Becoming a better interviewer

digitalrecorderI’ve been thinking about my interviewing skills (or lack thereof) lately. I’ve done 11 interviews for my PhD now, and I’ve got another 8-9 to go – most of them coming up in the next two months (after which I am done with my data generating phase, yay!).

I’ve been transcribing the interviews as I’ve been going along, more or less, which has been useful both in terms of avoiding an overwhelming mountain of transcriptions to do later, but also for reflecting on how each interview went before doing the next one.

Listening to the recordings, I find myself cringing at my interviewing skills quite regularly. Awkward phrasings, leading questions, missed opportunities to ask follow-up questions… I was talking to my friend about this last night – about feeling a need to read more about interviewing techniques and skills. But even as I was saying it, I remembered that I have read a lot already, and maybe my reflex to head back to the library, is just that: a reflex, a safety-blanket, a desire to hide behind other people’s theories rather than trust in my own developing knowledge as a researcher.

My interview methodology emerged through an engagement with feminist and anti-racist theory on the research process, addressing issues of power and privilege, the myth of the objective interviewer, and the dynamic relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Yasmin Gunaratnam’s Researching ‘Race’ and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power, in particular, has left an impression on me, calling for historical accountability within the research encounter. Gunaratnam highlights the importance of recognising that both the researcher and the researched are socially situated, in relation to each other and to history. The research must always be accountable to these relationships (without over-determining them). In the research interview, my position as a white feminist researcher (researching feminism and ‘race’) is of course never neutral, but located within a history of complex and unequal relationships between white feminists and feminists of colour, as well as in a wider social and historical context of structural racism. This always forms the backdrop to my interview encounters, whether the interviewee is white or a person of colour.

Part of my awkwardness at times in the interview encounters, I have no doubt, is related to my worry of not being sufficiently accountable to the historical and social context of (white feminists’) racism – of getting it wrong, and ending up being complicit within racist relations. Add to that being a novice interviewer, and as I listen to the transcripts, it’s clear that there are times where I have got things wrong (one example: a desire to alleviate tension and a white interviewee’s anxiety talking about racism, I have moved on to the next question, where, listening back, I wish I had allowed space for the anxiety to be acknowledged and interrogated, to challenge the way whiteness prioritises comfort).

In my reflexive dash to the library yesterday, I borrowed Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin. I’ve been skim-reading it this morning, and generally finding it quite irritating and patronising, but it has brought up two things which I don’t think I’m doing well enough at the moment:

One, which Rubin and Rubin call ‘negotiating a research role’ (pp. 114-117 in 1st ed), is about situating yourself and your research clearly to the interviewee. Rubin and Rubin write (in a slightly patronising tone) about the importance of clarifying the research your doing in a way which is understandable / meaningful to the interviewee. For me, I think I need to give more space before the interview to discuss with the participant what my research is about, and – particularly – why I’m doing it, and how I understand myself as a white feminist researcher doing this work. I think this might help set up the context for the discussion a bit better than I have done so far, where I’ve often just asked if the participant has any questions about the research, based on what they’ve read from the information sheet, before starting (so the discussion we’ve had have depended on the participant’s questions).

Another thing which I’ve been slack with is taking notes directly after the interview. Having recently read Gail Lewis’ chapter, ‘Animating hatreds: research encounters, organisational secrets, emotional truths’, in Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, in which she shares her research diary entry following an encounter with a racist interviewee, I’ve realised the importance of this part of the interview process in terms of capturing (partly) unprocessed feelings and thoughts. These may be fleeting and therefore not possible to recall at a later stage, but (as Lewis shows) they may have effects in terms of how we subsequently choose to interpret and present the data. Writing down these first thoughts following each interview leads to a more honest acknowledgement of the affective and embodied dimensions of the interview encounter. This is useful for reflecting more and better on your interview practice. In particular, it may help capture how underlying feelings and anxieties may be operative in the research encounter.

Well, this ended up a rather long and winding post, but actually it’s helped me clarify some things already. So I guess that is the key, as I enter this last stretch of interviews: keep thinking and reflecting and writing, and review what I’ve learnt ahead of each interview. Maybe that is the key to becoming a better interviewer.

Two months late and a chapter short: What I learned from AcWriMo

looking out the window instead of writing...

As is evident by the date stamps on my last few blog posts, I fell off the Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) train about half-way through. My aim was to finish 2 draft chapters during November (plus blog once a week); I just finished a rough draft of the first chapter last week, and I only blogged twice in November.

My first instinct was to say I failed AcWriMo, but I’m resisting saying that. I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m failing: I’m not writing enough; I’m not progressing fast enough; I’m not reading enough; I don’t understand enough and am simply not clever enough; I don’t seem to ever achieve as much as everyone else; I still haven’t published anything; and I still haven’t finished my data collection. Does this sound familiar?

But in writing about failure on a blog which I’m hoping in the long-term will help gain visibility for my research, I feel like I need to put a positive spin on it – about how it’s something we all experience as PhD students but which we work through and find our ways of overcoming (preferably with some snappy bullet points at the end). That seems to be the standard for research blogs when we talk about process: a blog post which deals with the difficulties of academic writing and researching should simultaneously present some solutions.

But that doesn’t feel very honest to me, right now. So in the spirit of honesty, I’ve put together my own list of what I really learnt from AcWriMo.

Arbitrary deadlines don’t work for me
If I know it’s not a real deadline, I know it – it doesn’t matter how I dress it up. I know the regret of missing enough real deadlines to not be fooled by ones I’ve just set myself.

I’m not very good at planning ahead
I like to make plans, but I’m not always very good at sticking to them. It all depends very much on how things pan out on the day/week. And things always take longer than I think. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever manage to hold myself to a plan or that I’m totally flaky, but I work better planning week by week, rather than a month or more ahead.

Things always come up
While planning the writing I was going to do in November, I forgot to take into account all the things that were inevitably going to come up at shorter notice and divert my attention.

I’m better at working on several smaller things than just one big thing
I get bored (and therefore distracted) working on just one thing (i.e. a chapter) for more than a couple of days at a time. The only time I can really make myself do this is when an actual real deadline is looming.

My productivity fluctuates in direct correlation with my mental wellbeing
…and sometimes there’s very little I can do about that. Ok, I knew this one already. But a related point I did learn: when I’m feeling crappy, reading about other people’s productivity on Twitter doesn’t help.

I’m a more confident writer these days
Yes, I am ending on a positive note! While I didn’t get anywhere near my goals for the month, I have still been writing quite a lot lately. And one thing which I’m definitely noticing is that words come more easily than they used to. I find it easier writing first drafts without getting too anxious about whether what I’m writing is any good or not. And once that draft is down, it doesn’t seem so daunting to go back and start editing. I still angst and procrastinate, for sure, but less so than I used to. I think that’s called practice. And progress.

So that’s my list. I want to send my thanks to the folks at PhD2Published who initiated AcWriMo – I know a lot of people found it useful. I probably won’t be participating this year if it runs again – although I do need to write quite a few chapters this year, so I’m not ruling it out entirely. Maybe if the deadline seems more real it would work better. The potential imminent bancruptcy of my university certainly makes finishing my PhD seem a lot more urgent. But that‘s another post entirely…

How can we feel less innocent?

Let’s start with a story.

Back in the early 1990s, at a conference about law and feminism in the U.S., there was a discussion about prostitution/sex work. A woman who identified as a survivor of prostitution felt that other feminists in the room were dismissing the violence she had experienced, by framing prostitution as work like any other. She ended up leaving the conference.

The next day, there was another discussion, about racism and feminist publishing. A woman of colour argued that everyone needs to challenge their own privileges. At that moment, a white woman said that everyone had failed to challenge themselves the previous day when the woman had felt it necessary to leave. This diverted the discussion away from racism and led to “a fracture” between the white woman and the woman of colour.

Sound like a familiar story? Anyone who’s moved within feminist movements long enough will have their own variations of this story to tell (or quite a few of them!). Conflicts arising from our different perspectives and social positions are pretty endemic.

Going back to the story, the woman of colour was Sherene Razack and the white woman was Mary Lou Fellows, both co-organisers of the conference. In order to reflect on what had happened and to consider how feminists can more productively move beyond this common impasse, they wrote an article together, called “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations among Women” (Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, vol 1, 1998).

Fellows and Razack note that during feminist discussions of emotive issues, it is a common move for participants to make claims to their own perceived marginality, in order to ensure their own innocent position. This initiates a process of “competing marginalities” which they call “the race to innocence”.

Drawing on the work of McClintock (1995) and Stoler (1995), they link this desire among western feminists to perceive of ourselves as innocent to historical constructions of respectable womanhood within western society, and the way in which women have historically seen their variously marginal positions as unconnected to each other. The emergence of the middle-class in European society relied upon gendered processes (in addition to imperialism and other social hierarchies), where the middle class ‘lady’ achieved her respectability through her association with the cleanliness of the middle-class home. This could only be achieved through the disavowal and othering of the domestic worker who cleaned the middle class home (and thus knew its dirtiness), and the ‘prostitute’ who was constructed as intimately connected with the ‘degenerate slum’. This illustrates how the middle class lady, in Fellows and Razack’s words:

… achieved and maintained her toehold on respectability through the economic and sexual exploitation of other women, and that exploitation was itself the product of class, gender, and racial hierarchies. (348)

In other words, the middle-class woman was able to secure her (relative) safety from economic and sexual exploitation through complicity in other women’s exploitation. The domestic worker in turn could (although more tenuously) claim her respectability by “demonstrating devotion to duty, restraint of passions, and hard work”, and crucially “a disavowing of prostituted women” (349).

Fellows and Razack suggest that looking at this historical context allows us not only to see clearly how some hierarchical relationships between women have developed, but also how much (some) women’s identities are invested in not feeling connected to or complicit in other women’s oppression (of course, their example is specific to the European context). They argue that this sustains a logic of respectability as dominance:

… each woman fails to see how her own subordination depends on the subordination of another woman. She is thus unable to challenge the structure of domination that is supported by multiple women in various subordinate roles. If, as women, our liberation leaves intact the subordination of other women, then we have not achieved liberation, but only a toehold on respectability. (350)

Concluding their article, Fellows and Razack argue that we have to remind ourselves constantly of the interlocking structures of oppression, and consider always the ways in which we are privileged as well as oppressed. They end with some pertinent questions feminists need to ask themselves in their organising and theorising:

Where have we positioned other women within our strategies for achieving social justice? What do we gain from this positioning? How are we implicated in structures of dominance?

These questions, they argue, may help us learn to distinguish what is an attempt at gaining our “toehold on respectability” versus what is a genuine liberation strategy. Being able to make that distinction requires us to learn how to feel less innocent.

I re-read this article over the weekend, as the latest blow-up in (and beyond) feminist online communities raged – initially over transphobic comments by Suzanne Moore, followed by more transphobic hate speech by Julie Burchill in The Observer. There’s been so much written about this already – much better than I can – so I won’t go into the details, but if you want to find out more, you could always start here, here and here.

What I do want to think about were some of the ways in which the debate played out. Moore’s refusal to take on board criticism was based on a claim to marginality on the basis of being a working-class raised woman, and a disavowal of trans women’s claim to justice. She failed to see, in her original insensitive comment, how her choice of language was part of a transphobic discourse, and how she was therefore complicit within a system which disavows trans women as the ‘other’ of ‘real’ women. Additionally, she claimed herself as the innocent victim in the debate because she received abusive and bullying tweets (I don’t doubt this, by the way – Twitter can be scary when things go viral), and a lot of the subsequent mainstream media coverage positioned her as the innocent victim of a ‘Twitter mob’.

Thinking more widely about how feminists engage in these kinds of arguments online, I do think the description of the process as a “race to innocence” is useful. Even among those of us who argue for the importance of an intersectional feminism, and who aim to be aware of our privilege, there seems to be a correct way to act and to respond to situations such as this, which seems at least partly connected to a desire to be the ‘right kind’ of feminist, on the ‘right side’ of the debate. And this process involves defining ourselves against the ‘wrong kind’ of feminist.

One critique I do want to make of the Fellows and Razack piece is that as much as they talk about hierarchies between women, they seem to flatten these out somewhat in their discussion of contemporary feminist communities – as if we all have equal amounts of privilege and dis-privilege in our competing claims to marginality. I don’t think this is what they mean, but I guess that is something that I would like to spell out a bit more explicitly: some people are more privileged than others within feminist communities (and sometimes this is context-dependent), and so saying that “we all need to acknowledge our privileges” can be another way of silencing those who are most marginalised. So in this particular debate, where trans women specifically, and trans people more generally, were under attack, to tell trans women to consider the ways in which they are privileged, is an oppressive tactic. But what about those who were privileged within this discussion – i.e. cis people – whatever their stance in the debate?

There is, I think, a common tenet among feminists who take an intersectional approach that those of us who are privileged in a particular situation should not remain silent, because to do so is to be complicit. So to witness a cis feminist say something transphobic and to not call them up on it, is to be complicit in transphobia. I don’t disagree with this at all. However, what happens online is that you get a couple of people speaking up, and then suddenly it goes on Twitter and 500 people are piling on (if not more, in this case). How many of the people who tweeted Moore in an aggressive way were cis people who participated in this collective calling out because they felt that to remain silent was a non-innocent position? How much is this action about retaining an identity as the ‘right kind’ of feminist? What other ways might there have been to act?

I am not saying that problematic and oppressive actions should not be taken to task – I believe they should. But when this is done in a way which is geared towards ‘ex-communicating’ another feminist – the ‘disavowal’ which Fellows and Razack write about – we are making a claim to our own innocence which is dependent on the othering of the ‘bad feminist’.

And, you know, to be honest, I’m perfectly happy to ex-communicate some people from feminism (if I believed that feminism is some kind of club, that is, which it isn’t). But I guess the questions I’m trying to reach towards here are: How much are contemporary feminist communities in Britain invested in notions of innocence? And what effects do these have on our abilities to organise towards social justice for everyone? How can we learn to feel less innocent? What might be possible if we did?

AcWriMo so far

I’m a day late with this blog post according to my goal of blogging once a week during November. But at least I’m here now!

So with a second week of Acwrimo having passed, I thought I’d reflect on how it’s gone so far in terms of my goals, as well as on my thoughts about the process.

Firstly, I pretty much know already that I’m not going to finish the drafts of both chapters I’d aimed for. But that doesn’t mean that I think I’ve ‘failed’ already – as I saw someone post on Twitter (I can’t find it now so I’m paraphrasing): it’s not always about achieving goals, but about having some to work towards.

The first week I found having specific goals effective and motivating and I got a lot of writing done. Like many others I’ve been using the pomodoro technique – with the Pomodairo application – which (after some initial qualms about it) I’m finding really useful for focusing repeatedly for short spurts of time without it ever seeming too onerous.

Last week, however, things got more difficult with the chapter I’m working on. It’s not so much a case of getting words out – thankfully (touch wood!) nowadays this isn’t so much of a problem for me, as I’ve got into a pretty solid habit of writing often. But I’m at a stage where I don’t want to be spending too much time just getting words out if they’re not the right ones (or at least approximately the right ones!). And as I was wrestling with a new section of analysis, I realised that I needed to go back to spend some more time with the primary sources that I’m analysing – I just wasn’t at all sure what it was I wanted to say.

So that’s what I’ve ended up doing, which has slowed my progress down to a point where I think a more realistic goal for this month is to finish a draft of this one chapter only.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is whether initiatives like acwrimo are helpful or not for developing sustainable working practices – in particular ones which are able to take work/life balance and mental wellbeing into account. This is important to me: working out ways of being productive, engaged and motivated at the same time as paying attention to what my mind and body needs in terms of downtime and play (something which I’ve not always been very good at).

Also, I liked the point this blog post made – with things like acwrimo, it’s mostly the people who are sticking with it and who are gaining something positive out of it who will be posting their progress and joining in the conversation. How do we create spaces to talk about the times when we can’t work and meet goals and feel crap about it?

Overall, I am finding the process useful – and I really appreciate the PhD2Published crew for initiating it. I think it’s pretty awesome the way it creates a community – however fleeting – and I am enjoying dipping into the Twitter feed. I think having the deadline – even if it is arbitrary – has definitely made me focus in on the work I need to do in a way that I often struggle to do without a deadline. So I’m glad I’m participating, even if I won’t reach my official goals. At least they’re giving me something to aim towards.

Why critique?

Last week I presented a paper at the Forthcoming Feminisms conference, in which I talked about two books about contemporary feminism which I have been analysing in my research. This included some critical comments about how these particular texts construct feminist politics in relation to ‘race’.

In the discussion which followed, I was asked whether I think it’s fair to critique feminist writers in this way. My answer was ‘yes’: I think it is definitely fair to present critiques of published material. This is common practice within academic scholarship, surely – we engage with what others have written, building on their work, which may also involve disagreeing with their analysis and presenting a critique.

But I want to write this out a bit more, because I think there are several things going on here, and which I have been coming back to every so often as I’ve been working on this project.

First off – yes, it is true that one of the major aspects of my research involves analysing a range of feminist texts and asking specific questions related to ‘race’, racism and whiteness. This means I end up critiquing quite a number of texts on the basis of what I consider to be a marginalisation of discussions of racism, and also often the marginalisation of scholarship by feminists of colour.

I am well aware that as I start to (hopefully) publish my work and speak more publically about it, I am potentially going to get some people’s backs up and be seen as being critical and ‘mean’. And yes, I am quite nervous about that. But there are a few points I think it is useful to unravel here, about why I see critique as important and relevant:

  • Critique is not about individuals; it’s about questioning particular formulations of ideas and theories. These ideas and theories are not created in a vacuum, but are formulated within the context of a wider discourse. In her analysis of the ‘political grammar’ of feminist stories presented within feminist journal articles, Clare Hemmings emphasises how narratives are constructed within an institutional context, involving collective processes (including not only the author of an article, but also editors, peer reviewers and the wider academic feminist community). Similarly, I want to argue that problematic discourses on ‘race’ and the privileging of whiteness is institutionalised within mainstream feminism: it is the collective responsibility of white feminists, and bigger than any one individual – although each individual has a role to play. And related to this: I do not see myself as outside of this discourse – but rather as working from within it to destabilise and trouble it. And I know I may well get something wrong and my work critiqued in turn. But that’s how we move forwards, right?
  • I think there is a particular anxiety around race-related critiques – a greater fear on the part of (“well-meaning”) white people associated with being seen as racist – which is more acute than with other topics. Would I have been asked the question above if I was critiquing the texts on other grounds? We need to reflect on the role white anxiety plays in deflecting attention away from challenging white privilege and racism.
  • Anti-racist critique within feminist spaces has too often been left to women of colour. This is often difficult and emotionally fraught work. Sara Ahmed writes about the black feminist being perceived as ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white feminist racism (and accused of being ‘angry’). I see my work as part of taking responsibility, as a white feminist, for challenging racist and white-centric theory and politics – of being accountable on the subject of white privilege and racism, and taking calls for addressing these issues seriously.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been reminded of something a friend of mine said towards the end of a particularly difficult conversation a few years ago, and something which I think encapsulates what I’m trying to get across here: ‘We critique because we care’. In a way that says it all, really.

Call for paper: The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

Humaira Saeed and myself currently have an open call out for a third person to join our panel at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association conference next summer (21-23 June 2013 in Nottingham). Read more about the panel below and get in touch if you are interested!

The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

  • Terese Jonsson, London Metropolitan University – Looking for anti-racism in narratives of British feminism.
  • Humaira Saeed, University of Manchester – Saving Brown Women: Transnationalism and the Third Wave
  • Third paper TBC
  • With respondent comments from Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London)

These papers will address the vital role that internal critique plays in feminist politics. This work has been crucial in challenging exclusions within feminist thought, opening up conversations about the differences between women, and crucially reorienting feminism towards an intersectional analysis. This often difficult, emotionally taxing and thankless work is predominantly led by women speaking from marginalised positions: women of colour, disabled women, working class women and sex workers, among others. The papers will address some of the ways in which this work has been marginalised, and argue that internal critique needs to be understood as an important site of feminist activism. In order to focus the discussion, the panel will concentrate specifically on anti-racist critiques, although it is hoped that some of the content will have a wider relevance in relation to all forms of internal critique within feminist spaces. The panel takes its name from Sara Ahmed’s observation (2010) that the black feminist is often blamed for ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white women’s racism. Although there is a long and rich history of anti-racist critique within British feminism, instances of racism and white privilege continue to make disturbingly regular appearances within white-dominated feminist communities. These repetitive patterns suggest that the critiques are not being adequately taken on board within feminist movements. Instead, anti-racist work tends to be marginalised, repressed, or even completely erased within dominant accounts of feminist histories, and indeed feminist practice, especially when these histories and practices are defined from positions of privilege. As well as resulting in the frustrated labour of anti-racist feminists, white feminists’ failure to engage with these critiques seriously hinders the radical potential of feminist movement.

Call for paper: We are looking for a presenter for this panel whose work addresses the above themes. Potential topics for papers are: instances of anti-racist critique, historical or contemporary; the ongoing relevance and necessity of anti-racist critique; anti-imperial and transnational feminist interventions; and/or internal critique as activism. Please send an abstract to and by 1st December 2012.

My AcWriMo goals

A couple of days ago, the PhD2Published website announced that in November, they will be running their own spin off version of NaNoWriMo, called AcWriMo – in other words Academic Writing Month.

This comes at a good time for me: By the end of next week I will be starting a new job which will be fewer hours than my current one, which means I’ll have more time to write. So I’ve decided to join in the fun!

AcWriMo encourages you to set ambitious goals for the writing you want to get done in November, state them somewhere publicly (to help hold yourself accountable) and then share your progress with the AcWriMo community (for example via Twitter using the #AcWriMo hashtag).

I currently have two chapters of analysis of popular feminism which need some serious work (it started out as one chapter which turned into a bit of a two-headed monster). Both are about half done, so my goal for November will be to complete both chapters.

In addition, and as I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, I want to hold myself to writing a post on here at least once a week throughout the month. This could either be related to my writing progress, or on another topic.

I’m excited (and also nervous) about the changes ahead for me – both in starting a new job as well as having more study-time. I’m hoping that committing to AcWriMo will help me establish a new and productive working pattern and help motivate me to make the best use of the additional precious time I’ll have to research and write each week!