Comment: This entry was prompted by Silvia Gherardi’s (2019) recent contribution to an anniversary issue of Gender, Work and Organization, entitled “If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer?” The article is important because it directs attention to some challenging work produced by those who have taken up “post qualitative inquiry”, a mode of inquiry developed by Elizabeth St Pierre (2019). In a previous entry (WPR and ethnography Part I, 28 Feb 2019) I suggested possible tension between my attempts to “redeem” some ethnographic methods (e.g. interviews) and St Pierre’s argument. In this entry I explain my hesitations about post qualitative inquiry.
First, I should say that I share St Pierre’s concerns about the sorts of questions that need to be brought to “research methods” in a post humanist perspective. Indeed, in an earlier article on the challenges of using interviews given the need to displace “assumptions about an ‘interior’ self who constructs versions of the world”, Jennifer Bonham and I (2017: 687) quote St Pierre (2011: 620): “If we no longer believe in a disentangled humanist self, individual, person, we have to rethink qualitative research methods (interviewing and observation) grounded in that human being as well as humanist representation”.
From this starting point, St Pierre (2019: 2, 10; emphasis added) concludes that, in post qualitative inquiry, there can be “no post qualitative data or methods of data collection or methods of data analysis”. Such a mode of inquiry therefore requires us to put “methodology aside” and, instead, read “widely across philosophy, social theories, and the history of science and social science to find concepts that reorient thinking”.
Gherardi picks up this discussion in the quest for such concepts, elaborating what it means to approach research through a “concept-as-method” orientation (2019: 40; see keyword “concept-as-method”). The argument here (and in St Pierre) is that “to think like a feminist” is “about the generation of new thought, new concepts, as much as if not more than it is about the critique of existing knowledges” (Grosz 2011: 77 in Gherardi 2019: 45).
As Gherardi (2019: 45) explains, the theoretical background to this approach is Deleuze’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, often mediated by Colebrook’s (2002) interpretation of their work. Colebrook (2017: 654; emphasis added; see also in Taguchi and St Pierre 2017: 645-646) explicitly links “concepts” to “problems”:
“We might begin to think of concepts as methods, precisely because concepts are at once prehuman (emerging from the problems or plane of thinking in which we find ourselves), but also reconfigure or reorient the plane precisely by being prompted by a problem. Concepts are methods precisely because they emerge from problems rather than questions.”
I am enthusiastic about the focus on concepts and what they can do. In an earlier contribution I borrow from Law and Mol, and indeed from Deleuze and Guattari, to defend the use of concepts as political interventions (Bacchi 2012: 142-145; 151-152).
However, I would suggest that there is a distinction between my argument and that put forward in Gherardi, St Pierre and Colebrook. Primarily I tend to stress the political implications of concepts rather than suggesting that they can (simply) open up ways of thinking, that they are “prehuman” in some sense. To this end I draw on Tanesini (1994: 207) who argues that concepts have no fixed meaning; rather, “they are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here”. In Tanesini’s account, the purpose of concepts is “to influence the evolution of ongoing practices”. Note that there is no suggestion here of a plot or of deliberate manipulation; rather, the focus is on concepts as having necessary political effects.
Given this stance, I am hesitant to describe “concepts-as-method”. In places this intervention is characterized as “concept as/instead ofmethod”, described by Jackson and Mazzei (2012; 2017) as “post-methodological” (see also Jackson 2017). However, above Colebrook says that “concepts are methods”, which unfortunately continues to privilege the notion of “method” (see Jackson on this point 2017: 673).
In contrast I would stress that the term “method” is itself a concept, as I signal in the title to this entry, and it is a concept about which critical researchers need to be wary. Some years ago Sandra Harding (1987: 1; emphasis added) declared it unwise to seek a “distinctive feminist method of inquiry” because “preoccupation with method mystifies what have been the most interesting aspects of feminist research processes”. Looking back to the Research Hub entry on critical realism (1 February 2019), John Law (2004: 143) reminds us that “method is not, and could never be, innocent or purely technical” because it “unavoidably produces not only truths and non-truths, realities and non-realities, presences and absences, but also arrangements with political implications”.
For this reason I do not describe WPR as a method. Rather, given my focus on the political implications of concepts, I describe it as an “analytic strategy”. My intervention on today’s topic, therefore, is the usefulness of talking about concepts as “analytic strategies” rather than as “methods”, as “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” (Tanesini 1994: 207) rather than as “prehuman” (Colebrook 2017: 654). It follows that, if concepts are proposals, they can be assumed to contain problem representations that need to be subjected to a WPR analysis (see Bacchi 2018: 7).
A concept that, in my view, always requires this form of critical interrogation, is the concept “problem”. Unfortunately, as noted above, post qualitative inquiry picks up Colebrook’s suggestion that concepts “emerge from problems”. Colebrook (2017: 654; see above) contrasts “problems” to “questions”, suggesting that the latter (but not the former) “already have a determined field of answers”. Such a stance, in my view, downplays the ways in which “problems” are deeply imbricated in social and political fields. Again, some time ago, Harding made the slightly different but still relevant point that “a problem is always a problem for someone or other” (Harding 1987: 6; emphasis in original).
I was also disappointed that Gherardi (2019) did not explore recent attempts to reconfigure “gender” as an analytic strategy. Here I am referring to the verb form or gerund “gendering” (Bacchi 2017; Research Hub 20 November 2018).
By drawing attention to the central role of concepts in research practices post qualitative inquiry raises important questions about the purposes of research and how to go about it. In this brief entry I suggest that there is a need to examine more explicitly the political implications of our theoretical interventions. I am concerned that the post qualitative stance can be depoliticizing. On these grounds , I believe we need to create room to explore the possibility of adopting “a wide gamut of empirical techniques, as part of a commitment to selected political goals” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 23), remembering that “judgments on the basis of this material have to remain open to disputation, variation, and revision”.
Refusing the position that “concepts are methods” (Colebrook 2017: 654; emphasis added; see Jackson 2017: 673), and treating them as “analytic strategies”, in my view, opens up the opportunity to deploy carefully and critically (see Research Hub entry 28 Feb 2019) some ethnographic methods (e.g. interviews) for political purposes (see Research Hub entry 1 May 2019) rather than abandoning “methods of data collection or methods of data analysis” altogether (as in St Pierre 2019: 10; see Jackson on this point 2017: 666). There are clear implications here for the myriad of policy workers currently engaged in these forms of data collection – a topic pursued in a subsequent entry.
Bacchi, C. 2012. “Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice”. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (Eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.
Bacchi, C. (2017). Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions. Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, 38(1): 20-41.
Bacchi, C. 2018. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems 45(1): 3-14.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bonham, J. and Bacchi, C. 2017. Cycling “subjects” in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis, Journal of Sociology 53(3): 687-703.
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Colebrook, C. 2017. What is this thing called education? Qualitative Inquiry, 23(9): 649–655. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1077800417725357
Gherardi, S. 2019. If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer? Gender, Work and Organization 26: 40-53.
Grosz, E. (2011). Becoming undone: Darwinian reflections on life, politics, and art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https:// doi.org/10.1215/9780822394433
Harding, S. 1987. Feminism and methodology: Social science issues. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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Jackson, A. Y. and Mazzei, L. A. 2012. Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing Data Across Multiple Perspectives. NY: Routledge.
Jackson, A. Y. and Mazzei, L. A. 2017. Thinking with Theory: A new analytic for qualitative inquiry’. In Norman K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research– 5thedition. SAGE publications.
Law, John 2004. After Method: Mess in social science research. New York: Routledge.
St Pierre, E. 2011. Post Qualitative Research: The Critique and the Coming After. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 611-25.
St Pierre, E. 2019. Post Qualitative Inquiry in an Ontology of Immanence. Qualitative Inquiry 25(1): 3-16.
Taguchi, H. L. and St Pierre, E. A. 2017. Using Concept as Method in Educational and Social Science Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry 23(9): 643-648.
Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon and M. Whitford (Eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. NY: Routledge.