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Situations of Knowing - thoughts on giving my first conference paper

March 2, 2016    Blog Research Conferences

Last week I presented my first paper, A Declaration Of Openness: intersectionality, idealism, and the politics of gentleness in early-stage research at the European Doctoral Seminar. I was lucky enough to be on a really fascinating panel, preceded by a paper about ‘aggressive listening’, bridging the gap between listening and participating in the sound of a space, and a paper discussing what constitutes a ‘design event’ (the following panel, including papers on fighting for gendered legitimacy as a transgender individual, the concept of the ‘homeostatic universe’, and a feminist perspective on imagineering women in contemporary Portuguese cinema, was equally riveting). A fantastically varied range of papers, research subjects, and methodologies, yet all tied together by the question of how we collect research (if indeed we do collect it) and what that means.

I was asked a lot of questions in the Q&A session following the panel’s papers, many more than I was anticipating; it turns out gentleness is a contentious issue. One excellent point raised was the problematic nature of opposing ‘power’ and ‘gentleness’, as a quotation from Anthony McCann spells out explicitly in my paper; power is not inherently something to be avoided, particularly not when the one seeking it is socially marginalised. How power is used, and how it’s distributed unequally, is perhaps more where gentleness comes into play, although what that looks like in action might be deeply situationally variable – and maybe gentleness isn’t always desirable, just as power isn’t always undesirable. On a related note, I also don’t think I spent enough time exploring the dangers of cloaking simple tone-policing and respectability politics in a label of ‘gentleness’; direct action and ungentle resistance can be incredibly transformative and politically important, and this was raised by multiple other researchers in the audience.

Certain practicalities were also raised with regards to gentle fieldwork. Although McCann suggests the most ethical way to conduct fieldwork is simply to sit and listen, to avoid even necessarily recording a participant, this isn’t always possible, and sometimes you have to take something away from your research. What’s the best way, for instance, to record the visual features of a ukulele group? Is filming them inherently ungentle and unethical? Certainly it might unimaginably alter what’s actually being recorded (an obvious problem with most fieldwork). Should the camera be passed around amongst members rather than held by the researcher to deconstruct hierarchical relationships between researcher and participants? Might that be even more distracting? None of these questions have a ‘right answer’, and I don’t think I will be able to even begin to explore them in any depth until I’m more embedded in real-life fieldwork.

I was reminded repeatedly over the course of the conference of how hazy my perspective on fieldwork is at such an early stage in my research. A point which was repeatedly raised by other researchers was that, often, there is no answer and no obvious ‘right’ way to proceed, and it can become impossible to ‘tread lightly’ and to have a wholly positive impact (this, I suppose, is why I’ve emphasised idealism in my title – that idealism will likely come crashing down when I enter the real world of field research, and, indeed, I fully expect it to). All relationships, not just research relationships, are complicated and messy and rough around the edges. One wonderful paper delivered on the second day of the seminar described life as a researcher in a favela, the reality of which involved close friendships founded on informal mockery and joking, a world away from the neutrality and distance she had imagined when she had travelled there. Although her fieldwork was a world away from my own, speaking a language new to her, surrounded by hails of bullets, her paper served as another reminder that we cannot and should not rely on our own expectations of the field before we have entered it.

I came away from Situations of Knowing reminded of exactly how much I do not know. On one level this is a little anxiety-inducing; it’s so easy to convince yourself you are the sole architect of your own research, and even when publicly professing your own uncertainty there will be aspects of the situation, and of your attitude to it, you’ve never even considered. But surely this is exactly why I’m researching in the first place: because I don’t know the answers to any of the questions I have, and nor does anyone else except the people I will be talking to and interviewing, and maybe they don’t either! Being at such a liminal stage of research is enormously exciting; I am already learning so much from my peers, including those at a similarly early stage as well as others who are more experienced and better-read than I am. I can’t wait to start speaking more specifically to those who are (whether they would refer to themselves as such or not!) self-made experts in their instrument and the subculture surrounding it.