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Thoughts on researching lived experience and ethics

January 25, 2016    News Blog Research Identity

In the process of writing my literature review, I keep coming up against the same question; how do I conduct this research in a way which is helpful, and not harmful, to the people I'm talking to and writing about?

This question is compounded by the fact that, at this stage, the overarching structure of my research is governed by social identities and demographics, and the places of intersection between them. Why, given the ukulele's Portuguese origins and enormous popularity amongst indigenous Hawaiians in the early twentieth century, are so many ukulele groups today overwhelmingly white? Why is the instrument the first foray into music-making for many of the women I spoke to in my preliminary study, when almost without exception the men I spoke to were already skilled at the guitar, and picked the smaller instrument up 'just for fun'? Are the experiences of the two LGBTQ-exclusive ukulele groups I located when foraging online somehow unique (probably!) and if so, how?

These are some of the areas I'm most interested in exploring, especially given the complicated ways in which identity is represented within the creative world and music industries at large. By examining ukulele groups I hope to be able to shed light not just on the instrument itself, but a thriving DIY scene which presumably both buys into and reacts against (perhaps inconsistently, as with many subcultures) inequalities in the wider creative world and, indeed, society at large.

Exploring topics bound up with power and control, especially in relation to identity, is always difficult, and is something I want to treat as sensitively as I can, particularly since as a white, cisgender, middle-class, funded academic, in a monogamous opposite-gender relationship, I hold an awful lot of power and privilege. It's my absolute priority to ensure nobody is hurt or damaged by my research; nobody participating in the study will do so without explicit consent. As Patricia Hill Collins suggests in her book Black Feminist Thought (2000), by centring lived experience absolutely, over and beyond academic texts in their conventionally-understood sense, and by telling the stories of speakers in narrative form rather than interrogating or dissecting them, I hope my work can be a safe and participatory site for discussion and exploration rather than something harmful. This is something I'm going to have to continually negotiate and communicate with everyone who participates in the study at any point about.

Richard Jones (2010) advocates an approach he calls 'intersectional reflexivity' when researching the lives of others. Acknowledge your own intersecting identities, suggests Jones, and account for your own implications in your field at every stage of research. My own identity, like many others, is both fixed and unfixed, both complex and subject to labels. I'm definitely a woman. I definitely have a chronic illness, but it's definitely under good control now. I love my male partner immensely (but realised not too long ago that I wasn't quite as heterosexual as I thought!). I'm young. I'm an artist, I guess, although I wouldn't have been willing to label myself that until extremely recently. I'm (to my own slight embarrassment, well-founded or not) an Oxbridge graduate. I'm the second person in my family to go to university. I'm a feminist. I'm a child of separated parents. I was raised by an extremely liberal atheist, and an extremely liberal agnostic/Quaker. I'm agnostic myself. I'm white. All these things, as well as numerous others I haven't even thought of yet, colour how I interact with the world and how it interacts with me, and everything in the list affects how I experience the others. I exist in a comparatively very privileged position, as a human being. How this will impact my research over the next few years remains to be seen.

I have no right answers about conducting ethical research of lived experience, and I'm well aware that I will run into issues that problematise the very nature of my study over the course of my PhD. More than anything, this blog post serves as a declaration of openness and accountability; a statement that I will consider my own impact on others at every stage of my PhD as an absolute priority, and will try at all times to conduct my research with gentleness, open ears, and respect for my fellow humans and musicians. I will mess up. I will try to fix it when I do. I feel like that is, at least, a starting point.