Practices for the "New" in the New Empiricisms, the New Materialisms, and Post Qualitative Inquiry

A keynote lecture by  Professor Elizabeth Adams St.Pierre on November 18th 2014 at University of Helsinki

Several years ago I introduced the concept, post qualitative inquiry (St.Pierre, 2011a), to destabilize what I’ve called “conventional humanist qualitative inquiry,” which I argue has become overdetermined in the U.S. by the publishing industry, university research courses, and journals and books that detail very carefully exactly what qualitative methodology is and how to do it. As John Law (2004) explained, “particular sets of rules and procedures may be questioned and debated, but the overall need for proper rules and procedures is not. It is taken for granted that these are necessary” (p. 5). To me, it is ironic that so much qualitative research has become formalized, precise, and methods-driven because it was invented in the 1980s (e.g., Denzin, 1989; Erickson, 1986; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) as an interpretive social science—drawing from the larger interpretive turn and, especially, from interpretive anthropology (e.g. Geertz, 1973)—to deliberately counter the methods-driven approach of positivist social science. Interpretive social science, unlike positivism, argues that method can’t guarantee validity and that any “finding” is simply an interpretation which rests on other interpretations, not on the Cartesian bedrock of uncontested truth.

In education, in particular, the scientifically-based, evidence-based research movement initiated by the 2002 U.S. No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) contributed to the tightening up of the so-called emergent nature of qualitative methodology. In particular, NCLB created a new funding agency for educational research, the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences (note how easily education became a science), and its goal was to fund causal research using its gold standard, the randomized controlled trial, that supposedly proves beyond a doubt “what works” in schools, thereby shifting our focus—even in qualitative methodology—from interpretation and contingency to causation and final truth.   As a result, we now have a great deal of positivist qualitative research, which is not surprising because as George Steinmetz (2005) noted, positivism is the “epistemological unconscious” of the social sciences in the U.S.; and 1980s qualitative methodology never did rid itself of positivist concepts like validity, bias, subjectivity, triangulation, coding data, audit trails, inter-rater reliability, and so on. The positivism always embedded in qualitative methodology now thrives. For example, I receive a steady flood of emails inviting me to learn how to code qualitative data using various computer software programs, a practice I argue is unthinkable in interpretive social science, much less postmodern work. And I despair when doctoral students’ response to questions about their dissertation research is something like, “I’m doing a case study” or “I’m doing an autoethnography” or “I’m doing an interview study.” In other words, they respond with a “research design.” When I ask them what theories they’re thinking with in their studies, they seldom respond coherently. It appears they’ve studied some kind of stripped down methodology (or more accurately, they’ve learned some research methods) but not epistemology or ontology. I believe this is a failure to teach, not necessarily a failure to learn.

Of course, the creeping control of U.S. Institutional Reviews Boards (IRB) that monitor our research to protect human subjects seldom understand qualitative methodology have contributed to its positivism by requiring researchers to follow bizarre practices such as signing their own consent forms to do autoethnographic research.

But in 2014, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) released a committee report (available free from the U.S. National Academy Press website) that proposed revisions to our federal law. This report is sponsored not only by the National Research Council committee organized for the purpose but also by other prestigious national committees as well as the American Educational Research Association. In my reading of the report, it appears that much qualitative research will either be exempt from IRB review or expedited. This is certainly good news for qualitative researchers. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed recommendations are included in the revision of the federal law, but if they are, they could eventually help loosen up the structure of qualitative research in the U.S. Interestingly, I have already heard quite a bit of resistance to the proposed revisions from qualitative researchers, which is not surprising, given how quickly we accept current dominant, disciplinary structures as normal, necessary, and good.

But there is always resistance to the excess of power. Even as much educational research was taken over by the State Science Machine at the beginning of this century thereby quantifying students and teachers as well as research methodology, others in the humanities and social sciences shifted from Western Enlightenment humanism’s epistemological rage for knowledge that guides methods-driven qualitative methodology with all its “practices of formalization” (Pascale, 2011, p. 17) to the ontological—the nature of being—which I believe qualitative methodology mostly avoids. In conventional humanist qualitative methodology, to be is to know.

This new work has organized itself differently as affect theory (Gregg & Seigworth, 2010), thing theory (Brown, 2001), actor network theory (Latour, 2005), assemblage theory (De Landa, 2006), the new materialism (Coole & Frost, 2010), the new empiricism (Clough, 2009), and the posthuman (Braidotti, 2013). But I argue that poststructural theorists including Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard and, especially, Deleuze and Guattari, very clearly addressed ontological issues and the material half a century ago. For example, last year I re-read with my doctoral students Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1971/1972) and The Order of Things (1966/1970), and we found ontology and the material everywhere. And how could one say that Derrida, with his critique of presence, neglects the ontological, which explains why Vicki Kirby (2011) and Karen Barad (2010) make good use of Derrida in their “new” work.

Much of the new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative work uses the ontology of Deleuze and Guattari, who offer a constellation of imbricated concepts (e.g., rhizome, assemblage, plane of consistency, refrain, diagram) that enable a different ontology and their transcendental empiricism. Working with DeleuzoGuattarian concepts is not easy. For example, one can’t understand a concept like diagram without understanding others it works with— assemblage, abstract machine, plane of consistency, Body without Organs—and they constantly introduce new concepts. In addition, a concept that is primary in one text, for example, sense in Deleuze’s book, Logic of Sense (1969/1990), may not be used again.

We have been slow to take up Deleuze’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology in the U.S. social sciences not only because, as Lyotard (1979/1984) noted, “we are stuck in the positivism of this or that discipline” (p. 41), but also because their work was translated into English later than other 20th century French theorists. Deleuze visited the U.S. only once, whereas Foucault and Derrida were frequent, popular lecturers, and translations of their work were quickly available. Most importantly, Deleuze and Guattari’s work is deliberately ontological and difficult for those of us who’ve been so obsessed with methodology and epistemology that we’ve neglected to study ontology.

For those reasons, I believe this new empirical work that uses Deleuze and Guattari is difficult to think because we have to learn new language that is incompatible with the ontological grids of intelligibility that structure humanist methodologies. And it’s also difficult to do because there are no prescribed “methods” to follow or textbooks that offer, say, four handy research designs for new empirical research. If such a book were written, it would be contrary to the very image of thought Deleuze and Guattari created.

About method, Deleuze and Guattari (1980/1987) wrote that “a ‘method is the striated space of the cogitatio universalis and draws a path that must be followed from one point to another” (p. 377). In other words, the very idea of method forces one into a prescribed order of thought and practices that prohibits the experimental nature of transcendental empiricism. Method proscribes and prohibits. It controls and disciplines. Further, method always comes too late, is immediately out-of-date and so inadequate to the task at hand. But method not only can’t keep up with events, more seriously, it prevents them from coming into existence. One might say that “method,” as we think of it in the methodological individualism of conventional humanist qualitative methodology with its methods of data collection and methods of data analysis, cannot be thought or done in new empirical inquiry.

The most popular method of data collection in conventional humanist qualitative methodology is the face-to-face interview with its privileging of the authentic voice of the unique individual, the person, the human of humanism (for critiques, see St.Pierre, 2008, 2011b); but Deleuze and Guattari were not interested in the speaking subject as Lecercle (2002) explained in the following quotation:

The detailed study of an everyday discussion or telephone conversation yields trivial and uninteresting results, for such everyday exchanges are fully functional from the point of view of communication . . . And they do have a point, to be reached and negotiated as swiftly as possible . . . But there is hardly any novelty involved, even if (especially if?) the conversation becomes personal and garrulous. As a result, we have a series of utterances without interest . . . a static talking machine. (p. 199)

For Deleuze and Guattari, language used in conversation comes from the order-words of the dominant discourse that always disciplines what we can think and say. So what people say in ordinary conversation mostly echoes, repeats, dominant discourse.

Michel Foucault, too, made it clear in his archaeological and genealogical analyses that he was not interested in the conscious, knowing, rational, intentional speaking subject with its confessional tendencies. Much like Deleuze and Guattari, he focused instead on what was “given to the speaking subject” (Foucault, 1971/1972, p. 46) in the anonymous murmur of the discursive formations from which speech emerges, from the order of things, the grid of intelligibility that pre-exists an “I” created by language, an “I” who, once created, falsely believes it exists ahead of language and can speak with individual intention. We social scientists who want to do this “new” work and also want to base our science on the voices of our research participants might remember Foucault’s (1966/1970) project in his book, The Order of Things, which he explains in the following quotation:

I tried to explore scientific discourse not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking, nor from the point of view of the formal structures of what they are saying, but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse. (p. xiv)

Those interested in the new empiricisms, especially in the posthuman, must call into question the endless qualitative interviews that presume the humanist human, the cogito who can know and speak the truth, who can mean. The onto-epistemological formation that celebrates the speech of the humanist human and assigns it pre-eminent value and practical application as scientific discourse is not the onto-epistemological formation of post-qualitative inquiry. For that reason, those of us using poststructural theories should think, and should always have thought, twice before proposing research projects with, for example, an awkward combination of an interview study and a Foucaultian genealogy or a rhizo-analysis of interview data, projects that indicate ontological confusion.

What this comes down to, I believe, is that if one wants to move toward this new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative inquiry, one must begin anew with little “methodological” help—with no new empirical methods textbooks that describe research designs (recipes) and structuring practices that explain where to begin and what to do next and then next. In other words, to do this work, one must give up that sacred validating concept of science— systematicity—which is supposed to guarantee that qualitative methodology is rigorous science and not, say, journalism. To me, systematicity smacks of scientism. But Lyotard (1979/1984) explained the work of the postmodern artist or writer decades ago, and his description suits the work of new empirical inquiry. Lyotard wrote,

The text [the postmodern author] writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the character of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begins too soon. (p. 81)

Interestingly, we seemed not to have understood Lyotard’s (and other poststructuralists’) comments about the postmodern as we diligently tried, for too long, to mix postmodern scholarship and methods-driven research. But the new empirical work makes it very clear that methodology and method can neither guide a research project nor guarantee its validity. In fact, the new empiricist might well argue that attempting to follow a given research method will likely foreclose possibilities for the “new.” The new empiricist researcher, then, is on her own, inventing inquiry in the doing.

But who wants to work so hard? Who wants to have to invent new empiricist inquiry and invent it anew for every study? A counter-question might be how we came to think we didn’t have to do that. Elliot Eisner (1996), who championed arts-based research, helped us think about difficult work and taking risks when he wrote that we should “work at the edge of incompetence” (p. 412), and Foucault (1984/1985) offered the following encouragement:

As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next— as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet. (p. 7)

Surely, this is the pleasure of scholarship, this not-knowing and, as Derrida (1980/1987) wrote, “knowing how not to be there and how to be strong for not being there right away. Knowing how not to deliver on command, how to wait and make wait” (p. 191). Perhaps not knowing and waiting describe the style of the new empirical researcher.

To sum up before moving on, I argue that much conventional humanist qualitative methodology, invented in the U.S. in the 1980s, was never able to make the interpretive turn and shed it’s positivist heritage. Further, the demands of scientifically based and evidence based research at the beginning of the 21st century restored and reinstalled positivism throughout the social sciences, especially in education. But qualitative research has always been another Enlightenment knowledge project focused on methodology and the production of knowledge. Typically, its structure and formalized practices have not only been weak epistemologically—for example, when researchers avoid theorizing and only “find themes in the data”—but also ontologically. What this means is that qualitative methodology seems to stand outside epistemology and ontology. But this kind of research has become all too familiar. Given that, it is very difficult for one well-trained in this kind of qualitative methodology to make the ontological turn toward new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative inquiry.

What is New in New Empirical Inquiry?

As I said earlier, I introduced the concept post qualitative inquiry in 2011 to encourage researchers to move past 1980s interpretive qualitative methodology, much of which I believe has been overtaken by positivism. In 2013, Patti Lather and I edited a special issue of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education on post qualitative inquiry. In 2014, Alecia Jackson and I edited a special issue of Qualitative Inquiry on qualitative data analysis after coding. Alecia Jackson, Lisa Mazzei, and I are currently editing a special issue of Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies on the new empiricisms/new materialisms. Hillievi Lenz-Taguchi are editing a special issue of Qualitative Inquiry on using concepts instead of methods to guide our inquiry. Other special issues of journals as well as recent edited and authored books announce that scholars are taking up the challenges of new inquiry.

But in reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals in which authors claim to be doing new empirical, new material, posthuman, and post qualitative work, I find myself hard-pressed to see what’s “new” about much of it. It’s as if people try but can’t quite make the ontological turn, and I surely understand that. I’m not sure I can either. Like Maggie MacLure (2013), I believe the “shock” of working “within a materialist ontology has not yet been fully felt” (p. 663).

But whenever I’m interested in something new—to me, at least—I teach a course about it so my smart students can help me think. Two years ago I taught a new doctoral seminar, the “New Empiricisms and the New Materialisms,” and last year I taught again a doctoral seminar I developed in 2003 called “Post Qualitative Research,” the content of which has changed significantly over the years. In both courses, my students and I struggled to think about how to “do” social science inquiry differently if one thinks with those scholars we call poststructuralist as well as those writing more recently about the ontological and material turns. What would be new and different about that work? And where would one begin to do this “new” kind of inquiry? It’s all well and good to follow Deleuze and Guattari and say “begin in the middle”—even if that’s probably the best advice—but what does that look like? And how does a new researcher even know whether something is “new” and “different”? And how different do you have to be to be “new”? Do you have to invent an entire methodology or can you just struggle with what’s pressing in your own project? More practically, how can you increase your odds of doing something “new”?

With those questions in mind, I will next review how two theorists who critiqued humanist ontology, Foucault and Deleuze, described the “new.” Then, given their descriptions, I offer in the following section a few practices I think might be useful in getting us unstuck from conventional humanist qualitative methodology whose structure traps us and prevents us from making that ontological turn and moving toward the “new.”

I begin with Foucault (1971/1972) who wrote early in his career in his book, The Archaeology of Knowledge that “it is not easy to say something new.” Nonetheless, we know Foucault did say quite a few new things. He also said in an interview two years before he died at 54, “I worked like a dog all my life” (Foucault, 1982, p. 131) because his project was his own transformation. He said, “Do you think I have worked like that all those years to say the same thing and not to be changed”? This is interesting, isn’t it? Foucault’s warning us not only that doing something new is very hard work but that scholarly work is personal and not just academic. I agree and tell my students that if they’re working hard to read Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari and Derrida and Barad and Baudrillard and Bennett and Bergson and Spinoza, they will be changed, and they can’t go back. Thus, my advice to them is that if they’re especially fond of themselves as they are, they’d best avoid reading this literature on the “posts” and on ontology and go shopping or run a marathon instead.

John Rajchman (2008), discussing Deleuze’s (1986/1988) book on Foucault, explained that, for Foucault, the new is “not at all what is in fashion, but rather what we cannot yet see or say in what is happening in us just because it is not already contained in the … given [structures] that govern what we can think” (p. 89). We can’t see the new because of the structures of the present, and we have no language yet to say it. Almost a hundred years ago, Whitehead (1925) wrote that pre-existing structures normalize our thinking and produce “minds in a groove” (p. 197), but experimentation can help us move out of the grooves of the normal and self-evident. For Foucault, Rajchman (2008) explained, the new is “a pragmatic experimental matter, something we must actually do for which there precedes no determination, no model, no ‘we,’ not even an ‘I’” (p. 89). Again, there is no model—no method, no research design, nor an “I”— that exists ahead of experimental work that pushes toward the new and different.

Deleuze also believed that it is only in a practical and experimental engagement with the world that we can create something new because “the new is an outside that exists within this world, and as such it must be constructed” (O’Sullivan & Zepke, 2008, p. 2). For Deleuze (1968/1994), “the new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new, just as the established was always established from the outset, even if a certain amount of empirical time was necessary for this to be recognized” (p. 136). So it may take some time to distinguish the new that is always becoming from the established that is. For this reason, the new can’t easily be recognized because it is outside our grids of intelligibility.

Most importantly, using language from major, structuring discourses (e.g., systematic science, methodological positivism, the solipsism of Cartesian knowledge projects) is dangerous because the language of those discourses does not work after the ontological turn (e.g., see MacLure, 2013; St.Pierre, in press). Major, dominant language describes what is recognizable, already captured, disciplined, and normalized—what is—not what is immanent but not yet, what could be becoming if we were able to resist the present and think and do it. That is Deleuze and Guattari’s (1991/1994) famous challenge: “We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present” (p. 108). Foucault’s (1982) challenge in regard to the present and, especially, to subjectivity is similar— we should “refuse what we are” (p. 216). In both cases, we must refuse order-words that enforce the present and, in this case, methodological order-words like method, systematicity, transparency, representation, validity, objectivity, and so on. These words force us into is.

Practices for the “New”

Why is it so difficult to take up the new empirical inquiry? As I’ve studied the manuscripts I review in which authors claim to be doing post qualitative work but aren’t and work with students who struggle to do something different, I’ve realized they often make the mistake of beginning with conventional humanist qualitative methodology. That is, they begin in a humanist instead of a posthumanist ontology. For example, they might include in the theoretical sections of their papers a smart discussion of DeleuzoGuattarian concepts they say informed their research, but then they proceed to describe their projects as conventional humanist qualitative studies using the ontological assumptions, language, and practices of that methodology. In effect, they simply drop one or two Deleuzian concepts into a qualitative study and, of course, the ontologies are incommensurable. I don’t see how these confused projects can produce anything “new.”

Why does this happen? I believe that in too much social science research, in the U.S., at least, we chiefly teach methodology, having separated it from epistemology and ontology, thereby reducing inquiry to method and research design. Hence, we have methods-driven research that mostly repeats what is recognizable, what is already known.

What we fail to teach is epistemology and ontology. We fail to teach theory. Why? I believe it’s easier to teach methods than theory. It’s easier to teach, say, five research designs than DeleuzoGuattarian ontology, which is very difficult to understand. Lecercle (2002) wrote that it took him thirty years to begin to understand Deleuze’s (1969/1990) book, The Logic of Sense. And you have to read Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980/1987) long book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which is not logically sequential, before you’re ready to read it. Again, who wants to work so hard?

Out of this, I have begun to recommend some specific practices that might increase our odds of accomplishing something “new” in new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative inquiry. I’ll discuss each of these practices in turn: refusing qualitative methodology, reading, beginning with theories and concepts instead of methodology, and trusting ourselves in not knowing. Of course, these practices are not radical but are, I would argue, age-old practices of solid scholarship.

First practice: Refuse qualitative methodology.

My first “practice for the new” in new empirical inquiry is to leave conventional humanist qualitative methodology behind, to refuse it. Those of us who’ve learned it too well will just have to try to forget it. We should remember that we invented this methodology in the 1980s—we made it up—and it’s not sacred. It’s simply one approach among others, and we can’t take it too seriously. The ontology of this methodology retains binaries like human/nonhuman, word/thing, representation/the real distinctions, which are unintelligible in new empirical inquiry in which “the separation between subject and object, thought and matter, words and things, is an illusion of language” (Lecercle, 2002, p. 27).

In short, I believe qualitative methodology is a trap for those who want to do new empirical inquiry. It traps us when we drop a concept like the rhizome or assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari’s experimental ontology into the structure of a humanist interview study that privileges the ontology of the “speaking subject.” It traps us when we retain concepts like data and subjectivity that are not thinkable in the same way, if at all, in an experimental ontology. In other words, using a concept from one ontology in another just doesn’t work. Those of us interested in the “post” theories spent many years deconstructing the concepts of conventional humanist qualitative inquiry—for example, interview, data, voice, validity, reflexivity—and working its ruins (St.Pierre & Pillow, 2000), but we remained trapped in those ruins, I believe, by not attending to ontological issues. I suggest we do something different from the beginning.

Second practice: Read, read, read.

I advise my students who want to do new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative work to shift their focus from methodology to onto-epistemology. Reading a few of the many texts that introduce qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research is sufficient. I encourage my students to spend their time reading and re-reading scholars who have written about onto-epistemology for centuries. This reading is the true pleasure of our lives as academics, and I believe inquiry begins by reading what Foucault (1971/1972) called the “already said” (p. 25) that may well be “new” for us and give us language and strategies to think and do our own “new.”

I tell my doctoral students, “No one can read for you. You have to do it yourself. And those who read a lot can always tell when others don’t.” I tell them that the most voracious readers know that the image of thought within which we comfortably think and live may well be demolished by reading the next book or journal article and that, at some point, that “shock to thought” (Massumi, 2002) is our desire. I caution them about reading too many books they understand. I encourage them to organize reading groups to read books that are too hard to read and to set up what I call “reading management strategies” (see St.Pierre, 2014) to keep track of their reading so they can use it later for writing.

I tell that if they keep reading, if they read and read and read, if they let the words and concepts wash over them, they will, indeed, begin to put them to work in their everyday lives. They will understand what Foucault meant when he said we have to give up the “we” and the “I.” They’ll understand why Deleuze refused the personal pronouns. They will no longer believe or live the human/nonhuman binary.

At some point, they begin to understand the impossibility of “human subjects research” as conceived by conventional humanist qualitative methodology. Instead, they grapple with theory, for example, with Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980/1987) shocking ontological statement, “There is no longer a tripartite division between a field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author)” (p. 23). In this flattened ontology, human bodies, other living bodies, objects, language, representations, concepts like revenge, values like goodness, dreams, the color green, a memory, the weather, five-o’clock in the afternoon, and the not-yet are mixed, entangled on the surface. There is no depth in this ontology as in structuralism and phenomenology. The human is no longer prior to language, method, and the world; in fact, the human being of humanism is no longer intelligible.

It is impossible to think humanist “human subjects research” when, to simplify Deleuze and Guattari, we are always assemblages that are not stable entities that can be broken down into distinct component parts and made to mean but, rather something like machines that are constantly territorializing and deterritorializing—becoming. Importantly, assemblages do not imply interiority but exteriority, so we would not ask what an assemblage is or what parts it contains but rather with what it connects, what it plugs into. Again, human being is not independent and self-contained but mixed with everything else on the surface. We cannot separate out the human subject in posthuman, new empirical, new material, post qualitative inquiry. Our responsibility is no longer to the privileged human but to the assemblage which is always more-than-human and always becoming. In this age of the Anthropocene, responsibility assumes its full meaning.

This brief description gestures toward the ontological image of thought that guides the new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative work and displaces humanist qualitative inquiry. At the heart of this ontology are very different understandings of language and human being that we must account for. Once those two concepts in humanist ontology are shattered, we no doubt flounder; but it is from that not knowing that the “new” might emerge. Of course, the poststructuralists told us this decades ago, but, stuck in the groove of humanist qualitative methodology, we somehow mostly ignored that profound rupture.

I surely did not understand Deleuze’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s work together when I first read it early in my doctoral studies—not in a university course but on my own—nor do I “understand” it now. Nonetheless, the image of thought enabled by their concepts like haecceity, assemblage, and Bodies without Organs stuck with me, ruining conventional humanist qualitative methodology from the start. I am grateful I read Deleuze and Guattari, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and others we call “post” before I was over-trained in humanist qualitative methodology, before its methods-driven structure took over my thought and practices.

Third practice: Begin with theory and concepts.

So if, for example, a doctoral student has avoided learning too much conventional humanist qualitative methodology and has, instead, studied onto-epistemology, what might she do next for her dissertation research? She may well panic because her classmates may have begun their studies by following the clear instructions of the many books and journal articles that describe the “research process” in quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods studies. They have a well-trod path to follow.

To repeat, I advise students not to begin with methodology but with theory(ies) or a concept or several related concepts they’ve identified in their reading that helps them think about whatever they’re interested in thinking about, for example, reluctant readers, the quantified student, a painting (see, e.g., Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). So if a student is interested in Foucault’s theory of power, she should read everything he wrote about power as well as secondary sources and critiques. If she’s interested in Deleuze’s work on the image in cinema, she should read everything he wrote about it as well as secondary sources and critique. The same would hold for any theory or concept the researcher chooses to help her think. In Deleuze and Guattari’s work, one concept is seldom enough because their concepts are entangled, just like their ontology. The point here is that sustained and what Judith Butler (1995) called careful reading is required and brings some measure of confidence and expertise so that students understand why they cannot carelessly mix ontologies.

To repeat, the theory(ies) and/or the concept(s), then, guides the study instead of a pre-determined methodology. From among many concepts, the researcher chooses those that help her think about whatever she wants to think about. She plugs concepts into the world to see how they work. If she’s studied the theory in depth, good questions to ask when confused about what to do might be “What would Foucault do?” “Would Derrida code data?” “Would Lyotard use the concept triangulation?” And the best thing to do when confused is to go back to the texts and re-read the theory, to plunge into the words of scholars who inspire.

I am not especially concerned with classifying or labeling this kind of inquiry, because post-method, “after method” (Law, 2004), every study will be different and unclassifiable, which will no doubt make some uneasy. They might ask, “What is this study?” We’ll have to train ourselves not to look for prescribed method, familiar practices of formalization, and tortured systematicity in this work. We’ll have to read each individual study carefully to see what that particular researcher did, why, and to what effect. We’ll have to be open to the “new,” to what we might not understand because we aren’t familiar with a particular theory or concept. We will not be able to judge every study by some pre-existing standard invented decades ago to discipline a different kind of inquiry. Most importantly, we will have to help each other think, and think differently.

Fourth practice: Trust yourself and get to work.

The fourth practice I recommend to students, after they’ve given up qualitative methodology, have read and read and read, and have found theory(ies) and/or concept(s) to guide their inquiry, is to trust themselves. I encourage them to just put to work the practices the theories and concepts enable—we might call these conceptual practices (Harding, 2007; Smith, 1990)—to do the next thing experimental ontology enables them to think and do. The idea is that the theory or the concept calls on you to do some things but not others. If you’re thinking with Deleuze’s ontological concept, assemblage, for example, I don’t think you can “collect data” because assemblage tells you that you’ve never been separate from data. Data is not something out there separate from the human that can be “collected.” The human and the rest of the world have always been entangled, mixed together. So you have to give up the concept data and the conceptual practice data collection because they are intelligible only in a humanist ontology and methodology.

So what else might you do if you don’t collect data? I have no idea, but, clearly, you’re working in a very different image of thought now with no established rules and practices. And your conceptual practices will be what you do with your concept when you plug it into your world. When someone else plugs assemblage into the world of their project, they might use the same conceptual practices, but they may not. In other words, there’s nothing right or correct to be done before the doing. You’re on your own here. And I tell my students they have to be really smart when they do this work. They can’t just casually throw these concepts around. They have to really understand the DeleuzoGuattarian ontology in which the concept assemblage works so they can provide the rationale for what they do, why, and how. In other words, their conceptual practices must align with the onto-epistemology they’re using.

But I suspect many conceptual practices we use in new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative inquiry will be quite familiar, what we do when we want to explore anything. For example, we read, we write, we talk with other people, we observe what’s going on around us. We may make a movie, paint a picture, write a book— who knows? In the name of positivist social science, which now permeates conventional humanist qualitative methodology in the U.S., we have overdetermined, over-formalized, systematized, and scientized some everyday practices out of all proportion to legitimate them as “scientific,” but we have completely ignored others. For example, in conventional humanist qualitative methodology, we’ve mostly reduced research practices to two “methods of data collection,” interviews and observations, though, as I just said, I doubt the concepts “data” or “methods of data collection” are thinkable in new empirical inquiry in which the human has never been separate from “data,” outside it, so she could “collect” it. The language of qualitative methodology surely traps us, doesn’t it?

My point here is that ordinary practices like talking with and observing people don’t have to be scientized and elevated to the status of “the interview” and “the observation.” I’ve always been interested in all the other practices we neglect to disclose, all the other things we do that we never describe in our research reports. For example, when I’m deep into a project and stuck, I go for a walk or weed my garden and inevitably get unstuck, so I suppose I could call walking and weeding research practices—but why would I? And, surely, we could name reading a research practice, but we don’t—we call it the “literature review.” I’m very interested in the conceptual practices concepts like diagram, Bodies without Organs, entanglement, and vital matter enable. What would one do if one were thinking and living with those concepts?

My strongest recommendation today is that we not to try to force our new empirical, new material, posthuman, post qualitative studies into the structure of conventional humanist qualitative methodology. I can’t imagine how it could fit. Instead of beginning with methodology, I recommend putting the concepts and theories of experimental ontology to work using the conceptual practices that are appropriate for a particular study. If we’ve done our reading, I wager we cannot not put it to work. It will have transformed us—we cannot think and live without it. We will be living it.

As Foucault and Deleuze explained, the “new” is already in our lives, but repetition of the same cannot create it. We have to make it. It is in the experimental moment of not knowing what to do next because we are not driven by method and methodology that we might push through the grooves of the given and the self-evident toward the new and different in our work and lives. Method, then, will always come at the end, too late, when we think back about what we did and why and what we might have done instead and might try next time.



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