5. Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data”

by breavman99

st pierre methodology image.jpg

I read Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s “Methodology in the Fold” during my MFA work, and I wanted to return to it, because I’ve been wondering if my research can be described using Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold. St. Pierre, who teaches in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, clearly states the purpose of her essay near the outset:

This essay represents an attempt to think differently about one word commonly used in research, data. By employing Deleuze’s image of the fold to trouble the received meaning of data . . . I have been able to shift my understanding of the research process to some extent and thus to think about different kinds of data that might produce different knowledge in qualitative research in education. (177)

St. Pierre is thinking about a particular research project—her PhD research, I believe: an ethnographic study of older, white, southern women in the town where St. Pierre grew up. She found herself working with data that escaped language, that could not be textualized, that “were uncodable, excessive, out-of-control, out-of-category” (179). These “non-traditional kinds of data”—non-traditional in the context of qualitative social science research, and therefore “transgressive” (180)—included emotional data, dream data, and sensual data, as well as another form of data she named “response data,” which she believes “has been folded into our research projects all along under other signifiers such as member checks and peer debriefing” (179). “I am sure there are still other unidentified, unnamed data working in my study,” she continues (179). 

The emotional data St. Pierre collected during her research was “almost overwhelming at times” (180). She writes, “I found, indeed, that it was impossible for me to ignore the emotions that sometimes threatened to shut down my study” (180). If those emotions are data, she wonders what method produces them. She writes: 

I came to believe that my emotions were most often produced when, in a search for some kind of scandalous, rhizomatic validity, I forced myself to theorize my own identity as I theorized my participants’. . . . It was during this very emotional process of deconstruction that I found myself working much harder to understand my participants, to respect their lives, to examine my relationship with them, and to question my interpretations. The examination of one’s own frailty surely makes one more careful about the inscription of others’. (181)

As a result of these data, St. Pierre came to understand that to make her study valid, she needed to consider both the construction of her own subjectivity as well as that of her participants’. “I also believe,” she continues, “that it was this search for validity within self-formation that produced corrosive, painful emotional data. I therefore name the ‘desire for validity’ a method of data collection in my research project” (181). 

St. Pierre dreamed about her research, even interviewing her participants in dreams, and although she says she never deliberately analyzed those dreams, “it seems appropriate and even necessary to adopt the view that dreaming is a process of inquiry” (182-83). Her dreams added a layer of complexity to her research, drew attention to problems, reconstructed and reproduced the data she was collecting in representations that helped her think about that data differently (183). “Dreams refuse closure; they keep interpretation in play,” St. Pierre writes. “I slipped into that dream world night after winter night, often desperate for meaning that eluded me, and sometimes for refuge from the demand for clarity” (183). Those dreams were never officially accounted for in her work, she continues, but “the dreams remembered and those deferred linger in some dislocated space of my text, producing dissonance, alterity, and confusion. My dreams enabled and legitimized a complexity of meaning that science prohibits” (183).

The sensual data in St. Pierre’s research was “produced by the very physical act of having lived in the community I studied when I was a child and a young woman,” she writes (183). “If our understanding of the world has been and is influenced by the earth itself,” she asks, “then my question is whether we can ignore those effects on our bodies and, in turn, on our mental mappings?” (183). St. Pierre doesn’t think we should ignore those effects, but, she asks,

how do we account for the sensual effects of our responses, for example, to the soft rolling fertility of the stream-laded Piedmont, to a field of tobacco turning golden in hot September afternoons, to the sharp and musty scent of pines and azaleas growing in shady red clay, to a fitting angle of the sun to which our bodies happily turn, to the rhythm of southern September days so very different from the same days in Yankee country, to a bone-deep attachment to one landscape in particular, a “sweet spot” which is the literal ground of our knowing? (183)

The knowledge these responses produce is an embodied knowledge, according to St. Pierre: “Our bodies’ peculiar angles of repose have much to do with what and how we know, and the knowing that is mapped beyond the mind/body trap produces lines of flight that remain uncoded” (183). This embodied knowledge, which exceeds or escapes standard qualitative social-science research methodologies, adds “folds of situated richness” to the research (184).

“My understanding of emotional data, dream data, and sensual data seems to have emerged from a close analysis of barely intelligible transgressive data produced by my own subjectivity,” St. Pierre writes, “yet I hardly ever worked in isolation during my study” (184). She worked and consulted with others in order to avoid making mistakes, and she comes to call the data that working with others produced response data. Traditional social-science methodologies produce that kind of data through such methods as peer debriefing and member checks, but they only bring the outside—the views of other people—into the research in a limited way (184). “Yet our members and peers do provide us with data that are often critical and that may even prompt us to significantly reconstruct our interpretation as we proceed,” St. Pierre writes. “These data surely influence the production of knowledge, yet we hardly ever acknowledge them. How might our sense of inquiry shift if we began to focus on mapping responses and examining how they enable our mapping of the world?” (184). In her own research, she collected response data from “an official peer debriefer,” her committee, members of writing groups at two universities, her mentor, her mother, her aunt, her cousin, friends who aren’t academics, an informant “who is a dear friend and almost-participant,” members of seminar and conference presentation audiences, participants, non-participants living in the community she studied who could’ve been participants, “the women of my dreams,” the authors of books she read, journal editors and referees, among others (184-85). “All these others move me out of the self-evidence of my work and into its absences and give me the gift of different language and practice with which to trouble my commonsense understanding of the world,” St. Pierre writes. “They help me move toward the unthought” (185). St. Pierre’s hope is that by naming this process—one that is completely familiar to anyone who has conducted academic or artistic research of any kind—other researches will begin to think about “this disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable, yet fruitful fold in their work so that we can begin to collect data about response data and study the transgressions they enable” (185). Moreover, for St. Pierre, thinking about the relationship between researcher and those who respond to the research “has foregrounded an ethical relation . . . that generally escapes scrutiny” (185).

Those non-traditional data presented St. Pierre with her first problem. Her second problem is “the ruthlessly linear nature of the narrative of knowledge production” in qualitative social-science research:

first, we employ methods, such as interviewing and participant-observation, which produce data; then we code, categorize, analyze, and interpret those data; finally, from that analysis and interpretation, we develop theories of knowledge. (179-80)

“What happens, however, when this linear process is interrupted because the researcher enters this narrative in the middle?” she asks (180). In other words, what happens when an ethnographic study veers into autoethnography? Why would this have happened during her research? St. Pierre was both an insider and an outsider in her research project: she grew up in the town where her research participants lived, and had known many of them since childhood, but she was also an outsider, because she left the community 20 years before (177). “Since my study focuses on the construction of the subjectivities of these others,” St. Pierre writes, “it necessarily examines the construction of my own subjectivity that was folded into theirs in particularly fruitful and disturbing ways” (177). St. Pierre is using the word “folded” deliberately, in a Deleuzian sense, because she believes that her similarity to and difference from her research participants deconstructs the binary oppositions of standard or traditional qualitative social-science research: “I was both identity and difference, self and other, knower and known, researcher and researched. Foregrounding this doubling of subjectivity became crucial to my theorizing and my methodological practices. . . . I determined to pay attention to what this folded subjectivity might enable as I practiced qualitative research in a postmodern world” (178).

Deleuze’s image of the fold is obviously central to St. Pierre’s reflections on her research. That image, she writes, “enabled me to make intelligible the imbrication between the inside and outside of the research process” (177). According to St. Pierre, “Deleuze writes that the fold disrupts our notion of interiority”; it defines the inside as an operation of the outside, and it avoids distinctions, oppositions, and binaries. Therefore, she continues, “it breaks apart humanist dualisms like inside/outside, self/other, identify/difference, and presence/absence” (178). “I believed, since I had such difficulty separating myself from my participants, that I was working within a fold,” St. Pierre continues, “and that that fold was constructing a subjectivity, my own, that enabled me to think differently. Like a fold, my subjectivity had no outside or inside; the boundary, the division, the violent binary partition was not there” (178). The “shiftiness” of being in the fold led St. Pierre to her interconnected problems “with the signifier data as it is used in traditional qualitative research methodology” (179).

I’m an artist, or maybe a writer, and definitely not a qualitative social scientist, so the forms of data that are, in St. Pierre’s research context, “transgressive” are a normal part of what I do. Of course walking and thinking about those walks involves my senses and my emotions. That activity could also involve my dreams, although I rarely remember those. I also rely on the responses of others to my work, whether they are members of my committee or faculty members or Elders or other artists or just people I meet when I’m walking somewhere. So when I read this essay during my MFA work, and when I reread it yesterday, I found myself wondering whether artistic research can be described using Deleuze’s image of the fold. After all, my planned walk in Treaty Four territory may put me both inside and outside the subject position of settler, and that slippage or complexity or potential denial of my own colonialist position (although anyone who, as I do, understands that he or she lives on unceded or unsurrendered Indigenous Territory must therefore also understand his or her participation in colonialism) has some people in my faculty asking questions about cultural appropriation. However, despite St. Pierre’s attempts at explaining what Deleuze means by “the fold,” I still don’t understand exactly why she finds that idea so powerful. The scholarly thing to do, therefore, is to turn to the primary source, to Deleuze’s writing itself: first, his book on Leibniz, entitled The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, and second, his book on Foucault, since St. Pierre suggests that’s where Deleuze got this idea from in the first place (178). I will also have to read Alain Badiou’s 1994 essay, “Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque,” because I don’t know anything about Leibniz, calculus, or the other topics that Deleuze’s translator, Tom Conley, says Deleuze’s readers are expected to be familiar with (Deleuze, “The Fold” xi). In such situations, a bluffer’s guide (and I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Badiou’s essay is one of those) is often necessary for readers who cannot spend months or years engaged in a study of the references made by an author in a difficult text. In any case, my attempt at reading Deleuze’s The Fold will be the subject of my next post.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, translated by Tom Conley, U of Minnesota P, 1993.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 10, no. 2, 1997, pp. 175-89.