Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.

How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

“To the Editor of the Times…”

Apologies for the silence. I am trying to write a conference paper for, um, Thursday and my data is stubbornly refusing to organise itself into categories. In a way I’m quite pleased – I’m now working with two corpora and it’s interesting that they show this difference. One is the Suffrage corpus that I’ve been using until now, created by identifying all the articles in the Times Digital Archive containing suffrag* and pulling them out. The asterisk is a wildcard which means that I don’t need to specify an ending – because it’s got that wildcard in it, the search term will find suffrage, suffragism, suffragette, suffragettes, suffragist, suffragists and so on. It will also identify Suffragan, an ecclesiastical term and one that has nothing to do with the suffrage movement. So the script has an exception in it for that term.

The other corpus is composed of Letters to the Editor – the LttE corpus. This sounds very staid and genteel but actually contained heated exchanges between different factions of the suffrage movement, the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League, various anti-suffragist men and anyone else who felt compelled to stick their oar in. At times it reads more like a blogging flamewar! This corpus was extracted using suffrag* as a search term to get letters mentioning suffrage etc; to get the letters I looked at the header of each text. The header contains information like the file name, the date it was published in the Times, the title of the article and, crucially, what it’s classified as – News, Editorials, Leaders or, indeed, Letters to the Editor. So this time the script looked for suffrag* and Letters to the Editor in the header.

Both corpora are divided by year and month, so I have a folder for 1908, 1909, 1910 etc and within those, sub-folders for each month. So if I wanted to, I could compare texts from April 1909 to April 1910, or June 1913 to December 1913, or the first six months of 1911 to the first six months of 1912. I like organising corpora in a way that allows this flexibility.

In Chapter Four, I investigated Mutual Information (MI) for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in each year in the Suffrage corpus, then categorised the words it came up with. Mutual Information is a measure of how closely words are linked together. So, suffragist and banana aren’t linked at all, but as I found, suffragist and violence are linked. I then came up with categories for these words – direct action, gender, politics, law & prison and so on, and compared these categories across the different years.

I’ve now done the same for the LttE. What’s interesting is that there is not much overlap between the words associated with suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in the LttE corpus and the words associated with suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in the Suffrage corpus. Part of this is to do with the different functions of the texts; rather than reporting news, the Letters to the Editor try to argue, advocate and persuade. However, there are also words like inferior, educated and employed in the LttE data – words that seem to be more about the attributes of women or suffragist campaigners. This just doesn’t seem to be a feature in the Suffrage data.

Also interestingly, the categorise I came up with don’t work for this corpus. While direct action was a prominent category for the Suffrage corpus, I don’t think I can find a single term in the LttE MI data. Not even things like demonstration which is pretty innocuous as far as direct action goes.

So what’s going on here? At least part of it is due to the different functions of news reports and what are essentially open letters. But I think there’s also a difference in who was writing the letters. Letters to the Editor offered both suffrage campaigners and anti-suffrage campaigners an opportunity to represent their views themselves, rather than being represented by or mediated through a reporter, editor and others engaged in the the production of a news report. I don’t think it’s that strange that the language they use and avoid is different.

The politics of representation

Because I’m trying to clear some tabs, here’s a useful definition of representation I found and need to read more about:

As Gilles Deleuze […] has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

From Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’? at Ballots & Bullets

One of the difficult things about doing an interdisciplinary PhD is the amount of catchup in other areas you have to do. My background is in linguistics rather than history, politics or sociology. As such, it’s a joy to come across something like this – not only should it lead to a citable text for my thesis (gotta catch em all!), but it also shows that my thinking isn’t completely out of step with theorists in these different areas.

Relevance

One of the questions that came up at the conference was the links between the women’s suffrage movement and protest movements today. There are a couple of points that I think are particularly interesting, although there are bound to be others.

Diversity of the movement
In any large protest movement there are going to be different factions, each with different ideologies, aims, motivations and so on. I’ve seen it first hand in the current anti-cuts movement, particularly within the student movement and even within the group in my university. This isn’t a bad comparison because I think both movements are issues-based and attract people of a huge range of political beliefs.

There are things that unite us but these tend to be quite broad things – general opposition to education and welfare cuts, for example. The things that can be divisive are in the details – what action do we carry out? do we support occupation? is it okay to ally ourselves with trade union groups? communist groups? anarchist collectives? how do we organise ourselves? how do we make decisions? how do we respond to other groups and their campaigns? to whom do we express solidarity? These things are not always simple, and there have been passionate debates about these issues.

The suffrage movement had broad agreement that the franchise should be extended to (some) women, but organisations could differ wildly on the details – should the vote be extended to all women or to women on the same basis as men, with financial and property requirements in place? what should be the role of men? how much independence was needed and/or desirable from political parties? were they happy with contemporary gender norms? what was the vote for – was it a symbolic gesture of women’s equality, or could it be used to improve women’s working conditions, pay and welfare?

Not easy questions, and quite often no right answers.

Direct action and violence
The second point of comparison is what counts as violence, and how individuals and groups within the movement respond to direct action carried out by others in the movement. In my research, one of the things I come across is that violence was carried out against property; this happens today as well. There are numerous accounts of WSPU speakers being verbally and physically abused by men at public meetings and requiring police protection, yet this doesn’t seem to get described as violence. Instead, violence is what happens when suffragette campaigners break windows. I note that Alfie Meadows, the student who had to have emergency brain surgery after being injured in the protests, has been charged with violent disorder (this post discusses it in more detail). Then as now, (some) property seems to be more important than (some) people.

There are also similarities in how those who don’t engage in property damage or other less socially sanctioned methods of direct action respond to those who do. While I was disappointed at the reaction to Millbank, I wasn’t surprised. Those who carried out property damage and so on were said to be attention seekers, their status as “proper” members of the movement challenged, and others in the movement tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the window-breakers. Sound familiar?

I suspect that these issues are ones that any protest movement has to negotiate – they’re not unique to movements. There are points of connection between the suffrage movement and what’s happening today, particularly when it comes to how damage to public property and injury to protesters are discussed, and it’s these points of connection that think are interesting.

In happier news, my favourite bookshop turns 37 this weekend – happy birthday News from Nowhere! Here’s some of their history for the interested.

Press understanding of the black bloc

On Saturday, over 500,000 people took part in the March for the Alternative. The Guardian live-blogged it (first part, second part) and for the majority, it was a peaceful and diverse march.

At some point, some protesters seem to have headed to Oxford Street to engage in some direct action, namely occupying Fortnum & Masons (and were duly kettled upon leaving, having been told they’d be free to leave the area), and in a late evening a large group gathered at Trafalgar Square, apparently to rest, catch up, swap news and so on. At this point something happened, and the police responded by kettling them. People’s experiences could be very different depending on where they were and when – one person was baton charged by the police, Laurie Penny was caught in the Trafalgar Square kettle, this young blogger found himself protecting a girl whose arm was broken by the police in the Trafalgar Square kettle and Katie writes about the march and Trafalgar Square and the aftermath as a St John’s Ambulance first aider.

The reaction from the conservative press was predictable but again, people were anxious to distance themselves from those not participating in the march and engaging in different forms of direct action.

Johann Hari:

Shame on the media for focusing on a few idiots from yesterday not the inspiring 500,000, and shame on the idiots for giving them the excuse (source)

They were Black Block, who are entirely different people (and twats) (source)

Charlie Brooker:

Confusing these twats with the hundreds of thousands of actual protesters = mistaking football hooligans for footballers. (source)

La Sophielle has some interesting stuff to say on the distinction between “good” protesters and “bad” protesters:

All those news outlets with their talk of “splinter groups”, “mobs”, “maelstroms of violence”, “violent minorities” and “masked thugs” who “hijack” things – and don’t forget the bafflingly recurrent remark that those responsible “used Twitter to coordinate actions and cause trouble” – all these news outlets actually don’t care to differentiate between various expressions of political resistance, whatever they may say to the contrary. Protestors come in ‘nice’ or ‘black’ – full stop. I don’t resent this because I resent UK Uncut being “smeared” or lumped in with the black bloc. I resent this because it means that inane dichotomies (legitimate/illegitimate, nice/nasty, peaceful/violent) are shored up in the name of reporting, which in fact serve nothing at all except sensation. (source)

Aside from the debate about acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest which is probably as old as protest itself, I find it really interesting how the term “black bloc” is used. I understand it as a tactic (as this FAQ explains): a black bloc is a temporary gathering of people with different ideologies and aims working together for the duration of a march etc. Wearing similar clothes promotes solidarity, is highly visible and hinders identification, particularly by Forward Intelligence Teams. What it is not, however, is an organisation. To my knowledge, there is no black bloc membership list. There is no black bloc committee. It forms on the ground, and dissolves afterwards. The individuals involved might have connections to each other, but the black bloc itself is not the organisation that they belong to.

As a linguist, what I find interesting are the different ways the black bloc is discussed in this current round of articles. Not so much the evaluative stance, but the concept of the black bloc itself. This term is not being disputed in the press – instead, it seems to be misunderstood and the misunderstanding apparently goes unchallenged. I suspect there’s a power dynamic in that those most likely to participate in a black bloc and understand it are not likely to have a powerful voice in the press; the people writing about the black bloc in the newspapers are unlikely to be the ones with direct experience of it. And so “Black Bloc(k)” seems to become an identity rather than a tactic.

It makes me wonder how prevalent this is, both diachronically and across domains. Is this a fairly standard feature of mainstream press discourse about the black bloc? Is it something more recent – was the black bloc discussed differently in the 1990s/early 2000s/mid-2000s to now? Is the black bloc understood differently when taking part in different kinds of protest e.g. anti-war, environmental, anti-cuts (even if these issues are often closely connected)? Has the term become more widespread, or used more frequently?

This is the kind of research that lends itself to corpus research methodologies – focusing on a limited number of terms where a) the term is crucial to identifying the group being discussed and b) the term itself is what’s interesting. There may well be incidences of “protesters dressed in black” and so on, but I’m not convinced that identifies the protesters explicitly enough to know that it’s a black bloc being discussed. Because the black bloc itself is a somewhat nebulous concept – its power lies in its lack of organisation and definition – it becomes a site for projection. Do you want the black bloc to be full of violent hooligans, justifiably angry disenfranchised working class kids, rentamob thugs? Again, this seems more about identity than discussing the black bloc as a tactic.

If I didn’t have a conference paper to write I’d be creating a custom corpus with WebBootCaT, but the paper must take precedence. The custom corpus will have to wait a couple of weeks.

Suffrage imagery

Sometimes I like going into the library and just browsing, skipping the catalogues and directed searches, and just poking about until I find something interesting. Sometimes you find things you didn’t know existed – Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice opened my undergraduate eyes. At other times you find seemingly random things. A couple of months ago I was flicking through a book on “fashioning the body politic” and to my interest, found an article on fashion and the suffragette movement. I photocopied it, thinking it would be an interesting diversion but not really relevant to my thesis, but it’s turning out to be surprisingly useful.

I’m currently analysing a report of a WSPU procession and having an understanding of suffragette visual signifiers is proving essential. The procession was in honour of Emily Wilding Davison and accompanied her coffin through London to the station, where it was taken to Morpeth and buried. The procession itself is more like a state funeral – colour coordinated dress, music, groups of women marching in formation, banners, a cross-bearer, and young girls dressed in white and carrying laurel wreaths. It’s astonishing in terms of scale and organisation – there’s a sense that every visual element is there for a specific reason and to have a specific effect. One of the aspects I’m interested in is the procession as publicity – this was an opportunity for the WSPU to create a new kind of visual spectacle. Rather than being purely a political demonstration, this procession celebrated the life of a suffragette. The banners read “Fight on and God will give the victory” “Thoughts have gone forth whose power can sleep no more” and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, celebrating Davison as a fallen soldier who had given up her life for the cause.

The WSPU leadership seemed to have been ambivalent about Davison. Her propensity for unpredictable and independent direct action outside the guidance of the leadership seems to have caused tension; for example, she set fire to postboxes before arson became an acceptable tactic and this did not appear to have gone down particularly well. She was knocked down by the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby – it is unclear whether she intended to stop the horse, pin WSPU colours to its bridle or was merely crossing the racecourse after she thought the horses had passed – and died three days later. The inquest recorded her death as “death by misadventure”. What I find interesting is the WSPU reaction to her death. The paper reports no immediate WSPU response, although a day or so later WSPU colours were draped on the screens around her bed. This rather muted response contrasts with the extravagant procession; I’d argue that the WSPU leadership realised the potential for publicity after her death, wanted to capitalise on it, and so brought Davison’s actions under their aegis. The resultant procession involved thousands of sympathisers and the crowds gathered to watch were so thick the police could only keep the way clear for the procession with “utmost difficulty”.

The procession was rich with symbolism. One of the mistakes I’m trying not to make is interpreting the imagery as a present day reader would; the cultural touchstones are different, and this is illustrated clearly in the use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” on the banners. My immediate association with this phrase is the bitterness and outrage of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry – written some four years after this procession and published seven years after it. Today this phrase has connotations that weren’t widely present in 1913. Instead, I’m trying to look at early twentieth century interpretations of colour and flower symbolism, religious and classical allusions, and banners. What does it mean when the WSPU members wear purple, white and black rather than the WSPU colours of purple, white and green? Does it really symbolise the death of hope? This is where the article on fashion in the suffragette movement comes in – not just because it touches on some of the areas I’m interested in, but also because it draws on sources that look really exciting. I badly want to get my hands on Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907-1914.

Naturally the library doesn’t have it. Am tempted to take up a Cambridge friend’s offer to swap beer for books.

Religion, Youth and Sexuality

Today I went to the Religion, Youth and Sexuality conference at the University of Nottingham. I’ve been closely involved with a the project but not as a researcher – as a participant. I answered a questionnaire which was followed up with an interview, then they deemed me sufficiently interesting to keep a video diary for a week.

It was a really interesting opportunity – firstly, as a researcher, it was a valuable experience seeing how other people in a different field and with a different theoretical and methodological background conducted research. Secondly, and somewhat unexpectedly, it was valuable as a participant. I went into the project thinking that I’d do some people a favour – they needed people to fill out their questionnaire and as a researcher, I like helping other people out with their research. Part of this is blatant and unfettered curiosity, part of this is the acknowledgement that research often depends on people willing to fill out questionnaires and one day, I might be soliciting data in that way. Part of my special interest in this project was the chance to get some representation; I do not see people like me represented in papers or magazines or TV, and perhaps my participation would help address that.

What followed really pushed me into thinking about how I conceptualised religion and sexuality and forced me to examine my beliefs. Sometimes the best way to sort things out in your own head is to talk to someone else; the questions were never intrusive or aggressive but I found myself reexamining things and realising that, for example, no, I didn’t actually have a problem with X but actually Y was a really important issue for me. It made me think through the various inconsistencies and really try to reconcile sometimes very different beliefs and attitudes. I’d grown up keeping these two aspects of my life pretty separate but this was an arena where I could acknowledge these two facets of my identity and how they informed each other, think about the links between them. I wasn’t prepared for how validated this made me feel – not just in terms of acknowledgement and acceptance, but that my daily life was of interest to the research project and worth investigating.

When I volunteered as a participant, I wasn’t really expecting to gain much from it. Instead I found it an interesting and rewarding experience, so much so that I hope they get the funding to following us up in a few years.

Activist linguistics

Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus.

O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan

Me, at dawn, holding a placard reading "Save Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences" in International Phonetic AlphabetThis is something I’ve been thinking about.

In some ways, my PhD research area is a deeply personal thing. It might be about a social movement and people and events a hundred years ago, but it encompasses areas that I care deeply about: gender equality, the theory and practice of protest, marginalised and disenfranchised groups, the interaction between ideology and practical legislative change. The photo is one of the more visible acts of protest I’ve done recently – it was taken on a cold winter’s morning before I went to London to protest about cuts to arts, humanities and social sciences. That experience led me to write this post.

I worried quite a lot about whether my personal politics would affect my research for the worse. Would it make me too sympathetic, unable to see the flaws in direct action? Would I end up hopelessly over-identifying with the subjects of my research? Would my thesis become a paean to the suffrage movement? Would I, too, end up setting fire to a boathouse? Worrying thoughts indeed.

But now I’ve started wondering about neutrality. Is actual neutrality even possible? I’m not convinced it is; to me it seems that you can simply not know enough about an issue to have an opinion, or that your apparent neutrality is itself a stance. I’m reminded of debates within feminism where those allegedly objective about it are actually hostile – there are some things it’s hard not to have an opinion about, and if you’ve chosen to distance yourself from an issue you’ve still made a choice about how you’re going to engage with it.

As I said in my post on direct action, being a protester has given me an insight into the kind of things the suffrage movement encountered. When I wrote that post it was police violence; as I write now, it’s the tensions between different groups and factions who are (roughly) campaigning for the same things.

As O’Connor suggests, things like this are going to inform one’s research whatever I do and my issue is one of how to allow it to do so, how to acknowledge it and be honest about its influence. There are different ways to engage with one’s activism and individual politics, and it’s clear which she thinks is best. As well as making for better research, I think the researcher also owes something to the community in which they’re embedded. As an undergraduate I was staggered by Jennifer Coates’ admission that she covertly recorded her friends for material. At the time it was an acceptable methodology to make such recordings; now it is most definitely not. I’m not studying NSAFC (if I was I’d tell them!) but that earlier post was still an attempt to apply my research to my community, to give back something – kind of connecting my experience as a researcher with my experience as a protester, and trying to synthesise them in to sort of whole I think O’Connor is talking about.

As a tangent, I stumbled upon Emily Davison Blues by Grace Petrie a couple of months ago. There’s a research paper in contemporary reimaginings of the suffrage movement, I know it.

Okay, I was going to go to bed at least an hour ago. Tomorrow brings more narrative theory and newsworthiness, yay?

Kat vs ebrary

Still ill, much to my annoyance. The only productive thing here has been my cough (ba-dum-tish!)

Anyway, today I tried to do some work chasing up a reference. The library had it (yay!) but only through ebrary (boo!). Every so often I wonder if my resistance to ebrary is because I’m being a luddite and refusing to use something that will make my life much easier. Then I actually have to use ebrary and realise that no, I’m entirely justified in this.

screenshot of ebrary reader

The above screenshot shows what it looks like on my monitor. I am deeply puzzled as to why the contents page needs to take up so much of the screen, leaving the text itself cramped to one side.To me this seems counter-intuitive – after all, I want to read the text – but what do I know, I’m only a researcher.

I am also puzzled as to why their top menubar doesn’t move as you scroll down the page:

screenshot of ebrary

You either have the choice of making the text bigger and easier to read OR having to scroll up every time you want to turn the page. It’s tedious.

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s reading a book through a web interface that makes me cross, it’s the peculiar and inflexible design decisions that are making me cranky. Digital and online interfaces are all well and good, but good, thoughtful design is so important to make them usable.

(and yes, I’ve checked Google Books (the chapter I want isn’t available) and I’ve checked Amazon (the book’s £88 and there doesn’t seem to be a paperback). If there was an alternative less annoying than ebrary, I’d use it.)