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date: 01 December 2022

Anarchy and Qualitative Methodsfree

Anarchy and Qualitative Methodsfree

  • Abraham P. DeLeonAbraham P. DeLeonThe University of Texas at San Antonio


What is anarchist theory and practice? What does it mean when anarchists engage with qualitative research? Anarchism has a long-standing history within radical political action that has been enacted at particular historical times and spaces. The Spanish Civil War, Paris 1968, and the so-called Battle of Seattle in 1999 saw the potential of anarchism as both a mode of critique and way(s) in which to think about direct political action. However, little has been done within the critical qualitative research project to engage with the ideas and critiques that anarchism offers researchers to think about and inform their own work.

Resisting hierarchies and their arrangements, challenging domination and relationships of power, rethinking praxis and direct action in qualitative research, and envisioning a utopian social and political imagination have been just a few of the political and epistemological projects that anarchists have undertaken that have direct implications for qualitative researchers. In thinking about future potentials, it has become imperative that critical qualitative researchers engage with anarchist theory and its critiques to better inform its own assumptions when thinking about the roles that qualitative research plays in resisting and altering oppressive social, political, and economic conditions.


  • Research and Assessment Methods


God. Masters. Hierarchies. These three facets of social life in Western society loom large over anarchism, anarchist theory, and communities that have pushed for less coercive social arrangements. Rooted in relationships of power that span social experiences, anarchism has challenged these in a variety of ways. The term “anarchist” itself brings forth a plethora of signifiers that portray a black-clad figure, face half covered with a mask, a lit Molotov cocktail in one hand and the anarchist cookbook in the other, fighting a line of police officers in riot gear. Besides confronting the police, this radical engages white supremacists in the streets of Berkeley or Seattle. This wild-eyed figure, located within a continuous protest stance, is resisting what was once NAFTA, the IMF, World Bank, or any fascist/authoritarian movement. This masked figure is seen with fist raised and ready for political violence at the drop of their mask(s). Although it would be dishonest not to admit that this popular representation figures into some of the global anarchist political interventions that have occurred over the past century, simply reducing anarchist theory and practice to these narrow political interventions would do a great disservice to its rich historical and intellectual traditions. These traditions have tried to imagine a different kind of world and society.

To escape dominant representations that contain and reduce anarchist theory to a simplistic this or that binary representation (protest or not!), this article wants to highlight and demonstrate the productive nature of anarchist theory and its relationship to a deeper, richer, and more nuanced application to a realm of political action found in the production of knowledge. Knowledge production has traditionally been the sole realm of academics, often constructed as inhabiting institutional ivory towers of a privileged university life. Cloistered within this academic setting are tensions between researchers and street activists that deploy an anarchist critique within their political action or through their theoretical approach. Who is legitimate enough to utilize anarchist theory as an approach? Does occupying a tenure-track position negate our abilities as researchers to deploy anarchist approaches in a way that is authentic and captures the spirit of what anarchism entails?

These tensions need to be openly acknowledged as the struggle to remain honest when positing what anarchism is and the visions anarchist theory encapsulates. We must also recognize the multiple fronts on which radical political action can take place. Anarchism is unabashedly anti-authoritarian (hence the play in the title of “Gods and Masters,” which Bakunin so aptly attacked as a problem within Western society [Bakunin, 2004]) and many anarchists have simply dropped out or have been highly skeptical of anyone in a privileged, tenured position to identify as one. Recognizing this tension, scholars should be hesitant to adopt an identity of an “anarchist,” although the spirit of anarchism can be found in most of my work and the way in which social problems, especially hierarchies and neoliberal capitalism, are addressed in this work. Thus, it seems important to understand that there are multiple fronts on which people have taken up anarchist critiques, but there is a strong tension in the community about what it means to be an anarchist, and that needs to be recognized. Thus, this anarchist intervention into qualitative research is highly subjective and could be re-interpreted from multiple perspectives, even from different anarchists themselves.

What is agreed upon, however, is that anarchism is not simply a series of linear steps to complete: an end point being a shiny and new anarchist persona to hit the streets with. There is no “method” to map out, nor is there a series of simple directions to complete or checkmarks to make. Anarchism informs a qualitative project by pointing researchers toward paying attention to the ways in which participants make sense of (to name only a few) hierarchical arrangements, modes of power, coercive institutions, and/or oppressive compulsory experiences, while also constructing research projects not only with/for participants but also as direct interventions in the lives of communities and the challenges they may face.

The ways in which anarchism changes one’s perspectives runs wild and deep; therefore, engaging with more anarchist literature may prompt one to think like an anarchist, asking questions with anarchism in mind toward current political/research dilemmas. This article’s intention is to stoke the reader’s imagination with some prevalent anarchist visions and what this would entail for a qualitative researcher who is ready to challenge structures of power through their work. Although the demand in most qualitative research communities is to provide more “concrete” ways in which to “do” anarchism, it remains powerful for the researcher to co-develop this with their research participants, after engaging with anarchist theory and principles as it applies to their unique lived situations. This anarchist intervention thus can never be a how-to guide, nor is it an appeal to become an anarchist through a step-by-step instructional manual on anarchism as an identity or as a specific methodological approach. There is work that already exists in which anarchism has been fused with direct action: radical and militant approaches to conducting research that allows someone to explore the assumptions that anarchists bring to their political and research practices (see Amster, DeLeon, Nocella, Fernandez, & Shannon, 2009, but in particular, Routledge, 2009).

Anarchism has remained in the political shadows of academia for far too long. A great potential resides within the heart of anarchist theory, born from the fringes of social and political struggles that saw Marxist theory and practice take center stage and arose out of dubious interactions between Marx and Bakunin during their membership in the International Working Men’s Association (Mehring, 1962). Whatever their personal beef was at that time, there was a common struggle to place the decisions made for labor back in the hands of labor and the anarchist struggles against the state and its apparatuses often brought them and Marxists into conflict. Unfortunately, Marxist practices do not push us far enough in critiquing and recognizing that hierarchical social arrangements lay at the heart of many of the political dilemmas radicals face in trying to challenge the structures of power in Western societies. Because anarchism can potentially escape not only the binary, hierarchical thinking that plagues Western philosophy and the corporate, institutional research approaches validated within the academy, it stands apart from hierarchical practices in which research becomes a series of steps to complete that ends with a finished project that can be published or funded.

Anarchism wants to reclaim the practice and concept of research from the discourses of the scientific revolution, producing through a radical, utopian imagination, a “non-existant Science” (Graeber, 2004, p. 65). Anarchism boldly proclaims a defiant “No!” to the legitimacy of bosses and owners; it rejects the authoritative nature of knowledge that is reserved/produced by/for elites; it resists the hegemony of science as the only way in which knowledge is reified and understood; it complicates traditional structures of power by advocating for a politics rooted within shifting roles of organizational structures that diffuse power by allowing others to assume positions in which decisions are made. Anarchism is a wild spirit that gives us new positions from which to mistrust authoritative sources that claim emancipation through the same tired practices we wish to destroy. And for anarchists, what better way to understand self and society than through an engagement of knowledge and its production, re-discovering the social world around us from a new perspective born of committed political struggles.

Anarchists exist on the fringes of social and political philosophy—which has all too often privileged Marxist critiques; anarchism is the unruly stepchild who sees problematic assumptions in even those discourses that claim “empowerment” or “social justice.” Anarchists question what appears to be the Marxist idealization of a new leadership order (a revolutionary vanguard) in which a new hierarchy replaces the old one. From an anarchist perspective, Marxism is too steeped in a step-by-step plan that sees usurping the bourgeoisie only to replace it with another “enlightened” ruling elite that now has the “truth” to speak from. Engaging with Marxist thought, one sees the authoritarian roots within their social plans in which new ruling elites replace the dead ones. Anarchism wants to do away with their fetishization of authoritarian figures such as Lenin who claim to represent Marxian interests and philosophy but actually represent the same, tired dictatorial approaches (for a more thorough treatment, see Rocker et al., 1981). Anarchists keep their keen eyes turned toward the productive nature of power, fusing postmodern traditions into their critiques and placing hierarchy and the state at the center of such critiques ultimately calling for these structures to be dismantled (Vaccaro, 2010).

In its most colonizing, traditional, and conservative sense, research (heavily quantitative but also found within mainstream qualitative research) is a linear way to frame reality that can be hierarchically ordered, captured, and surveilled by the state and the educational research and disciplinary complex through epistemological technologies and experiences. Research is imbued, immediately, in the gaze, logics, and practices of colonization (Smith, 2012). “Methods” become a rigid set of rules and regulations that must be followed to achieve the illusions of validity and “trustworthiness” that assume the research conducted is fit to be published and acts as legitimate academic currency. In its traditionally linear approach, the researcher possesses knowledge and method, observing and analyzing a social interaction, process, or structure that is dehumanized; observing from a supposedly “neutral” stance in which “I” is resisted for a supposedly “objective” approach that gives the researcher distance instead of an embedded social actor. Top-tier journals, reserved for safe, static, and status quo research, are celebrated by a neoliberal higher education ethos.

Anarchist critiques and actions resist dominant epistemological incantations and assumptions, generating knowledge of self and of community through a radical and decentralized approach to understanding reality and our place(s) in it. In anarchist ways of being and knowing, one writes and thinks soundly with “I,” resisting the absurdity that knowledge does not emerge from social, personal, institutional, historical, political, economic, and epistemological contexts in which self and other are enmeshed within complex and multilayered relationships of power. Self cannot be separated from the structures of power that produce and govern us, manifesting in an individuated reality that seeks demarcation and borders in which to position subjects in particular ways (Manning, 2013). Complex hierarchical arrangements of knowledge and the institutional arrangements that (re)produce subjectivity are the type of dominant relationships that anarchists tend to reject overall, while also often re-thinking our role as producers of knowledge.

This piece will be a wild dance across rhizomes, uncharted tangoes, building to one of many possible crescendos (Manning, 2007). It will be an intellectual explosion, even if at a brief historical moment, in thinking about the implications of anarchist theory for qualitative research. It will be a borderless idea of what anarchism may be for the researcher building their theoretical framework they will adopt while in the field, analyzing data or solving problems with their communities or affinity groups. Anarchist theory/practices stand in opposition to the established, domesticated ideas of what research is. Anarchism opposes even liberal, progressive, and supposedly “radical” approaches validated by other academics and historically by liberals, progressives, Marxists, and other state fetishists who are more interested in becoming the new ruling order with supposedly more “enlightened” ways to rule. Indeed, this brief interlude in a long-standing intellectual and praxis tradition such as anarchism is poised to set into motion an intervention for other anarchists or like-minded researchers to re-connect with their anti-authoritarian roots and construct alternative ways of being in/with/along the world around us through one of the most political acts: the production of knowledge through the practice(s) of conducting research. And although this article is unable to make peace with the struggles that anarchists have with participation in a neoliberal, hierarchical higher education institution—one in which the inevitable question, “How can you be an anarchist and still work for a university?” is usually inquired—it will hopefully allow us to see a more nuanced and critical approach to what anarchist theory could entail for the qualitative researcher.

Possible Elements of an Anarchist Ethos

It might be best to sketch some prevailing notions of anarchist theory that have been found in the literature. “Sketch” is used deliberately because anarchism itself is a rich and varied tradition that contains multiple strains and perspectives. We will help build a theoretical case for how anarchist approaches could unfold within the context of qualitative research. This is by no means to fix a definition of what anarchism is. That would seem to be antithetical to what anarchism might stand for. This piece is just one of many possibilities, a critique and deconstruction of hierarchical arrangements, a challenge to relationships of power that arise in qualitative research, and to uncover the ancient practices of our collective ancestors who lived outside the purview of the state. Although this article will be re-appropriated by a system that captures dissent and folds it back within acceptable practices that do not challenge the status quo in sustained ways, the reader can possibly devise their own creative ways of invisibility within their communities of practice, imbued by the ghosts of anarchist practices that can inform their research, and research questions, in new ways.

Luckily there have been paths already paved, especially one that envisions ethnography as a methodological approach rooted in utopian potentials—what David Graeber called a rough, “incipient model of how non-vanguardist revolutionary intellectual practice might work” (Graeber, 2004, p. 11). A tension exists within Marxism not often addressed by radical scholarship: the fetishization of vanguardism and the political certainties that Marxists propagate (Graeber, 2004, p. 10). For Marxists and anarchists alike, the revolutionary intellectual plays a pivotal role, but anarchist theory rejects the enlightened, radical individual and opts for affinity groups working together within communities to solve common problems. This divides power between groups/members and destroys vanguardism as part of the old world that sought to hierarchize particular political roles within a future vision of society.

Anarchist approaches to qualitative research will be varied. From exposing relationships of power, deconstructing and understanding hierarchical ways of thinking and behaving in contemporary life, to even examining how practices within resistance movements take shape and formulate: these are all important aspects that we need to better understand. Anarchists who seek to do qualitative research can look to anthropological moments, especially when it has informed the examination of, “actually existing self-governing communities, and actually existing non-market economies in the world” (Graeber, 2004, p. 11). This is important to remember because although this is written for an academic audience geared toward qualitative research, anarchism is engaged with the world around us. It is a border-crossing approach that is relevant for a variety of different scenarios. It is important to explore some of anarchism’s key assumptions.

Resisting Hierarchies and Their Ordered Arrangements

At the heart of anarchist theory is an aversion to structural, hierarchical arrangements in which a leader emerges that dictates orders and tells others what to do without counsel or suggestion. The types of leadership and organizational structures/styles that anarchists find problematic are static leaders that remain in power for an indefinite amount of time and that dictate orders and policy without full counsel from those generally affected by these decisions. This is a static vision of how organizations or affinity groups operate within a centralized power structure, in which one or a few actors dictate the rules to the majority of members: often these are people who do not participate in the decision-making process. Anarchists have focused their critiques on the larger, macro-political structures of power, especially in terms of being unapologetically anti-state in which people are subjected to a ruling order or elite. Those state structures are of course real and have dire consequences for marginalized communities through practices such as heavy policing or gutting social safety nets for historically oppressed groups or those that live in poverty. However, it is also the belief in and value of hierarchical rule that emerges from these statist realities: the idea that any human-centered organizational structure without a complex hierarchy of power is illegitimate and will descend humanity into a realm of violent chaos. Human social organization cannot escape the leadership paradigm in which someone in “charge” makes society a more harmonious experience.

States and these leadership-centric paradigms bear the brunt of anarchist critiques because of their ties to disciplining and controlling the population, especially historically marginalized peoples. For anarchists, the prison and military-industrial complexes imprison and discipline those unwilling to conform to institutionalized ideological perspectives of reality, all while staging violence in what are overwhelmingly formerly colonized spaces. Anarchists question the legitimacy of such organizational structures as not being able to meet the needs of constituents that fall outside these narrow conceptions of power and political participation. In other words, many people are simply left out, and elites make decisions that often have detrimental effects on those being governed or subjected to a particular form of prevailing ruling ideology. In terms of environmental destruction, especially of indigenous lands, we can see immediately the real effects these corporate hierarchical decisions have on humanity.

One immediately recognizes that this challenges not only hierarchical structures but also those that emerge through the multiple ways we come to understand the world around us. This approach to authority has put anarchists at odds with many progressive and radical social groups that cannot see past the hierarchical practices that discipline people and pigeonhole them into particular roles while punishing those who do not “fit” into a schema in which leaders and rulers are legitimated (even if couched in the language of progressive politics). Hierarchies must be dismantled because of their ties to practices of domination enacted on political dissidents, the poor, prisoners, and other marginalized populations. For example, hierarchical orderings of humanity were at the forefront of how Europeans became racialized subjects and in turn created more to sustain these formations (Smedley, 2007). Anarchists are invested in struggles that force us to rethink how our lives are controlled, structured, and governed hierarchically.

This point of contention cannot be overlooked in our struggles against a radical discourse steeped in Marxist theory and practice that seems enamored with hierarchical arrangements: from its critique of capitalism to its ideas about the course of revolutionary events (Parkin, 1983). To put it bluntly, many anarchists do not see legitimacy in a new prevailing order that replaces the old one—still steeped in the same logics but dressed in a different discourse—as potentially being an advancement of social organization for humanity, nonhumans, and worlds that exist outside of a human-centric approach to understanding reality. We should not reduce the complexity of Lenin’s accomplishments to simply replacing one form of power with another type of state arrangement. But Lenin’s efforts did give rise to a brutal dictatorship that subverted a Communist ethos with a state-sponsored violence that was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Anarchists want diffused power so that roles and responsibilities in self-governing are spread across multiple actors and the knowledge we create arising out of these same types of visions. There will be no role for an official “researcher,” as knowledge is created among a society of equals. Knowledge, qualitative in nature, would emerge from communities engaged in studying the self and our relationship to one another and our social world. Knowledge would be constructed along community lines always among equals, building new ways in which to understand ourselves and figure out ways to make the world a nicer place to live.


Although power has often been critiqued from poststructural and postmodern ways of knowing, power has been a concern for anarchists and their affinity groups. In its most basic sense, relationship and practices of power are what bind and produce the hierarchical relationships that structure daily life in the West. For anarchists, power is a pervasive reality in Western industrialized societies because of the practices of domination that help reproduce inequality and condition subjects to believe and reproduce the games of power that hinder the development of a new kind of person. Power is inherent in the practices of early-21st-century neoliberal capitalism but also in the way subjects perform and reproduce these expectations. This means that anarchists play with traditional roles, adopting new personas that test the limits of gender or class, anonymity, or even confrontations with authority figures such as the police: as has been done with the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) (Routledge, 2009).

Techniques and strategies of direct action in which anarchists confront fascists, right-wing militants, and other hegemonic forces demonstrate a willingness to address oppressive forms of power head on. However, this is not simply a case where anarchist practices prove to be only useful in perpetual resistance toward direct confrontations with authorities or oppressive groups. The realm of knowledge production appears to be a hegemonic space in which anarchists can also apply these practices that have developed theoretically and through practices of direct action. For example, although many critical qualitative researchers reject the subject-object dichotomy that occurs when one does research mired in the practices of hegemonic and colonizing forms of data collection, anarchism gives us a lens through which we can view the production of knowledge in a community of equals. But also this is a community in which “research” is never reduced to mere extraction. The production of knowledge becomes a space to rethink our place in this world and to rethink the identities that hinder the development of a future humanity, while rejecting the telos inherent in the term “research.” It forces us to confront the mechanisms of truth-telling to expose the fault lines where communities can build ways of knowing among an expanding multitude.

There is not an anarchist “method” to this that can be reduced to a step-by-step process. There is no how-to guide that will lead a researcher or affinity group to a level of truth that can be constantly reproduced outside of a specific context, problem, or experience. To address power and confront it means to engage the world directly and fluidly: an organic approach in recognizing that reality cannot be pre-mapped to be gazed upon before an experience/event even happens. Anarchist theory as praxis understands the situated nature of knowledge and how it appears at a moment’s notice because it does not break down reality into taxonomies that structure nature into prefabricated forms.

What does a re-constituted relationship of power look like outside of hierarchical arrangements? What type of knowledge is created when researcher and participant produce a way of knowing in unison with each other and the world around them? What happens when we abandon the logics of empiricism and taxonomic schemes and think of reality outside of socially constructed, hierarchical arrangements? These types of questions should provoke the intellectual imaginary inside of us. Academics in the field are forced to confront our own training, which tried to be progressive but ended up reproducing the objectification of subjects as something to be enacted upon. Stumbling upon anarchism as a conceptual and political tool in which to better understand Western obsessions with authority and hierarchy, it became clear that these ways of understanding and constructing reality have deep implications for the researcher embedded within complex relationships of power. With the power/knowledge critique leveled against Western ways of knowing by the likes of Foucault (Foucault, 1980), it becomes imperative to challenge the very heart of what we think about the world around us. And qualitative research, in its collection of stories and experiences that tells a tale of our participants’ lives, is uniquely positioned to do just that.

Praxis/Direct Action

At the heart of knowledge exists a society’s ultimate belief about authority and authority schemas (St. Pierre, 2012). Knowledge exists as a privileged realm in which “experts” and “authorities” produce knowledge for a docile population that digests what is told to them without question. Challenging this becomes tantamount to heresy, as knowledge becomes the modus operandi for how a society is managed and controlled (Foucault, 1980). Acting as authority system, surveillance mechanisms, and privileged ways of knowing, knowledge is the arm of normalizing institutions that produce docile bodies that conform to ways of being within the world. Anarchist practices, however, become a way of pushing back against these types of disciplining and normalizing features of power. For anarchists, authority must be resisted, deconstructed, and eventually dismantled. From the streets of Seattle in 1999 to the anarchists that have infiltrated an animal testing laboratory or a public school classroom, authority is met with skepticism, resistance, infiltration, and subversion (Guérin, 1970). This goes for the research process as well, as anarchists have demonstrated what this would look like for anthropologists in the field working with affinity groups (Graeber, 2004).

However, anarchists have historically moved beyond just critique. As Paulo Freire so eloquently demonstrated, at the heart of political and social changes lies the ability to work within the world: in this case, reading becomes a political act, resistance is found at multiple levels of society, and banking models of education in which knowledge is deposited into empty vessels is pushed back for a more participatory educational experience (Freire, 1985). Anarchist practice takes this further and pushes scholars and researchers to engage with the social world, solving problems within our communities that enact tangible changes. But how do we, as anarchy-informed researchers, spread these practices? That is where the power of the research project becomes so paramount: these approaches (not reproducible as steps 1, 2, and 3) can then be studied by activists across the globe in different contexts. They can form a rich tapestry of global practices in which anarchists in Brazil, for example, can give researchers in Thailand new ways to think through a problem or strategies that have been successfully deployed, in say, challenging police brutality. Here, research becomes a vital component that can be enveloped in local strategies so that modes of resistance are clever and adaptable, utilizing successful ideas from other social/political/linguistic/economic contexts. This circumvents state structures of authority for permission or justification to question and resist authoritarian systems. (DeLeon, 2008).

This type of information is never aimed at reproduction in which one strategy is given as the way to resist oppressive situations. Trying to reproduce strategies from one context to the next will be doomed to failure because of the uniqueness of context and application. Reproduction is at the heart of how recuperation happens under a capitalist system, the ability to fold practices of resistance (or any other outlaw strategy) back into itself to domesticate, repackage, and surveil ways in which a society pushes back against power (Mann, 1991). The world of artistic production, whether the avant-garde or graffiti art, aptly demonstrates how creativity is turned into a consumer commodity. As a qualitative researcher tuned into these types of pitfalls involved with speaking against power, the ability to see the contextual nature of how resistance happens occurs through a deep connectivity to place and space that anarchist theory as a body of knowledge ultimately understands.

A Utopian Social and Political Imagination

Although anarchism has been a critique rooted in the politics of direct-action strategies that resists power in multiple ways and political fronts, it has also been at the heart of a utopian imagination that looks to an alternative future outside of a capitalist ethos. The imagination “is not a roadmap or blueprint set out beforehand where sentences and pages unfold logically from one location to the next. It is a series of gestures, a means without ends” (Shukaitis, 2009, p. 9). This imaginative spirit has driven many of the critiques, actions, and visions that anarchists have been instrumental in creating for their collectives and affinity groups. The anarchist impulse toward a utopian vision rests within its anti-authoritarian practices and its skepticism of the state and its various practices. The Spanish Civil War (Alexander, 1999), and other examples that have popped up sporadically across borders (Scott, 2009), demonstrates some of humanity’s impulses toward a more egalitarian social practice that escapes a ruler/ruled dichotomy.

The need for a hierarchy, or top-down social arrangement, is often understood as the best approach to social organization and is sold to us through the idea of a state, the arrangement of a university, and corporate governance to even the ways in which school districts are organized. Hierarchies abound through Western practices that proliferate the gamut of social/political/economic/educational life. And the practices of qualitative research unfortunately do not escape the hierarchical impulses found within Western society. There has been work done to diffuse the relationships of power found within critically oriented qualitative research; however, this does not mean that there are not still challenges to come up with forward-thinking research approaches designed to break up the research/researched dichotomy hindering communities from nurturing their own voices through the production of knowledge.

There are subjectivities burrowed deep within the discourses of what it means to do research. For example, there is the dated but prolific figure of the intrepid, lone researcher trekking into the jungles to study indigenous peoples, as well as the educational researcher armed with an objective gaze steeped in measurement and extraction trying to make standardized practices more palpable for those enacted upon. These stereotypes have been challenged and have been a necessary counter-discourse against oppressive practices (Schostak & Schostak, 2008); however, a more direct injection of anarchist principles would be welcomed. What, indeed, would the research practice entail if not held in the hands of a privileged few who are then decoders and interpreters of reality being enacted upon others? What would it mean to throw the production of knowledge back into the hands of communities, activists, or agitators that want to understand reality from a different perspective? To think outside of this means to approach these social problems with a particular social and political imagination not found in traditional approaches to research. Graeber (2004, p. 65) may be inclined to call this a “non-science”: a research approach and co-production of knowledge that escapes the privileged discourses of empirically based science and throws into question the hierarchies that sustain its reproduction.

The utopian impulse found in anarchism helps shape resistance strategies that cross boundaries: physical, metaphorical, conceptual, and epistemological. The imagination must remain unfettered and avoid the confines of dominant ideologies and discourses of the state. This impulse remains in bold anarchist approaches, questioning the logics behind empirically based research as the answer to social inequalities. Take education, for example. Education is a realm of human experience that can create pathways not previously accessible. Students, free to explore their interests within a non-coercive environment, become the locus for a new kind of person: one that questions the nature of reality, is cognizant of the nefarious workings of power, and has a sense of self-worth that builds self-esteem. However, the terms education and schooling are now synonymous. Attending school is now the same as achieving an education.

This exploration of what institutions do to people and how they construct the subjectivities of children that attend school is an important research question. However, mainstream educational research is more concerned with measuring particular standards, exploring only “quantifiable” variables, and generally reifying schooling as a legitimate endeavor. The educational research is relegated to one of reproduction: reproducing the standard schooling practices that negate a critical and transformative social experience. Instead of contributing to a vibrant experiential humanity that allows critical questions to renew our sense of self and the practices we take up in particular settings, educational research is now simply a reproductive arm of the status quo. Its excitement and vitality is replaced with an experience that seeks to gain recognition as being “scientifically” based rooted in the discourses, practices, and logics of normality (Dudley-Marling & Gurn, 2010).

This type of critique can be applied to different scenarios and settings as anarchists have demonstrated. Although anarchism has always been tethered to direct action practices, the heart of its epistemological assumptions are the practices of critique and renewal in which solidarity, community building, and political agitation directly challenge structures of power and privilege found within various historical moments. With its interdisciplinary nature, anarchist praxis refuses to be tethered to only one discipline or only a single, limited application. Anarchism becomes a position to take up in which utopian thought and practice are two of its most important strengths. It offers us a critique of the state and why, for example, “states, and social order, even societies, largely correspond” (Graeber, 2004, p. 65). It is the utopian spirit that emerges from an anarchist-inspired practice that helps us develop alternative research questions and perspectives.

An anarchist-inspired qualitative project explores critical questions about democracy, the nature of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, the history of affinity groups, and even ways communities educate each other outside of the discourses and practices of institutionalized education. All of these questions are explored through voluntary associations of people wanting to understand their place in the world and alternatives available to them for practice. Notice that anarchism resists the specialist; the elite holder of knowledge that has the secrets in which to study/classify/order the Other. Instead, anarchism pushes us to create by working together, tearing down previous designations in which only a select few have the power and access to ask particular kinds of questions. This is a different world that anarchists envision, and this is where the utopian and creative spirit is found within anarchist practices: the idea that creation is an act to resist paradigms enacted upon us by more powerful social/political/economic groups. And toward this creation a new kind of world manifests itself through a delicate dance between theory, research, and practice. Knowledge creation becomes the window in which to rethink structures and relationships of coercive power.

Pointing Toward an Anarchist Present: Future Interventions/Agitations Within Qualitative Research

This article ends with a point of advocacy, urging qualitative researchers to engage more closely with anarchist theory and practices. Stemming from robust historical practices that stem from the First International and actual interactions with historical figures such as Karl Marx, anarchism offers much in terms of thinking/practice/theory for qualitative researchers entering the field. It advocates for direct and thoughtful approaches in confronting relationships of power and their manifestations, whether that be in the prison-industrial complex or through oppressive policing activities. Anarchists have met fascists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other conservative right-wing groups that want to stifle a robust and multicultural society from blossoming. This direct approach in confronting oppressive forms of power serves as a reminder of the roles qualitative researchers play in not only exposing stories for communities yet to be told but also the roles that knowledge production serves in resisting complex structures of power. Researchers who shine the light on underserved populations or tell stories from a different perspective, enable others to learn from these to apply to different scenarios and contexts.

Serving also as a theoretical lens in which to view power, hierarchies, and anti-capitalist practices, anarchism builds a robust critical framework in which to interpret the sights, sounds, interactions, and discourses encountered within the field. With its specific action toward resisting structures of power, anti-capitalist resistance, and its ability to formulate a utopian political imagination outside state discourses, anarchist theory challenges static political and epistemological notions from the start. With much of critical qualitative research grounded in Marxist practices and discourses, anarchism provides a different context in which to interpret qualitative data; it gives researchers new ways of understanding the social world from a position that questions hierarchies and common social norms/practices, as well as reframes relationships of power toward that of the multitudes existing outside positions of power within a complex hierarchical structure. This allows anarchist researchers to cast aside tradition for more forward-thinking approaches toward resisting oppressive forms of power.

Taken together, anarchist theory and practices point toward a future. Forgoing hierarchies for direct and communal forms of action, anarchist theory provides a more organic sense for those wanting to escape hierarchical orderings. It takes to task pernicious forms of power that look to govern through coercive practices and offers a new way to critique traditional societal structures with direct, active approaches to resistance. Its discourses are both realistic and utopian, offering alternative ways in which to interpret reality. Its commitment to a more open society points to a radical decentering of Eurocentric ways of knowing for an epistemological stance rooted in the everyday experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized communities. It offers qualitative researchers a way in which to rethink old commitments and point to new ways of being within the world. All of this demonstrates the potential of anarchist theory and practices to positively affect qualitative research in the future.


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