“It’s about ethics in conducting research!”

Communities on the margins have been the subjects of research for the past couple of centuries (colonial-era anthropology, anyone?). And that’s just the problem – they are subjects: voiceless, commoditized and objectified bodies from whom information can be obtained as it benefits the researcher. Members of these marginalized communities are generally infinitely more equipped to conduct the research themselves: they understand relevant questions, community needs, relationships with dominant structures, and their own identities and navigations of social structures infinitely better than out-group researchers.

Alison Phipps, Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University, posed six hugely important questions that researchers should ask themselves before embarking on research with vulnerable populations:

  1. Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need? (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.)
  2. What are my motivations? (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.)
  3. Am I qualified? (…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.)
  4. Do I need to ask people for their time and attention? (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[…]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…) 
  5. How will I look after my participants? (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.)
  6. 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 report! 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.)

Sex workers are one such community that are over-researched but rarely afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves. There’s often a paternalistic expectation for them to engage researchers because  “they should be grateful” that any attention is paid to them at all. Academic research around sex workers is frequently reduced to issues which are of absolutely no utility to the communities in question:

Sex work is often only researched in the context of the “empowerment v. exploitation” debate. Making sex work a “special” topic by taking it out of the context of the rest of the world is a way of dehumanizing sex workers. Only when we are seen as our jobs and nothing more can we be carved out of everyday life and marginalized as a field of study unto ourselves.

Research should certainly include sex workers, when appropriate, but it need not be about us. In fact, putting sex work back into a broader context can make research much more useful to us. Consider the following research questions:

  • What happens to formerly criminalized people when they move on to new jobs?
  • What paths do informal or undocumented workers take to transition to new careers?
  • How do people who have worked for cash their whole lives manage their retirement years?
  • What challenges are faced by parents who are stigmatized or criminalized for their jobs?
  • How do people get involved in social movements other than the one most aligned with their identity (that is, how do sex workers and others become allies in other social movements)?
  • How do the online and offline communities in various social movements relate to each other?
  • How does your national housing strategy (or lack thereof, Canada) include or exclude informal workers like sex workers?
  • How does “black market” money work its way back into the formal economy?

By researching sex work as something in and of the world around it, we can get past the useless for-or-against debate and produce knowledge about sex workers’ real lives.

In this post-Orange is the New Black/Caitlyn Jenner/marriage equality world (I include the latter because now that marriage equality is the law of the land, there’s a kind of discursive understanding that there’s now advocacy and political space for “the rest of the LGBTQ community’s issues”), transgender identities and community issues are increasingly becoming the topics of research. But rather than focusing on the ill effects of cisnormativity, why our investment in rigid gender understandings is harmful, the pathologization and medicalization of certain genders and bodies, hyper-surveillance and over-policing, or the other myriad institutional issues that make trans individuals acutely vulnerable; we (i.e. fellow cisgender researchers) instead tend to focus squarely on the nature – including the legitimacy and validity – of gender variance and non-normative identities. Is it any wonder that many trans folks are inherently distrustful of us cis academics and thus unwilling to participate in our research?

Let me tell you something: trans people have already been studied. We’ve been interviewed, sampled, tested, cross-referenced, experimented upon, medicated, shocked, examined, and dissected post-mortem. You’ve looked at our chromosomes, our families, our blood levels, our ring fingers, our mothers’ medicine cabinets, and our genitalia (over and over again with the genitalia- stop pushing condoms on us, dumbass, we know what they’re for.) You’ve watched us play with dolls, raise children, fall in love, look at pornography, get sick, die, and commemorate ourselves. You’ve listened to our ears. You’ve listened to our fucking ears! But you’ve never listened to our voices and you need to do that now.

There are already studies about what trans people need. You want them? Go read the needs assessment Michelle O’Brien wrote for THAC in Philadelphia. Go look at the final report of the Sex and Gender Minority Subcommittee of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. Go read that amazing omnibus study the San Francisco public health department commissioned a few years back, the one that found trans women have an average monthly income of $536. Ever seen rents in San Francisco?

So what do people like me need? Not counseling. Not new labels on condoms. Not more doctoral candidates palpating our business. Trans women need, more or less in order: decriminalization, housing, education and employment. As in, not being swept off the street, not being banned from shelters, yes being allowed in GED classes, and, well, employment. Can you provide these? Not as a goddamn researcher, and probably not as a member in good standing of whatever professional body you aspire to join. You want to actually do something as good you say you want to do, drop out, abrogate your loans, and become a social worker. Decriminalization, housing, education and employment. You’d do better to hire one of us as a receptionist.

This is where community-based participatory research takes on massive importance. In this new post-positivist research paradigm, it is not necessary for privileged researchers to continue to narrate the lives of subject-participants in the research they conduct. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to place community members at the forefront of our research projects: to create a project structure where they delineate the research boundaries, construct the questions, and collect and interpret rather than just exist as the data. Our most important role as ethical researchers is to a) amplify the narratives of marginalized individuals who can and do speak for themselves (not simply through academic avenues, but in extra-academic mediums, as the academy is not the foremost space for legitimate knowledge production) and b) to address the structures (in both academia and society at large) that are constraining and driving the social exclusion of these communities and preventing them from having the autonomy and authority to speak on their own behalf. 

Participatory research isn’t the easiest: it can be incredibly time consuming and slow. But it’s always worth it, and infinitely more worthwhile than reproducing the violent dynamics of discursive erasure and epistemic injustice in the academy.

Gender dysphoria project update

It’s been almost a month since the last CSA post – we’ve (our tiny and still growing team) have recently hit a massively busy spell, but we assure you that progress has been made.

There are some exciting updates for the gender dysphoria project, which has been taking a little bit longer than I initially anticipated (but then *good* research nearly always does, right?). The aims of the project have shifted slightly. Rather than attempting to liken a reconceptualisation of gender dysphoria to relatively new understandings of PTSD, I’ve developed a new clear research question (that still needs a bit of editing): How do the lived experiences of transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals with gender dysphoria reflect and/or vary from diagnostic criteria & understandings? With this question, we’ll be able to look trans experiences that have included dysphoria to varying degrees or not included dysphoria at all, the intersections of dysphoria with internalizations and processing of other body-related trauma and stigmas (e.g. fatphobia, ableism, racism, and so on).

I’m also putting together a working group of folks to help shape this research project, which is tremendously helpful given that I’m broaching a topic with which I’ve no immediate experience. There’s a particular rationale, though, for doing this. This working group was created in order to avoid the objectification of gender non-conforming subjects through objectivist research methods, i.e. a rather detached way of conducting social science research in which the researcher fails to examine their own role in social structures and instead approaches topics with an “objective” and hard scientific lens (which is not so useful in social science). I’d much rather collaborate with members of the community in shaping the boundaries of the research as it best suits their needs and understandings – this desire is shaped tremendously by critical social psychological methods that center dialogue and polyvocality (I heavily recommend Watkins and Schulman’s Toward Psychologies of Liberation which is incredibly clear and easy to read). The centering of community members in the formulation of the project is an effort to democratize (essentially CROWDSOURCING, which is my whole entire ambition as an academic) knowledge generation, and attempt to correct the historic epistemic violence that is the transferring of expertise of trans experiences and identities from trans folks to gatekeepers in academic and in the cissexist medical-industrial complex.

I have about 23 people who have agreed to participate in the project and answer the interview questions. But I’m hoping to make the sample size as large as possible so I’d deeply appreciate other volunteers. Also, if you’re trans, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming and are at all interested in being part of the working group or you’d like some more information about the project, please drop me a line. As always, contact me at zoe@crowdsourcingacademia.com🙂

Melissa Gira Grant’s “Playing the whore: The work of sex work”

Nearly eight months into 2015, I can confidently state the two most important books I have read thus far and will read this year: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore. I’m going to talk briefly about the latter.

Melissa does an absolutely incredible job of laying out the gender and labor politics of sex work in just 132 short pages. She walks us through the performances of sex work: the perpetual casting of sex workers as their occupations (i.e. forcing them to constantly “play the whore”), the misogynistic and respectable opposition of anti-sex work and anti-pornography feminists/sex work exclusionary feminists, the objectifying instrumentalization of sex workers in disingenuous trafficking politics and within the rescue industry (curse Nicholas Kristof always), and the role of carceral and surveillance structures in maligning and excluding vilified bodies and identities. While relatively short and easy to read, the book is packed with an impressive amount of information: an understanding of a liberating sexual, gender, and labor politics that should be central to any individual seeking to liberate women and queer & transgender identities (our liberation as LGBTQ folks is inextricably linked to that of sex workers, not only because many queer and trans folks sex workers, but because our bodies are maligned and regulated by overlapping structures) and individuals whose labor is subordinated and exploited under capitalism.

I’m not wholly sure what book reviews are supposed to say, but I cannot recommend this book enough. I can only say that listening to sex workers self-advocate has strengthened my own understanding of sex, enlightened me to the truly transactional nature of all sex (it’s true), my understanding of my own sexuality, the power of utilizing one’s erotic capital, and people’s inherent right to dignity regardless of their identity and occupation. Our understanding of sex work cannot rest upon dangerous platitudes of victimhood and helplessness (or, on the other end, attempts to engender support for labor rights and decriminalization legislation by demonstrating its potential for empowerment). My favorite line in the book is this: “To insist that sex work is work is to affirm there is a difference between a sexualised form of labor and sexuality itself.” This single sentence is the book’s crux. Rather than blur the line between an individual and occupational identity – which is the function of forcing sex workers to constantly “play the whore” and sublate these two identities into a single “deviant” one – we’ve got to shed Puritanical understandings of sex and the role of sex in capitalism. Sex workers are not “selling their bodies” or self-objectifying or driving capitalistic objectification of female sexuality but providing a range of sexual services and we need to begin engaging them and the industry on their terms and through their own understandings of their lived experiences and needs.

“There’s one critical function sex worker identity must still perform,” she says. “It gives shape to the demand that sex workers are as defined by their work as they are by their sexuality; it de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker, not despite sex but to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction.”

This is not an academic book (but rather an brilliantly written book informed by lived experiences and a thorough survey of the industry and all those interacting with it), but I would recommend that academics interested in gender and queerness and sex work and sexuality read this book because the politics around sex work and the demonization and hyper-surveillance of sex workers have important implications for a number of other identities. Rather than relying on anachronistic understandings of the industry and of female sexuality, buy her book, follow her on Twitter, and actively SEEK OUT and LISTEN to the varied voices of individuals in sex work. All fan girling aside though, engage Melissa’s words (both in her other writing and in this book) and enjoy this tour de force as much as I have.

Guardians of knowledge: Why is academic language “so white” and exclusive

We’re excited to share a post by Amit Singh, the co-editor of Consented, a multi-media platform for identities and narratives that aren’t included in mainstream socio-political spaces. He was so gracious as to shoutout CrowdsourcingAcademia in this piece as he interrogates the barriers in what is considered objective and/or legitimate and/or “expert” knowledge (i.e. the academy and whiteness) and what is simply dismissed as anecdotal or lay understandings (i.e. everything else). We at CSA look forward to collaborating with Amit and with Consented on future projects!


Knowledge is a wonderful thing. In theory it is something that in one way or another we all possess and should all be looking to share and exchange. Yet the western university system and related academic standards have spread across the globe and produced one concept of what is acceptable academic discourse. As a result, many people cannot gain access to “knowledge” for academia is closed off.

People who cannot meet the criteria of what is acceptable (usually a undergraduate degree – or higher – from a top class western university, use of “academic” terms and flawless footnoting and citations) are considered to be unworthy of knowledge and are certainly not people who are ever called upon to share their own learnings and experiences. This has led to an elite cluster of scholars and thinkers, locked away in the proverbial Ivory Tower, writing papers for each other in a manner that most people cannot understand. The academy is an elite, mostly privileged white, male club (it’s worth noting that in the UK there are only 85 black professors, of which just 17 are female).

As Zoe Samudzi says outlining her intentions for the new project Crowd Sourcing Academia:

“The Ivory Tower has notoriously monopolized the role as the centre of [legitimate] knowledge production and the epistemic authority on damn near everything, regardless of how inaccurately the identities and lived experiences of marginalized identities are frequently portrayed.”

Zoe’s project is “is an attempt to redress the epistemic injustice that is the exclusion of non-normative ways of knowing and being, whether gendered, classed, racialized or otherwise.”

Those who have previously tried to push back against this have often had difficulties in publishing work and gaining legitimacy, which is critical within a closed off academy determined to maintain the status quo.

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bell hooks has notably been criticized by academics for her “un-scholarly style” but hooks claims that she writes in such a manner because she is “motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations as possible”.

English language norms are presented as the only acceptable ones in academia. English is in many regards the language of the university. One UBC PhD candidate wrote his entire thesis without using standardized capitals, punctuation or paragraphs in what was essentially a 52,000 word long sentence. Naturally there were objections to the work, done to push back against “the blind acceptance of English language conventions in academia.”

Initially he had written his thesis in his indigenous Nisga language, but he was forced to translate it into English, which again highlights the way in which the English language dominates university. The result is that anyone who cannot speak, read or write in English, is excluded from discussions and debates. They are denied knowledge and are unable to share their own. These are essentially white academic norms, which play a key role in maintaining a white curriculum.

The idea of an alternative cannot truly be presented as long as such standards exist. The personal experience of many people is regarded as meaningless if they cannot theorize their arguments, foot note them and properly cite their sources. The result is that the majority of people discussing indigenous ideologies, for instance, are white ethnographers, not indigenous people themselves.

One project I worked on with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, was aimed at promoting indigenous knowledge (the university is a specialist indigenous knowledge centre within South Africa). The way academics proposed to do this was by providing a space within a conference for indigenous people to share posters and orally recite their knowledge in a non-conventional academic framework.

This is a step forward, but again everything was to be published in English afterwards and distributed in such a way so as to gain legitimacy from a white dominated academy. A complete alternative, they knew, would be marginalized and the knowledge of said indigenous people would need to be foot noted and cited somewhere. It’s also worth noting that the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s working language is English.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has done his own work to highlight these issues by announcing in his excellent Decolonizing The Mind that he would not write in English again. He asserts that writing in English and then having his work translated into his native Kiswahili excludes a lot of people from reading his work as the meaning of it is inevitably changed. Instead, he now exclusively writes in Kiswahili, although his work can be found translated into English, it is written for a Kiswahili speaking audience, not an English speaking one.

It is important to resist these academic norms and to stop accepting them as the measurement of intelligence and knowledge. Many people who lack qualifications or “education” as we know it are capable of sharing experiences with us and furthering our understanding of certain issues. An 18-year-old PoC is probably a lot better placed than a 60 year old white man with a Harvard PhD in race relations, to discuss race. Yet, we’d always lean towards the man with the PhD.

However, it’s also important for academics to be able to engage in “mainstream” discussions, rather than just talking amongst themselves. Academia should collaborate more with activism and everyday struggles, instead of remaining detached in a conference room at The London School of Economics. With a great deal of knowledge these thinkers can certainly add a lot in terms of combating social ills, yet right now, not enough of them engage with anyone outside of their own faculties.

To finish, we need to challenge what we consider to be an “expert” and begin to recondition ourselves to listen to everyone, regardless of whether they can use over the top academic language or not. Knowledge is to be shared, not hoarded.

Updates!

My real apologies for not adding new content for the blog yet, but there are some exciting updates to note.

1. We’ve purchased a domain! I’m so so so thankful for Brian who set it up and is wonderful and internet literate (unlike myself). Our permanent web address will be crowdsourcingacademia.com – so exciting! While we’re designing it and adding content, we’ll be updating the blog but we’ll hopefully be changing web locations soon.

2. We’re still in the process of looking for folks to join our team, i.e. like-minded academics and independent researchers, activist, community organizers, and just interested folks interested in helping grow this collaborative project. This is the basic mission still in development:

CrowdsourcingAcademia is a collaborative and shared space in which folks from different communities & organisations (as well as academics interested in doing community-based participatory work) can discuss and develop together different kinds of participatory research and data collection (whatever data is most community- and context-relevant). The goal is to empower folks with tools with which they can collect their own data and decentralize epistemic authority from academia making placing individuals and communities at the center of their own knowledge production. We hope that findings can be expressed in accessible and meaningful ways. The end goal – because paradigmatic shift and the displacement of hegemonic language are long-term objective – would be for more and more social scientists would embrace these participatory methods and include them in their work within the academy, ideally bringing about a paradigmatic shift in data collection and academic knowledge and redress the epistemic injustice of knowledge and experience erasure.

If you’d like to be in touch for whatever reason, you can send general queries to CrowdsourcingAcademia@gmail.com or you can email me at zoe@crowdsourcingacademia.com.

3. The inaugural project is underway! I have begun the lit review for the gender dysphoria project (which you can read more about here). Unfortunately, it’s off to a distressing start given the constrained nature of gender dysphoria/gender identity disorder  (GID) discourse – you can see a perfect example of this in Psychology Today’s post on GID (TW/CN: cissexism, transphobia, pathologization of trans identity) that references the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and National Institutes of Health, a federal body that FUNDS academic research. It is so utterly distressing that in 2015, the language around trans folks’ identities is still often divorced from their lived experiences and fails to take into account the ways in which normative sex and gender structures drive poor mental health outcomes, stigma, exclusion, and access to resources & services. Good research – and the need to CENTER the lived experiences, knowledge, and understandings of trans people rather than the totally incongruent theorizing and diagnosing by cis academics – is deeply needed and hopefully, that’s where we can collectively make a difference. If you’d like to get involved in any capacity, either as a participant or interested researcher, please get in touch (contact information is just above).

The inaugural project

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I’m imagining a project broadening our understanding of gender dysphoria. I think that we cis people tend to imagine gender dysphoria simply as an extreme and individual psychological unease, an incongruence between an assigned sex/gender and one’s true gender. But, like most western diagnostic-treatment imaginations of psychological distress and mental illness, this distress is isolated to the individual in question and there isn’t enough interrogation about the relationship of the individual (and their distress) with the objectifying normative structures surrounding them. That is, is gender dysphoria an individual response to the rigid cisnormative gender constructs and structures surrounding an individual rather than an individualized pathology?

In addition to a number of folks that I follow on Twitter, I am inspired by psychiatrist/social psychologist Derek Summerfield’s work on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He criticizes the over-medicalization of PTSD and rather characterizes these emotional responses as a reasonable reaction to intense trauma. While I am not attempting to analogize gender dysphoria and PTSD, I am hoping to similarly broaden our understanding of this dysphoria as a product of the internalization of these norms, thus implicating oppressive gender structures rather than individual “deviance” or “instability” as the driver of these feelings.

I am not willing to further speculate or draw any real conclusions without having input from transgender, genderqueer, and other gender variant folks because the last thing I’d want to do is to replicate the same processes of theorizing on and over individuals and participating in the erasure that is so characteristic of academia. My hope is to get input from a number of different folks and frame theory around them, thus centering these identities and lived experiences. I also hope to involve participants in the shaping of my analysis of the findings so as to constantly ground analysis in the multiplicity of these experiences and understandings.

If you are interested in participating in the project (which will be turned into some kind of article) or you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me for any reason.

Intentions

My name is Zoe Samudzi, and as much as I have deep contempt for the academe and what it has historically represented, I am an academic (a social psychologist).

The ivory tower has notoriously monopolized the role as the center of [legitimate] knowledge production and the epistemic authority on damn near everything, regardless of how inaccurately the identities and lived experiences of marginalized identities are frequently portrayed. This is an attempt to redress the epistemic injustice that is the exclusion of non-normative ways of knowing and being, whether gendered, classed, racialized or otherwise.

I hope to discuss and highlight ways of understanding relegated to the fringe, to contribute to the decentralization of knowledge production through the development of participatory research methods (which would enable marginalized communities to more accurately share their lived experiences and understandings with academia.

I am deeply interested in theorizing around hegemonies (particularly raced and gendered ones – whiteness and hegemonic masculinity), intersectional and postcolonial engagement. My raison d’être is the transformation of language, from one of exclusion, to one that more widely accounts for a multiplicity of legitimate understandings, and I’m going to share articles and information that speak to that and to my identity as a queer black feminist. I hope to make links with other like-minded individuals, both inside and outside of academia, because our efforts to decolonize the ivory tower must be cooperative. My ultimate goal is to not run this project I envision alone, but to collaboratively and collectively create a platform that would enable individuals in other spaces and places to create their own community-relevant material.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out (to say hi or get in touch about contributing to individual research projects, collaborating on the larger platform, or whatever else).
Email address is: CrowdsourcingAcademia@gmail.com for general queries (or contact me personally at zoe@crowdsourcingacademia.com).

Thank you for reading!