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Digital Queers: Exploring LGBTIQA+ online spaces and queer(ed) research methodologies

Elianne Renaud and Megan Sharp

Well, after a great #tasa2016 we thought it best to blog immediately! The new Genders and Sexualities Thematic Group has already gone above and beyond for those of us researching in this field, as well as those of us living queer(ed) lives. Eli and I both thought the concurrent sessions provided thoughtful and safe(r) places to engage and critique contemporary research and are thankful to have so many great projects in the field we hold so close.

There is little doubt that technology, in particular digital and social media, has afforded the creation of new spaces for all folk. Queer feminist women, have, like many other minoritised groups, staked claims to this territory, harnessing the affordances of digital technology. We have used the spaces created through social media to engage unapologetically in self-making practices, authorising our own visibility and frequently performing our corporeality in ways that break hegemonic rules and talk back to entrenched expectations. At the site of punk scenes, queer people utilise a Do It Yourself (DIY) and Do It Together (DIT) approach to self-making and collective identity. In order to keep each other informed, supported and ultimately safe(r), a DIY and DIT ethic is appropriated from subcultural music praxis and into a method of (re)creating identities and territories.

Feminism, visibility, expectations of appearance and attitude, queerness and self-making have been intricate themes throughout our teenage and adult lives. Certainly, as white, queer, cis-women engaging intersectional feminism, it has been necessary to negotiate the problematic terrain between feminist principles and the knowledges that come with lived experiences. Being queer, femme (sometimes tomboy/hard femme/gently butch) ciswomen, traversing the difficult desires to be both visible and invisible becomes a locus of problematisation. On one hand, we seek connection with, and membership within peripheral social communities and networks, yet on the other, we want to resist the strict and scolding expectations of heteronormativity. Like many queer women, in the course of deepening our own individual understandings of self, and through our own self-making, we have both sought reflections of ourselves within the digital media. Herein lie the epistemological constraints and affordances of researching in close proximity to our own shared and independent lived experiences.

Reflexivity in the sociological context has been extensively discussed, yet remains difficult to elegantly define. A useful explanation is offered by Threadgold and Nilan who propose that reflexivity ‘embodies the idea of that which is self-referring, even self-constitutive in a continuous way – a kind of feedback loop of information and reinvention’. A similar approach is suggested by Ruokonen-Engler and Siouti, who note the capability of such a practice as a methodological tool through which a researcher can critically reflect on their personal entanglements with the field, and the possible influence of these on data drawn through the research. Moreover, conducting such a reflective exercise is crucial, as it serves as a methodological compass through which to locate our dynamic researcher/audience/fan/friend roles in terms of the insider/outsider standpoint. Making clear our research positionalities matters, as these inform directly the practice of researcher reflexivity from the very beginnings of the study, throughout the data collection and analysis stages through to the final authoring of the study and findings and beyond. It is a constant and shifting knowing and unknowing.

Extending from the notion of reflexivity, is what Jones refers to as ‘intersectional reflexivity’ which we both would argue is particularly critical to apply when using queer methods and undertaking research studies involving queer participants. Jones notes that “engaging in intersectional reflexivity requires one to acknowledge one’s intersecting identities, both marginalized and privileged, and then employ self-reflexivity, which moves one beyond self-reflection to the often uncomfortable level of self-implication” (p. 122).

Intersectional reflexivity requires consideration more deeply of personal experiences, perspectives, entanglements and privilege, and how these may influence the study and scholarly outputs. For example, both of our projects feature most prominently the scholarship, critiques and research of queer, trans and non-binary folx. The use of work by scholars who identify as queer, trans and non-binary is personal and political. On one hand, the voices of queers should be prioritised in queer writing because it is their stories that become the axis to sharing narratives. On the other, to research visibility and representation without privileging disseminating the work of queer authors and writers seems at odds with the ethic of queer(ing) institutions.  In a practical sense, reflexivity must be undertaken as a routine exercise, with the researcher addressing the questions made available through a biographical reflection scheme using a first-person approach, and through constructing written responses (e.g. field notes – or, in Eli’s case, a reflective journal). Furthermore, we highlight the importance of collectively discussing these reflexive responses with peers and colleagues, where diverse perspectives and feedback are available.

Considering our roles as researchers/friends/fans/audience within this context, from a methodological perspective we face a number of epistemological challenges. These include the immediate practical negotiation of this initial subjective proximity we have in terms of our studies; and appropriately managing continuing subjectivities as they exist and emerge throughout the project – this includes the effects of our own lived experience; personal bias and histories, relationships and understandings of our own bodies in space; and the relationship I develop with participants. These are particularly important considerations within the data interpretation and write-up stages of the research.

It is understandable that having close initial proximity to the research from the outset provides us with a privileged understanding of the spaces and communities that are the objects of our respective studies, and increasing access to observe and recruit willing study participants. These people who, aware of our ‘insider’ positionality, may be more inclined to participate, share significant personal responses, and thus provide richer qualitative detail. Hodkinson, when considering the role of the researcher in studies on youth culture, agrees, yet signals that the advantages afforded by such positionality should be balanced through a cautious and reflexive approach. Certainly, this ‘insider’ position brings with it complex ethical challenges, and requires diligent management of subjectivity/objectivity. For example, our participants’ lived experiences and the meanings they assign to the digital spaces within our studies unquestionably shape partiality and need reflexive questioning. Do we like the content they are creating? How does it make us feel? Do we know these people and if so, do we have mutual friends? Would we not want to include them in our research because of a shared history? These reflexive questions make us (re)negotiate our epistemologies and orientations towards our participants and our research. Likewise, the transformative effect of engagement with these online spaces, including the creation of new understandings of our own bodies and identities, undoubtedly influences the hypotheses and the meaning drawn from qualitative content analysis. It is only through a careful and continuous process of reflexivity that we can reflect on these subjectivities, minimise knowledge distortion, and respond to these challenges ethically. In this way we believe that researchers can combine their roles of friend/acquaintance/fan/audience/community member by rigorously and continuously critiquing their relational orientation and research methodology; seeing it not as something to be done (once) within a project, but something that is in a constant state of unfolding.

For reference to our TASA prezi, see here

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One Response to Digital Queers: Exploring LGBTIQA+ online spaces and queer(ed) research methodologies

  1. Kate May 30, 2017 at 10:12 am #

    This has been a really helpful article for me to strengthen the methodology section in my research proposal. Thank you. God that I found this site (thanks to my supervisor) and am now all signed up so I don’t miss any other gems 🙂