Here is the Open Access version of my new co-authored paper entitled ‘Rape culture, lad culture and everyday sexism Researching, conceptualizing and politicizing new mediations of gender and sexual violence.’ You can view the published version here. This paper was co-authored with Jessica Ringrose, Emma Renold and Carolyn Jackson as the introduction to a Special Issue of Journal of Gender Studies we have co-edited on the same topic. The Special Issue is not yet out but contains papers by Lida Ahmad and Priscyll Anctil Avoine, Lesley McMillan, Shweta Majumdar and Shreyasi Jha, Ruth Lewis, Susan Marine and Kathryn Kenney, Alyssa Nicollini, Kaitlynn Mendes, Jessalyn Keller and Jessica Ringrose, and Emma Renold.
One of the main persistent queries I get from research students is about how to develop an argument using qualitative data. When you are sitting with a trove of diverse narratives, how do you shape these into something interesting and important without losing complexity and while letting people speak for themselves as much as you can? This is difficult, painstaking work. In the current political context, it is crucial that we take pains to develop our data into arguments which are relevant and substantive: for some of us, this will be our most useful form of activism. While I have many doubts about our ability to deploy knowledge progressively in what has been called a ‘post-truth’ era, I am not yet ready to give up on the political potential of thoughtful social research.
This post does not contain advice about data analysis but about what happens afterwards: the interpretations which can be created from data once they have been synthesised into categories or themes, once an understanding of key trends has been reached and any particularly interesting or significant cases identified. You will probably have engaged in some form of coding to get here, whether software-based or by hand. Of course, the distinction between analysis and interpretation is permeable and often arbitrary: interpretation frequently starts at the data collection stage (or in bad research, before it), when arguments begin to form in your mind. But in many projects there will come a point when it is necessary to shift up a gear intellectually. What do you really want to say about these data, and crucially, why? At this point, you could try the following:
1. Examine your motivations. Are you preoccupied with being clever and making your mark, or are you committed to saying something relevant and useful which you can evidence? Academia tends to showcase the former at the expense of the latter – indeed, research has shown that the pressure to innovate in natural sciences often leads to ‘bad science’ being published which prioritises surprising findings that are often wrong. Decide to show integrity in your work.
2. Go back to your rationale and research questions (this sounds obvious, but many students fail to do it). Why did you deem this study important, and what did you originally want to know? Of course, you are not bound by your original aims: often the process of research shifts our paradigm of inquiry because our data tell us unexpected things. We should be alert to this possibility (and remember that deriving unforeseen conclusions from rigorous analysis is different from focusing on an anomalous finding because it will help you to make a splash). Revisiting your original aims will help you focus on what your data say, whether you set out to discover it or not.
3. Go back to the literature. Whether this is your theoretical framework (if you have one) or the empirical literature review (or both), check back in with the existing field to figure out how your data speak to it. Do they merely confirm what has already been written or are there new stories, unanswered questions or anomalies which need to be explored? If you are using a particular theory, are your data consistent with it or do they expose any gaps or weaknesses? If you analyse data in enough depth you will usually find challenges to existing theoretical frameworks: when developing an argument, it is better to start here than plucking something out of thin air based on a cursory glance through your dataset. Resist the temptation to name, to speak, to conclude before you are ready. Build on the intellectual work of others – this is how understanding becomes full and deep. If you need different theories or literatures to make sense of your data, go and find them: and make a point of seeking out diverse perspectives. If your intellectual canon consists mostly of white men your analysis will be much weaker for it.
4. Analysis is often a process of shuttling between theory and data. As you make these journeys, check that you are clear about the concepts you carry, and how you are using them. Do you have a sense of what ‘power’ might look like? Have you thought about how to actually ‘do’ intersectionality in empirical research? Do not carry ‘black boxes’ – empty versions of concepts which can be inserted into an argument as conclusive, but with nothing going on inside. Agency is a good example. If you think you can identify agency in your data, shuttle back to the theoretical definition, then forward into your data to consider if you can really see it in practice. What differentiates agency from action? If you think you can identify moments of agency, what are the broader implications? (the ‘so what?’ question – see below)
5. Be honest about what your data actually support. In the context of marking criteria (and scholarly norms) which prioritise ‘originality’, students often create arguments which sound lovely but bear little relation to their dataset. Beware ‘armchair theorising’ which is not grounded in your research: this might be your pet idea, but are you sure you can evidence it? Beware buzzwords which explain nothing, merely describe the familiar in different terms, and/or are just thrown in when we don’t know what else to say. Steer clear of inventing your own terms or concepts unless you have the data to back them up – and this often takes years.
6. Know the difference between novelty and significance. The latter implies an ability to challenge received wisdom in a substantive way, and sometimes the most obvious story about your data is not the most significant one. You might interview 40 women architects: the majority might highlight pay inequity and persistent everyday sexism, but reflect favourably on initiatives designed to encourage women to apply for promotion. This is important, although nothing we don’t already know. What might be more significant is that the two black women in your sample had experienced specific forms of gendered racism which meant that initiatives around ‘promoting women’ were not particularly helpful. These cases, alongside other studies, might help to evidence the argument that equality initiatives situate white women’s successes as a proxy for women as a whole, creating the illusion of collective progress and masking the specific difficulties black women face. When arguing from your data, you might prioritise this story over the more pedestrian majority narrative we have heard many times before. This choice is a political one, and this is the value of qualitative research: it allows us to dig deeper than the majority story and explore the nuances of social issues.
7. Exploring those nuances means engaging with the ‘why’ questions about the trends, anomalies and interesting cases in your data. This also requires an understanding of issues around ‘voice’ in qualitative research and the potential pitfalls of that term. The common practice of using social research to give people a ‘voice’ is a laudable (if perhaps doomed) attempt to elevate marginalised narratives and avoid imposing ‘false consciousness’ on participants. We could talk for days about the ethics and politics of this: for now however, I want to highlight the difference between honouring people’s experiences and perspectives and taking them at face value. There is no pure ‘voice’ prior to politics. Consider the inappropriateness of taking racist ‘immigration concerns’ expressed by white working class people as given, without deconstructing the white supremacist culture in which they resent and blame people of colour for their economic woes. Consider the use of cis women’s rape trauma in advocating for trans women’s exclusion from women-only space. Engaging rigorously with qualitative data requires us to set experience in context and explore how it is produced and framed.
8. Once your argument starts coming together, ask yourself ‘so what?’ How does it shed light on broader economic, social and/or political issues or concerns? This isn’t about micro- versus macro design: often in-depth research with very small samples can illuminate wider debates with more insight than much larger studies. The ‘so what?’ test refers to your mindset when you argue from your data. Are you content to tell a nice story, or do you want to try to influence something to change? Again, your ambitions can be quite small, and it is often more practical to set your sights on something specific or local than to make claims which are too grandiose (which will take you right back to what your data can actually support).
9. As your argument takes shape, try writing an abstract of your thesis or dissertation – this will help you to construct a narrative which is focused and makes logical sense. You can also outline chapters and sub-headings using Pat Thomson’s technique for avoiding ‘blocky’ writing: this is a really useful way to get that coveted narrative flow. Keep your abstract and outline handy as you write up, so you can amend them and stay focused as your argument develops. Start to enjoy it – watching a research narrative emerge is exciting, and research does have political potential. Knowledge may not change the world, but it can be used by progressive movements in a variety of different ways. What if you were able to construct a catalogue of police brutality against sex workers in your local area? Or a detailed narrative showing how a school has negotiated racist government policies and protected refugee children in their midst? We will need all the tools we can get in the years to come: if you can furnish us with any, I personally thank you for that. 💜
So it’s happened. Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States. He ran on a white supremacist ticket, and multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault failed to stop him taking the White House. There were reports of racist, homophobic and misogynistic hate crimes within hours of the result being declared. David Duke called the night one of the ‘most exciting’ of his life, and the Vice-President of France’s Front National declared: ‘their world is collapsing – ours is being built’. The Israeli Right took the opportunity to announce that the era of a Palestinian state is over. This only months after the British public voted to leave the European Union, ushering in a hard right agenda which ensures that the US and UK will (in Sarah Palin’s words) be ‘hooking up’ during the Trump administration.
These events are not surprising, even as they are shocking. Both Brexit and the election of Trump are national outpourings of long-held resentments, and a validation of the racist violences on which both the UK and US are built. Voters want to ‘take their countries back’ from people of colour, migrants, and Muslims. Entwined with this is suspicion and hatred of other Others: trans people, queers, disabled people and feminists. This ‘whitelash’ against globalisation and the very meagre gains which have been made in race equality targets all other social justice movements along with it. Under the pretext of ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment and suspicion of liberal political elites, white supremacists are trying to wrest back full control. There is no greater sense of victimhood than when entitlements and privileges are perceived to have been lost.
In this context, talking about ‘safe spaces’ and feminism in university classrooms might seem irrelevant, even indulgent. Don’t we have bigger problems to solve? Yes we do, as long as you think the micro and macro are separate, that the prejudice and unkindness we let pass in private has nothing to do with the bigotry, aggression and violence which has now been let loose on a national public scale. I believe that what we do on an individual level counts. Especially when social and political problems seem insurmountable, we can break through our numbness and inertia by starting with ourselves. The more privileged of us who care about equality have a duty to do this: we can give our more marginalised comrades space to grieve and breathe, while we think about taking action.
The university has potential as a critical and political space. We must not take a romantic view: the jury is certainly out on whether it is a site of radical deconstruction or just a wing of the master’s house (and the answer is probably both). Universities have also been neoliberalised, marketised and financialised (depending on who you listen to) until civic values have been crowded out by other concerns. But in an age of mass higher education, academics are in a unique position to engage with and influence members of the younger generation. We are also pushing on an open door: most of the under 30s in the US voted for Clinton (although this is thanks to the huge majorities amongst young African-American and Latinx voters), and more than 70% of the under-25s in the UK voted to Remain in the EU.
In between spells of despondency (magnified when I look at my young children), one of the things I will be doing in the coming weeks is reflecting with renewed commitment and energy on my role as a teacher. Am I just here to prepare reading lists, mark assignments and validate credentials, or do I aspire to something more? What do I do with the increasing proportion of my students who want me to ‘teach to the essay’ rather than explore issues in the round? How do I create space for political thought and action amongst young people who are often just trying to survive? These are huge, intimidating questions. Answering them constructively requires me to nurture my own self-awareness and capacity for self-development, and to make sure that my classroom is the right kind of space. A space where the most vulnerable of my students can express what they feel, think and need, and where their voices will be heard.
As Akwugo Emejulu has said, creating safer spaces in university classrooms requires emotional labour which academics are not always willing to provide. Now more than ever, we must be prepared to give emotionally to our students. With bigots empowered and intellectual pursuits reviled under a wave of right-wing populism, we will probably also face incessant questions about whose safety matters more. Those of us who have already dealt with student complaints about feeling uncomfortable in our political classrooms will no doubt see more of them, and there may be little support from our institutions in a context in which higher education and progressive values are under attack. Will we keep our mouths shut, worried about our module rankings, or will we defend our teaching and our politics? Will we put our emotional labour into making some students feel comfortable, potentially at the expense of others?
There is a big difference between safety and comfort. Marginalised people are made physically and mentally unsafe by policies grounded in bigotry, and its violent manifestation on our streets. Many of our dearly held liberal convictions encourage us to appease, not challenge, these politics. They are turned into ‘legitimate concerns’, to make people feel comfortable. Marginalised students may be emotionally unable to stay in a classroom while their peers parrot ‘concerns’ which seem benign but are anything but. It is uncomfortable to address this, especially when students think they already ‘get it’. An antiracist classroom should and will feel uncomfortable to a racist, but may also feel profoundly uncomfortable to someone who is not actively engaging with their white privilege. A feminist classroom may feel especially uncomfortable to a cishet man who feels he has been ‘reconstructed’ and has forgotten the advantages he enjoys.
For too long, we have pandered to people’s comfort under the guise of ‘debate’ or ‘freedom of speech’. Media outlets give shocking bigots airtime and column inches and describe it as balance, and we fail to call people out (or in) when they express diluted versions of these views. It’s easier not to rock the boat, especially when you are dealing with family and friends. But the entitlement to hold and share prejudice has now grown into a mainstream, electorally legitimated movement which tells some people their very existence is unacceptable. Go back to where you came from. Your sexual desires are perverse. Your gender identity is made up. This has happened on our watch. Especially in critical and progressive spaces, if we do not name and challenge this and the more ‘reasonable’ politics which appeases it, we will be letting everybody down. We cannot just hang our heads and wait for the wave to break so things will return to ‘normal’. This is the new ‘normal’, and the old ‘normal’ was not much better.
One of the characteristics of the ‘new normal’ is a loosening of what few restraints we had on expressing bigotry and committing violence in the open. Populist-right leaders have encouraged us to be proud of our hatred, and it has come bubbling up to the surface and exploded on to the streets. I am going to be saying this a lot from now on: this will not be tolerated in my classroom, nor will I appease it as ‘legitimate concerns’. I will challenge more and challenge deeper, and give my students the tools to do so too. This does not mean shutting down difficult conversations: it means having difficult conversations in a way that means those most affected are able to speak and be heard. If that makes others uncomfortable, so be it: instead of sacrificing some people’s safety for others’ comfort as before, we must forgo some people’s comfort to ensure that others might one day be able to be safe.
This is a joint statement issued by two research projects I am involved in, on the Universities UK report released today.
We welcome the release of the Universities UK report today on violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. It is crucial that leading bodies in the sector put pr…
I have been thinking a lot about outrage. Recently, I have been outraged a lot. Outrageous things have been happening. Outrage is an important feature of contemporary politics, within a proliferation of news and social media which has both democratised debate and given us the ability to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. It is one of a number of emotions which enter the political, arguably more now than before.
OUT-RAGE. It gets our rage out. Out into the public sphere; out of our systems. Outrage is cathartic. It has a righteousness which is a function of its ‘outness’ – it takes up space, demands attention to the issue at hand. We have recently been outraged about cases involving a number of individuals: Thomas Pogge, Lee Salter, Brock Turner, James Deen. In its productive capacities outrage is similar to anger, which Audre Lorde theorises as ‘a powerful source of energy serving progress and change’. Like anger, outrage can be channelled politically: sometimes we may like its direction, sometimes we may not. Outrage at the proliferation of misogynistic abuse on social media has recently been used by female Labour MPs to try to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. OutRage! is the name of the direct action group which has been much-critiqued for its righteousness in pushing neo-colonial agendas around LGBT rights in African countries.
Outrage is cathartic – it puts us in touch with our feelings, and allows them to be released. It is also connective: a crucial way of showing survivors our support. When we do outrage, we say I am with you. In a world in which survivors are suspected and disbelieved, outrage is necessary. After your sense of self has been destroyed by violence, the outrage of others stops you thinking you deserved what you got. It is an important preventive of the ‘second rape’ which often occurs within communities, institutions and carceral systems, in which the victim is put on trial. If outrage is withheld (as in so many cases where perpetrators go unchallenged), you are left alone with your guilt and shame.
Outrage connects us with survivors and can also connect us with each other – just as anger, if heard without defensiveness, can help build coalitions across difference. But unlike the thrashing out of differences, the connectivity of outrage relies on a homogeneous emotional response: it can bring movements together rapidly, as a chorus is formed. In our outrage, we all have the same focus and narrative: a performativity can develop that requires you to get your rage ‘out’ in order to fit in. This can sometimes create the impression that if you are not performing outrage, you are doing something wrong.
You get your rage ‘out’. And then? Because outrage is cathartic, it is possible to release it and move on. Outrage can appear momentary – especially in the fast-moving world of social media, it often settles on the next case while the previous one is unresolved. This differentiates outrage from anger, which Lorde sees as a potential catalyst for conversation. Outrage is a statement: we are outraged about something; we are outraged about something else. If the catharsis of outrage is enough for us, it can become an end in itself.
There are similarities between outrage and hatred. Ahmed writes that hatred is always of something or somebody. For Ahmed hate often focuses on the generalised Other: in contrast, outrage tends to coalesce around a specific individual, and sometimes the institution or group which has failed to deal with them. This failure is also largely seen in terms of ‘outness’: while we get our rage out, we also want its subject out – of our organisations, of our communities. It is much easier to mobilise outrage around removing an individual than to focus on changing the structural and systemic context which has allowed them, and probably others like them, to thrive. Hate becomes a death wish for the hated; outrage demands its subject begone.
Where does the subject of outrage go? There is often an appeal to carceral systems to take them away. Outrage regularly uses what Lorde would call the ‘master’s tools’ – the state and the corporate media – to inflict a social death on its subject and demand that they disappear. In an individualistic, punitive context with very few avenues for rehabilitation, there often seems no other option. And of course, there is a difference between a social death visited on the powerful and the hatred which can bring actual death to the powerless. However, emboldening the master’s tools with the former is not unrelated to their role in the latter. Outrage at Stanford student Brock Turner’s rape conviction involved demands for a much harsher prison sentence, but if we fortify the carceral state this will not primarily affect men like Brock Turner. Outrage at abuses within the sex industry produces client criminalisation policies which feed stigma and violence against sex workers, and make abuse more likely to occur in a variety of tangible ways.
I have worked for ten years now in a field in which there are periodic swells of outrage. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education institutions is absolutely outrageous. When outrage swells, I feel vindicated and supported – when it ebbs, I worry about what happens next. One of my key concerns in these ‘between’ times is the unchecked power of the neoliberal university over its students and staff, and of the neoliberal state over us all. I understand why outrage produces demands for punishment: in this system it is the only justice survivors get, and ostracism and incarceration of perpetrators seem the only routes to protection. Furthermore, outrage does not welcome complexity, and although I do not want to bolster punitive and carceral processes, in a similarly unproductive way my outrage has led me to imagine tearing everything down.
My fantasies of demolition bring me back to Lorde: she writes that anger alone cannot create the future, it can only demolish the past. Due to the qualities I have described, perhaps this is even more true of outrage. Tearing down is not helpful unless I am prepared to build something better. Of course, I am not suggesting that we ‘work within’ the system rather than raging against it: it is much more difficult than this, and requires a great deal more thought. I am also aware that Lorde writes about women connecting across their differences – she does not advise entering into relationships with the kyriarchical state. Indeed, she warns against white women in particular being seduced into joining this oppressor under the pretence of sharing power.
With this in mind, I am certainly not aspiring to a politics constituted by compromises within, or with, dysfunctional institutions: particularly since it is always the most compromised who end up compromising the most. But I do want outrage to be more than catharsis. As it ebbs away I want more of us, especially those with social and institutional privilege, to stay behind to do the work of thinking, and enacting, alternatives. This need not take place within institutions: when issues are particularly outrageous, sometimes we can work more productively outside them. But the work must happen nonetheless – survivors need and deserve that too.
The text below is from a guest blog I wrote for the journal Feminist Theory, to launch my article ‘Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in Contemporary Feminist Politics’, forthcoming in volume 17(3). At present the full text of the article is available from the journal free and can be accessed here. If for any reason you are unable to download this version, the open access version can be downloaded here.
Whose personal is more political? This question has been bothering me for a while. Feminism has been a politics of the personal since its inception, from the testimonial activism of black women in the US civil rights movement to the ‘personal is political’ slogan which underpinned Women’s Liberation, to contemporary intersectional feminist blogs and social media actions such as #sayhername, which exposes police brutality against women of colour. But what happens to this testimonial politics in a neoliberal context which commodifies experience and emotion? This concern underpins my paper. I build on work by Scott and Alcott on the epistemology and politics of experience, and by Ahmed, Pedwell and others on how emotions and affect enter the political.
In my own feminist activism, I am uneasy about what I see as competitive deployments of experience in the service of political agendas. I have been particularly struck by how ‘survivorship’ often acts as the trump card in adversarial debates. The politicisation of women’s victimisation has a long history, and others have documented the role of rape allegations in racialised oppression from slavery to contemporary criminal justice, and the use of indigenous and Othered women as a rhetorical justification for colonial and neo-colonial projects. Feminisms have been caught up in, and sometimes actively complicit with, these dynamics: together with neoliberal trends towards the commodification of the personal, this may frame the ways in which experience has also become capital within the feminist movement.
The question ‘whose personal is more political?’ invites fresh engagement with perennial issues of epistemic and political privilege. I argue that privileged feminists, speaking for others and/or for themselves, use experience to generate emotion and defeat critics who are often from more marginalised social positions. The sex industry ‘survivor’ is used to silence those still working in the industry, who argue for labour rights in order to protect them from violence and abuse. Cisgender women’s experiences of rape and assault are used to conceal the victimisation of trans women and assign them with ‘male violence’ through transphobic rhetoric. Selective empathies operate in which experience is only respected if it has political use value. ‘Speaking for others’ becomes even more problematic when it is wielded against another Other with whom one disagrees, who also happens to be speaking for themselves.
I am not, however, arguing for a renunciation of the politics of experience: instead, I argue that we need to situate experiences structurally, and critically appraise the uses to which they are put. When personal stories become capital in political debates, they must be understood in relation to dynamics of privilege and marginality: in other words, we need to ask whose personal is more political, and why.
Most of my Gender Studies students are well versed in the theory and politics of intersectionality. However, this often seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to designing their research projects. Intersectionality is easy to discuss, but takes work to apply; this is work of designing and redesigning, questioning and (in Crenshaw’s words) ‘asking the other question’. In her famous article ‘Mapping the Margins’, Crenshaw defines three levels of intersectionality:
- Structural: how the social locations of black women make their lived experiences qualitatively different from those of white women
- Political: how feminist and antiracist politics have both marginalised the concerns of women of colour
- Representational: how the cultural construction of women of colour is produced by ideas about gender and race
When students attempt to apply intersectionality, the representational level often feels easier and more natural. However, without attention to the political and structural, this tends to lend itself to a superficial approach focused on ‘adding’ particular groups rather than exploring how systems and identities are co-constructed (what Patricia Hill Collins calls the ‘matrix of domination‘). In what follows I will attempt to sketch out some suggested protocols for ‘doing’ intersectionality: central to these is the fact that intersectionality is not an additive principle but an inherent one which requires us to interrogate the very foundations of our work. In other words, we need to apply it right from our ontologies, through our research questions and sampling, to the knowledge claims we make.
Research always proceeds from ontology, whether this is a well-developed theoretical perspective or a simpler set of ideas about life. It is how you think the world works. If you are not intersectional in your ideas about the world, it will come through in your research. This is not just about acknowledging the existence of different types of people: crucially, you also need to think about how you define and locate structures such as the family, religion and the state. Our structural interpretations are often constructed from the perspective of a particular group, usually the dominant one. For example, since the 19th century black feminists have pointed out that state institutions such as law enforcement can be understood/experienced radically differently according to race. Privileged white women tend to look to the police for protection: for black women law enforcement is more often an agency of state violence against themselves and their families (usually perpetrated in the name of protecting whites). Despite this, the ‘neutral’ account of law enforcement is that they are here for everyone’s security: if you conduct research on an issue such as the under-reporting of sexual violence based on this ontology, your project will be exclusionary.
Developing an intersectional ontology also means interrogating key concepts such as gender, power and violence. This demands that we understand power relations both between genders and within them, mediated by categories such as race, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and age. It also means accounting for geopolitical flows of power between groups, nations and states in different regions of the world. Understanding a concept such as violence intersectionally asks us to broaden it from physical and sexual forms to include state, political, cultural and symbolic ones, which affect some communities more intensely and implicate others as perpetrators. Colonialism is the paradigm example. Within this framework, a term such as ‘violence against women’ becomes one-dimensional and inadequate. We must constantly challenge and complexify our ideas as we map the ontological foundations of our research.
The ontologies underpinning our work should define the questions we choose to focus on. However, sometimes even with an intersectional worldview it is easy to slip back into two dimensions when we think about practical questions for an empirical project. To make your research questions more intersectional, check that you are allowing for difference and ‘asking the other question’, where necessary, about your topic. For instance, in a project on the under-reporting of sexual violence, make sure your questions incorporate and acknowledge different understandings and experiences of law enforcement. If you are researching gender equality in parliamentary politics, understanding ‘women’ as a homogeneous group risks allowing the success of some white middle class women to conceal the continued struggles of those who do not fit this category. Make sure your questions are designed to avoid this pitfall: this might involve asking specifically about particular groups of women in the political system. It may also be necessary to interrogate your ontology of ‘progress’: if this is defined as any woman holding political office, you may not be ‘asking the other question’ about how politics and policies led by privileged women might affect others who are more marginalised. A more intersectional appreciation of ‘progress’ might be necessary, and you should frame your questions accordingly.
We should usually aim for diverse samples in our empirical work. However, intersectional research can be done using a limited and very specific sample, as long as you are honest about it. In fact, specificity can be a strength. Your desired sample will sometimes be dictated by your topic and what you aim to explore: if your research brief is to understand gendered street harassment in broad terms, for example, you will need as diverse a sample as possible. Women are sexualised in varying ways depending on intersecting categories such as class, race, disability and age, and gender-nonconforming people are also subjected to street harassment which has different dynamics. Often in qualitative research, samples are convenience-led and we must work with what we are given. Imagine you are asked to study a local women’s yoga group and you find that it is exclusively white and middle class. If approached in an intersectional way, the specificity of this sample could add depth to your research, allowing you to investigate how whiteness and class privilege are articulated in, and police the boundaries of, the space.
Many research projects in Gender Studies are grounded in the epistemology of experience, as a challenge to more masculinised, positivistic approaches. This is often situated within a testimonial politics focused on allowing more marginalised people to speak for themselves. If you are familiar with intersectionality theory you will already have a critical appreciation of terms such as ‘women’s experience’, knowing that this is not unitary or static and that to ground your research in such a principle may implicitly privilege the narratives and concerns of the dominant. In an intersectional research project you need to engage critically with different epistemologies in deciding where to locate yourself, realising that all knowledge claims are partial.
With this in mind, when you derive conclusions from your data make sure they are not over-generalised and that they are appropriate to your sample. In the project on the women’s yoga group, for example, you should not be making claims about ‘women’s experience of yoga’ but much more precise points about this particular white, middle class community of practice. This does not preclude raising broader questions or linking your work to more general themes: for example, the relationships between whiteness, privilege and the appropriation of Eastern physical-spiritual traditions in the West, and the historical and geopolitical contexts in which these are formed. However, you must be clear on what your particular dataset confirms, what has the status of interpretation and what needs to be left unanswered for now.
You should also ensure that you are not just generalising about your sample when there is differentiation within it. Imagine you are researching with a small group of sex workers, many of whom have extremely negative experiences of outreach and support services. You could derive legitimate conclusions here about sex worker stigma and judgment in the statutory and third sectors. However, an intersectional approach would require you to think about additional factors which might be at play. It might become apparent that the sex workers reporting the worst experiences are women over 45, linking to themes around how age, gender and sexuality are co-produced. You might begin to develop an analysis around perceptions of sex work as ‘sex’ rather than ‘work’, and how this interacts with the desexualisation of older women.
After doing all the above, you may end up feeling completely confused and as though you are unable to say anything at all. Congratulations! You have started to do intersectional research. The challenge for all of us is how to hold on to the complexities of social life with its multiple dynamics of privilege and marginality, while constructing narratives through our research which are engaging and intelligible. You will never, ever see the finished picture: but if you are lucky, you will get to be part of the process of finding a piece.