Doing Feminist Research in Political and Social Science

by Brooke Ackerly & Jacqui True

Exercises - Planning Question-driven Research

Exercise 1.1: What kind of researcher are you?

Consider some concrete, hypothetical examples of the different kinds of readers who we envision will find this book helpful:

*Aasha is asking a feminist question about the global discourses of women’s movements. Her specific question is best addressed by a post-positivist methodology and qualitative methods. However, she would like her findings to be read by positivists working on related questions.

*Seamus is researching a non-feminist question about how indigenous social movements leverage their global networks to affect local policy change. He uses feminist theory to help formulate a decolonizing method of interviewing that is sensitive to indigenous knowledges. He also uses feminist theory to reconceptualize mainstream theories of transnational social movements and international relations in a way that allows them to acknowledge and address indigenous transnational politics.

*Sineva is attempting to use the methods of participatory action research to study the creation of a social movement for Food Sovereignty from diverse stakeholders. She is considering how the tools she has been trained in can enable her to be attentive to marginalization, to gender differences, to the intersectionality of oppressions, and to how race and gender stereotypes color our view of who can speak for ‘the community.’ She thinks that feminist methodologies unfamiliar to her may be helpful.

*Hugo, who identifies as a heterosexual man researching transgendered communities, is questioned by colleagues in the field of Sexuality Studies and by transgender research subjects who would like to know how his research will help them in their human rights advocacy work.

*Michael teaches a course on research design and methods and while he is not versed in feminism, some of his students have feminist research questions. He wants a course text that can guide the whole class through the research process rather than one that favors one form of inquiry.

*Farhana is a senior beginning her honors project. She has taken lots of feminist theory and written many research reports based on secondary literature. She wants to do primary source work, but has never had a course on methodology.

*Anna, a feminist colleague in Geography, seeks a better understanding of feminist theory to inform her own scholarship so that she can better connect her research to the research being done in other fields, for example, Anthropology, Sociology, International Relations, and Political Science. She wants to expand her dialogue partners, and become more self-conscious about what distinguishes her own contribution.

*Annlyn is studying indigenous media and its affect on voting behavior. She uses feminist methodology to reframe the categories of Political Science content analysis that has been designed with the mainstream (non-indigenous) media in mind.

*Bill is a philosopher well-versed in theories of justice and ethics. His research on local activism around the living wage movement could benefit theoretically from greater engagement with the scholarship on gender, work, and socio-economic structures being done around the world that likewise addresses questions of marginalization and how people challenge the power dynamics within workplaces.

*Ngaire is asking a feminist question about whether gender identity makes a difference to the style and substance of foreign policymaking in international relations. She is using a cross-national research design that compares women’s and men’s political leadership. She wants to contribute to bridging the theoretical divide between feminism and international relations, situating herself in both fields of knowledge.

*Miguel is taking his first methods class for which each student is asked to bring a research question or area of interest. The questions of many of his colleagues take a similar form and he struggles to find a research question that seems to fit the expectations of the class.

What brings you to this book? Was it assigned or did you find it? What kind of researcher are you? What are your worries? What challenges do you face?

Exercise 2.1: Checklist for situating yourself

Though we cannot anticipate the ethical dilemmas we will confront in our research, we can exercise our ethical acuity so that as they emerge, we notice them and can attend to them.
  • Consider your socioeconomic context. In that context what privileges do you enjoy (for a model see McIntosh 2003 [1988]). For example, as a white woman, when I approach someone for help, their intuitive response is rarely fear.
  • How do you tell the difference between fact and opinion?
    Attending to the power that your privileges give you and to the blind spots that your epistemology may create for you, list or journal about the possible ethical dilemmas that may emerge during your research.

Exercise 3.1: The Research Plan – the anticipated moments

Fill in the following table in order to think through your research plan and the implications of a feminist research ethic for your research process. Note that in Chapter three we give examples of researcher dilemmas that the researcher did not anticipate but that you might learn from in order to anticipate deliberative moments. (See also Exercise 7.1).

Exercise 3.2: Map of the Research Process – the unanticipated moments

For each deliberative moment, use this table to assess the moment and the learning opportunity it presents. As you reflect on a particular issue, you may discover other questions that you should ask yourself that would enable you to approach this and other deliberative moments more systematically and thoughtfully.


When working through a moment that surprised you, we invite you to be methodical in filling out the table. At some point, your mind will race ahead and it will be obvious to you what brought you to this moment, what kind of moment it is, and how you should think through the problem. When that happens, follow your head, but remember to go back and check through the rest of the table. A moment’s reflection can give you even more confidence that you are making the right decision. For each moment ask what reflecting about power, boundaries and relationships can bring to your understanding of the moment and how you should or did deal with it.

Exercise 4.1: Generating a research question - First steps

Initially, you may have a broad topic in mind but you will have to find ways to narrow it down and frame it as a question or puzzle that can animate your research and be easily communicated to a non-specialist audience.

Identify a problem or question that is broadly relevant to the topic that interests you most e.g. low income housing, living wage, transnational women’s movements, access to healthcare, violence against women, global inequality, environmental degradation.
Clearly define the key question, problem or issue.
Why is this question relevant and important to our understanding of politics/development/ society/international relations/feminism? You will need to make a convincing argument.
How will you persuade your friend or family member of the importance of your research using both opinion and evidence (i.e. = argument)? Think about:

the scope of the research question
the novelty of the question
important events related to the question
the urgency of the question
the window the question provides into deeper, more abiding issues
the relevance of the question to societal and scholarly debates

What are the parts of the argument? Repeat steps 1 through 4 for each part.

Exercise 5.1: Theory-Building

Step I. Survey the empirical literature for theory – look at the scholarship on your question specifically. What theoretical frameworks do others use?
  • Survey the empirical literature for concepts – look at the scholarship on your question more broadly. What concepts do others use?
  • Survey the literature on related questions and concepts – What theoretical frameworks do others use?
  • Survey the theoretical literature – What theoretical frameworks have others used to address your issue directly?
  • Survey policy and programmatic work related to your topic – Though written for a non-academic audience, policy work and programmatic documentation related to your topic have a theoretical perspective, although it is often implicit or well-embedded. Studying this work for its theoretical perspective requires more analytical theoretical work, but it may yield concepts and theoretical perspectives that should inform your reflections. You need to be conscious of the empirical and theoretical contexts of these theories.
Step II. To prepare for your work on conceptualization of your issue, create a list of theoretical perspectives.
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these in addressing your question?
Step III. Reconstruct the key points of the theories in your list. How does each theory define its key concepts?
  • In each theory, what is the meaning of those concepts whose meaning is taken as given?
  • In each theory which concepts are the focus of theoretical study?
  • Which one is most useful for conceptualizing the problem you have chosen?
  • Which theoretical perspective might have been useful but you chose not to use it?
  • Which theoretical perspective could not be useful?
Now try drafting a theoretical argument for your research question or puzzle.

Exercise 5.2: Anticipated and Unanticipated Moments in Theorizing

How can a feminist research ethic help you work through the process of theorizing and chart your research process map? For each deliberative moment, use this table to assess the moment and the learning opportunity it presents. As you reflect on a particular issue, you may discover other questions that you should ask yourself that would enable you to approach this and other deliberative moments more systematically and thoughtfully.

Exercise 6.1: What are my personal, institutional and disciplinary constraints?

  • Can I travel or do I need to stay close to home?
  • Can I travel for short periods or longer periods?
  • What kind of work do I like to do? – interview, reading, participant observation, coding.
  • What skills do I have or would I need to develop to collect these kinds of data?
  • How do I know my skill constraints? Can I develop the skills I need?
  • Where do I like to be? Isolated? In the thick of things?
  • What kind of relationships do I feel comfortable having with my research subjects or collaborators?
  • What non-research-related skills do I have? Can I trade these to give back to my research community?
  • Can I train researchers? Am I organized enough to lead a research team or should I work alone?
  • What are my mentoring needs? With whom can I develop mentoring relationships to fill those needs?
  • What are the strengths of my discursive partners? For what kind of feedback can they be relied upon?
  • Does my discipline/department support transdisciplinary work?

Exercise 7.1: Let your question be your guide


You may have one question or several connected questions you are researching. For each question fill out the table below. Your ideal population is every possible case in the population. In the case of Hewitt’s project this was all transnational feminist networks across time, nation, whether transnational or local. That whole pool is not knowable so she had to construct it.

Exercise 7.2: The Research Plan and timeline


Orchestrating a successful research project is a skill not something we know from birth. Review your plan. How many projects do you have? One case study, one multicase study with more than one site, a comparative case and a single case? For each project and then for the research plan over all, fill in the following table in order to think through your research plan and the feasibility of your research plan. Fill in the first column based on your reflections on your research plan. Fill in column two based on your best guess of how long each phase should take you. There will be overlap across the phases. Column three is your personally imposed or supervisor-requested draft day. Column four is immoveable dates such as preliminary deadlines set by your course instructor, the date your plane leaves a site of research, the date you have to submit a paper for a conference.