‘Against Erasure’ Plenary Lecture at The Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities

By Gemma Commane on September 14th, 2016

The Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities at Durham University (https://www.dur.ac.uk/csgs/) is one of the leading centres in the country for research into gender, LGBTQ sexualities, sex and sex work. For the past four years the Centre has run a Summer School for postgraduates and early career researchers. The Summer School and, indeed the Centre, is inclusive of all disciplines. The Summer School usually runs for two days, and includes plenary lectures by leading National and International scholars, and presentations from postgraduate researchers (MA and Doctoral students).

It was a privilege to be invited by Professor Maggie O’Neill (https://www.york.ac.uk/sociology/our-staff/academic/maggie-oneill and https://twitter.com/maggieoneill9) to deliver a plenary lecture at the Annual Summer School. Maggie asked me to talk specifically about the work I have done on researcher positionality and reflexivity (see the following chapters on Academia.Edu https://bcu.academia.edu/GemmaCommane/Book-Chapters-and-Journal-Articles: Double Reflexivity by Professor Shane Blackman and Dr Gemma Commane 2012 and Temporary Reflexive Disempowerment by Dr Gemma Commane 2016). Researcher positionality in ethnographic research has always intrigued me, especially when I have experienced a range of emotions, roles and positions when conducting immersive research with people and groups. For a while, I have argued (in conference papers, classes and publications) that ethnographic research is part of your own history and development.

My plenary session ‘Against Erasure: reflections on researcher positionality, sexuality and stigma in ethnographic research,’ explored the multiple subject positions occupied by the researcher, and what disclosure about intimacies and emotions experienced in the process of research may mean in the production of knowledge. The plenary focused on ethnographic research examining gender, sexuality and the erotic. Although there have been developments in cultural theory, gender studies and sociology in valuing the presence of researcher positionality and affect (see Brewer 2000, Lather 2009, Perrone 2013, etc.); disclosure of the emotional and sexual spheres can still be seen as too intimate for the researcher to reveal about themselves. Revelations may feel comfortable or even liberating in the field, but when we start writing these up in formal academic writing, we may feel that the meaningful layers of emotion and intimacies start to disappear. This may be due to presumed expectations from our disciplines (i.e. how to write and what is important to research), fear of outing ourselves, negative judgements by close personal relationships (i.e. questioning your presence, but also the validity and purpose of research), or what we feel ethical codes and conventional academic practice should look like in a piece of academic writing.

The researcher’s hesitancy not to disclose their sexuality, the erotic and other emotions experienced can be due to fear of stigma, personal safety and people questioning the validity of research, especially if you are at the start of your academic career (Deutsch 2004, Eccles et al 2013, Glasziou 2004, Halse 2011, Kasper and Landolt 2014, Poole et al 2004, Toellner 1994). The plenary explored what is at stake for the researcher, as well as research participants, if the lens of analysis is not turned directly onto the experience and emotions of the researcher throughout the process of research. Consequently, I addressed how explicit embodied accounts and self-reflexivity can provide a means of deepening our understanding of taboo, sexualised and erotic field-sites (Commane 2016). Thus, it is clear that sexuality, the erotic and other emotions experienced by the researcher are valid forms of knowledge (Blackman and Commane 2012, Commane 2016), and these should never be erased or seen as insignificant. This is especially important in developing advocacy, reflexivity and deep meaningful empathic relations with communities or individuals that may be politically, culturally and socially stigmatised.