July 8, 2021, by lqxag13
Winner of the 1st Prize ENQUIRE Blog Post Competition – Online Interviews: Hearing Women’s Voices by Robyn Timothy
The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way we research. We moved away from campus offices and towards our kitchen tables. Just as spaces changed, the way we communicated had to change too. Zoom and Microsoft Teams became our only option, the best chance we had to stay connected with those communities of fellow postgraduate researchers that we built from solidarity, and that we really do depend on. This shift has undoubtedly altered our working lives and whilst this dalliance into cyberspace is hopefully a temporary measure, there are tenets of working online which might really benefit us as researchers in the future. For cyberfeminists, the internet holds boundless potential for women but when Sadie Plant (1997) suggested liberation for women lies within technology, I’m not sure she meant Zoom. Nevertheless, her argument is an important perspective on our current experiences and have been imperative to my research.
I am exploring the experiences of digital feminist artists, thinking about how their practice engages with themes of the embodiment, and how they negotiate the tensions inherent to digital spaces to construct spaces of resistance and contribute to contemporary feminist discourses. Working from the epistemic notion of feminist standpoint(s) (Haraway 1988; Collins 2000), I chose unstructured online interviews as my method. Collecting data, particularly interviewing, became a huge issue for a lot of researchers in the face of the pandemic as we couldn’t travel or meet in physical spaces. When face-to-face interviews are heralded as the methodological gold standard for qualitative researchers (Fielding et al 2008), online methods are sometimes viewed as a last resort. However, there has been a growing acknowledgement of the benefits of online methods particularly for feminist researchers (Linabary & Hamel 2017). My decision to conduct exclusively online interviews was two-fold. Firstly, my participants are digital artists and it felt appropriate to speak with them in ways which mirror their practices. In this sense the spaces of the interviews were authentic to the experiences of the participants. Secondly, interviewing online meant that I could reach a much broader sample. Online interviews allowed my research to be international, and although I did not prioritise generalisable findings, as a feminist researcher it was important to incorporate voices from multiple social locations, to construct knowledges that begin with partial, intersectional experiences. I completed data collection before online interviews became the only option and continue to reflect on the experience of interviewing online throughout the pandemic as digital communications became the norm.
The online interviews with participants were embodied experiences. As feminist scholars recognise, digital spaces are interspersed with materiality to the point that digital articulations of gender are interconnected with our physical lives, so much so that digital spaces become embodied (Van Doorn 2011). The ways in which gender, sexuality, and embodiment are discursively constructed and always in conversation with the spatiality of their performance means that the digital shapes gendered realities in the same ways that physical spaces do (Hayles 1999). Through my research, this idea emerged as an important methodological consideration because the method of generating data needed to be sensitive to how experiences of gender are constantly in flux, as this is central to the feminist themes explored in digital feminist artist’s work. One of my participants explored how she feels “both digital and actual” and this highlighted how gender itself is articulated and constructed between digital and physical spaces. When I spoke to my participants over Skype or FaceTime, we constructed an account of not only their experiences as artists, but also of their embodied realities situated in that digital space. In this sense online interviews are not disembodied meetings where we suspend our situated knowledges, rather they allow a much more thorough exploration of how multiple, fractured standpoints inform our embodiment. Examining how the digital communication informed the construction of data contributes to the narrative of disrupting binaries which runs through the project. Relying on online interviews both reinforced the epistemic foundation of the methodology, as well as provided the framework for embodied accounts to be produced.
This is particularly useful for feminist research as it is deeply concerned with disrupting unequal relations of power between researchers and participants (Hesse-Biber 2014). Online interviews disrupted this dynamic. The digital environment in which we spoke was familiar to participants as an element of their everyday. This meant that they were constituted as knowers in that space, they were comfortable and confident speaking with me in an online format. In this way both the researcher and the researched were experts and could both contribute to the production of knowledges, as opposed to the researcher extracting information from participants. Although I addressed the power imbalance in this way, other barriers remained. Issues of language and socio-cultural differences challenged the ability to engage in a truly equal relationship, and there is still much reflexive work to be done on how to further disrupt these hierarchies of power.
Online interviews have been a useful method for producing data for my research. They have allowed access to digital embodiment and provided a framework from which to understand digital experiences. They have highlighted the richness of situated knowledges and have helped to grapple with the fluidity of gender. Whilst I appreciate how exhausting our new online normal is for our working lives, my hope is that we can see some benefits of digital communication for our future research, particularly feminist research.
Robyn Timothy (PhD Researcher, York St John’s University)
Collins, P.H. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Fielding, N. Lee, R. & Blank, G. (2008). The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods. London: SAGE.
Haraway, D. (1988). ‘Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective’. Feminist Studies. 14: 3(575–599).
Hayles, K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hesse-Biber, N. (2014). Feminist Research Practice: A Primer. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Linabary, J & Hamel, S. (2017). ‘Feminist online interviewing: engaging issues of power, resistance and reflexivity in practice’. Feminist Review. 115: (97-113).
Plant, S. (1997). Zeros1 Ones: Digital Women 1 The New Technoculture. New York: Doubleday.
van Doorn, N. (2011). ‘Digital spaces, material traces: how matter comes to matter in online performances of gender, sexuality and embodiment’. Media, Culture & Society. 33: 4(531–547).
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