Review: Decolonizing “Post-Qualitative Research and Innovative Methodologies”

Post-Qualitative Research and Innovative Methodologies, Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas and Robin Bellingham eds. Bloomsbury Academic 2020.

It is rare that methodology elicits excitement. This book is evidence of the arrival of Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Anna Tsing and other contemporary theorists on the scene of social science research – and its high time.

Post-Qualitative Research and Innovative Methodologies, edited by Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas and Robin Bellingham (Bloomsbury Academic 2020) surveys and introduces methods that develop out of qualitative methods but decentre the human or are being modified by research practices. It follows on a decade a ferment in methodology through projects such as Goldsmiths Universities “methodologies of the future” and seminars on speculative methods (MacQuarrie University). These are generally materialist approaches which do not assume virtualities such as the social pre-exist the research situation. This is particularly important as research moves away from conventional categories or combines the methodological toolset of different disciplines in one research exercise. Themes of relationality, affect, affordances are prominent. The contributions are structured around three concerns:

.1 Disruptions to notions of subjectivity, agency and identity that bring new life to understandings of participation and intention. The devolution of subjects into surrogate datapoints and relational, correlative models of taste and consumption patterns, political attitudes or life decisions by polling and digital tracking firms is one example of where this has happened and why methodologies need to be revitalized across the social sciences.

.2 Practices and parameters of time, space and materiality that have been shifted by digital worlds which also affect notions of embodiment. T he line between the tangible and intangible is blurred and no longer conceived as only a matter-ideology distinction between the materially present and abstract concepts. Intangibles or virtualities and probabilities such as risk assessments now both complicate and configure action in the present for agents.

.3 Entanglements of theory with practice are a site of the emergence of new approaches that challenge and revitalize established theories and methods. This problematizes what counts as ‘data’ and questions of what rises to interest – which are the ‘matters of concern’ (cf. Latour)? Similarly the ways that social sciences have alienated data from the field, subject or research and the context in which it is gathered or created is questioned.

The book effectively defamiliarizes the practices and assumptions that researchers often make. It treats both theory and method as historically-situated techno-scientific practices. It aims to present patterns highlighting particular “glows of vitality” found in open-ended research practices that frankly acknowledge the entanglement of theory or our representations of the social with our experiences of interaction and data.

The book considers:

  • participatory video
  • collaboration in producing representations (Youtube videos) of social worlds
  • co-creation with research subjects and co-construction of research narratives
  • methods for studying racialized identities and biracial identities
  • shame and affective
  • time-space chronotopes
  • environmental feminism and identities
  • swarms and murmurations
  • interspecies entanglements
  • post-Anthropocine, speculative thought and play
  • sound and other sensory methods
  • play
  • figurations as a representation of dynamic relations that are spatial, material and affective

Moving to ‘research figurations,’ as disturbance-based ecologies. the contributors consider the dynamic quality of situations where agents are both cause and effect, facts are not fixed but relate to emerging and changing objects. Disturbance is treated as natural and ongoing vitality and understandings of fact as perspectival, layered, and intrinsically manifold. The world is thus fundamentally heterotopic or mixed.

On this basis, the theory and methods in this text challenge conventional research ethics and research responsibility for contributing to the creation and emergence of a new world.

New Mexico, 1941.Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic Creative (https://natgeofound.tumblr.com)

In general, it would be nice to have a broad array of actual research examples and move a bit closer to research-as-practice rather than the “Tour d’horizon” that Thomas and Bellingham offer. While the Anthropocene is an important thematic, there is only a little discussion of Indigineity and no sense of the locatedness or Editors’ positioning of the voice of this text as couched in a settler society (Australia). Canadian contributor, Jesse Bazzul gestures in this direction. However, from this point of critique, the book does not meet the bar for decolonial social science. More more more needs to be done to decentre the researcher who remains a sort of modern hero albeit recast in the role of woke, attuned, wonderer. I am sure, however, that collaborating, co-creating, attending and listening to the world of humans animals and active objects that these methods advise is a start that will lead in a decolonial direction.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)