On Friday, October 14th 2016,  a roundtable discussion was led by Alison Harvey and Mary Elizabeth Luka, sponsored by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Connections. Hosted by the Department of Media and Communication’s Gender Research Group in the Bankfield House Lecture Theatre at the University of Leicester.

Workshop Summary # 1 | Lidia Salvatori | PhD candidate in the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology

The roundtable discussion which took place in October at the University of Leicester has been an opportunity to reflect on various issues we may encounter as feminist researchers approaching the study of digital phenomena or utilising digital methods for our research. A series of brief presentations contributed to create a welcoming and open forum where experiences, doubts and suggestions could be shared. Having only just started my PhD with a project on digital feminist activism, I found some of the contributions particularly thought provoking and helpful for the development of my position as researcher and for the elaboration of my research questions. 

A discussion around the ever increasing relevance of big data in society, also evident from the number of research grants funding projects in this field, raised many questions on how to incorporate a feminist agenda into the formation of innovative research methods that explore the vast amounts of digital data now available, while maintaining a clear focus on ethics and social inclusion. 

I believe that in order to establish a feminist approach to digital media research we need to start with a definition of the object of our study. The necessity to define what we mean by ‘digital’ comes with a reflection on whether it is still valid to make a dichotomy between ‘digital’ and ‘real’. If we consider ‘real’ a phenomenon that is authentic and belongs to reality, then the ‘digital’ is not opposed to the ‘real’: a conversation on social media for example is not less real than a face to face one. Going beyond the idea that the digital is inauthentic or unreal, can allow a richer understanding of phenomena that happen at the intersection between the online and offline world. In relation to my own research project for example, replacing the concept of ‘digital activism’, as opposed to ‘traditional activism’, with that of ‘digitally mediated activism’ seems to reflect more fully the reality of a form of action which utilises social media and online connectivity as a tool to create or strengthen ties which often pre-exist or translate into the ‘offline world’.

A reflection on the positioning of feminist researchers in relation to digital media research cannot prescind from the awareness that the digital space is not a utopian sphere and that power relations and issues of marginalisation and inclusivity must be considered. A conversation that I found particularly helpful was centred on the complexities related to setting our ethical position in research. Digital research highlights the extent to which the role of the social researcher is not limited to collecting data but that the researcher is fully involved in its generation and transformation. In this context, how can we face the new methodological and ethical dilemmas opened up by digital media and by the transformation of the role of the researcher itself? 

Dealing with a relatively new and often unfamiliar field, where methods of data collection and analysis are still not clearly set, offers the opportunity to critically analyse a number of issues that might arise when carrying out digital research. There are numerous attempts to design methods to track online behaviour, for example through sentiment or attitude analysis however, these raise both methodological and ethical concerns. With the use of social media, the boundaries between what is private and what is public are increasingly blurred and, as a result, the concern for privacy, confidentiality and informed consent becomes central. 

When approaching the study of digital platforms it is useful to reflect on how ethical it is to ‘lurk’ as a participant on publicly owned message boards and use comments that the other participants deemed to be private within a research project. We should ask ourselves whether it is sufficient to make our role as researchers very clear to all those involved in our research and approach participants individually to gain their consent before publishing any of the information they shared. Another important concern to be considered is that of inclusivity in digital research: some of the contributions highlighted possible methods to overcome the reproduction of a digital divide and the silencing of marginalised voices through the combined use of digital and non-digital methods. 

Finally, the roundtable discussion was an opportunity to reflect on another important question that goes beyond methodological or theoretical divisions: How can we ensure we protect our participants and ourselves as researchers and create meaningful research that conduct to positive social change? Reflecting on our position as ethical subjects, we must be critical and reassess what are our ethical duties to ourselves as researchers and to our research participants. Conducting digital research can open up many opportunities however, it also exposes us to the risks associated with being easy to locate and reach. While we might find it helpful to establish close relationships with our participants, we should protect ourselves by making sure that there is a separation between our personal sphere and our role of researchers. The possible effects of our actions in terms of physical and psychological health and the political implications of our actions should always form a central part in our reflections. 

Workshop Summary # 2 | Dafni Mangalousi | PhD candidate in the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology                                        

The call of the ‘Feminist Digital Research Methods Workshop’ invited participants to consider ‘How might a feminist approach afford an ethical, rigorous, and politically-engaged way of conducting research today?’. Under this broad theme, about 10 researchers, including PhDs and early career researchers, were invited to deliver ‘10-minute lightening talks’ reflecting upon or showcasing issues relevant to the theme aspects. The intention of the workshop was to open a discussion around the critical interventions feminist digital research methods could make to a digital research environment. Discussion attempted to problematize ‘the digital’ and data as much as explore what ‘feminist research methods’ might signify.

While attending I especially enjoyed, the ‘embrace messiness’ structure of the workshop. The event kicked off with half an hour welcome at lunch time – great time of the day!- which gave time to transit from previous activities to the mental space of the workshop. The room set- up created an inspiring and accommodating atmosphere for a roundtable discussion. Most importantly though, ‘messiness’ was also embraced by not grouping the lightening talks into session topics, a practice I feel should take place more often in academic circles. By not naming sessions, difference and subjectivities are embraced and highlighted constructively instead of being subsumed under – often overstressed- overarching themes. At the same time from the position of the audience, expectations are minimized and thus the experience of the often boring activity of listening to people talking for long periods of time is set freer. Each individual gets the opportunity to openly engage with each lightening talk without any prior idea of what is it about, but as part of a collective experience that is not structurally imposed by the organiser’s rationality. Ultimately, what can, in one instant, be framed as ‘messiness’, when one receives a workshop schedule that contains merely times, names and locations, is an approach to structuring that hints a feminism positioned against rationality and essentialism. The above approach to structure is what therefore frames this write-up of ideas that stayed with me. 

Jilly Kay reflected on the radical changes digital archives bring to the research process even when research is not per se focused on the digital. The digitalisation of archives and their use as a digital research method as she reports manifests the biases of the archiving process- what is considered worthy to be archived and what is not- while at the very same time reveals that the parallel process of gendered digitalisation cannot be ignored. The digitalisation of everything, including methods, can be a matter of convenience as she reflects, but shall be critically reviewed from a feminist standpoint. Jess Bain reflected on how often just using the term ‘digital’ is a strategic move for funding applications by the practice of engaging with the online/ offline communities’ dualism. And is it not the dual identities that researchers often occupy i.e. researcher/member of community that allows such a move? Her embodied experience as a researcher that studies female communities is less of digital spaces and more or safe spaces of kindness that seek to deal with internalised misogyny. Helen Wood wondered where lies power in the digital when its boundaries are not clear and took us through the argument of whether what is invisible nowadays might actually be safer and more empowering considering that visibility is, at times, a risk for further vulnerability. What if there is a point for feminist methods to invert the discussion around visibility by focusing on ‘the power of invisibility’? What if what’s excluded might reveal to us what’s hidden? Hannah Ditchfield talked about another level of visibility/ invisibility, one that her research method of using screen cap technology to study Facebook messaging practices reveals. Being able to see as a researcher the process of typing a message reveals a number of new layers that are otherwise considered invisible- but to whom and to what extent are they important insights?

ME Luka reflected upon her research on mapping telecommunications in Canada focusing on the decisions made in research design and the different storytelling those can provide. Mapping telecommunications by not looking at systems but the people underlying them, i.e. experiencing telecommunications through the activities of walking and creating tells, at the very least, a parallel story to the dominant story of systems infrastructure. And Nik Luka through an action research based methodology, found out that using digital media to facilitate deliberation with virtual public fora, is not enough without face-to-face consultation in the form of community workshops. Galina Miazhevich argued that a mere focus on methods that are considered feminist hides the danger of essentialism as her research experience has suggested. For her, empathy has proven key for her culturally sensitive research with LGBT communities. Natasha Whiteman critiqued the notion of ‘methodology of the heart’ challenging self-evident discourses around ethics. Beyond research ethics how does the researcher position themselves as an ethical subject? Conclusively, it was suggested that collecting, mining or cultivating data for research purposes can be a space of feminist intervention that discusses epistemology, ethics and power and postulates that actually data are generated intersubjectively.

Overall, the workshop was very illuminating and successful in involving its 15- 20 come and go participants. The lightening talks kept me thinking that the arrival to a research topic and especially the employment of a feminist method or approach to it assumes an embodied journey that is beyond the topic and the research practice itself- extending to the human being. On the one hand this involves ethics of care- personally taking care of oneself and others-, and on the other – as per my contribution- an engagement with research that shall be considered as inherently political. What was- to me- signalled throughout was that a feminist standpoint of conducting research today requires concrete methodologies that epistemologically but also ontologically seek to pinpoint the biases of knowledge itself and transform them into cracks i.e. possibilities. Towards that end and in relation to the digital aspect(s) of research and methods, it seems like the tradition of feminist technoscience still has lots to offer.