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

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. 💜

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.

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 original rather than repeating previous studies.  The best research in my field tends to be both policy/community-relevant and able to make a contribution to cutting-edge 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 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 – 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 are notoriously 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

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

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

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

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

  1. What are my motivations?

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

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

  1. Am I qualified?

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

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

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

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

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

  1. How will I look after my participants?

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

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

  1. What will I do with the findings?

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

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

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

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