What the ‘grievance studies’ hoax is really about

This is the Open Access (and slightly longer) version of a piece published in Times Higher Education on October 4th 2018.

An article entitled ‘Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship’ has recently been published in Areo Magazine. It describes what Helen Pluckrose (editor of Areo), James A. Lindsay (who has a PhD in mathematics) and Peter Boghossian (an assistant professor of philosophy) term a ‘reflexive ethnography’ of particular academic fields, in which they wrote twenty Sokal-style hoax papers and submitted them under pseudonyms to peer-reviewed journals. The papers cover a variety of topics including sexual violence in urban dog parks, fat bodybuilding, and men anally penetrating themselves with sex toys. The authors report that seven were accepted and four of these published online, while seven were ‘still in play’ when the hoax was revealed, and six ‘retired as fatally flawed or beyond repair.’

Pluckrose et al claim to be ‘left-leaning’ scholars who position themselves against what they pejoratively call ‘grievance studies’ (a term which, whether they intend it to or not, evokes a canon of right-wing ‘anti-victimism’). ‘Grievance studies’ encompasses a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies. Their key target is described as ‘social constructivism’, which seems to consist of any attempt to demystify categories usually defined as ‘natural’ (so they actually mean social constructionism). Some of the tenets they take issue with are: the idea that gender inequalities are not to do with biology; the idea that obesity is a ‘healthy and beautiful body choice’; specific theories such as standpoint epistemology; and specific methodologies such as autoethnography.

There’s nothing wrong with academics holding each other up to scrutiny – it’s healthy and necessary. But despite their claim to be engaging in ‘good-faith’ critique, it’s clear that Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian actually aim to undermine fields they have political – not scholarly – objections to. First, there is plenty of scholarship within ‘grievance studies’ which does not take a social constructionist perspective, and plenty outside it which does. Secondly, as they have targeted only journals in ‘grievance studies’ fields and not others, there is no way to know whether the problems they identify are specific or more general across the sector (a glance at Retraction Watch suggests the latter). Indeed, despite their professed mission to restore methodological rigour where they feel it’s lacking, their own study incorporates no control group (not to mention the complete lack of research ethics). Most of the hoaxed journals are gender studies ones, and Boghossian and Lindsay have targeted gender studies before. This was with a hoax piece entitled ‘The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct’, submitted to a journal which turned out to be pay-to-publish. It seems, then, that these three may be harbouring some grievances themselves.

The current hoax features papers which are certainly outlandish. But Pluckrose et al admit they were not able to achieve a ‘conceptual penis’ style hoax with the journals they targeted this time, and had to produce much ‘less obvious’ papers which, in many cases, involved inventing datasets and citing relevant literature. Furthermore, some of the papers are simply based in premises (e.g. social constructionism) or political principles (e.g trans inclusion) that the hoax authors find hard to accept. For instance, a paper entitled ‘An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity’ argues that establishments such as Hooters help to construct problematic forms of masculinity (whereas Pluckrose et al seem to think that men are just biologically programmed to like looking at breasts). In their description of the aims of this particular hoax, they say, ‘to see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women’. Well, yes – problematising heterosexual attraction is a key premise on which gender studies scholarship is based.

Like the hoax itself, their reporting of it is also riddled with misrepresentation. Editors of one of the targeted journals tell me that the paper submitted to them was recorded as a desk reject and did not go out to reviewers and was not, as the authors claim, given a revise and resubmit. Michael Keenan notes that another paper was rejected by the journal Hypatia three times, with very critical reviewer commentary, but Pluckrose et al describe the journal’s response as ‘warm’ and place this alongside details of a paper which was accepted, which is very misleading. They also report they received four invitations to peer review other papers ‘as a result of their exemplary scholarship’, but neglect to mention whether these were merely auto-generated from a list of previous submitters to the journals in question.

The exposure of the hoax ends with a demand that all major universities review various areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory and other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology) ‘in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.’ This is a chilling statement which will certainly feed right-wing attacks on gender studies such as those which have recently happened in Hungary, as well as the targeting of feminist and critical race scholars by the ‘alt’-right. Pluckrose et al claim this is not their intention, but given their various misrepresentations, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe them.

As a scholar in ‘grievance studies’ myself, I think the hoax says more about conditions in the sector than anything else. Pressure to publish has created an increasing volume of submissions (and arguably also a drop in standards). Unpaid peer review often has to be squeezed in between swelling workload demands. If we’re truly worried about academic rigour, we might want to start there. Alternatively, we could think less about the flaws of ‘grievance studies’ and more about how academic work has contributed to legitimate grievances by bolstering neoliberal economic reforms or neo-imperialist foreign policy. To me, that’s corruption of scholarship.

Juggling the balls, having it all? Tips from a mother and part-time Professor

When I was promoted to Professor in Spring 2017, a number of my female colleagues asked me, ‘how did you do it?’ I have two children, born in 2010 and 2013. I worked three days a week after my first maternity leave, and increased to four days in September 2015 (and remain on a 0.8 contract). I was promoted to Senior Lecturer just before having my first child, to Reader in Spring 2015 and Professor two years after that.

As I have tried to get used to my new title (and some of the additional demands that come with it), the ‘how did you do it?’ question has stayed with me. Partly because it taps into my own imposter syndrome – I imagine an implication that I must have ‘gamed the system’ rather than met the criteria – but mainly because I think there is still a dearth of support for parents, and mothers in particular, trying to navigate having children and an academic career.

What follows is a series of tips based on my own experience. In presenting these, I don’t intend to pretend it’s been easy or to construct myself as ‘superwoman’. Like Melissa Terras, I think the ‘Superwoman Fallacy‘ is incredibly unhelpful and creates expectations that we should all just be able to cope (and maintain a perfect body and/or blow-dry whilst doing it). I am also in a secure academic position – I am aware that things are much, more more difficult for academics on precarious contracts, who may not have access to some of the coping strategies I present here. Also, behind every ‘superwoman’ is an army of others, usually less privileged women, who do childcare and/or domestic tasks for relatively low rates of pay. I am not insensible of the privilege I have in being able to afford some paid help (or how deeply unjust it is that women like me are only able to achieve success because of the labour of others). It’s largely because of the labour of these other women, as well as other forms of help, that I have managed to combine academia with motherhood. But there are a few other things I do which have helped me as well: I hope they help you, too.

1) First and foremost: writing. This is often the first thing to go when commitments start stacking up, and it’s also one of the most important in terms of both career progression and job satisfaction. My advice is: start small, and make things do double (or even triple) duty if you can. Several of my papers have started as blogs, then become talks, then developed into the full-length article. Don’t be afraid to re-use content in these different formats: each time it will probably get better, more complex, more nuanced, so think of it as a form of drafting. For UK academics, the new REF guidance is not unsupportive here: we are now potentially submitting fewer outputs, of higher quality. From a job satisfaction perspective, I also think it’s far better to write one great journal article a year than four which are just OK. Starting with blogs is a good way to make sure you are writing every day: sorry about the cliché, but writing is a muscular activity and if you don’t use muscles, you lose them.

2) Get organised: learn how to manage your time. I ‘diary’ everything: research time, marking, childcare. I also try to clump things together, so I’m not constantly making ten-minute appointments which can pepper my days and leave little time for other focused work. For instance, I hold four drop-in ‘office hours’ per week for students to keep the ad hoc meetings to a minimum. I try to avoid long Email discussions, but also resist the urge to set up meetings when a quick phone call or Skype would do the trick. During term time especially, I use a double-sided sign on my door (originally intended for a toilet) which can be flipped to ‘free’ or ‘busy’, depending on whether I feel I can be interrupted or not. I use Trello to keep track of all my different roles and tasks, from research and writing projects, to my MA programme, to my big admin jobs. Trello allows you to create ‘to do’ lists and to write notes on each item, attach files, and add comments. You can also share your lists with your team.

3) Say ‘no’. A lot. I mentor a number of junior women, and this is the main thing I try to teach them. It doesn’t mean be a bad colleague: we all know that male academic who doesn’t do anything unless it gives him a line on his CV. Instead, it means getting better at filtering out what’s necessary from what’s not, and learning to work on your own terms instead of constantly reacting to other people. I have (and have had) a huge number of different roles at Sussex, so sometimes it feels as though everyone wants a piece of me, and they all want it now. When someone asks for a meeting, my first response is always, ‘what’s it about?’ This enables me to triage. Unless it’s an emergency, I then resist the urge to stop what I’m doing immediately, and instead offer half an hour at a different time when it’s less interruptive. Knowing what people want upfront also means I can signpost them elsewhere if it’s apparent that’s what they really need.

In external terms, I say no to about 85% of the requests I get. If they’re interesting, I try to recommend junior women who I think might benefit from the exposure. If not, I let them go. It’s difficult to say no – many people, especially women, are uncomfortable with it – and as academics (especially if we are on precarious contracts) we are often pressured to be everywhere and do everything. But you can’t, especially with young kids in tow. I also don’t think it’s necessary – let’s go back to quality rather than quantity – people will remember you far more for that one kick-ass talk you gave last year than for four which were just OK (and you will enjoy yourself more too). Finally, some opportunities, to my mind, offer notoriety and nothing else. Do I need to go to the Oxford Union to debate someone from Spiked on ‘safe spaces’? Absolutely not.

4) Use resources wisely. Instead of spending your research allowance on yet another conference, use it (or apply for a small pot of money, if that’s how it works at your institution) to enable you to delegate certain jobs. I have done this in order to get literature reviews produced, to get support with impact activity, and to get help organising conferences. A bonus is that you will generate work for some poor hungry postgraduate student, usually paid at a decent rate and which develops them and is good for their CV. I have also used small funds to pay for coaching (thanks Natalie!) and other career/personal development opportunities which have given me many of my organisational strategies, helped me to manage stress (and know when to push back) and deal with the constant feeling of not being ‘good enough’ (more on that later).

5) Use social media and other technologies as much as you can. Lots of conferences now allow you to ‘be there’ without actually being there, via Skype or other platforms (which will free up your budget to be spent on something else). Blogs are a terrific way to publicise your research, as is writing for publications such as the Guardian Higher or Times Higher Education. Share your articles and projects in Facebook groups and on sites such as ResearchGate: they’re great for networking (but remember, you need to show interest in other people’s stuff too: we all roll our eyes at those academics who are only about themselves). Twitter is also fantastic, if you can filter out all the noise. When my kids were tiny and I was hardly travelling at all, Twitter was my lifeline: I used it to build new audiences for my work and (more importantly) to stay plugged in to debates I was interested in. I got a lot more from this than I was expecting, due to the variety of voices you hear on Twitter that just aren’t represented in mainstream academic discussions. As a relatively immobile academic, this was key to my intellectual development (and still is).

6) Know your rights. As a part-timer if you are one, your rights to flexible working, rights to unpaid time off to look after your children, and other things. Citizens Advice have good resources, as do ACAS. Make sure you are a member of a union – I can’t emphasise this enough – and familiarise yourself with your institution’s policies on things like equality and diversity, bullying and harassment, wellbeing and stress. Do this before you encounter that manager who insists on making you work days you’re not contracted for, or expects you to answer emails at the weekends, or that male (or sometimes, unfortunately, female) senior Professor who dumps all their unwanted admin on you.

7) Know who your supporters are. I have been lucky to have very supportive managers on the whole, who have agreed my requests for part-time and flexible working and have been open to discussions about ensuring my workload is apportioned appropriately. Not that there haven’t been problems: especially in academia, part-time is very rarely part-time and workloads for all of us have increased in recent years. I am also in a relatively small department in which capacity is often limited. However, I have always felt I had some room for manoeuvre and/or some possibility of discussion. If your manager isn’t supportive, you may need to find someone in HR or another mentor in your department or unit, who is able to advocate for and advise you. In my experience HR staff are usually very helpful with queries about part-time and flexible working, because so many of them do it themselves. I am also lucky to have, as well as some paid help, an incredibly supportive partner who shares the childcare 50/50 when we are at home. If you don’t have this, it can be incredibly difficult (and you have all my admiration), and you may need to think about developing a supportive network of friends to relieve at least some of the pressure. Especially once kids are at school, I’ve found other parents are very willing to help out, as I am myself. It’s also often easier to get on with a bit of work (of any type, household or academic) when your kids have their friends round. In the absence of full communism (now!) I think we should try, in our own ways, to collectivise childcare as much as we can.

8) Don’t beat yourself up. I am useless at this: I feel like a bad parent about twenty times a day (including right now: I’m writing this while my kids are amusing themselves in the park, and other parents are building sandcastles or coaching their little tykes on the climbing frame). Like everyone, I feel like an imposter at work too, and also give myself grief when I’m not able to write to the quality I want or be as available to students or colleagues as I’d like. I’m working on it. Have you heard of the theory of the ‘good enough’ mother/parent? ‘Good enough’ parenting means you don’t strive to be perfect, nor expect perfection from your kids. It lets everybody off the hook. I try to remember that I will teach my kids they have to be perfect if I’m always striving to be. I also reassure myself that if they never have to use their own resources, they will be ill-equipped for life.

I think we can apply the same principles to our careers, despite the messages we get from our institutions, our colleagues, our students and ourselves. All we have to be is ‘good enough’. We don’t have to be everywhere and do everything: the world will carry on without us, and we can let others have a turn. Our students need to develop their own skills and resources as well as having the benefit of ours, and sometimes students aren’t the best judges of what’s right for them: they might want more and more of you, but your job might really be to help them build the confidence to reach out on their own. I still try to prioritise quality over quantity, but I also try (and usually fail) to ‘let things go’ if they’re not quite as good as I’d like. In the area of admin, I apply the ‘quality’ principle selectively, as there is a lot of paperwork to do in the neoliberal university, and some jobs are more important than others. I am leading the REF2021 submission for my department, which has serious implications, so I will do it to the very best of my ability. However, I don’t think that’s necessary for the endless internal monitoring forms and reports which probably end up at the back of someone’s filing cabinet.

9) Take time out when you need it. Take time out when you don’t need it. Just take time out, regularly. I don’t habitually work evenings and weekends, unless I’m making up childcare time from the week. If find myself slipping into working a lot outside my designated hours, I see this as a warning that I’ve said ‘yes’ to too much, or that my allocated roles and tasks have got out of control. So I try to pare down, or have a conversation with my manager about my load. There’s a culture in academia that ‘more is better’, and I know some departments where staff compete about who can work the longest. I know these cultures can be powerful and I don’t mean to be flippant, but life’s too short for that shit. I’ve also found that if I focus on quality rather than quantity, I can usually do my job in the allocated time. Regular time out helps me to look after my physical and mental health and makes me more efficient when I am at work. I take time out from my kids, too: sometimes my partner takes them out at the weekend to give me space (if you don’t have a supportive partner, you could do a quid pro quo with another parent), or I might occasionally go out for an early evening drink or dinner with a friend. I do things for myself: once the kids are in bed I do an evening ballet class twice a week, and I sing whenever I can (these days mostly to myself). Not to go all Loréal, but I’m worth it. I don’t say this to guilt or shame anyone who is working all hours and feels they have no alternative: but I would encourage you to explore any possible alternatives you have. You’re worth it, too.

10) Finally and perhaps most importantly, know that it’s OK to not be OK. The ‘superwoman fallacy’ really is a fallacy: nobody can juggle all the balls, or ‘have it all’, all the time. Find out what your institution offers in terms of staff welfare support, and avail yourself of it. If they don’t offer any, ask them why (and tell your union). Pay for support if you can afford it: your mental health is the best investment you can possibly make. When you’re feeling OK, look after yourself and try to have a good time. Without getting too ‘lean in’ about it, I try to enjoy my work whenever I possibly can. Life is short; academia is a rewarding profession, despite the stresses and irritations. I try to eat well. I look after my teeth. This has gotten easier with time: when my kids were really tiny, I was constantly ill and life regularly felt out of control. If this is where you are, please don’t beat yourself up about it (and let me give you a virtual hug). I hope this helps, because I have to go: the little one wants to show me his sandcastle, and the big one’s waving from the top of the climbing frame.

* In this post I have used both ‘motherhood’ and ‘parenthood’. I think the tips here apply to all parents (and I realise that not all those who give birth to children identify as women or mothers). However, the fact remains that it is disproportionately mothers (whether they have given birth to their children or not) who do the bulk of parenting and household chores, and who are more likely to work part-time, so it’s important to acknowledge that.  

**The title of this piece borrows from a paper by the late Steve Dempster, ‘Having the balls, having it all?’ about constructions of ‘laddishness amongst undergraduate students. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, Steve’s work has informed mine a lot, so it felt appropriate to borrow from him here. RIP Steve 💜

New paper: Sex Wars Revisited

I have a new paper out in the International Journal of Women’s Studies, entitled ‘Sex Wars Revisited: A Rhetorical Economy of Sex Industry Opposition.’ This journal is completely open access so the paper is available free to anyone who is interested. The abstract is below and the paper can be downloaded here.

This paper attempts to sketch a ‘rhetorical economy’ of feminist opposition to the sex industry, via the case study of debates around Amnesty International’s 2016 policy supporting decriminalisation as the best way to ensure sex workers’ human rights and safety. Drawing on Ahmed’s concept of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, I explore an emotionally loaded discursive field which is also characterised by specific and calculated rhetorical manoeuvres for political gain. My analysis is situated in what Rentschler and Thrift call the ‘discursive publics’ of contemporary Western feminism, which encompass academic, activist, and public/media discussions. I argue that contemporary feminist opposition to the sex industry is shaped by a ‘sex war’ paradigm which relies on a binary opposition between radical feminist and ‘sex positive’ perspectives. In this framework, sex workers become either helpless victims or privileged promoters of the industry, which leaves little room for discussions of their diverse experiences and their labour rights. As Amnesty’s policy was debated, this allowed opponents of the sex industry to construct sex workers’ rights as ‘men’s rights’, either to purchase sex or to benefit from its sale as third parties or ‘pimps’. These opponents mobilised sex industry ‘survivors’ to dismiss sex worker activists supporting Amnesty’s policy as privileged and unrepresentative, which concealed activists’ experiences of violence and abuse and obscured the fact that decriminalisation is supported by sex workers across the world.

On ‘Impact’

I really hate the word ‘impact’. It makes me think of things which are hard and aggressive: a meteorite colliding with the earth; a fist connecting with a face. It brings to mind the forcible contact of one object with another. In research terms, this is the way ‘impact’ is often done. We imagine it moving with velocity, in a linear direction. We conduct our research and only afterwards think about its impact – then we try to force our ideas out into the world, to leave our mark. We talk about ‘impact acceleration’. And once the impact has been felt, the crater has been made, we tend to leave it there and move on.

This model limits us in many ways. Les Back, in his article ‘On the Side of the Powerful’, describes how big research stars have been turned into ‘impact super heroes’ in Sociology, advising cabinet ministers and giving evidence to select committees. He argues that this tends to produce an arrogant, self-crediting, boastful and narrow public version of the discipline. Furthermore, Back contends, this orientation is more likely to produce reformist ‘empirical intelligence’ than radical ambition (probably because you can get policymakers to listen to you if you tell them what they want to hear). In his analysis of the 96 Sociology Impact Case Studies submitted to REF 2014, Back found that only 20 per cent involved speaking truth to power. Our meteorites don’t strike the earth as hard as we think.

I never set out to have an impact. When I joined Sussex as a junior lecturer in 2005, I almost immediately began receiving disclosures from women students who had experienced sexual violence. The institution (like many others) was fearful, and took refuge in denying the existence of a problem. Indeed, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s analysis, I became the problem: the ‘institutional killjoy’ who wouldn’t shut up. I reached out to NUS, and worked with them on Hidden Marks, the first national prevalence study of violence against women students. This established that there was, indeed, a problem. After this, NUS commissioned me to study the ‘lad culture’ which frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which had enough scope for sensationalism to pique the interest of the media. In the midst of a rather unhelpful moral panic, we started to build a community. Various student – and faculty-led initiatives developed. We collaborated with organisations from the women’s sector. After years of lobbying, last year we finally managed to get a Universities UK task force to demand institutional action.

During this time, I went back and forth between research and engagement, engagement and research, and each shaped the other. I became concerned with the weaknesses of ‘lad culture’ as a concept – its one-dimensionality, its lack of context, its capacity to create ill will. I was troubled by the punitive interventions being envisaged by institutions and some activists, and how these might exacerbate oppressions linked to intersecting issues such as race and class. I started to think about the cultures of the neoliberal university, how they frame violence and inhibit disclosure, and how individualistic, disciplinary responses seem to be the only ones available. My intellectual journey around ‘lad culture’ meant that when I was asked by Imperial College to come and deal with their ‘naughty boys’, I instead proposed a project on how their institutional culture interacted with gender issues. Another research and engagement journey began.

This is not the linear model of ‘impact’: I am not the meteorite making a crater. I would like to return to another word I have used consciously already – ‘engagement’. In contrast to impact, engagement is a two-way process. It implies dialogue. You engage people in conversation; you treat them as equals; you are part of a community of practice. You do not shoot your expertise down, like a meteor, from above. Engagement also means a promise – and as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I made a commitment many years ago to make our universities safer places to be. It is often said that impact and engagement are not the same thing. This is true, in REF terms – to demonstrate an impact, you need to show that something has changed as a result of your conversations. But to think you can achieve the change without an ongoing conversation carries certain assumptions about the scholar’s relationship to the world.

To enter the conversation of engagement also means being open to feedback, and I have noticed that once people start focusing on ‘impact’ they can lose the capacity to grow. When your big idea becomes a ‘brand’ this generates a whole set of concerns about its promotion, and you may become territorial and protective. This could very easily have happened to me. Seven years after Hidden Marks, there is a lot of activity around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities. There are some fantastic feminists out there. However, while we try to make change we are also trying to make our own craters; Impact Case Studies are forming in the background of every discussion. I try to remember that when we are all about the impact, we lose sight of the ideas. We see competitors where we should see colleagues; we think less about the work and more about who gets the credit.

The way impact is framed by key higher education organisations is vague but not altogether unhelpful. HEFCE defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. In the Stern Review, it was pointed out that the academy (both institutions and REF panels) had interpreted this definition in very narrow and strategic terms. This ‘will to impact’, and the meteors it has created, perhaps says more about the cultures of the sector than it does about the impact agenda itself.

My advice: concentrate on doing the very best research you can, on issues you care passionately about. My work on sexual violence in higher education has been a labour of love. I still have hope that research can be ‘impactful’ and have radical ambition – but I think that probably happens when you are focused less on the demonstrable impact of your work and more on what you want to change. So forget about your crater and think about your community, however you define it.

Arguing from qualitative data

arguing from qualitative data

One of the main queries I get from research students is about how to develop an argument using qualitative data. When you’re sitting with a stack of narratives, how do you shape them into something interesting and important? How do you construct a clear story without losing complexity, and while letting people speak for themselves as much as you can? This is difficult, painstaking work.

This post doesn’t contain advice about data analysis but about what happens after: how you create interpretations from data once you’ve synthesised them into categories or themes, once you’ve understood key trends and identified any particularly interesting or significant cases. You’ll probably have done some form of coding to get here, whether software-based or by hand. Of course, the distinction between analysis and interpretation is permeable and sometimes even arbitrary: interpretation often 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 be a point where it’s necessary to shift up a gear. What do you really want to say about these data, and crucially, why? The infographic above contains the headings or key principles below: click it to download full-size (you could use it as your screensaver or wallpaper if you like).

1. Examine your motivations

Are you mining your data to find evidence for what you already think? If so, it might be time to stop and reflect on your own positionality and any views you hold particularly dear. There is no such thing as unbiased, objective research, but it’s down to all of us to be as honest and thoughtful as we can. Also, are you preoccupied with being clever and making your mark, or are you committed to saying something useful which is grounded in your data? Academia tends to showcase the former at the expense of the latter – research has shown that the pressure to innovate in natural sciences often leads to ‘bad science’ which prioritises surprising findings that are often wrong. I think social sciences and humanities can fall into similar traps, if we’re not careful. Decide now to approach your interpretations with integrity and an open mind.

2. Go back to your rationale and research questions 

This sounds obvious, but many students don’t do it! Why did you want to do this study, and what did you originally want to know? Of course, you’re not bound by your original aims: often the process of research shifts them because our data tell us unexpected things. We should be alert to this – and if we are being open-minded and honest as we interpret our data, we may well derive unforeseen conclusions. If you find your data answer different questions than the ones you started off with, you can change your questions. This is often best done through an honest narrative, in which you present your original questions at the outset of your dissertation and then explain why they shifted (note that if they have shifted substantially you might need to add more material to earlier parts of your dissertation such as your introduction and literature review). In any case, revisiting your original questions will help you focus on what your data say, whether you set out to say that or not.

3. Go back to the literature

Whether this is your theoretical framework (if you have one) or the empirical literature or both, you need to think about how your data speak to it. Do they confirm what has already been written or are there new stories, unanswered questions or anomalies to be explored? If you’re using a particular theory, are your data consistent with it or do they expose any gaps in how it can be applied? If you analyse data in enough depth you’ll usually find weaknesses in existing theoretical frameworks: the social world is complex, after all. Build on others’ work – this is how understanding becomes full and deep. If you need different theories or literatures to make sense of your data, find them.

Having said all this, your intuition is also an important tool: are there things in your data that strike you, that make you feel happy, sad, or uncomfortable? Why do you think that is? Follow the trail of breadcrumbs – perhaps your first instinct about the data will lead you back to a particular piece of literature, or you might want to do some additional targeted analysis. But be aware: using your intuition as a starting point is different from plucking a narrative out of the air because you think it sounds good. Interpretation needs to be worked through: resist the temptation to name, to speak, or to conclude before you’re ready.

4. (Re)examine your concepts

Interpretation is often a process of shuttling between theory and data. As you make these journeys, check you’re clear about the concepts you’re carrying, and how you’re using them. For example, do you know what ‘power’ might look like when you see it in your data? Don’t carry ‘black boxes’ – empty versions of concepts that can be inserted into an argument as if they tell us something (when they don’t). Agency is a good example of a concept that can easily become a ‘black box’. If you think you can identify agency in your data, shuttle back to the theoretical definition. Then shuttle forward into your data to consider if you can really see it in practice. What does agency look like? How do you know if an action is agentic, or if it is not? The theory should be able to tell you, if you have engaged with it properly.

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

Novelty: something we don’t already know, but we don’t necessarily need to. An example of a novel research project might be to interview women called Paula about how often they eat tomato ketchup. This would be brand new information, but not necessarily that useful. Significance: something that challenges received wisdom in a substantive way (which does not have to be ambitious – knowledge tends to advance in increments). To develop significant findings usually requires quite a bit of shuttling, as the most obvious story about your data isn’t usually the most significant.

For instance, you might interview 40 women architects. The majority might highlight pay inequity and persistent everyday sexism, but think that initiatives to encourage women to apply for promotion are helpful. 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 (or misogynoir) which, amongst other things, meant that they had not been put forward for support with their promotion applications. These cases, when interpreted alongside other trends in the literature, might enable you to argue that equality initiatives tend to target white women, and that when these initiatives are deemed ‘successful’ this treats 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 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. Ask the ‘why’ questions

Exploring the nuances means engaging with the ‘why’ questions about the trends, anomalies and interesting cases in your data. This also means you need to understand the position of ‘voice’ in qualitative research, and its positives and negatives. The common practice of using social research to give people a ‘voice’ is a laudable (if perhaps doomed) attempt to elevate marginalised voices and avoid imposing ‘false consciousness’ on research participants. But there’s a difference between honouring people’s views and experiences and taking them at face value – and we have a political and moral obligation to examine truth claims rather than reproducing them in completely unadulterated ways. Consider the use of white people’s ‘concerns’ about immigration to justify Brexit and other right-wing social and economic projects. 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 treat our participants with empathy and respect: but we should also set their views and experiences in context and explore how they are produced and framed.

8. Ask yourself: ‘so what?’

Once your argument starts coming together, ask yourself: ‘so what?’ How does it shed light on broader economic, social and/or political issues? 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 looking for novelty or significance? 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 takes us back to the question of what your data actually support).

9. Write an abstract

When you have a decent emerging argument, try writing an abstract of your dissertation – this will help you to develop 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 tie all the threads together. Then keep your abstract and outline handy as you write up your dissertation, so you can amend them and stay focused as your argument develops. You might even enjoy it – watching a research narrative emerge is exciting! What if you were able to construct a catalogue of police brutality against sex workers in your local area? Or show how a school has negotiated the hostile environment and protected refugee children in its midst? Or expose how media debates around ‘equal pay’ persistently erase the experiences of women of colour? Although your dissertation might not change the world, it might make it just a little bit better, and that’s a fantastic thing to achieve.

Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references)

One aim of the recent Home Affairs Committee Prostitution Inquiry seems pretty clear. The first question contributors were asked to answer is ‘whether criminal sanction in relation to prostitution should continue to fall more heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it’. This leading formulation offers a choice between two modes of criminalisation rather than asking about all possible legal models, and situates the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients as separable when in reality they are not. There are numerous negative consequences of the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ criminalising sex workers’ clients in an effort to ‘end demand’ for sexual services. Research from countries where ‘end demand’ frameworks have been enacted (including research by government agencies) has clearly shown that criminalising sex workers’ clients is a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker and creates a number of additional risks, especially for sex workers who are already marginalised.

Here is an indicative (but not exhaustive) list: if you want to find out more about this issue, do follow up some of the references. There are also some excellent briefing papers which include research references and testimony from sex workers affected by these laws, for instance by SCOT-PEP and the Sex Worker Open University.

Under the ‘Nordic Model’:

  1. Sex workers can experience greater harassment due to the policing of clients on the street (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).
  2. Stigma against sex workers increases, which puts them at risk of violence from clients and community retribution (this stigma has been explicitly positioned as a positive effect of the Swedish legislation, since it is thought it will deter people from entering the sex industry – see Skarhed 2010).
  3. Sex workers can be displaced to outlying areas or more secluded times, for client protection, which creates additional risk (Hester and Westmarland 2004, Crago 2008, Kinnell 2008, Krüsi et al 2014, Lyon 2014).
  4. There is increased competition between those selling sex on the street, due to a reduction in those willing to buy publicly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and this can lead to a depression in wages (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  5. Higher risk services (such as unprotected sex) are often offered due to lack of client choice, less bargaining power, and needing to negotiate more quickly with clients who may fear arrest (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Hester and Westmarland 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Krüsi et al 2014, Levy and Jacobsson 2014, Lyon 2014, Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014).
  6. Some sex workers may engage in theft to make up for lost earnings (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and are thereby criminalised by other means.
  7. Clients become less willing to give sex workers their contact details, which is an important safety measure (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), or insist on ‘outcalls’ rather than services being provided in venues familiar to the sex worker (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014, ScotPEP 2015).
  8. There are often prohibitions on sex workers working together, which is another key safety strategy, or on ‘benefiting from the proceeds’ of prostitution; this latter can criminalise sex workers’ partners or prevent sex workers from cohabiting with them (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  9. Sex workers can become more reliant on potentially exploitative managers and third parties due to clients being less willing to negotiate the purchase of sex directly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, ScotPEP 2015).
  10. Criminalisation deters clients who do not wish to commit a crime, but is less likely to deter clients who intend to abuse sex workers. Criminalising clients is likely to increase the proportion who are aggressive or dangerous, especially those who are purchasing sex on the street (UNAIDS 2009, ScotPEP 2015).
  11. There are effects on the provision of services, with sex workers having to conform to the narrative of the disempowered victim in order to access support (Danna 2012, Levy and Jacobsson 2014) and an increased belief that safety and rights are contingent on exiting the industry (Scoular and Carline 2014). Swedish support services do not operate with a ‘harm reduction’ model, which means that condoms are infrequently distributed or their distribution is even opposed as it is thought to ‘encourage’ prostitution (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  12. There are effects on relations with police, with sex workers reluctant to report dangerous or violent clients due to concerns over a loss of their livelihood (Krüsi et al 2014, Amnesty International 2015) and evidence that police are conducting surveillance and searches on sex workers and engaging in practices such as confiscating condoms for evidence, which create additional risks of HIV and other STIs (Kulick 2003, Krüsi et al 2014).
  13. In both Sweden and Norway, these laws have provided cover for practices such as the removal of sex workers’ children and deportation of migrant sex workers (Kulick 2003, Amnesty International 2015, ScotPEP 2015).
  14. Sex workers face being reported to hotels or evicted from housing, as it is illegal to provide premises where sex work will take place (Levy and Jacobsson 2014). An Oslo police operation entitled ‘Operation Homeless’ involved police posing as clients to discover sex workers’ addresses, and threatening landlords with criminal sanction if they did not evict them. Once someone is listed as an evicted sex worker, it is very difficult to find new housing (Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo 2012).
  15. Negative relations between sex workers and the authorities means that they are less likely to reach out when they witness trafficking, abuse and exploitative working (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).

A Norwegian government report on the Swedish sex purchase law found that it had created a ‘buyers’ market’ and that violence against sex workers had increased (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014). Furthermore, Levy and Jakobsson (2014) argue that there is no reliable evidence to support the claim that the Swedish sex purchase law (sexköpslagen) has created a reduction in prostitution. There is some evidence of a reduction in street prostitution but no reliable evidence to confirm that this has not been displaced into indoor markets – in fact there is evidence that this has indeed occurred (see Chu and Glass 2013-14).

The premise of ‘end demand’ approaches is that men’s demand for sex is responsible for the existence of the industry. However, this conceals the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in order to survive. Attempts to eradicate the sex industry via the criminal law will only create risk and harm for sex workers, without any reduction in the sale of sex, if the context of poverty and austerity economics remains unaddressed. As Sex Worker Open University have stated, the provision of state benefits, education, training and alternative employment opportunities, rather than ‘ending demand’, is the key to reducing the number of people selling sex. In a context of high unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, depressed wages and increased homelessness and debt, it is irresponsible to consider any model of sex industry regulation which would make it more difficult for marginalised people to survive. In other words, the ‘Nordic Model’ officially sucks.

References 

Abel et al (2007) The impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the health and safety practices of sex workers: report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Health Research Council and Ministry of Justice, New Zealand.

Amnesty International (2015) 2015 ICM circular: Draft policy on Sex Work

Crago, A L (2008), Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights. New York: Open Society Foundation

Danna, D (2012) ‘Client-Only Criminalization in the City of Stockholm: A Local Research on the Application of the “Swedish Model” of Prostitution Policy’, in Sexuality Research and Social Policy 9(1), 80-93

Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2011) Moving Beyond ‘Supply and Demand’ catchphrases: assessing the uses and limitations of demand-based approaches in anti-trafficking

Hester, M and Westmarland, N (2004) Tackling Street Prostitution: towards an holistic approach (Home Office Research Study 279)

Jordan, J (2005) Sex Industry in New Zealand: A Literature Review. Sponsored by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, Wellington

Chu, S K H and Glass, R (2013-14) ‘Sex Work Law Reform in Canada: considering problems with the ‘Nordic Model’, in Alberta Law Review 51, 101-124

Kinnell, H (2008) Violence and Sex Work in Britain. Devon: Willan Publishing

Krüsi, A et al (2014) ‘Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada-a qualitative study’, in BMJ Open 2014; 4:e005191. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005191

Kulick, D (2003) ‘Sex in the New Europe: The Criminalization of Clients and Swedish Fear of Penetration’, in Anthropological Theory 3(2), 199–218

Levy, J and Jakobsson, P (2014) ‘Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers’, in Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(5), 593–607

Lyon, W (2014) ‘Client criminalisation and sex workers’ right to health’, in Hibernian Law Journal 58

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs (2004) Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security (2014) Evaluation of Norwegian legislation criminalising the buying of sexual services (English summary)

O’Connell Davidson, J (2003) ‘Sleeping with the enemy? Some problems with feminist abolitionist calls to penalise those who buy commercial sex’, in Social Policy and Society 2(1), 55-63

Schulze, E et al (2014) Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution and its Impact on Gender Equality. Briefing paper for the European Commission Directorate General for Internal Policies

ScotPEP (2015) The Swedish Model: a briefing. Available at http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/sites/default/files/reports/the_swedish_model_full.pdf

Scoular, J and Carline A (2014) ‘A critical account of a “creeping neo-abolitionism”: Regulating prostitution in England and Wales’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5), 608-626

Skarhed, A (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish government report SOU 2010:49: The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: An evaluation 1999-2008. Stockholm: Swedish Institute

Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (2007) Prostitution in Sweden 2007

Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo (2012) Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to. Commissioned by the Municipality of Oslo, with support from the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety

UNAIDS (2009, 2012) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work

UNDP (2012) HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights, and Health. Final report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS (2012) Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific

World Health Organisation (2012) Prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries: Recommendations for a public health approach

World Health Organisation (2013) Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers: practical approaches from collaborative interventions

Writing a PhD proposal (social sciences)

For many academics, each new year brings a flurry of Email enquiries about PhD supervision. In my experience these tend to range between a vague notion about a topic (or a few possible topics) and a detailed account of a research idea, usually drawn from a successful MA thesis or an area of professional interest. What I hardly ever get, however, is a proper draft proposal that I can start working up with an applicant.

For me, having at least a rough draft of your proposal before you contact potential supervisors is good practice, for a number of reasons: (1) it shows you have given the matter some thought; (2) it identifies you as someone who is able to work independently; and (3) it allows you to take ownership of your work from the start (and some supervisors WILL take over if you let them). If you are planning to apply for Research Council funding, a draft gives you a valuable head start – I also see the process of feedback and amendment for these high-profile applications as an excellent insight into what a student will be like to supervise (I generally ask for several redrafts before I will sign off).

A PhD proposal does not need to be long. In fact, I encourage applicants to be as concise as they can – Research Council application forms generally allow a couple of sides, 10 pt font minimum, so I would stick to that. For a social science PhD, proposals will contain a number of common elements:

Rationale
A short paragraph describing your topic, stating why it is important. First and foremost, you should be proposing a project which is fresh and interesting rather than repeating previous studies. This doesn’t necessarily mean a completely new topic (and there are no completely original arguments), but it could mean, for instance: looking at an existing topic in a new way; asking slightly different questions; researching a specific population; or bringing together two theories that haven’t been used together, or haven’t been used to explore this topic, before.

The best research in my field tends to be both policy/society-relevant and able to make a contribution to academic debates, so look for a social need and gaps in the relevant literature. Your project should pass the ‘so what?’ test on both intellectual and practical grounds. This is especially the case if you want to work with a marginalised group as an outsider – your study needs to have clear benefits for your participants, and it should be obvious that you are the right person to do it and are doing it for the right reasons (if you’re not sure this is the case, perhaps read this post and reflect). If you’re applying for research funding, your project rationale should also link to the strategic priorities of the funding body.

Research questions
Two or three specific questions you will answer. They must be ones which have not been asked before in the particular way you will ask them. They should usually be open but narrow, focusing on aspects of issues or relationships between phenomena (e.g. ‘what are the causes of violence against sex workers?’ is too broad, but ‘what are sex workers’ experiences of violence under different legal/regulatory models?’ is more promising). You should also be realistic – what exactly are you going to be able to find out? Be wary of questions which are too ambitious – in social research this often means causal, categorical, or conclusive. Avoid making assumptions that will threaten the validity of your analysis (e.g. ‘how can parents who formula-feed be made aware of the benefits of breastfeeding?) Never ask something you feel you already know.

The trick is to develop research questions which both create a do-able project and account for the complexity of the social world, and to represent these as simply as you possibly can. This is difficult! Your research questions will probably go through several iterations with your prospective supervisor, so they don’t have to be perfect first time.

Literature review
This is directly linked to your rationale and research questions – a summary of existing relevant work, identifying the gaps (both empirical and theoretical) your project will fill. You may be looking at several areas of literature – some providing general context while others relate to particular issues. In a project on violence against sex workers under different legal/regulatory models, you would probably be making use of general work on violence against women/sexual violence, more specific literature on violence against sex workers (of all genders) and violence against particular groups who may be more at risk within the industry (women of colour and trans women, for example), and literature covering different models of sex industry regulation and their implications. Studies would probably be both empirical and more conceptual in focus.

Don’t just write a list in this section – introduce different bodies of literature, summarise key themes and points, identify gaps, and make explicit how all this frames your particular project. Be clear in your mind about how you are using the literature at hand, and how you might feed back into the literature and make new contributions when you have completed your research.

Theoretical framework
The conceptual material in your literature review might inform your theoretical framework – the concepts most central to your research project. You might be focusing on gender as a key category of analysis; you might (should) also be taking an intersectional approach. You might be making use of other concepts such as agency or stigma, or developing the work of particular theorists. You need to have an idea of how all this relates together and whether there are any useful connections or knotty contradictions at work.

Your theoretical framework will and should change as you develop your PhD project, coming to fruition when you have finished your data analysis and are (hopefully) ready to say something new. It need not be fully developed in your proposal. In fact, if I see a PhD proposal which has an elaborate theoretical framework already, it often raises questions about whether the student is setting out to confirm things they feel they already know. Nevertheless, your proposal should contain some indication of the theories and concepts you find relevant to your research questions, and (most importantly) some thoughts about how you might operationalise these. How can you identify agency, for example? How might you measure stigma? How can you put intersectionality into practice?

N.B. Not all proposals will have a separate literature review and theoretical framework: if your project is heavily conceptual these might be merged into one longer section, or if you are conducting a large empirical study which will generate an entirely new dataset you may not need to be so focused on the theory.

Methodology
This is probably the most important part of your proposal – a description of what you are going to do in very precise terms. This should include your your broad methodological approach – is it quantitative or qualitative? Are you using a particular research design, for instance ethnography or case study? Are you situated within a specific epistemological framework, and why? It should also include any specific methodological techniques or elements of research design – for instance, if you are trying to explore the interactions between phenomena, how will you measure and establish these? (e.g. in a qualitative study exploring how breastfeeding impacts on mothers’ experiences of bonding with their babies, you would need to consider how you would tease out the role of breastfeeding from other factors).

Your methodology should give details of your planned sources of data and how you will sample them. Be specific: if you are doing interviews, how many? What types of people will you hope to recruit as participants, and why? If you are working with documents, how many and how will they be selected? You need to give assurances that you are not just cherry-picking your sample to confirm what you feel you already know – for instance, a proposed study on whether the media contains racist bias will be stronger if you are not just working with content from the Daily Mail. You should also give details of how you will negotiate access to your sources, and the more groundwork you can do in advance the better, especially if you are working on sensitive issues or with marginalised communities. Your methods should then be described as accurately as you possibly can, as well as your planned techniques of data analysis, with full attention paid to how you might operationalise your theories.

Your methodology section should be primarily descriptive – your prospective supervisor needs to be confident that you have thought your project through and are in a good position to carry it out. It should also be mostly practical: although reflexivity is essential to qualitative social research, your PhD proposal is probably not the best place to present your autobiography. You need to show that you are conversant with the methodological literature and with other, similar studies, and have thought about your planned project with reference to these. Of course, your methodology will evolve during the course of your project and it is always possible to change it – but it is essential to be thinking like a researcher from the start.

Ethics
Sometimes this section will be part of your methodology; sometimes it will be separate. If you are doing any research with human subjects you will probably undergo a rigorous ethical review process within your institution, before you are cleared for fieldwork. If your topic is sensitive or you are working with marginalised communities, this can take a while and can involve various requests for amendments. This section is your chance to show that you have engaged with the literature on research ethics and thought about any potential issues for your study: use it to identify these and talk about how you might address them. Power relations, informed consent, anonymity/confidentiality, risk/harm, participant and self-care all need to be covered.

University ethics committees can be conservative; you can take a critical perspective, especially where notions of ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are concerned, and particularly in relation to the differences between working with more marginalised and more elite groups. However, you should also be aware that this is a bureaucratic process that could potentially stand between you and the successful completion of your research: some hoop-jumping may be necessary.

Timeline
As the last section, your proposal should present a description of how you will break your research into manageable tasks and deadlines in order to get your PhD finished within the time you have (3-4 years full-time, 6-8 years part-time). It is best to present this in the form of a table, specifying dates by which you will have completed particular tasks. This timeline may change – but it is useful to have done some advance planning to show potential supervisors and funders that you are organised and likely to be able to deliver.

Finally, remember that you should probably try to fit all this on to two sides of A4. This usually includes references, so be strategic/sparing with these, and remember that you can allude to wider reading by using phrases such as ‘such as’, or ‘amongst others’ as part of your citations (this last tip is for PhD proposals only – you must not do this in your final thesis!)

Good luck 

Research with marginalised groups: some difficult questions

marginalised groups

Every year, my students ask me questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged space, but some of our students are not – and many of the others are politically committed and care passionately about inequality and abuses of power. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these topics 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 lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I advise my 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 students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). Your department may already have links with organisations, or you may have your own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be useful. The onus must be on their 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 your chosen topic which don’t 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 that are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: Muslim women, trans people, sex workers). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing data. If (a), you might 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’re anything but honourable (or you aren’t sure what they are), research something else. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect throughout the research, to make sure you are looking after participants and collecting data in the most rigorous way. This doesn’t mean spending hours in self-analysis and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it means taking time to really look at yourself and your relationships with participants (and how they are structured by power and privilege). You might be able to discuss these issues with some participants and ask how they feel about the research – but this is a form of emotional labour which can be arduous as well.

  1. Am I qualified?

If you want to research people more marginalised than you, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing that. There are different opinions about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised). Being an ‘insider’ is by no means a guarantee that you’ll be able to do good research. However, if you aren’t at all familiar with the group you want to research, you should ask yourself whether you’re in fact qualified to carry your project out.

Academia is full of privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base (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 want to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying academia. 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 doesn’t mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never do research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that research could always be insider-led.

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

If you’re able to go ahead with a project that involves human subjects, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material that can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own archives – by far the most common research request made by organisations I’ve worked with is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they haven’t had time to engage with themselves.

If you’re not working with an organisation, there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive, the UK Data Archive, the UK Data Service, and many more. There are also individual web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these aren’t research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects that can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media, which can give greater breadth than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for many student studies.

Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you’re doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore ways participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). There may also be small pots of funding at your university that you can access for this purpose.

  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. If you haven’t read any literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about anything else. Then ensure that you develop protocols for informed consent, anonymity and confidentiality, and looking after the emotional wellbeing of both your participants and yourself, and (most importantly) communicate these to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms.

Be aware that if you aren’t an ‘insider’, you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so ideally you should design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with a community organisation or charity you’re working with. You should also work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you’ve designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. Finally, be aware that this is the bare minimum for research ethics – it’s a process that requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen.

If you’re working with an organisation or community group, explore how 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’re 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 understand that even if there’s an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of social problems may not necessarily have the space or time to want to talk to you about them. It’s patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want them to appreciate you, 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 ally (and often, quite rightly, even if you are the latter).

  1. What will I do with the findings?

If you’ve been asked to conduct research by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Don’t 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 let down the organisations and people who’ve given you their time and emotional labour. It would also show your motivations to be self-serving, and might cause community groups and individuals to be wary of researchers in future.

You should also consider what you might do if you’re asked to take part in academic or policy events, or are contacted by journalists about your research. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there’s specific interest in your methodology, dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should ideally also ask for a community representative to share your platform as they can speak to the issues first-hand. 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 participants without permission though – channel requests through organisations or community groups.

To summarise: if your research isn’t 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. (And do download the infographic at the top of this page, to remind you of these key principles).

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 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, it might be worth doing.