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Trish Carroll

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Volume 9, May 2002

Writing My Way to Poststructuralism

To write is to measure the depth of things, as well to come to a sense of one's own depth (Van Manen, 1990, p 127).

This paper outlines part of a process, a process of writing and the development of a novice researcher. I aim to trace my own trajectory from a confined and rather rigid way of working to a more molecular,1 more fluid space in my writing as well as in my thinking. This writing is an attempt to make this movement more concrete and in doing so to continue the process of tuning myself as an instrument of research, to allow "for [a] deeper, richer resonance with the nuances of the phenomenon" I am investigating. (Piantanida p 144). I also wish to take up Richardson's challenge of using writing as a method of inquiry, an inquiry into my own "way of knowing" (Richardson, 1994).

I started my PhD in 2000 with a topic born out of my own experience, women and retirement. I set out to examine how older Australian women experience moving out of regular paid work, how they create meaning from this move and how this meaning determines their shifting constructions of themselves.

My theoretical position is evolving, growing out of the emerging awareness and conceptualisations of the research. However, I am finding in poststructuralist approaches, (Flax, 1990; Nicholson, 1990; Richardson, 1997; Rosenau, 1992; St Pierre, 2000) with their multiple realities, shifting subject positions and incomplete truths, a framework that I am drawn to as a fit for research that is about movement, change and individual specific lives.

I am interested in the differences between the women, their imaginings, their fears, their personal stories and how they are doing retirement. Do the changes in their relationship to paid employment necessarily mean a shift in their constructions of themselves?

Thus, this project is about the self as it is conceived within processes of change, from paid employment to retirement. Poststructuralism is a theorising framework that allows for the conceptualising of a shifting, changing self, of new possibilities and new subjectivities that can emerge from the ruins of the unified, coherent and rational subject (Rosenau, 1992).

This research is also about the institutions of paid work and family. Poststructuralism opens up spaces for an analysis of these institutions and structures that "raise[s] critical concerns about what it is that structures meanings, practices, and bodies, about why certain practices become intelligible, valorised or deemed as traditions, while other practices become discounted, impossible, or unimaginable" (Britzman, 2000, p. 30).

Finally, poststructuralism asks us to give up "finding out 'exactly' what is going on" (St Pierre, 2000, p. 477), to live with ambiguity and uncertainty. This living with change is the experience of the participants in my study, experience I want to portray. I believe poststructuralism opens up ways to represent these women that allows for the ambiguity and individualisation to be maintained (see for example Lather & Smithies, 1997; Richardson, 1997).

Initially, I outline the terrain of the problem, situating myself as a PhD student trying to think and write more in a poststructuralist frame, while conscious of being grounded in a modernist one. I then re-trace the tracks that have taken me from one position towards the other. Finally, I use my draft thesis writing to illustrate the process of my own development.

Starting where I was

I came to the PhD project steeped in the positivist paradigms of the 1980s, which was when I last did any course work on research. I believed that social research was designed to discover the truth about a particular human experience. I believed in the essential, stable self that constructed meaning and struggled, as Erikson claimed, with authenticity (1968). I had a long way to go.

So began the reading, thinking and reflecting on the fragmented, destabilised, shifting poststructuralist self. My understanding grew. However, it was in the move from poststructuralist theorising/reading to my own study, that I realised I had learned the words but not the spirit. I could write a paper outlining poststructuralist subjectivity and I could write another describing my study but they both seemed to operate in different places.

The problem culminated for me in the attempt to write 'the group' that is, to introduce the participants, of which I was one. This is part of my first attempt.

At the time of the first interview all of us had either just left paid employment or were about to do so. The position that each woman had prior to separation from the workplace is given in Table One, along with the classification of their employment status. I have also included here whether the organisation was in private enterprise or in the public sphere. (from first draft of Who Are We?)

How could I talk about localness, specificity and individuality when I was thinking and thus writing about commonness that negated those differences; that grouped us all as retirees? I was stranded in the in-between, the imagined space that is neither, and yet both, but both in a way that I couldn't quite comprehend, neither literally nor figuratively.

I read other accounts of PhD students working within poststructuralist paradigms (Gray, 1989; Hopkins, 1999; King, 1999; Pamphilon, 1997; Rhedding-Jones, 1997) and while they faced the same issue of writing within an academic genre, my dilemma was the reverse of theirs. They seemed to be well grounded in poststructuralism and wanted to transgress traditional academic writing. I was grounded in modernism and the traditions of positivist research and wanted to split open my own writing. I was stuck in a fixed modernist position while desperately wanting to be an open-ended poststructuralist.

Tracings of Footprints

I have shifted and it has taken me hours and hours of struggle. The following is my mudmap2 of how I moved. It was not a linear progression as may seem here in this writing, it was a spiral that went round and round but in touching on the same ground made it wider and deeper. Also, as with any spiral, at times it seemed to go backwards.

I asked myself questions. These are some of them. Why bother with a group description? Why do I want to put it in? Why poststructuralism? Why not a mixture of both paradigms? What do I want to say about these women? What is it important for the reader to know at this point? What are the metaphors3 that are embedded in the notions of writing participants up the way I have, in classifications and tables? Are there other metaphors that would be more appropriate, that would allow me to see a way to writing this section differently?

In answering these questions I worked from my own underdeveloped sensibilities. After all, it was my own processes I wanted to understand and shift. It was in answering these questions, particularly those around metaphors, that I began to conceive of a different way of writing and thinking about the women whom I'd constructed as a group. I began to see that the metaphors that were embedded in my first draft were those of containers: tables and boxes for putting things in, classifications for keeping them ordered and controlled. I needed a metaphor that would open them up, allow for fragmentation and diversity as well as binding them loosely, at least at the start.

I wrote. I created a computer file called Notes on Participants4 and in it I wrote about my frustration at not being able to write the way I wanted to.

I want it to be less stiff and formal, so boxed in. I want it to flow more to be looser and not so constrained. How can I achieve that? I can read more descriptions of the women in studies to see how others do this. I can just write trying to tap into what I want to say ... I want to give the facts so to speak but I want also to not be so laboured about them.


They, the facts, words seem to stultify the women, they seem to stop them and make them concrete and permanent. I need some sort of introduction that explains thatäthese are descriptions of our identities as welläat least parts of our identities...bits of assemblages that attach us to a place and time that has formed who we are. Some parts of us may still be rooted there in that time which is not totally past...but ever-present in our own constructions of who we are. That would be fine but then you just move into the boring repetition of factsäborn 1945, place England etc etc. How can I make that fluidity permeate all the writing? (entry 29/4/02)

I read books. I re-read Richardson (1994) and started into Lakoff and Johnson (1980) to look at the theorising of metaphor. However, it was St. Pierre's (1997) article using geographical metaphors for the field she was about to re-enter, that gave me space and topography as possibilities. However, on their own they seemed too rigid. Earlier I had read The Waterlily: A Blue Mountains Journal by Kate Llewellyn, a fictionalised diary of a woman spending a year in the mountains. The eloquently written prose describing damp, foggy mornings, skylines and gardens led me to contemplate the weather and finally, clouds.

Seen from a distance a cloudbank is outlined by a shifting, blurred boundary that foregrounds clouds from the sky, of which they are a part. The particles and individual shapes are indistinguishable from one another at that distance and as a bank, clouds appear solid and stable. It is only as you move closer that the individual formations and features take shape. Then as you move even closer and through them, as in an aeroplane, they disappear into wisps of nothing. Clouds are always changing, have no centre and while at times disappear, inevitably come back in some other form, a perfect poststructural metaphor.

The Writing

So I started again, using the metaphors of space, clouds, sky and the landscape to locate my writing. I did use the vocabulary of geography but it was how the metaphors affected my thinking about the group, the individuals within it and the context from which they came that was most crucial. I had moved from containers to shifting landscapes and horizons and for me it made all the difference..

The following is a section of what I hope will be a chapter of my thesis.

Who Are We?

The participants in this study are women who came into existence as a group between two sets of multilayered desires: mine to study women's experience of retirement and those of twenty-one women to be part of that research. That is not to say that these women did not exist prior to the study but their constitution as a group only came into being through a process of desiring.5 While not wanting to lose sight of the individuality of the women within this study, as a first step I delineate this group from the multiple others that could possibly have come into existence. I separate it out from the surrounding space and time within which it is embedded, trace the outline from a distance, bring into focus parts of the identities of the group members, bits of assemblages that attach us to a place and time, a context, that has, in part, helped in our own constructions of who we are. This separation begins the process of embodiment of the participants. Finally, as we move closer to the individuals I give a brief portrait of each woman, foregrounding their demographic particularities against the striated spaces into which they were born.

All the participants but two pre-date the baby-boom generation, having been born between 1936 and 1945. The two exceptions are Mayu and Jody who were born in 1949 and 1946 respectively. Fifteen of us were born in the last five of those war years ie. 1940 to 1945, which makes just about all of us war babies. We came into a world of great change and anxiety. For three of us, Rita, Mildred and myself that world was war ravaged England where rationing and economic depravation continued into the early 1950s. We all left there at various points, myself at seven to migrate with my family to Canada, Rita and Mildred later as young women to move to New Zealand and Australia respectively. Of the three of us, only Rita travelled on her own out of her desire to see a part of the world that had fascinated her for a long time. Mildred accompanied her PhD student husband. This dutiful-woman practice 6 mirrors Rita's later migration to Australia with her husband and my own shift from Canada to Papua New Guinea and finally Australia following the various men in my life. By dutiful-woman practice I mean the tendency for women to see and act as though their own desires and life choices were less important than that of their male partners. This pattern was not unusual amongst the women in this study as will be discussed later and it highlights the subordination of women's own needs and the foregrounding of the importance of men's work in the socioeconomic milieu of the time.

For the other nineteen of us, post-war Australia was the environment we entered into, where not only our mothers and aunts but also schools and the marketplace enacted for us what it was to be a woman and a worker.7 Here, I am of necessity, looking at a static past through the lenses of the dynamic present. I have taken the deeply etched and multi-layered Australian social landscape and smoothed it out, choosing to highlight only certain peaks, those to do with the dominant discourse around femininity, family and work during this war period and the time before it.8 Even these peaks are abbreviated and foreshortened in this account. I have been guided by the stories the women told me of their early work life and have blended this with feminist readings from history.

In Australia the years between 1910 and 1950 were, according to Jill Mathews (1984, p. 198), "a time of considerable stability in gender relations". The home formed the mainstay of women's domain where they cared for the children and their husbands but where their skills and knowledge were made invisible in the wider economic order. The sexual division of labour meant that women who did enter into paid employment were often regarded as invaders of the workplace, denied equal rights, pay or the recognition of their skills and contribution to productivity (Game & Pringle, 1983; Ryan & Conlon, 1975).

The white ideal of femininity in the years up to the late 1950s was a discourse that bound women by a number of strands (Mathews, 1984). Firstly, the ideal female was being in or striving for a heterosexual marriage, having 'saved oneself' sexually for the nuptial night. The striving consisted of constantly working on one's appearance and personality in order to be deemed suitable by a man, being seductive but chaste as precarious a tightrope as that was. Secondly, it was working, as a labour of love, within the home to support and nourish husband and children, or parents and siblings if still within the family of origin. This work consisted of physically maintaining not only the house but also the people, and incorporated all aspects of their lives, psychological, intellectual and emotional. Thirdly, it was protecting the moral fibre of not only the children and husband but also the nation, being God's police (Summers, 1975). Finally, the ideal female did not work outside the home, especially if there were children involved. The legal and economic regimes of the day such as the living wage case (Harvester Judgement 1907)9 with its paternalistic assumptions that women and children were cared for within the family structure, locked women into a dependency on men that continued well into the 1970s.

It was into this landscape where women found it difficult to sustain themselves beyond the walls of marriage, (Mathews, 1984), our mother's mental and physical spaces, that we were born. As Jane observed of her mother,

My mother had been widowed when I was 10 and had a huge struggle to survive, because in those days women just didn't get any special consideration. They couldn't get a loan. They couldn't do anything, but she was fairly spunky so she survived. (Jane, 1st Interview)

However, change was coming and with it second wave feminism but also a shift away from concerns of population growth to the growth of the economy, from the ideal of thrift inherited from the British to that of American consumerism (Lee & Senyard, 1987; Mathews, 1984). Here, I will look at what some of these socioeconomic changes of the 1950s and 60s meant for the women of the time, framing each aspect with a contextual title and introduction before foregrounding the women of the study within the frame, partly as a way of illustration but also to start the process of embodying the women.

The Way Forward

And so the work goes on. I started this article and my PhD with some challenges: how to shift my rather rigid way of writing and thinking; how to work within a poststructuralist approach; how to live with ambiguity and give up knowing exactly what is going on (St Pierre, 2000). I believe I have started that journey although my supervisors still pick up remnants of unacknowledged modernist thinking and my need to box things in.

What I have developed are ways of doing and thinking that will help me continue moving. I use my analytical diary as a way not only to express my frustrations and challenges but also to write my way out of them. I read fiction and poetry as a way to find new metaphors that will help free up my analysis as well as my writing. I study everything I can on the processes of crafting words and on research using poststructuralist approaches.

For me, the act of writing "exercises and makes empirically demonstrable our ability to 'see'" (Van Manen p 130), to see my research project and the participants more in focus, to see my blind-spots and misunderstandings more clearly and to see where I have come from and the way forward. I believe I have written my way to a more flexible, hopefully poststructuralist space but there are further distances to go. The research project, the women who constitute it and my own processes are all works-in-progress ... 10


1. While using some of Deleuze and Guattari's images in this paper, they do not hold the intensity and weight of thought that they do in the original writing. I am using them as metaphors, ways to imagine and thus to write differently.

2. Mudmaps are pencilled drawings that indicate a route, such as you might draw for someone who doesn't know how to get to your house. They are not to scale, leave out details, are idiosyncratic and only useful as a guide.

3. For detailed work on metaphors see Richardson (1994) and Lakoff and Johnson (1980).

4. Originally, I had conceived of this section as demographics. I soon changed the word and changed my thinking about what I was trying to do.

5. This conception of desiring is not as viewed by Lacan as lack, but as productive as presented by Deleuze and Guattari.

6. This wording reflects Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

7. I have focussed on Australia here as it is the place where most of us were born. However, since the prescription of womanly behaviour in Australia grew out of British imported views (Ryan & Conlon, 1975) I consider that the dominant discourse around femininity was for the purposes of this work, the same between England and Australia at that time.

8. For a comprehensive view of the construction of femininity in Australia in the twentieth century see Jill Mathews (1984). Also of interest would be Game (1983), Ryan (1975) and Summers (1975).

9. Justice Higgins in 1907, in a genuine humanitarian attempt to overcome poverty, tried to determine a fair, reasonable living wage for the average employee. However, the definition of an average employee did not include women as they were assumed to be supported by a male breadwinner. Men were legally obliged to look after their wives and children so if they did not those resultant single parent families were considered exceptions and common case law couldn't be built on exceptions. (Ryan & Conlon, 1975, Chapter Four)

10. The use of the dot dot dot is from Kate Llewellyn's The Waterlily: A Blue Mountain Journal p 186. "I have only a few pages or days to go to get this right. Yesterday I asked one of my visitors what she thought might end this journal fittingly. She has written so many books and has taste and style I admire. She said if it can't be solved, this life, that is, and as life is never solved until it is over, perhaps, dot dot dot … that was her suggestion. Do you like it? I do."


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