113. Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, “Writing: A Method of Inquiry”
I read an earlier version of this essay (written by Laurel Richardson alone) and decided to read the revised version to see what Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre brought to it. It begins with ethnography, and the suggestion that many qualitative researchers in different disciplines have “found writing as a method of inquiry to be a viable way in which to learn about themselves and their research topic” (959). The essay is divided into three sections. In the first, Richardson discusses the contexts of social science writing, “the creative analytical practice ethnography genre,” and her work over the past decade (including “collaborations across the humanities/social sciences divide”) (959). In the second, St. Pierre “provides an analysis of how writing as a method of inquiry coheres with the development of ethical selves engaged in social action and social reform” (959). And, in the final section, Richardson provides writing exercises for qualitative researchers.
Richardson begins the first part of the essay by noting that much qualitative social science writing is “boring” (959). While the research was “riveting” and “valuable,” the texts in which that research was presented were “underread” (959). “Qualitative research has to be read, not scanned; its meaning is in the reading,” she writes. “It seemed foolish at best, and narcissistic and wholly self-absorbed at worst, to spend months or years doing research that ended up not being read and not making a difference to anything but the author’s career” (960). For that reason, she “latched onto the idea of writing as a method of inquiry” (960). She has moved from writing as a method of presenting research results—presumably research conducted through some other method of inquiry—to writing itself as a method of inquiry. She notes that she was taught not to start writing until she knew what she wanted to say, until all of her points were organized in an outline. But writing that way was constraining and boring. Those instructions “cohered with mechanistic scientism and quantitative research,” she realized, and “they undercut writing as a dynamic creative process,” undermined the confidence of qualitative writers about their writing, and “contributed to the flotilla of qualitative writing that was simply not interesting to read because writers wrote in the homogenized voice of ‘science’” (960). (That’s not the only cause of bad writing in the social sciences, in my experience.) In the past decade, however, “rather than suppressing their voices, qualitative writers have been honing their writing skills,” and “all kinds of qualitative writing have flourished” (960).
“Language is a constitutive force, creating a particular view of reality and of the Self,” Richardson continues (960). “Styles of writing are neither fixed nor neutral but rather reflect the historically shifting domination of particular schools or paradigms” (960). Since the seventeenth century, for example, scientific writing has been associated “with fact, ‘plain language,’ and objectivity” (960). By the nineteenth century, “literature and science stood as two separate domains”: literature was aligned with art and culture, and having “the rights to metaphorical and ambiguous language,” whereas science believed “that its words were objective, precise, unambiguous, noncontextual, and nonmetaphorical” (960). (I wonder to what extent that is true of scientific writing in the nineteenth century; I would have to see examples.) In the twentieth century, “the relationships between social scientific writing and literary writing grew in complexity,” as the boundary between fact and fiction became “blurred” by Thomas Wolfe and the New Journalism (960-61). “By the 1970s, ‘crossovers’ between writing forms spawned the naming of oxymoronic genres—‘creative nonfiction,’ ‘faction,’ ‘ethnographic fiction,’ the ‘nonfiction novel,’ and ‘true fiction,’” Richardson writes (961). (I would not consider the term “creative nonfiction” to be an oxymoron.) She cites E.L. Doctorow’s contention that fiction and nonfiction no longer existed; instead, there is only narrative (qtd. 961). It’s worth asking, though, if Doctorow is right. Isn’t writing that claims to be nonfiction making a different kind of truth claim than writing that claims to be fiction? If there really is no boundary between fiction and nonfiction, how would one explain scandals in journalism over made-up stories or sources, or the upset James Frey’s supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces caused? “What was offensive about Frey’s claim of truth was that it was not an artistic ploy but a marketing one,” suggests Canadian writer Russell Smith. “He knew that the average person would not, in fact, react to his story with awe and compassion if they thought it was a novel” (Smith). My point is that Doctorow’s claim might not withstand scrutiny—and, in fact, it may have been hyperbole.
However, “[d]espite the actual blurring of genre, and despite our contemporary understanding that all writing is narrative writing”—holy smokes! what happened to lyric poetry, or ekphrasis, or description, or argument? who ever claimed that all writing is narrative? does that person really know much about writing? isn’t that a misreading of Doctorow’s contention?—“I would contend that there is still one major difference that separates fiction writing from science writing,” Richardson states:
The difference is not whether the text really is fiction or nonfiction; rather, the difference is the claim that the author makes for the text. Declaring that one’s work is fiction is a different rhetorical move than is declaring that one’s work is social science. The two genres bring in different audiences and have different impacts on publics and politics—and on how one’s “truth claims” are to be evaluated. These differences should not be overlooked or minimized. (961).
Okay, but making a truth claim of nonfiction isn’t just a rhetorical move, as the case of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces might suggest. That claim needs to be supported by the text itself.
Richardson suggests that “in a postmodernist climate,” when “a multitude of approaches to knowing and telling exist side by side,” all “truth claims” end up being suspected “of masking and serving particular interests in local, cultural, and political struggles,” and that no method or theory, discourse or genre, or tradition or novelty “has a universal and general claim as the ‘right’ or privileged form of authoritative knowledge” (961). At the same time, though, “conventional methods of knowing and telling are not automatically rejected as false or archaic”; instead, “those standard methods are opened to inquiry, new methods are introduced, and then they are also subject to critique” (961). Postmodernist doubt “distrusts all methods equally,” but “a postmodernist position does allow us to know ‘something’ without claiming to know everything” (961). (Wasn’t that also possible before postmodernism?) The acceptance of “partial, local, and historical knowledge,” of “the situational limitations of the knower,” means that qualitative writers “do not have to try to play God, writing as disembodied omniscient narrators claiming universal and atemporal general knowledge” or pretend to “scientific objectivity”; instead, they can write “as situated speakers, subjectivities engaged in knowing/telling about the world as they perceive it” (961).
For Richardson, poststructuralism has been “especially helpful” because of the way it “links language, subjectivity, social organization, and power” (961). Poststructuralism holds that language produces meaning “and creates social reality” rather than reflecting it (961)—a claim (both about language and about poststructuralism itself) worth working through carefully rather than simply accepting. “Language is how social organization and power are defined and contested and the place where one’s sense of self—one’s subjectivity—is constructed,” she continues. “Understanding language as competing discourses—competing ways of giving meaning and of organizing the world—makes language a site of exploration and struggle” (961). The shadow behind these sentences seems to be the work of Michel Foucault, but why he remains unnamed is not clear. In any case, Richardson continues:
Language is not the result of one’s subjectivity; rather, language constructs one’s subjectivity in ways that are historically and locally specific. What something means to individuals is dependent on the discourses available to them. For example, being hit by one’s spouse is experienced differently depending on whether it is thought of as being within the discourse of “normal marriage,” “husband’s rights,” or “wife battering.” (961)
But in my reading of Foucault, I see an emphasis on both power and resistance, and on the way that discourses change. It’s possible that while a woman’s community might consider spousal violence to be normal, she might experience it as something that shouldn’t be tolerated. Discourse doesn’t necessarily define experience—not completely.
“Poststructuralism . . . points to the continual cocreation of the self and social science; they are known through each other,” Richardson writes. “Knowing the self and knowing about the subject are intertwined, partial, historical[,] local knowledges,” and therefore poststructuralism invites researchers to reflect on their methods and “to explore new ways of knowing” (962). (Did no one reflect on method or explore new ways of knowing before the 1960s?) “Specifically, poststructuralism suggests two important ideas to qualitative writers,” she contends. “First, it directs us to understand ourselves reflexively as persons writing from particular positions at specific times. Second, it frees us from trying to write a single text in which everything is said at once to everyone” (962). (No such text has ever existed.) “Nurturing our own voices releases the censorious hold of ‘science writing’ on our consciousness as well as the arrogance it fosters in our psyche; writing is validated as a method of knowing,” she states (962). However, as I’ve seen in what I’ve been reading, an exposure to poststructuralism can also lead to a different kind of “censorious hold,” one in which writers attempt to imitate their French philosophical heroes (or at least their heroes’ translators).
Next, Richardson discusses creative analytical process ethnography, a label that describes qualitative social science writing that “has moved outside conventional social scientific writing” (962). “CAP ethnographies are not alternative or experimental; they are, in and of themselves, valid and desirable representations of the social,” she suggests (962). (So alternative or experimental writing is neither valid nor desirable?) The words “creative” and “analytical” are not incompatible:
Witness the evolution, proliferation, and diversity of new ethnographic “species”—autoethnography, fiction, poetry, drama, readers’ theater, writing stories, aphorisms, layered texts, conversations, epistles, polyvocal texts, comedy, satire, allegory, visual texts, hypertexts, museum displays, choreographed findings, and performance pages, to name some of the categories that are discussed in the pages of this Handbook. These new “species” of qualitative writing adapt to the kind of political/social world we inhabit—a world of uncertainty. With many outlets for presentation and publication, CAP ethnographies herald a paradigm shift. (962)
But, as I’ve asked before in this blog, does the ethnographic fiction produced by social scientists (to take one example) stand as fiction? Is it peer reviewed by writers or editors of fiction? Does ethnographic poetry stand up against other forms of poetry? Does ethnographic drama? Have the social scientists writing these texts really invested time and effort into their writing as well as their research? Who evaluates the aesthetic success or failure of these various forms of ethnographic writing? Are social scientists just presenting unpracticed or, well, unsuccessful forms of writing to their readers?
According to Richardson, “CAP ethnography displays the writing process and the writing product as deeply intertwined; both are privileged” (962). It raises questions of how the researchers know, and about how they position themselves as knowers and tellers: such questions “engage intertwined problems of subjectivity, authority, authorship, reflexivity, and process, on the one hand, and of representational form, on the other” (962). Because of postmodernism’s claim that writing is always only partial (or perhaps that the knowledge produced by writing is always only partial, researchers can acknowledge that their “selves are always present no matter how hard [they] try to suppress them,” although they are only partially present because as they write, they are repressing “parts of [their] selves as well” (962). (Isn’t that true of any writer, before or after postmodernism?) “Working from that premise frees us to write material in a variety of ways—to tell and retell,” because “[t]here is no such thing as ‘getting it right,’ only ‘getting it’ differently contoured and nuanced” (962). CAP ethnographers can “learn about the topics and about themselves that which was unknowable and unimaginable using conventional analytical procedures, metaphors, and writing formats” (963). Instead of the traditional methodology of triangulation, CAP texts recognize that there are more than three perspectives by which to approach the world: “We do not triangulate; we crystallize” (963). Richardson proposes that the “central imaginary for ‘validity’ for postmodern texts” is “the crystal, which combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach” (963). Of course, the triangle was chosen as an “imaginary” because three properties are manageable. Is the infinity of reflection and refraction Richardson is describing manageable within any research project? Probably not. However, she offers Travels With Ernest: Crossing the Literary/Sociological Divide, a book she coauthored with her husband, a professor of English, as an example of a text that exemplifies “crystallization practices” which deconstruct “the traditional idea of ‘validity’” and “provides us with a deepened, complex, and thoroughly partial understanding of the topic. Paradoxically, we know more and doubt what we know. Ingeniously, we know there is always more to know” (963).
“Because the epistemological foundations of CAP ethnography differ from those of traditional social science, the conceptual apparatus by which CAP ethnographies can be evaluated differ,” Richardson continues. “Although we are freer to present our texts in a variety of forms to diverse audiences, we have different constraints arising from self-consciousness about claims to authorship, authority, truth, validity, and reliability” (963-64). “Truth claims are less easily validated now; desires to speak ‘for’ others are suspect,” she contends (964). And “[t]he greater freedom to experiment with textual form . . . does not guarantee a better product” (964). Thank you: that’s the point I’ve been trying to make. But, she continues, criteria of evaluation is an issue. How are works of CAP ethnography going to be evaluated? She offers four criteria. The first is substantive contribution: “[d]oes this piece contribute to our understanding of social life?” (964). The second is aesthetic merit: “[d]oes this piece succeed aesthetically?” (964). The third is reflexivity: “[h]ow has the author’s subjectivity been both a producer and a product of this text? Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgements about the point of view? Does the author hold himself or herself accountable to the standards of knowing and telling of the people he or she has studied?” (964). And finally, there is impact: “[d]oes this piece affect me emotionally or intellectually? Does it move me to write? Does it move me to try new research practices or move me to action?” (964). She suggests that in CAP, “[s]cience is one lens, and creative arts is another. We see deeply using both lenses” (964). She wants “to look through both lenses to see a ‘social science art form’—a radically different form of representation” (964). And she claims not to be alone in this desire: “students from diverse social backgrounds and marginalized cultures are attracted to seeing the social world through two lenses” (964). She predicts the creation of a “new qualitative community” that bridges the humanities and social sciences that could “reach beyond academia and teach all of us about social injustice and methods for alleviating it: (964-65). In that community, “[w]riting becomes more diverse and author centered, less boring, and humbler. These are propitious opportunities. Some even speak of their work as spiritual” (965). (Strangely, I’ve seen little evidence of humility in the social science research I’ve been reading over the past month. Self-indulgently presenting bad poetry as art is not a sign of humility.)
“The ethnographic life is not separable from the Self,” Richardson continues. “Who we are and what we can be—what we can study, how we can write about that which we study—are tied to how a knowledge system disciplines itself and its members and to its methods for claiming authority over both the subject matter and its members” (965). Ethnographers need to “find concrete practices through which we can construct ourselves as ethical subjects engaged in ethical ethnography—inspiring to read and to write” (965). Some of those practices will involve:
working within theoretical schemata . . . that challenge grounds of authority, writing on topics that matter both personally and collectively, experiencing jouissance, experimenting with different writing formats and audiences simultaneously, locating oneself in multiple discourses and communities, developing critical literacy, finding ways in which to write/present/teach that are less hierarchal and univocal, revealing institutional secrets, using positions of authority to increase diversity both in academic appointments and in journal publications, engaging in self-reflexivity, giving in to synchronicity, asking for what one wants, not flinching from where writing takes one emotionally or spiritually, and honoring the embodiedness and spatiality of one’s labor. (965)
Honouring “the location of the self,” which Richardson equates with “the embodiedness and spatiality of one’s labor,” will encourage researchers to construct “writing stories,” or “narratives that situate one’s own writing in other parts of one’s life such as disciplinary constraints, academic debates, departmental politics, social movements, community structures, research interests, familial ties, and personal history” (965). Such “writing stories” “offer critical reflexivity about the writing self in different contexts as a valuable creative analytical practice” (965). They “evoke new questions about the self and the subject; remind us that our work is grounded, contextual, and rhizomatic; and demystify the research/writing process and help others to do the same” (965). Apparently these “writing stories” are intended for publication; she suggests that she used them in her 1997 book Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life (965).In writing that book, she writes, “I was reliving horrific experiences,” “memories of being patronized, marginalized, and punished by my department chair and dean,” but some of the stories she wrote were “joyful” as well (965).
My question is this: how is a “writing story” any different from a memoir or an autobiography? I can’t see the difference—except a “writing story” claims to be “more congruent with poststructural understandings of the situated nature of knowledge” (965). Indeed, Richardson’s description of this practice and the ethics involved sound like creative nonfiction writing. I’m not seeing the difference—except for the drapery of poststructuralism to give the practice some theoretical legitimacy. Maybe that’s not fair; maybe I would have to read Richardson’s “writing story” to make such a judgement. In any case, she states, “I am convinced that in the story (or stories) of becoming, we have a good chance of deconstructing the underlying academic ideology—that being a something . . . is better than becoming” (966-67). Such stories of becoming are what interest Richardson, and she suggests that writing such stories has increased her “compassion for others” as well as her “actions on their behalf,” and helped her to “see more clearly the interrelationships between and among peoples worldwide” (967).
In the essay’s second section, Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre begins with Gilles Deleuze’s notion of trajectories as lines of flight that map “what can happen if one takes seriously [Richardson’s] charge to think of writing as a method of qualitative inquiry” (967). The reference to Deleuze at the outset isn’t surprising, since the section is entitled “Writing as a Method of Nomadic Inquiry.” As an English major, St. Pierre has been trained “to think of expository writing as a tracing of thought already thought, as a transparent reflection of the known and the real—writing as a representation, as repetition” (967). (I don’t think anyone would teach expository writing that way now.) Today St. Pierre uses writing “to disrupt the known and the real—writing as simulation, as ‘subversive repetition’” (citing Baudrillard and Butler, 967). She has described her academic research “‘nomadic inquiry,’” and much of that work “is accomplished in the writing because, for me, writing is thinking, writing is analysis, writing is indeed a seductive and tangled method of discovery” (967). “Many writers in the humanities have known this all along,” St. Pierre notes, but by bringing that understanding to the social sciences, she suggests that Richardson “has deconstructed the concept method,” putting it under erasure (in Derridean fashion) and thereby opening it up to different meanings (967). She also cites Roland Barthes on the sterility of method and the need, she summarizes, to “interrogate whatever limits we have imposed on the concept method lest we diminish its possibilities in knowledge production” (967), which isn’t quite the interpretation I would put on the quotation she presents. I suppose I would have to read Barthes’s book, The Rustle of Language, to learn more.
One of postmodernism’s lessons, St. Pierre continues, is that “foundations are contingent,” particularly “every foundational concept of conventional, interpretive qualitative inquiry, including method,” and postmodernists have deconstructed many of them, including data, validity, interviewing, the field, experience, voice, reflexivity, narrative, and ethnography (967-68). That doesn’t mean qualitative researchers reject these concepts: “rather, researchers have examined their effects on people and knowledge production during decades of research and have reinscribed them in different ways that, of course, must also be interrogated” (968). Researchers “use old concepts but ask them to do different work,” and acknowledge “that structure is, and always has been, contingent” (968).
St. Pierre moves on to “the tenuous relation between language and meaning” and the various ways of discussing that relation and the idea that there is “a layer of prelinguistic meaning . . . that language can express,” or that “some kind of transparent dialogue that can lead to consensus,” or whether consensus is even desirable, because it “often erases difference” (968). Postmodernists, she continues (given her reliance on Derrida and Foucault in this discussion, she really means poststructuralists, I think), “suspect that interpretation is not the discovery of meaning in the world but rather the ‘introduction of meaning’”—citing Spivak’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology—and therefore “we can no longer treat words as if they are deeply and essentially meaningful” (968). If that’s the case, “the interpreter has to assume the burden of meaning-making, which is no longer a neutral activity of expression that simply matches word to world” (968-69). “The implications for qualitative inquiry of imagining writing as a letting go of meaning even [as] meaning proliferates rather than a search for and containment of meaning are both compelling and profound,” she writes (969). “Clearly, postmodern qualitative researchers can no longer think of inquiry simply as a task of making meaning—comprehending, understanding, getting to the bottom of the phenomenon under investigation,” she continues (969). That’s not a rejection of meaning, but it does mean asking different questions about how meanings change, how some have become normative while others have disappeared, what those changes suggest about power, how discourses function and are produced (969). (Of course, if you’re going to ask how meanings have changed, you’re going to need some sense of what things have meant at some point; otherwise, such a question could not be answered.) St. Pierre wonders what writing might do except mean, and she turns to Deleuze and Guattari’s contention that writing is about surveying or mapping rather than signifying. This idea, she suggests, enable researchers to use writing “as a method of inquiry,” a “condition of possibility” for making knowledge differently (969).
St. Pierre asks “what might the work of writing as inquiry be in postmodern qualitative research?” (969). She cites her own research projects—an interview study and ethnography of a southern rural community—as an example. “It is important to note that this study was not designed to do interpretive work,” she writes. “I never presumed I could know or understand the women—uncover their authentic voices and essential natures and then represent them in thick description” (969). Instead, she set out to do two things:
(1) to use postmodernism to study subjectivity by using Foucault’s ethical analysis, care of the self, to investigate the “arts of existence” or “practices of the self” the women have used during their long lives in the construction of their subjectivities and (2) to use postmodernism to study conventional qualitative research methodology, which I believe is generally both positivist and interpretive. (969-70)
In addition, St. Pierre states,
I determined early in the study to use writing as a method of inquiry in at least these two senses: (1) I would think of writing as a method of data collection along with, for example, interviewing and observation and (2) I would think of writing as a method of data analysis along with, for example, the traditional—and what I think of as structural (and positivist)—activities of analytic induction; constant comparison; coding, sorting, and categorizing data; and so forth. (970)
“[T]hese two methods are not as discrete as I have made them out to be,” she continues. “Making such a distinction is to stay within the confines of the structure of conventional qualitative inquiry in which we often separate data collection from data analysis. Nevertheless, I retain the distinction temporarily for the purpose of elucidation” (970).
St. Pierre gathered together “all sorts of data”—her dreams, her emotions, her memories—that she “had never read about in interpretive qualitative textbooks” (970). These data, she continues, “were always already in my mind and body, and they cropped up unexpectedly and fittingly in my writing—fugitive, fleeting data that were excessive and out-of-category. My point here is that these data might have escaped entirely if I had not written; they were collected only in the writing” (970). As a method of data analysis, St. Pierre used “writing to think; that is, I wrote my way into particular spaces I could not have occupied by sorting data with a computer program or by analytic induction” (970). Following Deleuze and Guattari, she describes this as “rhizomatic work” in which she “made accidental and fortuitous connections” over which she had no control. “My point here is that I did not limit data analysis to conventional practices of coding data and then sorting it into categories that I then grouped into themes that became section headings in an outline that organized and governed my writing in advance of writing,” she states. “Thought happened in the writing. As I wrote, I watched word after word appear on the computer screen—ideas, theories, I had not thought before I wrote them. Sometimes I wrote something so marvelous it startled me. I doubt I could have thought such a thought by thinking alone” (970). Thinking of writing this way “breaks down the distinction in conventional qualitative inquiry between data collection and data analysis”: “[b]oth happen at once” (970). “Data collection and data analysis cannot be separated when writing is a method of inquiry,” St. Pierre contends. “And positivist concepts, such as audit trails and data saturation, become absurd and then irrelevant in postmodern qualitative inquiry in which writing is a field of play where anything can happen—and does” (971). I find myself a little surprised that anyone would be surprised at the connection between thinking and writing being described here—that has always been my experience of writing—but I’m not a qualitative researcher whose work is supposed to be presented in such a structured way.
To St. Pierre, this approach to writing “deconstructs the concept method, proliferating its meaning and thereby collapsing the structure that relied on its unity” (971). “But how does one ‘write it up’ after the linguistic turn?” she asks (971). She “began to assume a writerly reticence to describe or represent my participants, and thereby encourage some kind of sentimental identification,” she writes (971). (Does description necessarily lead to sentimentality?) “After all, it was subjectivity, not the women, that was the objet of my inquiry,” she continues (971). This focus is typical of postmodern research. She also suggests that she cannot “write a text that ‘runs to meet the reader’ (Sommer, qtd. 971) or a “comfort text that gratifies the interpretive entitlement to know the women” who were participating in her study (971). Rather than being objects that can be known, the women became “a line of flight that take me elsewhere” (971). They were “provocateurs” (971). “I gesture toward them in oblique ways in my writing by relating, for example, one of our vexing conversations that burgeoned into splendid and productive confusion about subjectivity or by relating an aporia about methodology they insist I think,” she continues (971). But she does not write their stories, although she longs to do so (971). She will only write their stories, though,
after wrestling with that postrepresentational question: What else might writing do except mean? That writing will involve a politics and ethics of difficulty that, on the one hand, can only be accomplished if I write but, on the other, cannot be accomplished on the basis of anything I know about writing. There are no rules for postrepresentational writing; there’s nowhere to turn for authorizing comfort. (971-72)
I wonder if St. Pierre isn’t overthinking and overcomplicating the issue. Writing can do a lot of things other than mean—that’s one of the lessons we can take from poetry—and yet, inevitably, it ends up generating meaning as well. I’m not even sure that something called “postrepresentational writing” exists, although it’s obviously something that some qualitative researchers worry about; there are essays on the subject in the library’s databases. Perhaps St. Pierre’s ethnographic work is an example. Do I have the energy to read it? On this side of campus, though, in the humanities building, we just write, even if we know that writing as a form of representation is an impossibility. I can’t go on, I’ll go on, as the Irish writer said.
“Can the kind of writing I have gestured toward here—writing under erasure—exhibit a substantive contribution, aesthetic merit, reflexivity, impact, and reflect lived experience?” St. Pierre asks. “I believe it can” (972). But she suggests that writing as a method of inquiry takes us toward what Derrida called “the democracy to come” (qtd. 972), a democracy that even though it will never be a full presence, “demands that we prepare ourselves for its arrival” (972). That democracy-to-come, Derrida argued, “is grounded in our relations with the Other” (972). For St. Pierre, “the possibilities for just and ethical encounters with alterity occur not only in the field of human activity but also in the field of the text, in our writing” (972). These “overlapping spaces” (human activity and textuality?) prepare us “for a democracy that has no model, for a postjuridical justice that is always contingent on the case at hand and must be effaced even as it is produced” (972). However, “[s]ettling into a transcendental justice and truth, some deep meaning we think will save us, may announce a lack of courage to think and live beyond our necessary fictions” (972). St. Pierre argues that “we will always be unprepared to be ethical. Moreover, the removal of foundations and originary meaning, which were always already fictions, simply leaves everything as it is but without those markers of certainty we counted on to see us intact through a text of responsibility” (972). “[H]ow do we go on from here?” she asks. “How do we get on with our work and our lives?” (972). She answers with Derrida’s suggestion that “the events in our lives . . . tempt us to be their equal by asking for our ‘best and most perfect’” (Derrida, qtd. 972). “The event, then, calls us to be worthy at the instant of decision, when what happens is all there is—when meaning will always come too late to rescue us,” St. Pierre writes. “At the edge of the abyss, we step without reserve toward the Other” (972). This situation is “the condition of Derrida’s democracy-to-come” that, she hopes, “will enable relations less impoverished than the ones we have thus far imagined and lived” (972). Postmodern qualitative researchers are already accomplishing this democracy-to-come, she continues, “in all the fields of play in which they work” (973). That seems to be an extraordinary claim to make about the possibilities of any form of academic research to make things happen, but maybe she’s correct. I don’t know. She concludes by inviting her readers to “use writing as a method of inquiry to move into your own impossibility, where anything might happen—and will” (973).
In the essay’s last section, Richardson suggests “some ways of using writing as a method of knowing” by choosing exercises that have demystified writing for her students, nurtured their researchers’ voices, and served “the processes of discovery about the self, the world, and issues of social justice” (973). these include using metaphor; being aware of writing formats, in one’s own writing and in the writing of other people; learning a variety of creative analytical writing practices, by taking creative writing, writing an autobiography, transforming one’s fieldnotes into drama, writing poetry, writing layered texts, writing collaboratively, and writing “writing stories”—“reflexive accounts of how you happened to write the pieces you wrote” (974-75). Those exercises are where the essay ends, along with a quotation from Brenda Ueland about allowing one’s “own ideas to come in a develop and gently shine” (qtd. 975). There seems to be quite a gulf, though, between these exercises and the theoretical discourses St. Pierre uses, or the political and ethical claims she makes for postmodern qualitative research and writing, and I’m not sure what to make of that difference, that separation.
In fact, I’m not sure I want to turn to social science methodologies any more: their research practices are constantly reacting against (or claiming support from) the notion that they are producing some kind of objective knowledge. Art practices never make that kind of claim, so those reactions aren’t that helpful to artists (or writers). So why would I use a term like autoethnography to describe my writing about my walks, with the pretense to objectivity, however much that pretense is resisted, it connotes? Why wouldn’t I use a term from the world of the arts, like creative nonfiction, to describe that writing? Why not indeed. I feel like I’ve turned a corner by writing that sentence (it’s always been my experience that writing generates thoughts that surprise me). Now all I have to do is start exploring creative nonfiction as a methodology, since my the exegesis I find myself writing (not this year, nor next year, but maybe the year after) is going to require some statement about methodology. That requirement is inevitable. I just have to find a way to meet that requirement, and a methodology I can live with.
Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, third edition, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Sage, 2005, pp. 959-78.
Smith, Russell. “Fiction or Non-Fiction: Does It Matter Any More?” The Globe and Mail, 1 February 2012. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/fiction-or-non-fiction-does-it-matter-any-more/article543500/.