Feminist research methodology has evolved from different epistemologies, with several different schools of thought. Some of the more popular ones are feminist standpoint theory, feminist empiricism, and feminist relativism. Standpoint theory holds the experiences of the marginalised as the source of ‘truth’ about structures of oppression, which is silenced by traditional objectivist research methods as they produce knowledge from the standpoint of voices in positions of power2. Feminist empiricism does not eschew traditional modes of knowledge production, but emphasises diversity of research participants for feminist (and therefore also rigorous) knowledge production3. Relativists have critiqued standpoint theory for its tendency to essentialise the experience of marginalised groups, and subsume them into one homogenous voice to achieve the goal of ‘emancipatory’ research4. Relativists instead focus on multiple standpoints, which could be Dalit women, lesbian women, or women with disabilities5. We will be discussing the practical applicability of these epistemologies to research practices in the field of technology and gender.
Standpoint theory holds the experiences of the marginalised as the source of ‘truth’ about structures of oppression, which is silenced by traditional objectivist research methods as they produce knowledge from the standpoint of voices in positions of power
As part of the Feminist Internet Research Network, the Centre for Internet and Society is undertaking research on the digital mediation of domestic and care work in India. The project aims to assess shifts in the sector, including conditions of work, brought on by the entry of digital platforms. Our starting point for designing a methodology for the research was standpoint theory, which we thought to be the best fit as the goal of the project was to disrupt dominant narratives of women’s labour in relation to platformisation. In the context of dalit feminis, Rege warns that standpoint research risks producing a narrow frame of identity politics, although it is critical to pay attention to lived experience and the “naming of difference” between dalit women and savarna women6. She asserts that neither ‘women’ nor ‘dalit women’ is a homogenous category. While feminist researchers from outside these categories cannot claim to “speak for” those within, they can “reinvent” themselves as dalit feminists and ally themselves with their politics.
In order to address this risk of appropriating the voices of domestic workers (“speaking for”), we chose to directly work with a domestic workers’ union in Bengaluru called Stree Jagruti Smiti. Bengaluru is one of the two cities we are conducting research in (the other being Delhi, with very few registered unions). This is meant to radically destabilise power hierarchies and material relations within the research process, as benefits of participatory research tend to accumulate with the researchers rather than participants7.
Along with amplifying the voices of workers, a central objective of our project is to question the techno-solutionism that has accompanied the entry of digital platforms into the domestic work sector, which is unorganised and unregulated. To do so, we included companies and state labour departments as participants whose standpoint is to be interrogated. By juxtaposing the standpoints of stakeholders that have differential access to power and resources, the researcher is able to surface various conflicts and intersections in dominant and alternative narratives. This form of research also brings with it unique challenges, as researchers could find themselves mediating between the different stakeholders, while constantly choosing to privilege the standpoint of the least powerful - in this case the workers. Self-reflexivity then becomes necessary to ensure that the project does not slip into an absolutely relativist position, rather using the narratives of workers to challenge those of governments and private actors. This can also be done by ensuring that workers have agency to shape the agenda of researchers, thereby producing research which is instrumental in supporting grassroots campaigns and movements.
Self-reflexivity then becomes necessary to ensure that the project does not slip into an absolutely relativist position, rather using the narratives of workers to challenge those of governments and private actors.
Feminist participatory research itself, despite its many promises, is not a linear pathway to empowerment for participants8. At the very outset of the project, we were constantly asked the question by domestic workers and unions – why should we participate in this project? Researchers, in their experience, acquire information from the community throughout the process of data collection by positioning themselves as allies. However, as all such engagements are bound to limited timelines and budgets, researchers are then often absent at critical junctures where the community may need external support. We were also told that all too often, the output of the research itself does not make its way back to the participants, making it a one-way process of knowledge extraction. Being mindful of these experiences, we have integrated a feedback loop into our research design, which will allow us to design outputs that are accessible and useful to collectives of domestic workers.
Not only domestic workers and their organisations, many corporations operating these online portals and platforms often questioned the benefits of participating in the project. However, the manner of articulation differed. While attempting to reject the hierarchical nature of the researcher/participant relationship, we increasingly became aware that the underlying power equation was not a monolith. Rather, it varied across stakeholder groups and was explicitly contingent on the socially constructed positionalities already existing outside of the space of the interview. Companies, governments and workers all exemplified varying degrees of engagement with, knowledge of, and contributions to research. Interviews with workers and unions, and even some bootstrapped (i.e. without much external funding) , socially-minded companies, were often cathartic with an expectation of some benefits in return for opening themselves up to researchers. This was quite different for governments and larger companies, as conversations typically adhered to the patriarchal and classed notions of professionalism in sanitised, formal spaces9 and the strict dichotomy between public and personal spaces. Their contribution seemingly required lesser affective engagement from the interviewee, thereby resulting in lesser investment in the outcome of the research itself.
The cathartic nature of interviews also speak to the impossibility of the distanced, Platonic, school of research. We were often asked politically charged questions, our advice solicited and information sought. Workers and representatives from platform companies alike would question our motivations with the research and challenge us by inquiring about the benefits accruing to us. Again, both set of stakeholders would often ask differently about how other platforms were; workers already registered on a platform would wonder if another platform would be ‘better’ and representatives of platform companies would be curious about competition. This is perhaps a consequence of attempting to design a study that is of use and of interest to the workers we have been reaching out to.10 At times, we found ourselves at a place in the conversation where we were compelled to respond to political positions for the conversation to continue. There were interviews where notions of caste hierarchies (within oppressed classes) as a justification/complaint for engaging/having to engage in certain tasks would surface. Despite being beholden to a feminist consciousness that disregards the idea of the interviewer as neutral, we often found ourselves only hesitantly forthcoming. At times, it was to keep the interview broadly focused around the research subject, at others it was due to our own ignorance about the research artefact (in this instance, platforms mediating domestic work services). This underscores the challenges of seeing the interview as a value ridden space, where the contradictions between the interview as a data collection method and as a consciousness raising emerged - how could we share information about the artefact we were in the process of collecting data about?
We were often asked politically charged questions, our advice solicited and information sought.
The fostering of ‘rapport’11 has made its may into method, almost unknowingly. Often, respondents across stakeholder groups started from an initial place of hesitation, sometimes even suspicion. Several structural issues could be at work here - our inability in being able to accurately describe research itself, the class differences and at times, ideological ones as well. While with most participants, rapport was eventually established, its establishment was a laboured process. Especially given that we were using one-off, in-depth interviews as our method, securing an interview was contingent on the establishment of rapport. This isn’t to suggest that feminist research mandatorily requires the ‘doing of rapport’12, but that when it does, it’s a fortunate outcome and that feminist researchers engage with it more critically.
Building rapport creates an impression of having minimised the exploitation of the
participant, however the underlying politics and pressures of building rapport need to be interrogated. Rapport, like research itself, is at times a performance; rapport is often not naturally occuring. Rather, rapport may also be built to conceal the very structural factors preventing it. For instance, during instances of ideological differences during the interview, we were at times complicit through our silence. This may have been to further a certain notion of ‘objectivity’ itself whereby the building and maintenance of rapport is essential to surfacing a participant’s real views. This then raises the questions: What are the ethical questions that the suppression of certain viewpoints and reactions pose? How does the building, maintenance and continuance of rapport inform the research findings? Rapport, then, comes in all shapes and sizes and its manifold forms implicate the research process differently. Another critical question to be addressed is - why does some rapport take less work than others? With platform companies, building rapport came by easier than it did with workers both on and off platforms. If understood as removing degrees of distance between the researcher and participants, several factors could play into the effort required to build rapport. For instance, language was a critical determinant of the ease of relationship-building. Being more fluent in English than in colloquial Hindi enabled clearer articulation of the research. Further, familiarity with the research process was, as expected, mediated along class lines. This influenced the manner in which we articulated research outcomes and objectives to workers with complete unfamiliarity with the meaning of research. Among workers, this unfamiliarity often resulted in distrust, which required the underlying politics of the research to be more critically articulated.
By and large, the feminist engagement with research methods has been quite successful in its resistance and transformation of traditional forms. Since Oakley’s conception of the interview as a deeply subjective space13 and Harding’s dialectical conception of masculinist science through its history14, the application of feminist critical theory has increasingly subverted assumptions around the averseness of research to political motivations. At the same time, it has made knowledge-production occur in a more equitable space. It is in this context that standpoint theory has had wide purchase, but challenges persist in its application. As the foregoing discussion outlines, we have been able to achieve some of the goals of feminist standpoint research while missing out on others. We also found the ‘multiple standpoints’ approach of relativists to be useful in a project involving multiple stakeholders - thereby also avoiding the risk of essentialisation of the identities of domestic workers. However, unlike the tendency of relativists to focus on each perspective as ‘equally valid truth’, we are choosing to focus on the conflicts and intersections between emerging discourses. Through this hybrid theoretical framework, we are seeking to make knowledge production more equitable. At the same time, the discussion around rapport shows that this may nevertheless happen in a limited fashion. Feminist research may never be fully non-extractive. The reflexivity exercised and choices made during the course of the research are key.
Unlike the tendency of relativists to focus on each perspective as ‘equally valid truth’, we are choosing to focus on the conflicts and intersections between emerging discourses.
1 The names of the authors are in alphabetical order.
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12 Dunscombe, J., and Jessop, J. (2002). “Doing rapport, and the ethics of ’faking friendship’,” in Ethics in Qualitative Research, eds T. Miller, M. Birch, M. Mauthner, and J. Jessop (London: SAGE), 108–121.
13 Oakley, A. (1981). “Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms?” in Doing Feminist Research, ed. H. Roberts (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 30–61.
14 Harding, S. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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