Notes on: Rizvi S (2019) Treading on eggshells: 'doing' feminism in educational research. International Journal of Research and Method in Education. HTTP://dx.DOI.ORG/1080/1743727X.217.1 399354

Dave Harris

[Quick one only] allegedly explores the difficulties of doing feminist research contrasting ideal and actual feminist ways, ethical and methodological challenges using unstructured interviews, trying to make practical differences and developing theoretical frameworks that analyse data to 'reveal sites for social change' (2). Apparently we need more holistic feminist values to respect vulnerabilities of researchers and participants

Feminist methodology gets off on the claims that earlier forms of gaining knowledge were masculine and reinforced power through objective lenses, requiring more reflexive views, qualitative research as opposed to positivism. Later was added a focus on whiteness and intersection. There is still no agreed approach though rather different guidelines:  there may be organising principles addressing gender asymmetry, raising consciousness, addressing subjective experience, acknowledging power dynamics between researcher and participants, considering ethical implications [only considering them] and emphasising empowerment of women through research giving them agency to challenge oppression. Examples of asymmetry include classical focus on homeschool relations which have ignored the difficulties of parenting. However intersection is also recently important. Other people havepolished the five principles to emphasise social change and resistance as well as giving voice, making feminist research more activist not just more respectful. She tries to implement these in her work with British Pakistani mothers with special educational needs. Mostly she deliberates over the challenges of using consciousness-raising methods, making a practical difference, and uncovering sites of resistance and opportunities for social change.

She looked at how these women used various SEND [special educational need and disability] provision. There is a disproportionate number of multiple learning difficulties among these groups, probably affected by persistent poverty, although the main emphasis has been placed on cultural and language barriers, with policy stressing that professionals need to acquire cultural and linguistic competencies. She followed university ethical guidelines and gave participants the right to withdraw. She used in-depth unstructured timeline interviews which help develop questions for semistructured interviews and vignettes later. She tried to reduce power asymmetries in mutual dialogue, allowing interviewees to decide which stories to tell and how to tell them, normalising their experiences, recognising emotional demands and allowing participants to express them. She also hoped to avoid her own assumptions and cover complex sensitive topics. She recorded everything and deleted the material post research. Mothers were given transcriptions and 'the opportunity to contribute to research analysis if they wished' (9) [I wonder how many did].

There was lots of emotion about the diagnosis and she was careful to pause during interviews and let them recover. She also gave some emotional respite. Nevertheless some mothers still reported stress and this produced difficulties for those required to take the lead. Respondents cried and broke down [solemnly recorded in transcripts. Semistructured interviews were less emotional. Respondents sometimes reported that painful memories had been dredged up which was 'unsettling ' [for her] — 'I had not anticipated that the absence of impersonal interview questions… Would magnify my participants' vulnerabilities' (11) and she questioned whether this kind of interview was ethical after all.

The mothers treated her differently — a friend or an informant about provision, a safe space. Some felt empowered. She recommended some specifics such as acquiring a home tutor, and she said she would not have thought of this without the unstructured interview first.

She met lots of ethical dilemmas outside the ethical guidelines of the University and outside feminist methodology. She was worried about just signposting them and engaging in 'fake rapport' with only a limited relationship, keeping her distance while sticking to your own schedule. Other feminist researchers had apparently found the same, the need to deal with requests and cope with their own work, not get too involved. She was faced with additional requests for help beyond the research and did feel ethical responsibility, even if this breached confidentiality and anonymity — she rationalises this by saying that egalitarian goals took a higher priority.

She found it difficult to find a way to use the data to develop resistance and opportunities for social change. Initial thoughts turned on enabling discourses and voicing questions the community is asking, responding to Islam being deeply problematic and stressing instead the positive role that religion can play. She was also keen to explore holistic experiences, how Islam interacts with experiences of being a mother of a child with SEND, how dominant positions interact with subordinate positions — the hope apparently is that experience of advantage and disadvantage can lead to participants being able to 'advocate for a more equitable position' (18).

One particular problem is consanguinity between first cousins, and how religious views may prevent genetic counselling. Research subjects were frustrated with the stigmatisation of consanguinity and apparent links with SEND [but what does the evidence show]. Apparently, male members of families will often restrict information about the risks and subjects were often unaware of the risks, especially of having additional children. Nevertheless reproductive plans can become sites of resistance — against medical experts recommending termination [!]. At least this shows complexity! It is resistance against medicalisation of children.

These mothers are especially prone to medicalisation and stigmatisation because of their cultural practices like marriage to cousins, or possible religious hostility to abortion. These practices may be strategic to strengthen communities. Male family members may be at the forefront, and she found some support. Women may be disadvantaged by these practices, being supervised in terms of their reproductive practice and by being increasingly required to become full-time carers.

Nevertheless mothers also 'actively reconstructed their own narratives' (22). Religion did not stop them seeking medical or educational interventions but provided an alternative lens, helping them become resilient, helping them challenge mother blaming, and even demand equal access for sons and daughters. Some were still vulnerable to patriarchy, but nevertheless 'mothers in my study acted as "agents of change"' (23). Early marriages for girls would be disrupted because the child had SEND [meaning --that would be a good outcome].

[Real ambivalence and weaselling here – SEND is increased by consanguinity but to say so is to medicalise culture and women are fighting terminations. Only nasty male Muslims prevent women from knowing the risks. SEND is actually an asset because it helps fight off early marriage. Are women choosing to have SEND children would she say?]

Unstructured interviewing has its problems because it leaves people emotionally exposed and can disempower participants and reveal insecurities. Researchers 'must be prepared for all consequences',
including triggering trauma (24). Women in different contexts may require more practical forms of assistance [!]. A key strength was in helping to overthrow the stereotype of these women being passive and oppressed and disinterested in their children's education.

So there are no rigid guidelines but if feminists are suitably flexible and can adapt their research methods they can help to make research inclusive and representative and challenge existing educational discourse. [I think the real message is leave well alone].