AoIR2016: Bending

This was a fascinating session run by The Fourchettes collective, with a focus on un-block-boxing, thinking about it through axes of power, and by recognising spaces of invisibility (and the importance of preparing them). It was facilitated by Alison Harvey (University of Leicester, United Kingdom), Mary Elizabeth Luka (York University, Canada), Jessalynn Keller (University of Calgary, Canada), Tamara Shepherd (University of Calgary, Canada), and Mélanie Millette (Université de Québec à Montréal, Canada).

I’m afraid my notes are rather partial here, as I’m not always good at balancing participation with note-taking in the enlarged-fishbowl-more-of-a-pond format.

Tamara Shepherd’s introduction was very effective in setting the context for the discussion, noting the need for critical approaches to methodology, and the complications and ambiguities in developing those approaches.

forkMary Elizabeth Luka talking about some of the ways in which an ethics of care is useful for thinking more deeply about methods. The ethics of care approach allows us to think about how ethics protocols obfuscate and manage different bodies of research. Building communities and networks is important, but this is often actually used with reference to ‘impact’ (in the ways it’s measured for academic work).

Mélanie Millette spoke on the paradoxes of balancing her personal experiences of research and the limitations of the formal ethics approach.

Jessalynn Keller talked about research pollination. Her research looks as how girls and women use digital technologies to challenge rape culture online, including their experiences and feelings around this kind of practice. This involves collecting a wide variety of materials across platforms. In constructing an archive of this material, it’s challenging to balance different priorities (including requirements as a junior researcher, and the desire to centre young women’s voices).

Alison Harvey talked about the obsession that develops in academia with typologies, and the benefits of taking individual words and thinking more deeply about them. Words that are very normalised in everyday practice, like, ‘data’ are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Her participants are experts sharing their stories, and talking to them doesn’t feel like, ‘data collection’. But we can’t just change these words, because we’re working within particular contexts. We also need to remember that no methodology is necessarily feminist. Feminist research approaches need to engage critically with the epistemological underpinnings of the process of research.

To give a very rough overview of some of the discussions that came up (perhaps more as a reminder to myself than anything else), with apologies for not being able to keep track of speakers:

  • Citation practices: who do we cite? Do we try to take texts that aren’t overtly feminist and try to read them against themselves? When we’re citing important contributions, including conference papers, how do we also protect people who may have been obfuscating their arguments for reasons like safety?
  • How do we support alternate citing practices as journal reviewers?
  • How do we find sources beyond the cannon? Especially when most of the tools we use (like Google Scholar and our internal library research) embed the existing status quo?
  • Open Humanities Press is a useful place to look for resources, in particular Photomediations.
  • How do we escape marginal spaces within academia? (For example, not getting stuck within ‘work on queer issues’, ‘work on country x’.) How do we as readers help in this (remembering that an article or conference presentation on India or Poland may still be relevant)?
  • Emma Lawson? ‘Publish and perish’ talks about the challenges of making research more open.
  • We need to think about how industries surrounding academia (like publishing) can also be engaged in this work.
  • How do we use our privilege, including our privilege as researchers, to create change?
  • When we think about what communities we work with want, we need to keep asking what will be useful. The answers are surprising: sometimes it is to publish academic articles. How do we ask what communities want at scale? Or when we’re bringing communities into being through our research?
  • When we’re working with ‘unlikeable’ movements, often we don’t want to point the ethics of care in their direction: we might be researching movements that we know don’t want to be researched, but their desires aren’t the most ethically pressing.
  • How do we use a feminist ethics of care when doing larger-scale research?
  • How do we use teaching to create change? Whose texts do we foreground? How do we make students pay attention to the authors of texts (many students assume that authors are white men)? What teaching practices create change?



AoIR2016: Ethics

We began with an introduction from Charles Ess, setting out some of the goals of the ethics panels, including:

  1. To foreground new ethical challenges with new insights, suggestions, methodological approaches, and work to help resolve these challenges.
  2. To foster community discussion in contributing to the AoIR ethics guidelines.

This is part of an attempt to think about ethics as an ongoing process of reflection, not as a once-off at the beginning of the project. This means thinking about dissemination, also.

Charles noted a shift in how we’re framing ethics: virtue ethics and care ethics are being given much more attention. He ended with a reminder that while we want to be at the cutting edge, but we must make ethical connections with the past rather than getting stuck in presentism.

calvinandhobbesphilosophyYlva Hård af Segerstad and Dick Kasperowski work looks at the difference between ‘found data’ and ‘made data’ (for example, data created through surveys). There are problems with gathering data from APIs, beyond the technical challenges. It’s tempting to gather as much data as possible, but of course this creates ethical dilemmas. The principle of data minimisation suggests we should only collect data required to answer the research question. Complete anonymisation of found data is often impossible, but there are ways to minimise identifying data. What does informed consent and anonymity mean when it comes to gathering found data? How do we minimise potential harm?

Amanda Lagerkvist presented on ‘The ethics of quantified loss’, sharing work in progress on groups of parents who memorialise their dead children online. Deep felt attachments to the technology used for memorialisation are often ambivalent. Parents speaking about their online memorials felt like a sudden disappearance of the platform used would be like a second death of their child. What is the ethos of online condolences, the ethics of liking or choosing not to like expressions of utter vulnerability and grief? Centring on mourners calls for an ethics of ambiguity: both the sense of a shared vulnerability, and of the strangeness of mourning online on commercial platforms.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer and Gerwin van Schie’s work focuses on ‘Entrepreneurial research: risks, opportunities, ethics’. There’s already a discourse on academic entrepreneurship, but this is mostly focused on the STEM fields. There’s often a lack of attention to digital humanities, and the ethics of the push to find new ways to fund research. We need to ask questions about our critical perspective, dependency, complicity, and risks, when exploring these new funding sources.

Elisabetta Locatelli discussed social media and the erasing of boundaries between academic/critical ad corporate research. This work reflects on research with OssCom between 2010 and 2016, which was financed by a digital communication agency. There are ethical challenges: what does it mean as a researcher to tell brands how to sell products more effectively?

Finally, I spoke a little on the challenges of managing alliances with multiple activist communities.

I really enjoyed the response to the panel and the discussion which followed – plenty to think about later!

Upcoming contribution to ‘Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data’

Cover for Compromised DataI’m happy to see that the Compromised Data colloquium that Tim and I presented at in late 2013 has lead to the publication of Compromised Data: from social media to big data:

There has been a data rush in the past decade brought about by online communication and, in particular, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, among others), which promises a new age of digital enlightenment. But social data is compromised: it is being seized by specific economic interests, it leads to a fundamental shift in the relationship between research and the public good, and it fosters new forms of control and surveillance.

Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data explores how we perform critical research within a compromised social data framework. The expert, international lineup of contributors explores the limits and challenges of social data research in order to invent and develop new modes of doing public research. At its core, this collection argues that we are witnessing a fundamental reshaping of the social through social data mining.

Our chapter explores some of the analytical and ethical issues involved in using big data for social media research, drawing on our Mapping Movements work. You can find our presentation from the colloquium here.

Thinking about research ethics

I didn’t get much (well, any) training in the ethics of research during my formal studies, apart from the documents that came along with my first ethics application. Over the years, I’ve been thinking more about what constitutes ethical research involving activists, and how I can use my relatively-privileged position within academia. The work I’ve been doing with Tim Highfield on the Mapping Movements project has also raised new challenges as we’ve tried to think about how to use social media material ethically (and rigorously). Over recent years, I’ve also come across more critiques by feminists and people of colour of the ways in which their lives, analyses, and work has been appropriated by academia and the media.

In response to this, I’ve tried to put together a rough public document about the ethical guidelines for my research. This is intended as a public statement of accountability, and I hope to continue updating it in response to further thinking and self-education.

Telling stories

Those who write publicly almost always have power over those they write about, particularly if they have a wide audience. I do not have a particularly large following, either on this blog or in academic circles, but I nevertheless use the stories that other people share with me in my writing. And many people who I talk to are not in a position where they can easily reply to the arguments I make about their lives and work. I was open about my research and the arguments I was forming when I carried out the interviews used in ‘Framing genetically modified crops‘, but many of those who I interviewed never had a chance to read the final piece, let alone reply to it publicly.

Grafitti reading "Tell your Story"
"Tell Your Story", courtesy of flickr user wadem

There is a tension in the kind of research that I do. If I write about activists who are (relatively) privileged, as I have done in some of my work, it is easy for them to access and respond to my arguments, to call me out if they think I’ve got it wrong. If I write about those who are marginalised–activists who don’t read English, or who aren’t online–then I have the opportunity to make unheard voices heard…but their stories are filtered, retold and reshaped by me, and they have no way to reply.

There are complexities to this, of course. The time I spend talking with people I interview about my own politics, answering questions, occasionally facing vehement disagreement. I try to bear in mind the political effects of what I write, limited though they are. I try to maintain contact with people I have spoken to when I can. When I tell other people’s stories, I try to do so respectfully and ethically.

I’m transcribing interviews from my fieldwork in India at the moment, long after I intended to. (A heavy teaching load and a challenging year in other respects hasn’t left much time for research work.) I’m tremendously grateful to the people who took the time to speak to me. There’s some excellent material there: interesting, important, analysis of activists’ work.

"You will be telling stories about me to your grandson."
Image courtesy of flickr user marie-II

I worry, sometimes, about my ability to do justice to the time that activists have spent with me. Over the last year I’ve been thinking of ways to make their stories more directly accessible. I’d like to share at least part of these interviews on this blog, and potentially even post whole interviews at some point in the future, with activists’ permission.

I expect that this process of figuring out how to use other people’s stories well, as I tell my own, will be a long one. I’ll make mistakes along the way, but hopefully none that are too serious or careless. Maybe, eventually, I will work out how to do it well.