Creative Research Methods and Gender

gender not binaryLet me begin by saying that I know gender is not binary. In fact, it is probably not reducible to any system of categorisation or classification. I am well aware that some people are physically male but mentally and emotionally female, or vice versa, and that some of these people find this problematic and would choose a hormonal and surgical remedy. Other people, sometimes known as ‘cisgender’, are emotionally and mentally in accord with their physical gender. (I’m fine with this concept, I just wish it didn’t have such an ugly word for its label.) Some are androgynous, physically, or mentally and emotionally, or both. Others are ‘genderqueer’, ‘genderfluid’, ‘third-gender’, and so on. Some societies are more accepting of these diversities than others, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny their existence altogether.

Nevertheless, most people, in most social situations, talk happily about men and women. And I am going to do that in this post, though with an acknowledgement that ‘men’ or ‘women’ includes those deemed by society to be ‘men’ or ‘women’, who as individuals may be more or less happy or unhappy with the definition they are given.

I am a woman, physically, mentally, emotionally, and sometimes quite crossly when I think about how women are treated as second-class citizens in many ways in many parts of the world. We’ve come a long way, for sure, but we’re not there yet. Such as in academia where, for example, only 20% of professors are women, and 70% of fellows of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS) are men (yes, I counted all 1005 of them, just for you). Professors and AcSS fellows are also predominantly white.

I am a feminist, always have been, probably always will be. So I was delighted to be asked, last month, to speak on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. This programme is an institution. It is sometimes criticised as ‘tokenistic’ (why should women only get an hour?) or ‘discriminatory’ (why isn’t there a programme called Men’s Hour?’). But it has a large audience, of whom a big percentage is male, and it deals intelligently with topics of interest to many women – and evidently to many men too.

The subject of discussion on the programme, female sterilisation, is irrelevant here. What is relevant is that, even though it was a completely unrelated subject, the debate started me thinking about my latest book from a different angle. When I got home, I checked the 109 boxed examples – and found that 80% were generated by women researchers. This felt exciting. Was there, could there be, an area of research where women were at the forefront?

Then, being an ethical and reflexive researcher, I began to wonder whether I’d introduced a bias. After all, I had selected these examples from the many more I’d read. I thought I had selected them on merit, but had I really? My thoughts turned to the 94 abstracts received by the Social Research Association for presentations at the forthcoming conference on creative research methods. How many of those were led by women researchers? I counted up, and guess what? Eighty per cent. Just like the examples in my book. And non-white researchers have a sizeable presence too, both men and women.

Taimina crochetWomen are not just doing fluffy girly qualitative research, either. Have you heard of Daina Taimina? She succeeded, where men had failed for centuries, in modelling hyperbolic geometry. In case you haven’t heard of that either, it’s the geometry of frilly things, like kale or sea kelp or oak leaf lettuce. And it’s evidently really difficult to model, or someone would have worked it out before Taimina realised crochet was the perfect vehicle. I recommend her TED talk on the subject, it’s fascinating even if you know little or nothing about geometry. And women aren’t only using arts-based methods: both the book and the conference abstracts show that they’re also using technology in research, mixing methods to good effect, and working within transformative research frameworks.

So I think, in creative research methods, we have a field of enquiry where women are leading the way. And it’s not before time!

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