Politics, Ethics and a Love of Letters – Reasons to Keep a Research Blog

Four months ago, I started this blog in a fit of combined sleep deprivation and moral agitation. The vague idea was that over time it would be filled with snappy appraisals of ‘big’ political issues, inspired by my research on civil society and women’s organisations in the post-Soviet space. Since then, I’ve written about everything from Eurovision to the Tuam Babies, and some of you may be wondering when I’m actually going to get around to explaining my doctoral work.

For the sake of the insatiably curious, I should point out two pieces of mine that have been published elsewhere over the last few months:

1. Transforming the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: what can we learn from women’s organizations? appeared in Caucasus Edition last February. The idea is a simple and completely non-Utopian one: women’s grassroots organisations embody better than most both the challenges and the potential of peacebuilding, and should therefore be recognised as important actors in conflict resolution.

2. Young women’s peace activism: tearing apart stereotypes in Armenia and Azerbaijan was written as a guest post for the blog of Kvinna Till Kvinna, a Swedish Foundation that works with women in conflict-affected areas around the world, including the Caucasus. The text was a reflection on a fieldwork experience in May that also sought to highlight the increasingly difficult context for civil society activists in the region.

As innocuous as they now look, I sweated tears over both these pieces – my first attempts to  boil the scope of my unfinished research down to a bare 1,500 words each. It’s getting easier, but it’s still remarkably hard to produce writing that is regular, relevant, and readable, even if I’ve gathered enough material for several PhDs.

It turns out that a research blog is not a public version of field notes, nor is it a tailored version of the bigger analysis. In part, I’ve come to think of it as a siphoning off of excess brain matter. But the key thing about it is that it’s grounded in everyday experience. I don’t wake up in the mornings and decide that I’m going to write about such-and-such a topic…I write in response to whatever it is that triggers my excitement or curiosity or outrage, and that won’t let me sleep until I’ve communicated it to somebody else. For some, that probably sounds like egotism. For me, it’s the definition of politics.

A note to other researchers…

In terms of reflexive practice, keeping a research-related blog is as much about what you don’t write, as what you do. In many universities, ethics is still often treated as a tick-the-box or fill-out-the-form exercise. The first few months of fieldwork felt like taking a crash course in Applied Ethics on top of my degree. I learned, for example, that consent isn’t a one-off thing, it’s something that has to be constantly, if wordlessly, renegotiated – as it is in any relationship. And I also learned more about censorship and silencing and scrupulousness that I would ever have dreamed possible – all against an extremely complex political backdrop.

At the outset of my research, I undertook to preserve the anonymity and confidentiality of those involved, and to minimise the risk for all participants. The more time I’ve spent in the field, the more I’ve felt that these phrases were too abstract and too removed from reality. If anything I write here could be construed as “unethical” by those standards, then obviously I’ve got to reinterpret my ethical framework.

I think that a good starting point for this is examining the crossover from research to activism in more detail – understanding the security challenges that participants face in their daily lives, and weighing up the risks of exposure against the risks of simply doing nothing. All the while bearing in mind that I am the lone carrier of the get-out-of-jail-free card in this situation.

I haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I feel like keeping a blog has given me a head start in dealing with these and other issues that are bound to crop up again and again as I move into the writing up and publishing phases of the doctorate. As a grounded practice, it has revealed insights into my own research process and my relationship with participants, and also given me some clues as to what really motivates me, and what I might want to do above and beyond the PhD.

As a lover of letters…

Not all social researchers see themselves as wordsmiths rather than scientists, but I suspect that a lot of us do. Some of my greatest PhD crises have resulted from the feeling that I had gotten myself mired in data, but forgotten how to do the one thing I was always good at – namely, writing. Blogging has been an indescribably valuable way of reconnecting with writing as a practice that requires love and craftsmanship and ideas – all things I felt I had lost as I moved deeper into the PhD process.

Now I feel like writing is once again something that can keep me centred in the midst of the constant changes and relocations that have been the hallmark of the last few years. It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you play a new sport for the first time, and you end up stretching muscles you never knew you had. At the same time – and maybe this is the wrong way to describe this, but anyway – I’ve discovered a kind of power I didn’t know I had either, when friends or strangers wrote to me or left comments on the blog to say that something I wrote had really touched a chord.

Maybe this is a good time to say thank you to those who have been supportive of the blog from the beginning (you know who you are!), or just following it occasionally – it wouldn’t be anything without readers. Over the summer, I’m hoping that it will become a little more focused, and that some of the more latent themes will come to the fore, but I’m eager to have feedback and incorporate that into the development and potential redesign of the space. I’m also on the lookout for people to form a Dublin-based writing group from September! You have been warned…

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