On Friday I went to a really interesting conference – Sheffield Feminist Methodologies: Challenges and Negotiations at Sheffield Hallam Uni. It was organised by Rachel Handforth, a PhD student at Hallam, and was targeted at PhD students, which was great for me, because all the speakers were talking about their own PhD research, and the methodological challenges they had faced.
The room was absolutely packed with people from different disciplines – I spoke to researchers in sociology, English Lit, and education among others.
Panel 1: Research using Digital Media
Speakers in this panel were analysing Twitter, Facebook and digital magazines to look at various feminist issues.The main discussion focussed on the ethics of analysing social media content, which seems to be a grey area. Just because tweets are publicly available, should we be able to use them as data, or should we be getting consent from the people who were tweeting? Emilie Lawrence, who was analysing constructions of feminism on Twitter using feminist hashtags was struggling with the issue – she felt that it wasn’t ethical just to use the tweets, but in practice she couldn’t get consent for over 17,000 tweets! She also had the added dimension of images… some of the hashtags she was analysing involved thousands of images of women’s bodies posted (by the women themselves) onto Twitter. This brought up even more issues of consent (and also more practical copyright problems when it came to publication).
Also during that panel, there was discussion around how to respond to data you really didn’t agree with, or reacted emotionally towards – something that is bound to happen when you are researching something you care about. As feminist theory challenges the idea that a researcher can be neutral and objective, the speakers found other ways to deal with this – Laura Garcia-Favaro spoke about what she termed a “solidary-critical approach,” which involved respecting her participants’ opinions and situations, but finding ways to critique them (and feeding her thoughts and findings back to them in the form of a report).
Panel 2: Feminist research Beyond the Binary
This panel explored how the experiences of trans & non-binary people have been (and still are) sidelined in feminist debates. (Example of how scholarly communications contribute to this sidelining – academic journals publishing transfeminist research in “special issues”). Emma Hutson took us through a history of how trans theory/politics has intersected and “butted heads” with feminist theory – you can find the paper on academia.edu here. Naomi Frisby focussed on the depiction of body hair and “bearded women” in circus novels, which was really interesting – I like interdisciplinary conferences where you hear from literature/cultural studies people as well as social scientists!
The third speaker, Ben Vincent, spoke about “non-binary transfeminist methodological considerations” – they had interviewed people who identify as non-binary about negotiating their gender identies. On the methodology side, Ben told us about researcher/participant relationships where they (as researcher) were asked to justify why they were involved in the research project; where they were coming from politically/personally, before the participant would agree to be involved. Again, this can be seen to blur the line between researcher/research subject in an interesting way.
On a sidenote, watch this video of Jess Bradley and Loz Webb from Action for Trans Health…
On a second sidenote, we also talked about toilets! In our house we talk about toilets a lot. My partner and friends are involved in a toilet-related research project, so anything about toilets always gets flagged up. So, toilet related discussion:…
Keynote: Jessica Ringrose
After lunch we heard from the keynote speaker, Jessica Ringrose from the Institute of Education, UCL. My own research project is around open access to academic research and its use “outside the academy,” partly focussing on education based research, so it was especially useful for me that Jessica was from an education department and was talking about the idea of “impact” in her research. She spoke about the tension around impact – as a feminist researcher, of course she doesn’t only want to talk to other academics, she wants her research to make a difference in the world. However, she also recognises that “impact” is a term used within the neoliberal university to quantify, categorise and measure research/researchers with potentially harmful effects. I can see how the current drive to publish everything (Gold) open access could also be tied in with this concern, and it would be interesting to hear feminist researchers’ views on it.
Panel 3: Reflexivity
The final speakers were Reva Yunus, Hannah Retallack and Orla Murray – discussing their own positionality and privilege as researchers and their relationship to their research and research participants. There was a theme of going beyond just being reflective and trying as hard as you can to make changes to your research practice (not always possible when you’re part of a system with particular structures and constraints). For example, Reva talked about her own discomfort that her research participants (school children in India who speak a range of different languages) would not be able to access her research, written and published in English (a language with a history of colonialization and oppression). She is trying as far as she can to make sure she publishes in different languages as a part of trying to “decolonise” her research.
At the end of the day someone asked me what my research was about, and when I explained, asked whether I would be able to “get feminism into that.” Although I probably won’t explicitly position my project as “feminist research”, I would hope that ideas drawn from feminist theory (researchers fighting for social change, critiquing current structures of how research is communicated, what knowledges are valued in society etc.) would all be able to inform a project about open access to research. And the methodological discussions around ethics, reflexivity, and participant/researcher interaction are surely useful to anyone carrying out a qualitative study.
All in all, it was a fantastic conference, many thanks to Rachel and her colleagues for organising it. Hopefully there will be others in future. You can see loads of tweets from the conference at #shufemconf.