Gifting and research

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here in Athens, I’m starting to get a much  better idea of who I need to speak to and where I need to go, in part because I’ve had some fortuitous introductions from friends-of-friends-of-friends. This aspect of research on social movements is, I think, often under-acknowledged. You can, when doing research, make a more-or-less disinterested decision about the case study that will serve your research project best, show up, and then make contact with activists through websites or by showing up to protests. But activists in many circumstances are understandable cautious about talking to strange people who show up out of nowhere. As well as the security concerns that accompany state surveillance of many movements, activists have many competing demands on their time and talking to academics who may retell the story of the movement in ways which activists aren’t comfortable with.

a mindmap of gift economy features

Gift economy by London Permaculture

So I’m tremendously grateful to the people who take some time to introduce me and to tell me who it’s important that I speak to. Our work in Tunisia relied heavily on connections from friends and colleagues, just as my work in Athens does. In return, I try to ensure that my work is relevant for activists, that I write in a way that’s clear and accessible rather than all wrapped up in academic jargon, and that my work is publicly-available (preferably for free as open-access publications). I’m not sure that I always succeed in each of these, but I do try.

As well as attempting to give something of worth back in return for the introductions, explanations, and time taken for interviews which activists give me, academia relies on a complex web of gifting. This morning I spent two and a half hours going through over two hundred applications for Adacamp SF, and after I finish this post I will review conference abstracts for the Internet Research: resistance and appropriation conference. In fact, none of the work I’m doing at the moment is paid, as I’m taking a break from teaching to do research. The book review I’m writing is unpaid, the three book chapters and one article I have due soon are unpaid, the research I’m currently doing is for a book that will only be published a long way down the line and is unlikely to bring me any substantial income in royalties.

photo of a knitted jumper in progress, with a notebook

‘mad-scientist type stuff’ by sarkasmo

Much of this ‘gifting’ is not entirely altruistic – it brings me benefits in one form or another, even if that isn’t financial (just as gifting does in other gift economies). Publishing is essential to getting an academic position, even a teaching-focused position (which is sad, given the importance of good teachers, and the extent to which this is gendered). Some of it also feeds into exploitative systems, like the use of academic articles and peer-reviews (both unpaid) to build a massively profitable academic journal business - one reason why I won’t do reviews for journals which aren’t open access.

I can’t do my work without the gifts – of time, energy, and reputation – that others lend me. And I wouldn’t want to do my work if I didn’t feel like I was gifting something in return (although sometimes I do worry that I’m giving the academic equivalent of an ugly sweater that will never get worn). The context of that gifting, and the relationships involved, need careful thought.

“Take it as a compliment!”: harassment, sexism, and research

April 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

ImageI’ve recently completed a couple of research projects in Tunisia, which was, on the whole a very good experience. Tunisians are currently in the process of trying to change the direction of their country, which is of course a huge task, and I really appreciate the time and energy that people gave to help us and to talk to us about their work. However, the constant harassment that my friend/colleague/collaborator and I faced really wore me down after a while.

The harassment ranges from cars honking as they drive past to men walking behind me and whispering in my ear, “hey, beautiful!” to casual “ca va?”s to shouts of “hey, wanna fuck me?” to very obvious leering to ‘friendly’ attempts to talk us by men who wouldn’t leave when we politely (and then less politely) told them we weren’t interested to cars that slowed and followed us when we were walking down the street at night. And this is constant. In the space of a few metres in a busy area, we might have four or five groups of men shout at us.

I want to be clear here: this is not limited to Tunisia. It happens plenty in Perth, although most of the time when I’m walking or cycling around there I’m wearing headphones so I miss it. I got far more harassment in Tunisia than I get in Australia, partly because I’m obviously foreign. But then, the situation is reversed in Australia: Aboriginal Australians face constant racist harassment in Australia (including from the police), and many others (including Australian citizens who aren’t Anglo-Saxon or who speak a language other than English) face outright racist abuse or more subtle racism. And this is not to mention the sexism that even relatively privileged women in Australia face.

I don’t often write about this aspect of my work, and perhaps I should. As I get more confident as a researcher, I want to write more about the process, to be more present within the final published piece. For now, this is a start. The work is not only the interviews that will make it into the final publication, but also this context that surrounds them: trying different strategies for dealing with the harassment (ignoring it, shouting back, wondering if shouting back will lead to trouble). Not wanting to leave the hotel, some days, because I was just too sick of dealing with it.

And, at the same time, being very aware of my privilege, being aware that I am lucky enough to have access to international travel, and that I have a voice (however small) within the authority of academia. Knowing that however unpleasant I may find street harassment, my work is temporary and soon I will be elsewhere, and trying to present an analysis that will somehow be useful in dealing with all this.

I’m not going anywhere in particular with this. I’m sick, and very tired, and in a new country with new challenges. So it’s best to finish by letting the last words go to introducing awesome Tunisian feminists, who like all Tunisian women deal with this every day and are both in a better position to understand the situation there and to work out what to do about it: check out Feminism Attack!

[If you know of any feminist groups working on street harassment in Tunisia who need a signal boost, feel free to mention them in the comments and I'll add them in here.]

Mapping Movements

January 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in San Francisco working on the ‘Mapping Movements’ project that Tim Highfield and I are putting together. This project explores the role of the politics of place in shaping how social movements are composed and sustained, and movement participants’ links with other movements, with specific reference to two San Francisco-based movements. The first, the digital liberties movement, is necessarily international and decentralised because of the nature of Internet infrastructure and governance and the transnational scope of ICT development and dissemination. The second, the Occupy movement, is defined by its relationship to specific spaces, including the occupied public spaces and occupations of foreclosed homes. At the same time, however, it is connected to Occupy movements throughout the world.

A map showing Twitter connections related to Occupy Oakland

Preliminary hashtag map for #oo by Tim Highfield

In developing this research, we’ve aimed to create a project that will be relevant to activists as well as being interesting from an academic point of view, and that will contribute to activist attempts to create effective and inclusive networks. All of our research will be published in open access journals, as well as being shared in more informal spaces (like this blog). The project will draw on Tim Highfield’s maps of Twitter and other online networks, which will be complemented by in-depth qualitative interviews.

If you’re interested in participating in the project or would like to find out more, please feel free to contact me through the comments or on Twitter.

This study has been approved by the Curtin University Human Research Ethics Committee: the approval number is MCCA-17-11. If needed, verification of approval can be obtained either by writing to the Curtin University Human Research Ethics Committee, C/- Office of Research and Development, Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, Perth, 6845, or by telephoning (+618) 9266 2784 or hrec@curtin.edu.au.

Technology Conference 2012

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Technology Conference 2012 was a whirlwind, especially given that I spent much of it trying to deal with jetlag. Happily, it was well-worth the trip (and the exhaustion). This post doesn’t go into great detail about any of the presentations, but hopefully will provide a bit of a signpost to researchers you might be interested in reading more from (as well as serving as a reminder to me to check out their papers once the journal is published).

Different electronic devices from a student's bag

Image courtesy of Flickr user Monica Pinheiro

Given how much teaching I do online, I appreciated that there were a number of presentations on technology and education. Cruz Medina‘s Tweeting Latinidad: Constructing Knowledge with Latin@ Students on Twitter was particularly interesting. Medina placed his research and teaching practice within the context of the racism and marginalisation that Latin@ communities face in Arizona, and drew on Guillermo Gómez-Peña‘s performance art as a way of critiquing the assumption that marginalised communities cannot effectively use digital technologies. Medina pointed out that sites like Twitter are already part of Latin@ youth’s digital practices, and are therefore useful tools to build community and provide support to students. Whereas I tend to see Twitter as an open space (rather than a purely academic environment) when using it in teaching, Medina talked about using specific strategies to guide students’ participation and encourage study-related tweets: I’m thinking of trying out some of these ideas myself as a way of providing more scaffolding and direction for student use of Twitter. (Feel free to share your thoughts on this, students!) The technology and education stream sessions that I attended also covered evaluations of policies for mobile technology in class, planning for the large-scale shifts that universities will undergo in response to digital technologies, and evaluations of the use of laptops in primary schools.

There were also quite a few sessions that intersected with my research interests and important political trends. Henry Jenkins discussed SOPA and PIPAin his plenary, as well as talking about the links between ‘spreadability’ and the Occupy Movement. Jenkins tied this to the idea that we are seeing a shift from a system of distribution to a more participatory and non-hierarchical system of circulation, arguing that Occupy can be seen as “a complex set of communications practices,” with participants using adaptations of pop culture to effectively ensure that ideas and information about inequality are now being discussed widely. Christiane Paul’s plenary also raised some useful points about the links between power structures and the Internet, using the distinction between connectivity and collectivity to question whether ‘Web 2.0′ is as progressive as we often assume.

Image of a small drone hovering in front of a classroom of students

Image courtesy of Flickr user Charles McCain

Marcus Breen’s Killing the Thing You Love focused on the worrying link between the Internet and drone warfare, arguing that the Internet has been partly responsible for a shift in warfare beyond the point where we have the language to capably discuss the moral and ethical issues involved. Emmett Gillen’s research was also quite concerning to me, because his work with the Department of Homeland security highlights surveillance of activists linked to the left and (rather misleadingly) classed as ‘anarchists’.

There were also plenty of talks which didn’t intersect with my current work, but which were nevertheless fascinating. The panel on using collaborative geomatics to support remote and isolated communities in Ontario was particularly notable because it described several long-running collaborative projects that were guided by local communities’ needs. Many of these were aimed at managing data around land use, but there were also others relating to sharing intergenerational knowledge, meeting health needs, and preventing encounters with polar bears. (I’m hoping that they’ll end up connecting with Isuma TV on some of these projects, since there seems to be plenty of crossovers in their work.) I also liked Joseph Thompson’s work on Games, Glitches, Ghosts, which looked at the ways in which agency is played out in computer games, arguing that glitches are the voice of the machine, and Simon Downs’ The Gordian Knot and the Invisible Hand. Downs argued that designers can reconcile modernist and post-modernist approaches to design by recognising the ways in which complexity and emergence shape symbolic meaning.

As always, there were a heap of presentations that I would have liked to go to but couldn’t because of scheduling. I’m especially interested in looking up Sue Thomas’ work on the connections between nature and cyberspace, given my current research project. And, as always, some of the best and most interesting parts of the conference weren’t the presentations. As Simon Downs’ has written,

conferences allow us to meet with people who give a damn. More than that people who are qualified by education and experience to give a damn about the things that get you hot. Not necessarily in agreement with you, but with whom you share enough commonality of comprehension that the terms of the dispute can be agreed…

So now I’ll take a little time to assimilate all of this new learning, and all of the debates at the edges, and work out what I can do with it.

Upcoming (un)conferences: Adacamp and Technology Conference 2012

January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

After spending the last year or so heavily focused on teaching, I’m trying to find space for research and writing again. As part of that plan, I’ll be starting off the year by attending AdaCamp this weekend in Melbourne, and the Technology Conference 2012 in LA next week.

Donate to the Ada Initiative!AdaCamp is an unconference organised by the Ada Initiative, “a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing participation of women in open technology and culture, which includes open source software, Wikipedia and other open data, and open social media.” There’ll be some academics working in my field present, but also activists and people from other backgrounds. The sessions which have been offered over the mailing list so far sound great, and I appreciate the thought that is being put into making sure that AdaCamp is a safe and welcoming space for participants.

Poster for the Technology Conference 2012Technology conference 2012 is a much more traditional academic event, although I do like that they’ve incorporated talking circles into the conference programme. I don’t have experience with talking circles, but they sound like they might be a good way to get real discussion happening. It’s also great to see that the plenary speakers for the conference are a little more diverse than at many other conference I’ve been too (but, sadly, all still white and from a Western background as far as I can tell). My paper will be on the ways in which social movement scholars understand technological change, drawing heavily on the research I carried out in India early last year.

If you’re going to either event, please feel free to say hello in the comments or while I’m there. Coming all the way from Perth it’s always good to see a friendly face!

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