Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections

Hilary Rose hails powerfully unflinching reflections on the researcher's obligations to her subjects

June 17, 2010

An edited collection makes many reviewers apprehensive, and even where the quality of the individual papers is high, the hard question remains: does the collection add up? Be assured that on both points, Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill have given us a treasure trove of intellectually powerful and unflinching analyses of the secrets and silences within the processes of research.

That said, the book is unquestionably tough. The diversity of feminist approaches to research and the range of the disciplines covered - anthropology, social psychology, gender studies, cultural studies, sociology, psychoanalysis - is formidable. I found it easiest to focus on the personally salient chapters, turning later to what were for me new topics, new approaches and new voices. During this second reading, I became increasingly conscious of the book's emotional and ethical challenges.

Sara Ahmed's foreword gives a taste of what is to come. She describes how a report to her university written by her and her colleagues documenting racism was commended for its quality, and as a consequence the institution "forgot" the purpose, and instead smugly congratulated itself on the praise. This invisibility of whiteness is a strong theme in this collection. Gail Lewis' technique of focusing closely on one small moment of data collection - just 15 typed minutes from her interview of a white social worker exploring how she saw her black women colleagues, followed by the section from her research diary as a black feminist raging at the racism she had listened to - will become a teaching classic. This chapter is not just essential for researchers; it needs to be included in the training of social workers and other public-service professionals.

In contrast, Kathy Davis, a white feminist researcher, describes her interviews with the white founders of the iconic Boston Women's Health Book Collective exploring the tremendous row following an allegation of racism by the collective's black feminist staff. She maps the discomfort with the "r"-word felt by the collective's founders, and her own difficulty in finding the proper perspective to consider the matter (the all-seeing eye of God not being an option available to feminists).

Here, the preoccupation with race and gender but silence on issues of class is puzzling, as Davis reports the shock of the founders that the black feminist staff had joined a trade union. In recent years, it has been not uncommon to go to an academic conference and not hear the word "class" used. Today it looks set to make a comeback - and not before time.

Sabine Grenz's study of male clients of prostitutes provides a fascinating account of cross-gender research and the culture of secrecy around prostitution, as well as the men's ease in talking across the genders about a matter they would not have been comfortable sharing with other men. She reminds us that what may and may not work in the research process is by no means self-evident.

While silence can indeed be empowering both for the researched and the researchers, I was less sure about Jane Parpart's chapter, which sets out to refute the core belief of 1970s feminism that speech is empowering, and to point out that silence can be empowering, too. Yet there were a lot of empowering silences in the 1970s, alongside that call for a voice. In that era, feminist researchers were often activists who certainly did not speak directly about their work securing what were then illegal abortions, whether via feminist clinics in the US or the abortion clinics whose addresses were illegally left in women's public toilets in Ireland.

Such secrets can, as anthropologist Henrietta Moore suggests, be referred to only obliquely. For the Marakwet community in Kenya with whom she has worked for almost 30 years, secrets are integral to everyday social life, with secret initiation ceremonies central to the making of the girl into the moral subject of the adult woman. What comes off the page here is that the anthropologist, like the abortion activist, is intensely aware that she must tread softly when referring to important secrets.

The same nuanced recognition of secrets as both specific and integral to the lives of lesbian parents is explored by Ryan-Flood, part of that important research move to go beyond the earlier feminist representation of lesbian parents as being "just like" heterosexual ones.

Dilemmas are not rare in research, but they are rarely scrupulously examined. Kate O'Brien, drawing on her study of the work of nightclub door staff, reflects on an occasion when she helped remove a drunk and stoned young woman from a club, leaving her on the street alone and at risk. Being both a feminist and a researcher-participant in a team of bouncers bound by its own macho code of practice is to face a dilemma, not a problem. Was there anything else that a feminist researcher could and perhaps should have done?

Gill's chapter courageously tackles the macro-context. She positions the feminist researcher within the reality of today's university, part of the neoliberal globalised economy. Suddenly, the murderous attack on Gaza interrupts her writing, and she tells us how she rages, weeps and demonstrates, breaking a silent research convention. This reflection, and those contained in the other papers here, are all part of the research process.

As I read, I found myself wishing that this kind of research culture had been available when I was a young fieldworker interviewing people living in harsh poverty in West London. I heard about the secrets of survival: subletting a bed during the day, fiddling the gas meter, hiding cash-in-hand work from the benefits office, and a young mother who saw going on the game as less degrading than the moral policing by benefits and social-work staff. But no poverty researcher included such stigmatising secrets, and we were furious when a smart-arsed urban sociologist thought he was being clever by reporting such secrets directly. Without the kind of reflexivity displayed by Ryan-Flood and many of the other authors here, we were unable to move beyond a well-meaning normalisation.

Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections

Edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill
Routledge, 336pp, £80.00
ISBN 9780415452144
Published 6 November 2009

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