Research with marginalised groups: some difficult questions

Every year, students on the MA in Gender Studies ask questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged environment, but many of our students are politically committed and care passionately about issues of inequality. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these through research with human subjects is appropriate – too often students end up asking for time and attention from people who already live difficult lives, and producing projects which (due to time constraints and a lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I therefore advise students to ask themselves a number of questions when selecting their research topics:

  1. Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need?

The best way to approach this question is to design research in collaboration with community groups – some charities and organisations have data collection needs and are happy to receive offers from competent and committed postgraduate students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). The Centre for Gender Studies has four Associate Members – Galop, RISE, the Sex Worker Open University and Survivors’ Network – who are asked each year if they would like any students to help them out with small research projects. Sometimes students have their own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be beneficial (the onus must be on their data collection needs and not your interests, but if these are complementary, that’s great).

If there is no identifiable need in the community, there may be other ways to research the chosen topic which do not put people out or ask them to engage in intellectual, practical or emotional labour on your behalf. The best way to do this is to use pre-existing sources of data (see point 4 below).

  1. What are my motivations?

This question is related to the social need for the study, but pertains to you personally. Is this: (a) an issue and group you’ve been involved and familiar with for a while; (b) something you feel passionate about and want to educate yourself on; (c) an exploratory study which might lead to socially useful projects; (d) just curiosity? If (d), why are you curious about this group of people and is there a form of Orientalism at work? (Examples of some groups which are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: trans people, sex workers, Muslim women). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing sources of data. If (a), you most likely already know of a community organisation or group to work with on a project there’s a need for.

Examine your motivations honestly – if you feel they are anything but honourable (or you are not sure what they are), do not conduct the study. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect on these throughout the research, to ensure the safety of your research participants and the rigour of your data. This does not mean spending hours navel-gazing and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it requires you to make time to really look at yourself and become mindful of your relationships with participants and how they are structured by power and privilege. It may be possible to discuss these issues with some participants and to ask how they feel about the process – but this is a form of emotional labour which may be arduous as well (and therefore best avoided).

  1. Am I qualified?

Especially if you wish to research a more marginalised group of people, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing so. There are differing opinions in the field about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways in which the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised).Being an ‘insider’ is also by no means a guarantee that you will be able to do good research. However, if you are not at all familiar with the group in question and do not consider yourself an ally in their struggles, you should ask yourself whether you are in fact qualified to carry your project out.

Academia is full of relatively privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base about key social issues (bigger than there are already). However, research on more marginalised groups should proceed from a commitment to and association with the group in question, and if you wish to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying the profession. Ideally, research on marginalised groups would always be able to be carried out by members of those groups – since they are the experts on their own lives. This does not mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never carry out research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that fields of research on marginalised groups could always be insider-led.

  1. Do I need to ask people for their time/attention?

If you are able to go ahead with a project which involves human subjects, this does not necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material which can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own data archives – by far the most common research request made by our Associate Member organisations is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they have not yet had time to work with. If you are not working with an organisation there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive which is housed at Sussex University. There are also web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these are not research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects which can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media sources, which can give greater breadth of perspective than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for an MA study.

Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you are doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore with them ways in which your participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). We have a small budget in Gender Studies to support you with this, as long as there is a good case for the research.

  1. How will I look after my participants?

Research ethics are important to any project, but particularly one which involves a researcher with more privilege working with participants with less. Ensure that you develop a rigorous framework around anonymity and confidentiality, and (most importantly) that this is communicated to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms. Be aware that if you are not an ‘insider’ you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with the community organisation or charity you are working with. The university has comprehensive ethics guidance and pro-forma documentation available online, and you should work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you have designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. You should also be aware that this is the bare minimum in terms of actually conducting research in an ethical way – ethics is a process which requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen. If you have not read any feminist literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about recruiting participants.

If you are working with a service organisation or community group, explore ways in which they can help you to introduce yourself and put potential participants more at ease. When you recruit participants, emphasise that participating in the research is their choice and they can withdraw any time with no hard feelings. This is particularly important if you are recruiting through an organisation which provides help and resources, as there may be concerns that these are conditional on participating in your research. Be open to any misgivings or worries participants may have, and be aware of the fact that they may (rightly) suspect your motives. Also be aware that even if there is an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of oppression may not necessarily have the capacity to consider or care about it. It is patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want to be appreciated, even if you have the best intentions. Of course, it’s possible to develop wonderful, mutually fulfilling relationships with research participants – but to expect this is a form of entitlement. Building trust takes time, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or established ally (and often even if you are the latter).

  1. What will I do with the findings?

If you have been asked to conduct a research project by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Do not just forward them a copy of your dissertation! Depending on the target audience, possible outputs might be a short briefing paper, an informational video or a training workshop for staff. Writing a dissertation is a stressful process, and it might be tempting to just submit it and then forget about the whole thing. However, this would constitute a betrayal of the organisations and people who have given you their time and emotional labour. It would also expose self-serving motivations behind your research, and might cause community groups and individuals to approach future requests for research participation with justified trepidation.

Consider what you might do if you are asked to take part in academic or policy events or are contacted by journalists about your research, once it is complete. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there is specific interest in your dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should also ask for a community representative to share your platform in order to explore the issues first-hand and in more depth. If the request is simply for a generic ‘expert’ (which it very often is), always pass this on to representatives of the group in question. NEVER give out names or contact details of your participants without permission – if individuals have shown an interest in dissemination you might pass requests on, but in general it’s best to channel these through organisations or community groups.

To summarise: if your research is not needed, don’t do it. If you’re unsure of your motivations (or if they’re self-serving), don’t do it. If you’re a complete outsider, don’t do it. If you can use existing sources of data, use them. If you do end up working with marginalised people, look after them. Afterwards, give up your platform whenever you can.

Finally, read this: Fuck You and Fuck Your Fucking Thesis (why I will not participate in trans studies). Most of you will (quite rightly) be put off. If you can read it with no misgivings at all, you are probably kidding yourself (and definitely lacking the requisite sensitivity and social conscience for this kind of work). If you read it with a heavy heart but still want to carry out your research, come to see me and let’s discuss.

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Why sex workers should be part of sexual violence campaigns

CN: some of the articles this piece links to contain extremely offensive ideas about sex workers.

I have been asked a number of times how my work around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in higher education corresponds to my support of sex industry decriminalisation. The implication, which elicits arguments commonly made by abolitionist feminists, is often that the two are contradictory, that in supporting workers in the sex industry I am tacitly condoning the objectification of women and male sexual entitlement which feeds misogyny and violence. This may sound like good feminist common sense. However, I see it as a facile interpretation of both the causes of violence against women and what it means to support sex workers’ labour rights. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least because it betrays an exclusion from feminist anti-violence campaigning of some of the most vulnerable women in our society, whose primary demand is to be able to work in safety.

The conversations I have had about this echo the ways in which concerns around ‘lad culture’ have been linked to prevailing moral panics about pornography and commercial sex (as well as drugs and alcohol, and the opening up of higher education to the working classes). The argument from pornography, also made about violence in schools, draws on the historical association between feminist anti-violence work and sex industry abolitionist agendas, a connection which persists in initiatives such as No More Page 3 and Object. Such groups have been prominent in opposing misogynist and laddish representations of women, and position the sex industry as both a cause of sexism and violence against women, and a form of violence in itself. Object campaigns have sometimes involved protesting outside sex working venues, which has been experienced as intimidating and judgmental by the sex workers employed by them.

Of course, there are valid conversations to be had about gendered structures of sexual labour, discrimination and violence in the sex industry, and misogynistic representations in pornography and how these relate to young people’s sexual expectations and experiences – many of these are being had by sex workers themselves. However, contemporary mainstream feminist politics in this area is often simplistic and determinist, substituting symptom with cause (in the absence of any convincing evidence) and failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of commercial sex markets. It also downplays the broader social structures and power relations of gender (which are reflected in, not created by, the sex industry), as well as other structural conditions such as neoliberalism, HE marketisation and austerity (which, I have argued, shape contemporary ‘lad culture’ in its various forms). This produces a monocausal, and frequently censorious and punitive, politics. Campaigns resulting from these frameworks often focus on futile attempts to ban particular representations and sexual practices (or indeed, the sex industry itself), instead of focusing on the multiple intersecting social conditions which give rise to sexism and men’s violence against women, and trying to develop or enact alternatives.

Such discourses also often position sex workers as the problem, as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy who incite the objectification of non-sex working women by selling sex as a service (and more often than not, who deserve the violence they get). In these interpretations, the humanity of sex workers completely disappears. They become rhetorical objects in agendas around ending ‘male violence’, while the motivations, attitudes and actions of clients, the symbolic meanings of commercial sex, and the safety of other, more privileged women in relation to these, take precedence. The only sex workers who warrant support are those who want to be rescued (the ‘good’ sex workers – which reinforces the idea that the ‘bad’ ones should be punished). This leads to a complete lack of validation, protection and care for people of all genders working in the sex industry who experience violence. Indeed, feminist campaigns for criminalisation, supported by many anti-violence groups, often appear content to sacrifice sex workers’ wellbeing in the service of their ideological priorities, and the interpretation of sexual labour as violence in itself (in tandem with the idea that sex workers sell themselves rather than selling a service) can produce the horrendous myth that sex workers cannot be raped.

In our work on ‘lad culture’ and violence against women students we need to ensure that we are not playing in to such exclusionary agendas. Especially because it is possible that student sex workers may be particularly vulnerable to problematic masculine behaviours – we already know that ‘lad culture’ incorporates hostility to women who express sexual agency, and a strong element of slut-shaming. While not subscribing to unhelpful characterisations of sex work as a form of personal sexual empowerment, there are clear relationships between this and anti-sex worker prejudice (or whorephobia) due to the connotations attached to commercial sex and the idea of the sex worker as somehow ‘fair game’ when other women are not. There have also been suggestions that in some laddish communities, the act of paying for sex is seen as ‘a bit of a laugh’ – if true, this may reflect or produce a lack of respect for women who provide sexual services. Finally, it is possible that strippers and erotic dancers in towns and cities with significant student populations may regularly be required to negotiate aggressive masculinities performed by large groups of ‘lads’.

Many sex workers are at high risk of violence, from clients, members of communities which stigmatise them, and the police. An increasing number of students work in the sex industry, and they are not being adequately supported by their universities. In fact, in a process which mirrors dynamics within feminism, these student sex workers are seen as bringing their institutions into disrepute. It would indeed be sad and shameful if campaigns around ‘lad culture’ failed to pay attention to their needs (or worse, constructed them as adversaries as well). Furthermore, if such campaigns conceptualise the sex industry as in itself a form of ‘male violence’, they will obscure violence against sex workers and could end up sidelining and oppressing some of our most vulnerable students.

Of course, tackling ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence means challenging men’s sexual entitlement – but we must do this without suggesting that sex workers are responsible for it. This argument is a particularly pernicious form of victim-blaming which lacks any analytical utility, merely demonising women who are trying to get by, like the rest of us, in a patriarchal society. We need to collaborate more closely with sex worker-led organisations on issues around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence, to conduct focused research into sex workers’ experiences of sexism and violence, and to improve their access to support. Above all, we need to make sure our work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence does not position sex workers as the enemy and throw them under the bus. This is not the kind of anti-violence feminism I want to articulate – and it is not fit for purpose.