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Applying A Feminist Research Ethic To My PhD

by Patricia Salas Sanchez 28th April 2020

PhD student Patricia Salas Sanchez discusses the application of a feminist research ethic to her doctoral research.

My feminist doctoral research project explores the contemporary relationship between Sweden and Russia in light of their gendered international, foreign policy and diplomatic practices. This project has been guided in part by a feminist research ethic.

Stephen O'Brien, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator and Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden at the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen.Source: OCHA photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva Flickr

What is a feminist research ethic?

In their book Doing Feminist Research in Political and Social Science, Brooke Ackerly and Jacqui True have defined a feminist research ethic as a set of questioning practices deployed as a rigorous methodological, ethical commitment throughout the research process regardless of whether it is feminist or not.

Writing a feminist-informed PhD

My own PhD is feminist-informed, both inspired by a diverse body of feminist scholarship and taking the feminist concern with social justice as its point of departure. But the project has also always been a feminist ‘practice’ as it aims to advance our understanding of social, gendered international practices and international power hierarchies, or structures of domination, in order to transform them.

The four commitments of a feminist research ethic

Feminist questioning practices are associated with a critical feminist theory and a habitually reflexive research performance. The four commitments that underpin a feminist research ethic are attentiveness to:
  • the power of knowledge and epistemology
  • boundaries, silences, intersections, marginalisation, and normalisation
  • relationships and their power differentials
  • self-reflection on how one’s own situatedness or socio-political location is connected to and influences our knowledge and research
To apply a feminist research ethic is to live and perform critical, reflexive and inclusive theory whilst conducting research.

In this way, the overarching research questions as well as the methods and analytical techniques in my doctoral project have been revisited, reconsidered, and have naturally evolved.

Inspired by gendered practices

My project is about gendered power relations within International Relations (IR) and is based on observation of gendered practices by states and diplomats. The research was inspired by attentiveness to the intersections and boundaries between different disciplines. Guided by a feminist research ethic, it was provoked by the silence on gendered practices in recent discussions of the ‘practice turn’ in IR. It was further influenced by the disregard for IR feminist scholarship that has long studied the international in the microcosm of seemingly unimportant everyday, mundane and situated practices since the late 1980s.

The application of a feminist research ethic

Over the course of my PhD, my research design and methods have been adapted to avoid potentially dangerous situations such as encountering inappropriate behaviours or legal risks during my fieldwork. They have also been chosen taking into account the resource and time constraints I face as a doctoral student. For example, I’m using a virtual ‘praxiography’ (that is, a writing of practices approached through video and images) rather than practicing face-to-face participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork. This is because very few researchers have been allowed entry in the diplomatic field. Attentiveness to relationships and exploring my own situatedness through self-reflection have been crucial in planning my fieldwork and interviews with diplomats. Last but not least, I practice discourse analysis using an intertextual approach, aware that discourses and practices are intrinsically linked and that both produce power relations. I start analysing the official foreign policy discourse and then move to consider the discourses of other voices in foreign policy.

My doctoral research is just one example of how applying a feminist research ethic can push you to practice and produce more reflexive, ethical and rigorous research.
Featured Image credit: Photo by Vivian Trivedii. Avaliable on Unsplash via the Unsplash License