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date: 17 July 2018

Risky Truth-Making in Qualitative Inquiry

Summary and Keywords

Conventional approaches to qualitative research seek to distill and capture meaning through a sequence of determined, progressive methodological steps that serve to synthesize difference toward a series of overarching claims regarding human experience. This approach reifies contemporary neoliberal values and, as a consequence, short-circuits any possibility for progressive social change. Through conventional research practices, the principles of security, schizoid, and statistical society accelerate, extending normalizing processes of governmentality, and producing a docile citizenry adverse to key elements of an engaged democracy. In such circumstance, risk is identified as the production of findings that are ambiguously defined, not attending to values of certainty and generalizable outcomes. As a consequence, conventional methodological practices fail to engage the postmodern condition—fragmented experiences with inconclusive outcomes are displaced by methodologies bent on merging difference into foreclosed meaning.

Contrary to conventional approaches to research, post-foundational orientations emphasize relational logics that maintain difference within the inquiry project itself. A provocative example of this extends from newly materialist approaches to qualitative inquiry that emphasizes the productive possibilities inherent in difference and, as such, displace the simplified dialectical reasoning of conventional approaches in favor of more dialogic recognition of diffractive patterning. In this sense, open-ended difference makes possible previously unrecognized (even unthought) possibilities for being otherwise. As such, newly materialist approaches to inquiry manifest alternative ontological and epistemological practices that are not available to the conventional methodologist; they make possible an open-ended vision of the future that is necessary for radical democratic action. Furthermore, the fluid nature of such methodologies align well with Foucault’s explication of parrhesia, a means of truth-making that creates new possibilities for becoming otherwise. The intersection of newly materialist methodologies with parrhesia challenges methodologists to risk the very relations that secure their expertise, establishing a moral challenge to the impact of past practice on the possibilities inherent in the future.

Keywords: risk, truth, truth-making, parrhesia, qualitative, inquiry, research, governmentality, methodology, New Materialism, schizoid, risk, security


Most often, research methodology texts are written to provide practices and techniques for coming-to-know some phenomenon. That is, methodological scholars seek to articulate research approaches and steps that produce clear meaning; error and ambiguity remains the enemy of these conventional approaches. Certainly, such an approach aligns well with the physical sciences—fields of study governed by the laws of proof and predictability. However, within education and the social sciences, conventional approaches become less sure, not as easily replicated or even enforced. This is particularly apparent within contemporary approaches to qualitative inquiry that refuse the positivistic charge of representationalism. That is, the implicit assumption that qualitative inquiry should aim for representational accuracy of some external phenomena is challenged by contemporary research informed by the postmodern turn. This post-representational inquiry approach engages with entangled layers of meaning and sheds determined conclusions in favor of encounters with the not-fully-known, the never-completely-represented. Thus it is that such critical qualitative methodologists often find themselves at odds with the conventional embrace of certainty as the overarching goal of any research project.

Yet, given the historical attention devoted to research-as-certitude, there remains significant anxiety among qualitative methodologists (those who proclaim expertise in qualitative research methods) about the veracity or “truth” of their findings—what use are qualitative findings if they are not representations of some external truth? How do we ensure such findings are correct? What do they make possible (beyond their function as “mere description,” a critique often leveled at qualitative work)? Thus it is that there exists a host of scholarship regarding issues of research validity or empirical trustworthiness of qualitative research findings. Most often, conventional approaches to qualitative research seek to square findings with cultural expectations of “complete knowledge” through accuracy of representation. That is, conventional researchers strive to generate findings that sufficiently represent some experience or event that is previous or otherwise external to the findings themselves. Thus it is that conventional approaches to qualitative research remain epistemologically devoted to representationalism. “True” and “accurate” findings are made to stand in for some experience, adequately conveying the reality of another or group of others. Methodological work in this instance remains oriented toward reducing the possibility that results do not align with participant and reader realities. These approaches typically fall under the umbrella term of “traditional” or “conventional” qualitative research, and their easy replication came under scrutiny during the “crisis of representation” (Marcus & Fisher, 1996)—the critique that social and material encounters resist full and complete representation. From the critical perspective, representational aims always fail as lived reality exceeds all forms of depiction. Consequently, critics of conventional approaches to inquiry refuse the implicit desire for complete capture and control of generated meaning. Yet, given the critique of conventional adherence to representationalism, the question remains: how to manage such a challenge to the working methodological order? Two distinct approaches to qualitative inquiry have taken divergent paths to address the quandary of incomplete representation. Whereas conventional approaches to qualitative research emphasize merging different representations into selected groups of meaning, the newly material-focused approaches to inquiry foreground difference as a series of meaningful and creative relations that make possible previously unexperienced possibilities. Such approaches result in distinct claims on what risks a methodologist should take and how particular “truths” might be told through the inquiry process.

Importantly, conventional qualitative research approaches that seek to establish validity through methods that limit findings (and thereby guard against alternative possibilities) characterize “risky research” as that which perhaps cannot develop singular outcomes. In this scenario, risk is understood as taking on the possibility of error: of misrepresenting some phenomenon. In short, these conventional approaches prescribe a research process intended to provide a determined product, one relatively absent alternative possibilities. The risk associated with such research is placed on the possibility of creating some erroneous product. As a technician with expertise in the employment of research tasks, technologies, and procedures, the conventional methodologist takes on no significant risk him/herself; all risk remains within the product of data and the technology that made such a product possible. This is the conventional methodologist as technocrat—one who follows and implements the common rules and refined techniques that are granted currency by the field, yet has little impact (or interest) in addressing the very logic or rationale that makes such techniques possible (and normative).

The production of the methodological technocrat follows a trend identified by Jean-Francois Lyotard wherein, “The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by its institutions” (Lyotard, 1997). In his writing, Lyotard associates this transmission of knowledge from social institutions through docile “players” as an extension of the postmodern condition (which is, of course, the title of his text). Transitioning knowledge dissemination away from emancipating oneself or social groups out of institutionalized confines and toward the conservative alignment of knowledge as a mechanism to maintain the status quo articulates differently throughout varying fields of study. Within educational research, for example, “expert” methodologists are trained not to intervene within or otherwise change society, but simply to represent it in more detail, with more technological sophistication. Thus, the response to the crisis of representation for conventional methodologists results in simply improving their skills of representation—to try and develop methods for capturing more of the same—not to challenge representationalism as the assumed goal of research (as Marcus and Fischer perhaps intended in their explication of the crisis of representation). Thus it is that conventional methodological practices “supply the system” with the knowledge formations and practices necessary to continue unabated (indeed, perhaps even to continue at an accelerated pace).

And yet, despite an historical tendency toward methodological technocracy, in many ways qualitative researchers have always dwelled in ambiguity. It is, after all, the messiness of social interaction that necessitates methodological approaches that thrive outside of laboratory environs. However, conventional approaches to qualitative research sought to manage such ambiguity through distilling meaning: developing a series of predictable methodological steps all aimed at closing in on some purified—and therefore clear—finding. As an example, one of the most ubiquitous forms of this approach extends from the tripartite coding structure that owes its origins to grounded theory: open, axial, and selective coding. By moving through these steps, the researcher sought to better understand the phenomena at hand, meaning made through systematic and deliberate steps of a prearranged sort. The codes themselves merge into themes that, in the end, are selected based on their adequacy of representation. In addition to their ability to generate generalized themes across experiences, such coding measures gain rigorous status via their consistent and orderly replication—similar methodological steps across time and space.

More recent approaches to qualitative research, however, eschew the “nailing down” of meaning (implied by the prescriptive steps of open to axial to selective coding) in favor of an “opening up” of possibility. These approaches are perhaps best exemplified by the relatively recent “materialist turn” in social theory denoted in different venues as new materialist, critical materialist, or new empiricist approaches to inquiry. These materialist approaches begin from a unique orientation to knowing and being: They eschew conventional dialectical thinking (a favorite of conventional qualitative methodologies) in favor of relational logics (a turn toward more dialogic recognition of the importance of difference as important to projects for social change). These newly materialist approaches thus critique conventional research methodologies for cutting off or otherwise short-circuiting possibilities for both alternative ways of knowing and becoming with the world. Hand-in-hand with this critique is a philosophical shift from a focus on epistemological concerns of knowing and coming-to-know (exemplified by conventional approaches to research) to the recognized entanglement of knowing with being—an onto-epistemological philosophical basis for inquiry. This shift is perhaps most exemplified by those materialist methodologists who draw from the work of Karen Barad to orient their inquiry practices (Barad, 2007).

As such, it remains important to recognize that these newly defined and evolving approaches extend from a rather radical reorientation of how to deal with ambiguity: For the new materialist methodologist uncertainty generates new possibilities and is not bridled by the limiting function of representational method. Methodological work is thus, in many ways, philosophical work: engaged productively, making possible newly imagined relations over and above limiting or narrowing meaning to some inevitable or otherwise predictable point. This is akin to the Deleuzoguattarian notion of philosophy as the “invention of concepts” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994): Through methodological work new possibilities of knowing and being are invented, made possible. Thus it is that such philosophical approaches to methodology reveal their potential as critical inquiry—a means by which to intervene within that which is examined in order to make possible an alternative future not previously imagined: engaged methodology as a form of critical truth-making.

One pivotal element that distinguishes the contemporary methodological embrace of newly materialist or empiricist approaches from conventional forms of qualitative research is a shift from meaning made through consensus or synthesis (a vestige of dialectical thinking) to meaning produced in relational difference (more dialogic in order). The former (the province of conventional qualitative research) emphasizes the merging of multiple meanings into more singular narratives of meaning (codes developed to manage difference toward synthesis, for example). The latter (newly materialist approaches) locates the benefits of a diffractive reading of difference—one that seeks multiplicity making possible multiplicities (Barad, 2007). Through examining and mapping the relations of difference, newly possible worlds are brought to exist (relations that did not pre-date the inquiry itself but, instead, manifested in its very act). These two divergent philosophical approaches to meaning making (and living) have significant impact on the types of inquiry practices that “make sense” to methodologists and, significantly, operate according to different conceptions of truth, truth-making, and risk. These approaches also engage differently with our contemporary moment—conventional approaches tending to reaffirm the logical structures that promote the norm: materially focused approaches engaged to intervene and change the possible future through the immediate now.

Contemporary Context

Despite the emergent force of the materialist turn on theory and inquiry, conventional qualitative research remains the dominant approach to knowing, particularly within education. The privilege of this positioning results in the marginalization of other approaches that are consequently required to provide “evidence” of their production within the very language of the normative structures, processes, and practices they critique: How do alternative methodological practices produce comparable results to conventional qualitative work, with similar expectations of efficiency? This is, of course, a losing scenario that serves to reestablish the dominance of the norm. In response, critical methodologists assert that in order to consider the “so what” of emerging methodological practice, one needs to examine what they make (newly) possible, not how they compare within normalized regulations for coming-to-know. Thus, invention becomes the province of the contemporary methodologist.

To be sure, the methodological technocrat has manifested within a particular contemporary context, one that underscores technical expertise as the foremost identifier of methodological identity. In this scenario, the methodological technocrat has come to reify and even accelerate the normative rules and relations in which s/he is recognized. Thus it is that universities, for instance, seek out methodologists whose technical expertise is recognized by granting agencies as verifying the replicable veracity of grant activities—methodologists that can both make grants “go” and administer the proper methods to conclude their precise impact. (As an aside, this normalizing process might well further distance methodologists from their previously close connection with foundations programs in colleges of education, a trend accelerated by normative drives toward methodological technocratism. Whereas previously there remained a close kinship between methodology and philosophy, increasingly the former has been positioned as nearly antithetical to the latter. Pragmatically, this may be seen in the “narrowing” of position descriptions involving educational methodologists—rarely is a background in philosophy a stated requirement for contemporary methodological practice).

In many ways, then, conventional methodological practice reveals the normalized value of our current time. Though it has become somewhat of a trend among social theorists to label our contemporary context as “neoliberal” and move on, the term has been used to such an extent that it has perhaps lost its definitional capacity. Thus, one might better understand the intersection of methodological identity and practice through the examination of three specific societal characteristics that extend as neoliberal formations: (1) society of security, (2) schizoid society, (3) society of the statistic. These three formations collude to normalize particular types of truths, practices of truth-making, and identities of truth-makers with extended impact on the role of research generally and qualitative inquiry more specifically. Indeed, the contemporary methodologist must successfully operate within each of these three neoliberal contexts for recognition and advancement within the field of education.

In a very real sense these three formations of security, schizoid, and statistical society enable and extend what Foucault termed “governmentality,” or the means of directing the conduct of individuals and groups through controlling the possible field of action available to others (Foucault, 1991). Importantly, individuals and groups engage with these entangled formations (and more) as an element of perceived democratic practice—one “freely” chooses to conduct oneself in particular ways, simultaneously agreeing to abide by the normalizing principles of convention and the logic formations to which they subscribe. Ironically, the implied value of individual choice motivates the conservative act of maintaining the status quo—if my choices are deemed my own, they must be an extension of my “free” will (even if such choices remain limited by processes of normalization). In short, governmentality aims at producing and managing docile citizens, those that adhere to (and inevitably replicate) the values of the neoliberal order. These formations also generate commonly assumed (and invoked) notions of crucial concepts such as truth and risk, legitimizing select practices around such terms all the while dismissing others. What is “true” in this instance is both that I “freely” choose to think and act in particular ways and that such thoughts and practices take on the imprint of normative values. Risk is thus the intervention in such reproductive tendencies without the comfort of a prescribed response or established end.

The society of security extends from a collectively felt and individually engaged affect of anxiety, one that necessitates hyper-awareness of threat and consistent and ongoing measures of preemption to mitigate a felt sense of unrest and dis-ease. Thus it is, for example, that the role of education is often situated politically as an issue of security within the world order, one fraught with anxieties of “falling behind” other nations in math and science ability. Within the United States the anxious assumption that low test scores in mathematics and science makes the nation economically vulnerable to outsiders may be seen in the educational policy rationale of the past two presidencies (both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used collective anxiety about a drop in student test scores against the international average as a rationale for educational policy changes). Recently, England pledged to alter teaching in mathematics to mirror practices in high-performing Asian countries when international test scores showed English schoolchildren being outperformed by their counterparts in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The rationale for such educational changes is often situated economically—students will soon need jobs in a world economy that demands select skills of its workforce. If a nation’s students fail to be competitive in select areas, it will inevitably decline on the world stage. As a result, educational achievement takes on the import (and anxiety) of national security. As an extension, methodological practice (here, the ability to measure and compare student achievement on a global scale) becomes an essential working element of the security society.

Hand in hand with the society of security is the schizoid society, a worldview that requires individuals to hold multiple truths in productive tension without resolution (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983). Thus it is that citizens might recognize many generalized truths as contradictory, yet never attempt to bring them together through some means of synthesis (as traditional dialectics would have it). A rather mundane example of this phenomenon is the ubiquity of the credit score in hyper-capitalistic societies (Kuntz, 2015). A series of practices and confected identities surround the very idea of being “credit worthy”—the credit score stands in for who one is (“worthy” of investment and debt, an economically productive citizen) and the buying power one might achieve (the ability to realize a desired standard of living via credit). The credit score has both descriptive and predictive value. Thus it is that one can adhere to the “truth” that one must take on debt (via a credit card, car loan, or even a mortgage) in order to achieve a more optimum credit score and thereby show oneself to have credit resources that are manageable (though, of course, never fully absent). The inherent contradiction of needing to achieve debt in order to be financially independent (and generate a positive credit score) never seems problematic within the schizoid society, it is simply managed. Additional examples of this phenomenon abound within the neoliberal state, so much so that the productive citizen remains unphased by their ubiquity.

Within the field of education, one might recognize the misplaced energy and concern for the standardized test as a product of the schizoid society. Though much work has been done regarding the inability for standardized tests to either (1) represent a student’s capacity within the classroom, or (2) predict a student’s future ability to succeed in further education, standardized tests continue to be culturally aligned with both achievement and identity the world over. Like credit scores, standardized tests are too often misutilized to simultaneously describe whom one is (a “good student”; a “poor achiever”) and predict one’s future performance (capable of honors admission; worthy of institutional investment). Confoundingly, some universities no longer require a standardized test for admission even as they utilize test scores as a mechanism for determining merit-based student aid. Administrators at the primary and secondary level often have to point to an increase in student test scores as a determining marker for educational improvement among the students in their schools. As noted earlier, international test scores are often referenced as a matter of national security. More informally, students often take on their respective scores on standardized tests as an identity—who they are and what they may go on to be—even as they recognize the trivial nature of such tests. Educational contradiction entangled with further layers of contradiction.

There remains a useful parallel here to Lyotard’s assertion that postmodern knowledge “reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable” (Lyotard, 1997). While one reading of this claim is perhaps positive (that the critic might use postmodern knowledge to be more sensitive to, and operate strategically within, a normative logical system that cannot be reconciled), there remains a more concerned reading that points to how the incommensurability of the schizoid society leads to docility, a throwing up of one’s hands and apathetic disengaged stance. The former, of course, points to an engaged citizenry, one necessary for any element of living democracy. The latter, equally of course, emphasizes the ease with which contemporary formations of democratic society might slip into the dangerous waters of fascism.

Importantly, one can experience the disorientation of the schizoid society—perhaps even encountering a large degree of anxiety as a result of it—but one can never allow such an affective response to disrupt one’s continued contribution to the neoliberal economy. The schizoid is expected to manage these multiple contradictory truths without disruption, engaging a series of normalizing practices and processes to keep productive anxiety from slipping into unproductive despair (think here of the many products designed to help individuals manage the anxiety of participating in the schizoid society—pills, self-help books, extreme workout regimens, all aimed at allowing one to manage the stress of daily, schizoid life). Thus it is that the anxiety produced through the schizoid society both propels select practices (of gaining debt to gain credit, of achievement on standardized scores as a marker of national security) and establishes the limits of normative daily practice—marking a distinction between normal and abnormal function. Within the schizoid society, truths remain multiple and in tension. Risk becomes associated with allowing such tension to derail one’s economic productivity.

What makes the contradictory presence of things like credit and standardized test scores possible is an assumed belief or faith in statistical logic, the third extension of neoliberalism that helps maintain contemporary formations of governmentality. Statistical logic makes possible the comparison of the individual (as data point) to a larger group or population. Through comparison, daily practices, even identities, are referenced as normal or deviant. Further, the objective presentation afforded statistical logic asserts statistical truths as undeniable, certain, and existing beyond the impact of culture and history. As a consequence, the ability to manipulate statistics toward some “reasonable” finding remains the marker of the prototypical methodological expert (as technocrat). Statistical outcomes stand in as truths themselves. Risk thus becomes a calculation (calculable)—a statistical probability of some end result. Importantly, the statistical society makes all human actions and intensions calculable, normatively referenced, and predictable. Thus, one can never exist outside of calculation. The logic of statistics comes to govern the mundane, operating as a matter-of-course (the only credited response being, perhaps, that we have been miscalculated, that more information will improve our calculations) (Baez, 2014).

These three elements of our neoliberal context intersect in ways that necessarily impact the means by which methodologists are known, the practices they enact, and the goals they seek to achieve. Thus it is that such neoliberal formations emphasize methodological technicians who can facilitate the manufacturing of particular types of truths—namely those that reinscribe neoliberal values and practices aligned with the security, schizoid, and statistical society. These types of truths become reinscribed as commonsensical and, therefore, outside the realm of critique. Truth thus becomes a governing force, an integral element of governmentality. In line with such circumstance, the truth-maker—that is, the individual who makes truths known and visible—enables such practices of governing by operating within the normative neoliberal frame. Thus it is that the conventional methodologist plays a key role in maintaining truth as a governing force. In response, critical inquirers might challenge methodological practice to question, “in what ways are we governed through truth?” This can only be done through processes of problematization.

As a mechanism for explaining his own approach to inquiry, Foucault offers the notion of problematization, or generating a critical distance from some thing (read: entity, relation, practice, etc.) in order to make it an object of thought. For Foucault, thought itself extends from problematization and “allows one to step back from this [habitual] way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and question it as to its meaning, its conditions and its goals”(Foucalt, 1984). Following Deleuze, Buchanan offers a similar notion of historicizing: “creating the means to ‘distance’ the present as an ‘event’ from itself as ‘mindless immediacy’” (Buchanan, 2000). Certainly, qualitative inquiry can play an important role in such activities, making an object of thought of both the daily practices habitually enacted and the very rationale that grants them common status. In this way, qualitative inquiry might, following the work of Fredric Jameson make the commonsensically legitimate visible and open to change: “legitimation becomes visible as a problem and an object of study only at the point in which it is called into question” (Jameson, 1984). To do so, however, qualitative methodologists must necessarily operate outside their normalized technocratic role as one who simply employs prescribed methods in favor of a more activist stance of maintaining a reflexive relation to the act of inquiry itself. Through this work, the engaged methodologist is able to comment upon the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves in the interest of change. In this way, the engaged methodologist invokes a critical knowledge formation proposed by Lyotard, seeking “instabilities” that allow for the undermining of the very knowledge formations that make legitimated ways of knowing possible. The methodologist thus emerges as a politically engaged and philosophically minded citizen, a key element of any working democracy.

However, engaging with the value of the immediate now remains an increasingly difficult task: The normative logic that dominates our contemporary moment is one that pushes one toward action without problematization. In short, the momentum of daily life leaves little critical space for the necessary act of thought itself (in Deleuzian terminology, our contemporary moment is one governed by repetition, not difference, making thought exceedingly difficult to enact; Deleuze, 1995). The predominant value of working more in less time (an accelerating principle of efficiency found in hyper-capitalism) necessarily excludes problematized thought—it leaves no space for acts of historicizing. Thus, citizenship becomes dominated by repetition—the habitual—with little promise for social change at individual or collective levels; conventional methodological work certainly displays this tendency. As a consequence, methodological practices that do not conform to the trappings of conventional approaches have gained traction among methodologists invested in social change, invoked as a means for actively engaging with an unknown (and productively different) future.

The point remains that methodological techniques and practices are only understood as viable if they derive from accepted claims of truth and, consequently, methodologies are often invoked habitually, without problematized critique. As such, they both draw from and accelerate normative claims regarding what is “true” and what is not. This leads to methodological “truths” taking on a governing role—one that shapes select practices as “legitimate” or even possible, shades others as outside the realm of common sense or “clear” understanding, and presents select elements of processed information (data) for consumption by the larger populace.

Such a scenario causes Foucault to recognize the impact of “truth” on our collective participation in governance. In what ways, we might now ask, are our methodological practices governed through truth? Importantly, research methods play a significant role in the production of truth (making apparent and visible select findings of what is true) even as they reveal the “truths” that make such methodological practice even possible. Thus it is that methodology deals with truth as both process and product. Contemporary methodological work (influenced by the new materialist turn in social theory) has sought to imagine new truths, new ways of truth-making, that are not dependent on normative values but, instead, make possible interrogative truths that disrupt the status quo in favor of an unknown future. This begins with an intentional shift toward relational logics and a recognition of the power of potentiality—that which has yet-to-be and, as such, is never fully formed. Such a shift necessitates a concomitant reconceptualizing of the key notions of truth and risk.

Alternative Engagements: Methodological Parrhesia

The previous sections offered a cartographic overview of conventional approaches to research within contemporary contexts with an eye toward the consequences of such realities, particularly on methodological practices and daily acts of citizenship. Extending from such an overview is the recognition that conventional forms of truth-making adhere to post/positivistic assumptions of knowing and being and, as such, provide no mechanism for challenging contemporary forms of governmentality. In our contemporary moment, phenomena can no longer be captured or fully known. As Jackson and Mazzei write, ours is a “time of researching situations that we no longer understand” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). Thus, the nature of research must likewise change—the goal of inquiry practice must shift from obtaining complete knowledge and predictable outcomes to fragmented knowledges and ambiguously known possibilities for the future.

The “materialist turn” as it manifests in contemporary research provides a necessary counter to conventional approaches and remains driven by two strikingly important elements, both political in nature: (1) our contemporary moment requires inquiry practices that make possible developing and unfinished findings over and above the contained, prefigured claims that extend from the post/positivist-influenced elements of conventional qualitative research; (2) our contemporary moment requires an engaged and actively political stance that refutes the inevitably of social injustice in favor of a radically different future, one unimaginable by neoliberal rationale. Though at first blush these two elements may seem somewhat contradictory (how can the tentativeness of the former lead to the determined interventionist sensibility of the latter?), they are nonetheless complementary. Further, this renewed perspective requires methodologists to recognize the implications of their work beyond the procedural—methodological practice becomes ethical engagement.

An implied assumption of newly materialist qualitative inquiry is that through inquiry we might be and know differently. Thus it is that this approach situates impact on both ontological and epistemological levels. Conventional approaches to qualitative research were most often aligned with epistemological concerns—the means by which we know and come to know. However, the “materialist turn” in philosophy and the social sciences invoked a collapse of the epistemic with the ontic (their separation seen as a vestige of Cartesian duality). Thus it is that knowing is being, the two entangled (entwined) in an engagement of the contemporary moment—where the understood past meets the possible (uncertain) future in the immediacy of the present. The result is knowing-being as an unfinished becoming; an onto-epistemological stance on inquiry.

Such a philosophical shift has rather significant implications for qualitative inquiry. What, then, is the role of research if not to generate full, complete meaning? How can tentative findings—those that are always unfinished—intervene in the contemporary moment in order to help establish a more socially just future? What risks must the methodologist take to enact a critically materialist position of becoming? A useful means to consider such questions extends from the intersection of newly materialist approaches to inquiry (particularly those that draw from the work of Karen Barad) and considerations for truth-making as radically engaged democratic action (as seen in Foucault’s interrogation of parrhesia).

In contrast to the methodological technocrat that extends from neoliberal formations of the security, schizoid, and statistical society is the possibility of a methodological truth-making that is situated within a more philosophically focused tradition of critique. In this instance, truth-making manifests as a disruptive intervention into the normative status quo. Whereas the technocratic researcher simply produces truths that maintain or reinforce contemporary norms (those that make logical, common sense), the newly materialist methodologist employs practices intended to provoke new possibilities, becoming truths made of the not-yet that refuse the capture anticipated by normative epistemological and ontological assumptions. This methodological engagement entails inquiry-as-truth-making and aligns with Foucault’s explication of parrhesia. Indeed, Foucault’s explication of parrhesia emphasized the alignment of identity, being, and practice in the act of telling the truth. As a consequence, Foucault assumes parrhesiastic practice as a telling (parrhesia translated as truth-telling). When brought to intersect with contemporary formations of new materialism, however, parrhesia takes on both epistemological and ontological characteristics—truths no longer told, are made. Truth-telling becomes truth-making.

Foucault distinguishes between political and philosophical practices of parrhesia as they were considered in Ancient Greece as well as their more contemporary extensions in neoliberal times (Foucault, 2011, 2015). Political parrhesia is best understood as a rhetorical practice, one that shifts questions of truth-making toward that of persuasion. In this sense, “truth” exists as that which the larger populace might be persuaded to believe. Truth-making is thus a rhetorical act focused entirely on convincing the other to take on one’s position. In this instance, one who makes truth claims risks only that s/he will not persuade the populace to share some representation of reality. This is a limited presentation of risk—one, like conventional methodologies, situated among the products of truth-making, not the process. Obviously, political parrhesia has a use value in a politicized democracy (one seen all too frequently in contemporary politics): Successful politicians are those whose rhetorical claims resonate with the majority. Equally as obvious, political parrhesia remains the enemy of democracy as those who engage in such a practice have no relational tie to the truths they tell beyond the persuasive possibilities of rhetoric; truth-making is thus an ungrounded means of appealing to the demographic majority. As such, political parrhesia most often operates through aligning with and amplifying the norms and anxieties that rule the day. Contemporarily, political parrhesia remains a practice of using instantiations of the security, schizoid, and statistical society in order to draw the populace to one’s rhetorical presentation of some reality. Indeed, such acts are alive and well in contemporary politics as espoused by mainstream politicians and news outlets; they substantiate ontological and epistemological norms, they do not seek to change or challenge them.

In counter distinction to rhetorical practices of truth-making, Foucault offers philosophical parrhesia. This radical approach to truth-making dwells in relational logic, an approach to knowing and being that is a hallmark of those philosophical orientations extending from the “materialist turn” alluded to above. As such, philosophical parrhesia (hereafter, parrhesia) aligns well with a reconfigured consideration of methodological work in qualitative inquiry, one that focuses on the process of truth-making over its product, is not bound by the confines of representationalism, and seeks to intervene in normative processes with the hope of creating a newly possible future—one not yet envisioned in the present moment. This is a critical methodologist who engages in practices of invention, driven by the potential to be other than we are. And, as Lyotard notes, “invention is always born of dissension” (Lyotard, 1997). Thus, methodological work is politically engaged action that refuses the easy replication of the normative status quo. Engaging in such parrhesiast practices reconfigures notions of risk to such an extent that the methodologist must risk his/her relations (to others, to the self, etc.) in the very act of truth-making.

In order to take part in this formation of truth-making, one must reconcile three positionings: citizenship, responsibility, and risk (Kuntz, 2015). To engage in parrhesia one must dwell as a citizen in the very spaces one critiques. Yet, one must do so all the while becoming differently than normatively prescribed. This, then, is the schizoid citizen found in the Deleuzoguattarian framework, or the posthuman subject exemplified by Rosi Braidotti’s philosophical concern for relational materialism (Braiddoti, 2013). Thus it is that the parrhesiast that problematizes contemporary ways of being and knowing (ontological and epistemological processes) in order to make possible unimagined ways of becoming otherwise. Further, the parrhesiast has a responsibility to engage in social critique, a moral obligation to counter tendencies toward the replication of the status quo. As a consequence, parrhesia is recognized as morally engaged practice (a distinction from the rhetorically focused practices of truth via persuasion). Further, through parrhesia, methodological responsibility shifts from concerns for responsible application of some research technology to a more relationally engaged responsibility to intervene within normative practices. Lastly, through questioning the very rationale that allows our contemporary moment to “make sense” (normatively speaking), the parrhesiast engages in truth-making at risk of disrupting those relations that grant him/her citizenship in the first place. Through such engaged practices, parrhesia risks the truth-teller’s identity—all that makes the parrhesiast visible and recognized becomes risked through the act of truth-making. Recall the earlier assertion that conventional methodologists situated methodological risk primarily in the product of their methodological work. Such risk pales in comparison to the methodologist-as-parrhesiast who chances his/her very relations and subjectivities through inquiry work.

These three requirements for parrhesia have significant consequences for the methodologist ensconced in higher education. Because the research methodologist (as faculty member) is granted citizenship within the academy, s/he has a responsibility to engage in inquiry practice that might well work against his/her very definition as a faculty member. In real terms, this might mean breaking down the historical barriers between the university and local community (often termed “town and gown”) in order to disrupt the traditional power relations that make such distinctions possible. In this sense, methodologists might work to manifest community projects that do not rely on manufactured claims of expert knowledge or disciplinary divisions of knowledge. What would it look like to “work with” or “work as” community members striving toward some yet-to-be-identified future? How might such work reflect back to disrupt the very circulations of power upon which the security, schizoid, and statistical society rests? Such work takes on the moral import of the performative (Denzin, 2003), situating all relations not as static and complete but developing and incomplete. This work thus requires continual engagement—mapping the very processes of which one is a part.

Importantly, Foucault notes that parrhesia exists not as a “skill” but rather, “a stance, a way of being” (Foucault, 2011). Thus, the parrhesiast resists the trap of methodological technism, engaging in inquiry as a practice of the truth-making self. Risking the possibility that s/he might lose recognition (citizenship) within the methodological community, the parrhesiastic inquirer works to make possible alternative, tentative truths that inevitably critique the status quo. The methodological truth-teller engages in research in order to make normative practices stammer (as Deleuze deemed the goal of critical philosophy), run less smoothly, hidden as it has been by the governing structures of the status quo. This is a becoming activism—one that never concludes but must always “begin again.”

In our contemporary time of multiple, contradictory truths, insecure recognition of localized and global terror, and assumed statistical renderings of reality (to name but a few governing discourses of our times) conventional methodologies fail to activate any hope for progressive, more socially just change. Given such circumstances, methodologists must actively seek inquiry processes that dynamically intervene in governing norms, challenging processes of legitimation to operate according to different, more relational, logics. Foucault’s explication of parrhesia aligns well with contemporarily materialist concerns with becoming otherwise. Parrhesia is a performative truth, one that acts as an ongoing and insistent intervention in the overproduction of the normative. As such, methodologists who work as truth-makers make possible enactments of risky research for the social good.


Both new material engagements with methodology and parrhesiastic practices of truth-making begin with a refusal to foreclose knowledge, electing instead to recognize the fluidly incomplete nature of knowledge formations, the daily activities of living they govern, and the critical inquiry practices that problematize them to visibility. Further, these approaches similarly intersect through their dedication to make possible a more socially just future, one not determined by the legitimated past. As such, a methodological parrhesia—practices of materialist inquiry as truth-making—provides a means to intervene in our contemporary moment that conventional qualitative methodologies can never achieve. Indeed, conventional approaches to qualitative research are shown to uphold and accelerate the very logic systems and governing rationales that critical inquiry seeks to subvert. Through taking new risks in inquiry projects, materialist methodologists might, at the same time, allow for new ways of being and knowing that are not reliant on the formations of the past to create a possible future.

Further Reading

Baez, B. (2014). Technologies of government: Politics and power in the “Information Age.” Charlotte, NC: Information Age.Find this resource:

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Denzin, N. (2003). Performance ethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2011). The courage of the truth (The government of self and 0thers II): Lectures at the College De France 1983–1984 (G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Jackson, A. & Mazzei, L. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kuntz, A. (2015). The responsible methodologist: Inquiry, truth-telling, and social justice. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:


Baez, B. (2014). Technologies of government: Politics and power in the “Information Age.” Charlotte, NC: Information Age.Find this resource:

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Braiddoti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity PressFind this resource:

Buchanan, I. (2000). Deleuzism: A metacommentary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G. (1995). Difference and repetition (P. Patton, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy? (H. Tomlinson & G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Denzin, N. (2003). Performance ethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1984). Polemics, politics, and problematisations: An interview with Michel Foucault. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Ethics, subjectivity, truth (pp. 113–119). New York: New Press.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1991). Governmentality. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality (pp. 87–104). Hemel Hempstead, U.K.: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2011). The courage of the truth (The government of self and others II): Lectures at the College De France 1983–1984 (G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2015). Parrhesia (G. Burchell, Trans.). Critical Inquiry, 41(2), 219–253.Find this resource:

Jackson, A., & Mazzei, L. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jackson, A., & Mazzei, L. (2012). Thinking in theory with qualitative research. Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jameson, F. (1984). Foreword. In J-F Lyotard (Ed.), The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi Trans) (pp. vii–xxii). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Kuntz, A. (2015). The responsible methodologist: Inquiry, truth-telling, and social justice. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Lyotard, J.-F. (1997). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Marcus, J., & Fischer, M. (1996). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource: