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?



Research ethics/research subjects

Over the last few days I’ve stumbled across a few different texts that relate to research ethics and the ways in which we treat the subjects of research…


"If you don't know what's going on or what we're talking about turn off the news and tune into the movement"
Tune into the movement, by Flickr user Meneer De Braker

The first, Jennifer Earl’s (2000) ‘Methods, movements and outcomes‘, advocates a more rigorous approach to the study of social movement outcomes. Earl outlines some of the problems involved in trying to determine how effective movements are in achieving social and political change, and suggests a number of solutions to these problems. Many of these suggestions are useful, although most involve a shift towards a ‘hard science‘ approach which I think has serious limitations when it comes to the study of social movements.

However, the first suggestion which Earl makes seemed particularly problematic to me. Earl argues that,

researchers should begin to use theory to define sets and types of outcomes that they would expect to be associated with a movement. Instead of relying on informants to “voice” goals, researchers should define broad, theory-driven categories of possible outcomes that are independent of SM [social movement] or SMO [social movement organisation] demands (p. 13).

She goes on to add that, “with theoretically driven outcomes categories, researchers could still study identity change as an outcome of social movements even if no social movement representative
ever articulated identity change as a goal” (p. 14).

While I think that Earl raises some excellent points about the difficulties involved in social movement research, I’m troubled at the suggestion that these can be effectively addressed by using an approach that sidelines activists’ autonomy in favour of tidy theoretical models. Activists, after all, have often devoted significant amounts of time to the causes they’re involved in, and have thought carefully about what they’re trying to achieve and why. To presume that activists’ statements about their goals can be overridden by movement researchers is to devalue activists’ knowledge and choices, as well as their role in building an understanding on their movement (for more on this I recommend Cox and Fominaya‘s work).


The second text is this video, which my partner was watching this morning. It shows chimpanzees who have been kept in captivity for all their lives being let out into the daylight for the first time:

I have trouble articulating how I feel about this, particularly in a tone that’s suitable for this blog. On an intellectual level, I find the arguments for seeing animals as non-human beings that are capable of suffering and worthy of respect deeply compelling. On an emotional level I’m deeply saddened and upset that we can, as a society, accept keeping sentient beings in cages for decades (and doing far worse).


A close up of one of the gorillas from the New York Natural History Museum diorama
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Finally, as part of the research I’ve been doing on curation I’ve been reading Haraway’s Teddy Bear Patriarchy, which explores the creation of the New York Natural History Museum displays in the early part of the twentieth century. Haraway explores the ways in which the structures of race, gender, class, and colonialism shaped the production of the museum, focusing on Carl Akeley’s role in producing natural history dioramas. There’s more to Haraway’s chapter than I have time to unpack here, but reading it I was struck (again) by the ways in which we have been prepared to sacrifice others (both human and non-human) in the service of science and ‘truth’.

Having just watched the above video, Haraway’s account of Akeley’s hunt for gorilla ‘specimens’ for the museum had a particular resonance. Haraway relays Akeley’s account of himself as “a naturalist interested in preserving wildlife” who wanted to “do anything to make killing animals less attractive” (such as devaluing the activity by showing that even women could do it) (p. 57). Akeley’s hunt was, in his eyes, undertaken out of necessity and with the aim of killing as few animals as possible.

Haraway’s retelling of the hunt is, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the reference to Akeley’s rationale, gruelling:

Within minutes of his first glimpse of the features of the face of an animal he longed more than anything else to see, Akeley had killed him, not in the face of a charge, but through a dense forest screen within which the animal hid, rushed, and shook branches … The second quest resulted in two missed males, a dead female, and her frightened baby speared by the porters and guides. Akeley and his party had killed or attempted to kill every ape they had seen since arriving in the area (pp. 57-58).

In each of these texts, there’s something that disturbs me about they way in which researchers have placed themselves in relation to the subjects of our, and in the sacrifices (of others) that have been made to produce (a version of) the truth. There isn’t, I think, a tidy lesson to tie all this together, or at least not one I’m willing to offer right now. There’s plenty of excellent analysis out there about research ethics, but the sense of unease that flows across these texts is important to me in itself.