“They were stalking the corridors, the lecture rooms, the offices…”: open research, ethics and impact

The Last Seminar by Stan Cohen must surely merit consideration as the strangest paper ever to appear in a Sociology journal. It tells the story of a gradual invasion of the university campus by those who are neither expected nor welcome: research participants. Encountering  strangely familiar figures in their everyday working lives, befuddled sociologists suddenly begin to recognise that those who have been the objects of past research have gradually returned to confront the researchers who sought to repress them upon completion of the research:

Then Bridges, who I thought had been deliberately avoiding me, walked up to the desk at the end of a class in which he had participated with his usual intense stare.

‘You don’t know anything about it, do you? It’s all a game to you.’I asked him what he meant.

‘Prison’, he said, ‘You think because you’ve spoken to a few cons you understand it all. Well, you don’t, you just don’t.’

He was slowly shaking his head. The tone was polite, but condescending. I’d heard that tone before.

The ensuing confrontation is neither welcome nor pleasant. Those whose existence had been reduced to representational objects begin to subject the researchers to emotional torment, with their mere presence throwing the campus into disarray:

Those of us who had done any empirical research were being infiltrated by our subjects. (‘Infiltrated’, is that the right word? I’m still not sure how to describe what was being done to us. Penetrated? Visited? Invaded?) I could not explain how this had happened but they were certainly here, taking revenge against us for writing about them.

The story ends with Cohen’s narrator desperately bundling up his most treasured books before fleeing the burning campus as gun fire echoes in the distance. It’s a very strange story. But it asks an important question: what would involuntary confrontation with participants in past research look like? What would it feel like? How would a prior knowledge of such future rencountering (re)shape our practice? Certainly these are not new questions. But it would be difficult to find a text which considers them quite as dramatically as Cohen’s.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about in the context of researching the asexual community. I first encountered the notion of asexuality through two new friends who identified as asexual. As I got curious about asexuality – partly because I didn’t ‘get it’ and partly because of its conspicuous absence within the sexualities literature I’d encountered at that point – I started to search online. I very quickly found asexual discussion forums, blogs and youtube videos. I found a website that an asexual PhD student (who eventually switched topics to research the history of asexual identity) had setup in order to help encourage and facilitate what was, at that point, a fairly insubstantial amount of academic research on asexuality. In short: an awful lot was happening online.

It soon became obvious that the internet had been integral to the emergence of an asexual identity and the formation of something which, for lack of a better term, we might call an asexual ‘community’. However the internet was also crucial to the formation of an extremely loose but nonetheless identifiable asexual research community – e-mail, mailing lists, blogs, discussion forums allowed   geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to communicate. This has eventually led to some face-to-face meetings: a seminar at the University of Warwick, a conference panel at the Sexualisation of Culture conference, the formation of an interest group of the National Women’s Studies Association and numerous conference sessions which have emerged from this.

There’s a risk of overstating the point but there is, nonetheless, a clear homology here and it’s a really interesting one. In a way it represents a reshaping of the field of research – the same trends are identifiable in the formation of groups of researchers as can be seen in groups of the researched. It might be the case that asexuality represents an outlier but, even if this is so, it’s helpful because it foregrounds a change which might be difficult to identify elsewhere if it is manifesting itself more gradually. The institutional and territorial gap between researchers and the groups they research – the concern of Cohen’s story – is being radically narrowed by the internet in general and social media in particular. There are some striking examples of this within asexuality studies, such as the formalisation of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s gatekeeping function and the Open Letter to Researchers written by the Asexuality Awareness Week committee, but I find it difficult to see how this could become anything other than a broader trend. Some elements of Cohen’s parable could seem anachronistic given the sensitivity and awareness which many social researchers, particularly insider researchers, exhibit in relation to this ‘gap’. My intention is simply to frame this recognised issue in terms of the many ways in which the technological innovations which are driving this process can be drawn upon to negotiate it proactively. By this I mean things like:

  • Single author or multi-author blogging
  • Tweeting about research
  • Setting up a tumblr blog about research
  • Podcasting (interviews, talks)
  • Facebook pages
  • Videocasting (interviews, talks, documentaries)
  • Live streaming events
  • Engaging with community blogs

These are possibilities which often come up in terms of ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’. But I think these are often sterile concepts, redolent of top-down imperatives and an audit culture – it also risks subsuming the specific publics of the researched who have a stake in the content of that research under the general ‘public’ with whom we are ‘engaging’.

These are powerful tools which, increasingly, require little to no technical expertise to master. Martin Weller talks about these technologies as being ‘fast, cheap and out of control’:

Fast – technology that is easy to learn and quick to set up. The academic does not need to attend a training course to use it or submit a request to their central IT services to set it up. This means they can experiment quickly.

Cheap – tools that are usually free or at least have a freemium model so the individual can fund any extension themselves. This means that it is not necessary to gain authorisation to use them from a budget holder. It also means the user doesn’t need to be concerned about the size of audience or return on investment, which is liberating.

Out of control – these technologies are outside of formal institutional control structures, so they have a more personal element and are more flexible. They are also democratised tools, so the control of them is as much in the hands of students as it is that of the educator

In adopting fast, cheap and out of control tools we make the research process newly open and, in doing so, help ameliorate the methodological and ethical difficulties which can result from too wide a gap between researchers and the groups they are researching. Using these tools proactively helps ensure that changes in the broader field of research which are, by definition, unpredictable can be negotiated more actively than would otherwise be the case. Incorporating them into ongoing practice can also, somewhat paradoxically, lead to much greater impact than could ever be achieved by deliberately seeking ‘impact’ as a compartmentalised activity. The digital footprint which open research leaves manifests itself in a discoverability by activists, journalists, practitioners and policy makers which would be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate through other means. But this discoverability is also achallenge – ethically and methodologically – one which I think Stan Cohen would have found very interesting.

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