"All that you walk on to get there": How to centre feminist ways of knowing
As a result of numerous encounters and critiques from diverse feminist thinkers themselves, and backlashes from a heteronormative and patriarchal society, feminism continues to go through constant political engagement and changes. The current “gender ideology” backlash in different parts of the world that is driven by conservative right-wing politicians and policy advocates can be seen as a good example here. Most importantly, as a progressive ideology, feminism re-shapes and updates itself to respond to diverse experiences, theoretical knowledge, and interpretation of the world by less privileged communities, specifically women, queer, and gender diverse individual and collectives1. However, what remains to be a consistent state of affairs in the history of feminism is the challenge against methodological frameworks and research outputs that effectively exclude experiences of less privileged individuals and communities based on intersecting identities – race, gender, caste, sexuality, and ethnicity2.
Concerning this, feminists specifically from the global south have been critiquing the “context-stripping”3 nature of positivist research methods that often claims to produce unbiased knowledge,4 and how representation of the reality of “human experience” is understood from the context of androcentric and heteronormative ideas of the world. Hence, women’s, LGBTQIA and other marginalised communities experiences were absent from research and scholarships. Furthermore, it has been argued that, due to its methodological limitations, even researches that somehow manage to include women and other marginalised communities, often fail to articulate their experience fully5.
The failure to fully represent women’s and marginalised communities’ realities and experience led feminists from diverse disciplines to explore feminist research methods that disrupt the process and provide alternative knowledge production6. For example, in direct response to the positivist approach, feminist empiricist scholars are known to create a project that includes women and queer individuals and collectives into the research sample7. Their argument focuses on the impossibility of producing knowledge that is objective and truthful without including half the population in the world. This exercise revealed different knowledge production without necessarily asking a different research question but broadening the spectrum of research participants. Indeed, bringing in women and queer individuals as research participants in itself is asking the question differently, expanding the theoretical lenses, engaging with different perspectives of data interpretation; and subsequently knowledge production.8
As feminist researchers with an interest in technology, the question we should ask is, how does the research contribute to liberation and transformation of technology to be used in its full capacity by women, gender diverse, and vulnerable groups on basis of race, sexuality, caste, ethnicity etc.? How does our feminist engagement constitute the solution that challenges the regulation, scrutiny, exclusion and disciplining of marginalised individuals? And how can we disrupt the normalised infrastructure that imposes “individualised responsibility” of internet practices to reinforce gendered power dynamics and legitimise violence against women and LGBTQIA+ communities? Related to this, our research on technology should also interrogate the actual infrastructure of the internet - from connectivity to hardware to interface - that regulate social, political, economic, cultural and interpersonal behaviour and chokes imagination of alternative ways of relating. Lastly, it needs to be recognised that, although it is essential to investigate these complex problems, it is also imperative for feminist technology researchers to establish mechanisms that break free from the reproduction of passive, vulnerable identities that fall under the binary mode of analogy that puts women and queer individuals as powerless9.
Our research on technology should also interrogate the actual infrastructure of the internet - from connectivity to hardware to interface - that regulate social, political, economic, cultural and interpersonal behaviour and chokes imagination of alternative ways of relating.
Often multiple methodological designs and analytical explorations in feminist research intentionally seek to cultivate social justice, empowerment and emancipation of less privileged communities10. However, Haraway11 and Harding12 argue that even with the best intentions, research and knowledge production is never bias-free. It performs a particular ideological function that produces, influences, disrupts, transforms and shapes the way we understand the world around us and beyond. Undeniably reflecting on these limitations in our ICT related research is equally important. One of the tools from postcolonial thinking is standpoint theory13. This theory played an important role in concretising the difference between traditional research and feminist research methods. Furthermore, it considers and acknowledges research participants as knowledge producers of their own realities. Standpoint theory requires feminist researchers to pay attention and give prominent value for the situated knowledge and experiences of less privileged and oppressed groups in society14.
From a methodological perspective, standpoint theory remains to be instrumental in unravelling the gendered power dynamics that are manifested in different practices existing alongside mainstream ideologies of gender balance. For instance, while much of feminist research in the ICT sector identifies the mobilisation discourse that criticises technology as "not being gender-neutral"15, there remains a need to explore how and why these discourses and their associated practices operate, most notably, how they are experienced by both women and LGBTQIA+ communities - algorithm design, negligence of the digital gap, unregulated and unpaid digital labour etc. What strategies, subversive or otherwise, are enlisted in regulating the inclusion of often marginalised group and experiences of backlash with feminist technological interventions? And beyond the critique on operations of national regulatory apparatuses, how do social and cultural institutions at different levels operate as mechanisms to perpetuate marginalisation and online violence? These and more explorations can best be investigated though standpoint and intersectional theoretical frameworks by intentionally designing research questions that complicate the normative "gender gap" analogy provocatively.
Interrogation of hierarchical power in feminist research
Feminist research principle primarily focuses on dismantling the power dynamics that position researchers as "experts" and "knowers" whereas research participants are simply subjects of the study16. The process of interrogating the researcher's identity with research participants is not a one-time process, nor is it reflective writing packaged as a presentation of feminist analysis. It is an ongoing process that seeks to challenge and remove power imbalance between the researcher and research participants17. Feminist researchers are encouraged to pay attention to their claims of power, reflect on it, and consider themselves equally as part of the research process18.
Beyond the focus on the power dynamics between researcher and research participants, Widerberg19 suggests for feminists to consider power as “an issue to problematize regarding the very relation of production of knowledge”. Unless otherwise critically reflected on, such power might potentially erase the significant role participants played in the process of knowledge making20. This is even more complicated when one looks at production of tech-related knowledge between the North and South that is inherently asymmetric, where “hierarchy between the global North as the producer of knowledge and the South as the passive space upon which this knowledge acts”21, which contributes to the popular myths of technology happens elsewhere not in the “global south”.
Understandably, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to deal with these complex hierarchies of power. It is also limiting to approach the reflexivity practice from a perspective of identity politics. Self-descriptions such as “I am a white woman, living in the global north, working in technological research in the global south” for instance, are not useful. It also effectively diminishes the politics behind the position of the researcher and the partiality of the knowledge production and important question such as “who are the actors who stand to benefit or lose through the research process; whose physical, mental and emotional labour goes into the research; whose resources are being used, etc.”22. Perhaps the exercise for feminist researchers then is to aspire and create knowledge that is “nonhierarchical, non-authoritarian, non-exploitative and non-manipulative”23. It remains dependent on the strong intention and ethical commitment, political stand of the researcher to take accountability and consider alternative ways of dismantling the power dynamics.
This is even more complicated when one looks at production of tech-related knowledge between the North and South that is inherently asymmetric, where “hierarchy between the global North as the producer of knowledge and the South as the passive space upon which this knowledge acts”21, which contributes to the popular myths of technology happens elsewhere not in the “global south”.
Reflexivity as a political practice in tech research
In defining reflexivity Sultana writes: “reflexivity in research involves reflection on self, process, and representation, and critically examining power relations and politics in the research process, and researcher accountability in data collection and interpretation”24. Similarly, England writes: “reflexivity is self-critical sympathetic introspection and the self-conscious analytical scrutiny of the self as a researcher. Indeed reflexivity is critical to the conduct of fieldwork; it induces self-discovery and can lead to insights and new hypotheses about the research questions”25. Ultimately this subjective reflexive practice makes the research process more politically engaging and significant. This means that any research processes, especially data collection whether it is offline or the digital platform, involve stepping into a “positioned space” and negotiating social structures - for instance, negotiating a gendered structure as a queer, Black, female researcher from the global south in a deeply racist and patriarchal society.
When writing specifically this section, I went back to my research experience while doing my MA degree in Gender Studies. The research was focused on exploring the disempowering effect of customary laws, particularly for women, that are now regarded as part and parcel of the Ethiopian constitution26. This ethnographic study explores Gurage people’s cultural practices as a case study. This brought me very close to my culture, and at the beginning I was confident in my belonging and familiarity with the culture. However, my fieldwork experience was totally different from what I imagined. The embodied experience of going through the reflective process and the detailed analysis exposes how much we take from our research participants and how little we give back. For me, this was an important realization of irreconcilable power and reality27. It led me to "exposing" my fieldwork experience by openly reflecting on the research process, and contributed to the bigger understanding of partiality of knowledge and troubled clear-cut binary-outsider/insider divide28.
The embodied experience of going through the reflective process and the detailed analysis exposes how much we take from our research participants and how little we give back. For me, this was an important realization of irreconcilable power and reality.
Paying attention to positionality is especially important for researchers who are outsiders/insiders geographically and/or in various spectrums of identity politics. As such, scholars positioned as "outsiders" but manage to have access to the community through the extended neoliberal privileges, class, race, gender, and other identities, should reflect on how best they approach these dynamics to challenge the power dynamics and change individualistic ambition to communal learning. This is not to say that researchers who are “insiders”, also defined as “local researchers” of the community are of the danger of this possessive power. In fact, these researchers also have power and privilege that comes with the “trust of community” due to common identities29. This in itself is the power and privilege that insider researchers are expected to evaluate. Because of the familiarity of the culture, language and social values, the danger here perhaps is creating a discourse that perpetuates the stereotype or downplays existing violence, oppression and inequalities30.
Furthermore, insiderness/outsiderness are not a static phenomenon and it changes depending on the researcher’s engagement and performance.31 In fact, the researcher’s insiderness/outsiderness extremely depends on to what extent the researcher disclaim her authoritative gaze and privilege and attempt to practice reciprocity of knowledge32. Increasingly, what is becoming more challenging is how to explore possibilities of reflective feminist research specifically for researches that do not involve fieldwork such as research on social media platforms where the researcher and participant are not in the same physical space or even know each other. These blurred boundaries and shifting identities need further critical thinking in our feminist research with respect to the subjectivities such encounter produces. Nevertheless, recognizing and reflecting the multiple positions that the researcher occupies and analyzing the insider-outsider identity positions, in return shows how this positionality influences the methodological framework, data collection, interpretation of findings, and research output33 “After all, the "voices" of respondents do not speak on their own … rather, it is the researcher who makes choices about how to interpret these voices and which transcripts extracts to present as evidence”34.
These are but few questions that have been exhaustively debated about in the broader discussion on feminist research practices, particularly in the Feminist internet Research Network (FIRN) project and in the Women’s Right Programme (WRP) at Association for Progressive Communications (APC). What is urgent for feminist technology researchers, perhaps even the sole purpose of this edition in GendetIT.org is to ask, critique, and reflect on the replicability of "feminist ways of knowing" in researches on technology. These collection of essays courageously identify challenges and methodological innovation when intentionally applying feminist research method in technology research practices. The essays are written not from a position of expertise but an exploration of self-reflexive practices with the intention to invite network collaboration, engage in a collective journey of deepening the ongoing feminist work, and conversation within FIRN and beyond. These are conversations that have been percolating in different threads of knowledge-building work by feminists and researcher in different parts of the world.
What is urgent for feminist technology researchers, perhaps even the sole purpose of this edition in GendetIT.org is to ask, critique, and reflect on the replicability of "feminist ways of knowing" in researches on technology.
1 Oakley, A. (1997). The gendering of methodology: An experiment in knowing. Seminar to Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, 10th April.; Brooks, A., & Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2007). An invitation to feminist research. Feminist research practice: A primer, 1-24.; Wambui, J. (2013). An introduction to feminist research. University of Nairobi: Kenya.; Tandon, A. (2018). Feminist Methodology in Technology Research: A Literature Review. Centre for Internet & Society: India
2 Collins, P. H. (2004). Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought. In Feminist Frontiers, 6th Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp 66 –84.; Mohanty, C. (1991). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In Mohanty, C., Russo, A., And Torres, L. (eds), “Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism”, Indiana University Press.; Harding, S. (2004). The Feminist STANDPOINT Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Routledge, New York and London.; Narayan, U. (1997). Westernization, Respect for Cultures and Third-World Feminists. In Narayan, U. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions and Third-World Feminism. New York and London: Routledge.; Rege, S. (1998). Dalit women talk differently: A critique of'difference'and towards a Dalit feminist standpoint position. Economic and Political Weekly, WS39-WS46.; Wylie, A. (2004). Why Standpoint Matters. In Feminist STANDPOINT Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, Routledge, New York and London.
3 Wambui, J. (2013). An introduction to feminist research. University of Nairobi: Kenya.
10 Wambui, J. (2013). Op. cit.
11 Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575-599.
12 Harding, S. (1990). Feminism, science, and the anti-Enlightenment critique. In L. Nicholson (Ed.), Feminism/postmodernism. New York & London: Routledge
13 Harding, S. (2004). The Feminist STANDPOINT Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Routledge, New York and London.
14 Wylie, A. (2004). Why Standpoint Matters. In Feminist STANDPOINT Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, Routledge, New York and London.
15 Gurumurthy, A. (2004). GENDER and ICTs. An Overview Report, Bridge Development–Gender Institute of Development Studies.; Buskens, I., & Webb, A. (2009). African women and ICTs: Investigating technology, gender and empowerment. Zed Books Ltd.; Buskens, I., & Webb, A. (2014). Women and ICT in Africa and the Middle East: Changing selves, changing societies. Zed Books, London, GB.
16 Tandon, A. (2018). Op. cit.
17 Sultana, F. (2007). Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol, 6 (3), PP 374-385, Department of Geography, King‟s College London, The Strand, London
18 Nagar, R and Geiger, S. (2007). Reflexivity and Positionality in Feminist Fieldwork Revisited. In eds. Adam, T., Eric S., Jamie P., and Trevor B. Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. London: Sage, pp. 267-278.; Davault, M. L. (1999). Speaking up, carefully, Authorship and authority in Feminist Writing. in Liberating Method: Feminism and Social Research (PP, 187-191). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
19 Widerberg, K. (2007). Among “The Others”: Migration and Gender and the Ethnographic Approach. University of Oslo.
20 Nagar, R and Geiger, S. (2007). Op. cit. Adam, T., Eric S., Jamie P., and Trevor B. Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. London: Sage, pp. 267-278.
21 Tandon, A. (2018). Op. cit.
22 Ibid. page 9
23 Wambui, J. (2007). Op. cit.
24 Sultana, F. (2007). Op. cit.
25 England, K. V. (1994). Op. cit.
26 Hussen, S. T. (2009) Empowering the nation, disempowering women: The case of Kitcha Customary Law in Ethiopia, Agenda: Empowering women for gender equity, 23:82, 94-99. URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10130950.2009.9676279(link is external)
27 Sultana, F. (2007). Op. cit.
28 Hussen, S. T. (2014). Exploring “Familiar” Spaces in Feminist Ethnographic Fieldwork: Critical Reflections of Fieldwork Experience in Gurage, Ethiopia. In Academic Research Journal, Vol. 2(1), pp. 12 – 19. URL: http://www.academicresearchjournals.org/IJPSD/PDF/2014/January/Tigist.pdf(link is external)
29 Hussen, S. T (2014)
31 Mullings, B. (1999). Op. cit.
32 Hussen, S.T. (2014). Op. cit.
33 Humphrey C. (2007). Op. cit.
34 Wambui, J. (2013). Op. cit.