p. 611), the humanities have relied on methodologies established by different areas. Areas that tend to positivism, thus creating an overt reliance on metrics. Metrics that when applied to the humanities offer only exclusion. Exclusion of the researcher as an affective agent, of what is experienced but not quantifiable, of the assemblage that is life. Research lapsing to what Nietzsche highlighted as “The error of thinking that the mind caused reality! And to make it the measure of reality!” (2005, p. 178). Post qualitative transcends this positivist approach by striving for research accuracy that answers to the root Latin word accuratus, meaning done with care, as opposed to the modern ‘correct in all details’ (Fusco, 2008).
Embracing the full complexity that is the humanities, “the too strange and the too much” (St. Pierre, 2018, p. 697), instead of examining approximations, post qualitative successfully occults what is obscured under traditional methodology. Grounded on the theoretical crux between Deleuze and Foucault, writing becomes a form of inquiry (Richardson, 1994). Reality reveals itself through the text, paying tribute to Derrida’s concept of Archi-writing (Derrida, 1981). Searching for the things that are not said and cannot be transcribed. Data is collected as one writes (St. Pierre, 2017, p. 690).
Through an indicative review of post qualitative doctoral theses, we see the researcher emerging as a bricoleur, using whatever is there, switching between methods or devising new ones. We see texts that are not finite, the thesis as being always in the making. The familiar chapter structure seems redundant. A plural yet consistent language is used, adopting novel approaches such as theses organised in plateaus or use of composite characters, inviting us to reassess the notions of validity or generalisability. The most important break from traditional methodology is the position of the researcher. Taking from Foucault: “Each time that I’ve tried to do theoretical work it has grown out of elements of my own experience” (Foucault, 1982, p. 35), research is considered as an ‘autobiographical fragment’. Thus the researcher never becomes a removed methodological hegemon, over and outside the data. Research, data collection, analysis and theory all are entwined in the liminal personality that
is the researcher, breaking the”… tripartite division between a field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author)” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, p. 24). In short, theory is assembled as scaffolding to support and explain the complex cosmos of a researcher that looks for the “glow” data (MacLure, 2010), and is “listening to gut feelings” (Brown, 2019), whilst been lost in a sea of unknowingness and disorientation (Lather, 2017, p. 180).
Not unlike traditional qualitative research in its infancy, post qualitative researchers struggle for academic acceptance. The shifting of the thesis as being about research methodology and not research in itself, is frequently reported. Seemingly post-qualitative has to be validated each time anew. Theorists turn to answer this problematic by producing a growing body of literature, reconciling academic requirements with the openness inherent in post qualitative. Ethics, structure, rigour and most notably an evaluation framework (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2018, p. 1418), are located in their new context and traced over the old. And it is in the potential misuse of these texts, as doppelgängers for categories that no longer hold, where an ontological threat is introduced.
From its inception, post qualitative has placed itself as research breaking free from its colonial roots, as not casting an ethnographical gaze on “the other” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2013). Yet the theoretical substrate of post qualitative has been criticised, as being conducive to the very colonialism it seeks to annul, as allowing for the existence of elements that our research “cannot say” (Spivak, 1994, p. 81). What is shared by those engaged in post qualitative is that they are part of the world they research. Not as intellectual conduits for the voiceless. But the voiceless themselves assembling voice, thus removing the element of external mediation that gave footing to Spivak’s critique.
As the looming question has become “…how we ontologize what remains in the next generation of qualitative inquiry” (Lather, 2017, p. 340), and as ontology is the cornerstone of each of our realities, I argue that in the post spaces, it is vital for methodology to be used descriptively but not proscriptively. To pre-scribe a path reintroduces closure, mediation. The researcher is decentred anew. To adopt an ontological closure removes the ability to autonomously frame reality, as it is experienced: A fluid reality, different for everyone. I turn to the recent ontological definition of post qualitative as an “ontology of immanence” (St. Pierre, 2019) and argue that if methodological or ontological closure frames our research as point of departure and not point of arrival, we replicate what we sought to transcend. We no longer think with theory, but under theory.