Thoughts on interdisciplinary research at the 2020 DIAL Summer School

Maja Brandt Andreasen

In August 2020 I had the pleasure of attending a three-day summer school organised by NORFACE’s transnational research program Dynamics of Inequality Across the Lifecourse (DIAL). The summer school was originally supposed to take place at the University of Turku in Finland, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we participated online instead. While most participants came from quantitative backgrounds (primarily sociology and economics), the research we do on the CILIA LGBTQI+ project has a qualitative approach and this created some interesting interdisciplinary challenges.

            On the first day of the summer school I presented a paper based on the research I have conducted over the past few months as part of the CILIA LGBTQI+ project, on participants’ experiences of social media. Between April and November 2019 Yvette and Matson conducted interviews with 45 LGBTQI+ people across Scotland and it has been my privilege within the past few months to analyse and present the way in which our participants discuss their social media (dis)engagement and the possibilities and limitations of online interactions.

            Perhaps like many academics, participants discuss their online experiences somewhat ambivalently. While participants sometimes have found community and a sense of belonging on some platforms, they have also experienced hostility, homophobia and transphobia on other platforms and in other digital contexts. Participants mainly highlight the two social media platforms, Tumblr and Twittter, positioning these quite differently:  Tumblr is described as a space where many participants have found a sense of community and sameness with other LGBTQI+ people, finding people they now count among their close friends and even partner(s).  Twitter on the other hand is described through a much stronger sense of ambiguity. While some people have found a sense of community on Twitter – one person describes feeling part of “gay Twitter” – most participants recall negative experiences characterised by hostility.

            Debates around the Gender Recognition Act  (GRA) and the 2019 public consultation in Scotland coincided with the CILIA fieldwork (see CILIA timeline). Many have noted how such debates have resulted in heightened transphobia on Twitter from people opposing the reform of the GRA. The GRA debates constitute a pivotal moment in queer lives in Scotland, where sexual citizenship is increasing done – and undone – digitally.  Many participants’ experiences on Twitter are centred around this pivotal moment and some participants tell personal stories about how they have been personally targeted by transphobic abuse on Twitter, sometimes opting to suspend or leave the platform. Sexual digital citizenship for queer lives is thus mutually constituted and disputed in online spaces and may be subject to such ‘suspension’, rather than inevitably ‘getting better’ (see here).

            The summer school ended with a really interesting discussion about challenges and advantages of doing interdisciplinary research. This allowed me to reflect on the interdisciplinary work we do with CILIA LGBTQI+ in Scotland. I work closely with the PI on our team, Yvette Taylor, who is feminist sociologist, and professor of Education while my background is in Gender Studies with a specialisation in Feminist Media Studies. Yvette Taylor and Matson Lawrence, who have qualitative expertise in methods, conducted the interviews, while I provided expertise in and analysis of social media and its affects. As such we have made the most of our different strengths and working together on this article has enabled us to pose different questions and to challenge each other. As Professor Rolf van der Velden (University of Maastricht) said at the summer school when discussing the advantages of doing interdisciplinary research: “It starts with respect for other disciplines and the understanding that a team of researchers with different backgrounds will take the research further.”

            I consider doing interdisciplinary research a feminist project. The notion of moving across disciplines, of understanding how different disciplines offer new and varied perspectives provides necessary challenges and broadens our perspectives. This is feminist research at its core. Constantly questioning what we take for granted, understanding that different backgrounds provide different perspectives and constantly trying to do better is a feminist project. As discussed in the previous blog post being involved with CILIA LGBTQI+ means gaining a greater understanding for the development of rights and restrictions for LGBTQI+ people in Scotland. It means frustration over the fact that we still have the same conversations about discrimination and invisibility that some of our research participants had 20, 30 and 40 years ago. To me, this frustration – and sometimes anger – at how slow this progress can be, is what drives my desire to do feminist research – as interdisciplinary and as inclusive as possible – and what drives me to try to do better.

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