Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Reflections on “Forgotten Bodies”

To use the words of someone I met there, the Forgotten Bodies conference was affirming, to see that there are other postgrads working on feminist and gender studies research. Of course I knew they existed, but something about sitting down this morning made me remember it, like I'd forgotten while being in a department that centres on scientific and professional research.

I also remembered that I didn't need to preach to the converted about feminist theory, but by then I had already written my paper with a huge theories section, and I couldn't find easy bits to cut out. By leaving it in I then ran out of time for the methods section and rushed it, and that was probably the most interesting or different part of the paper. I had a few people tell me that my work was interesting and a good paper that gave a different perspective to the session. I had felt a bit like I wouldn't fit or that people wouldn't be interested because it was a session on “Fat” and the other two speakers were doing eating disorders and the place of fat bodies in society. Not sure I successfully answered the questions I got at the end either, with my rambling.

Other interesting presentations were Vikki Chalkin's work on queer femininity using an auto-ethnography, for she talked about putting the researcher at the heart of the research alongside the participants, for her embodiment and knowledge must be recognised in the production of research. She also talked about being marginalised in her Media department for being too creative and not doing proper research, and marginalised in Arts for being too theoretical, which I could sort of identify with because I feel like I am not doing the sort of work that my department expects, that they think of when they think pedagogy. I don't think I'm doing the sort of work I would think of if I thought of pedagogy! Results and recommendations and things like that. I'm quite cognizant of the wishes of the teachers at school at have a report that gives them some answers to the questions they have hinted at during my data collection, and I think of how I can do this report from my data. It occasionally influences the questions I ask of the students.

But, nice to see the world of gender studies and arts beyond my own department. Yesterday I went to a seminar by a social science student on learning in communities of practice, very interesting and slightly with relevance to my methods. And I was interviewed recently for a project on Third Wave feminists so it's a bit of a week for seeing other worlds, actually. I think my responses reflected on, as I have said here, the position I am in as an academic.

Visual ethnography part 2

A couple of weeks ago I did my first day in the city as a visual ethnographer trying to record something of the visual cultures that young people in the city might access and engage with. So far it's just experimental seeing what I come up with. The other idea was to bring my photos taken in the local communities to the interviews so that the young people can respond to them. I'm kicking myself however because I've only done one day in the city centre, and nothing in the more local areas or parks, although I had planned to. Just didn't get the chance, or the interviews have come up very fast and I didn't realise they are tomorrow. There's a chance I might do another round of interviews any way (partly because I have so many questions to ask the students and partly because a third of them have still not returned their cameras) so maybe I can do it then. Although it'll be still be ok to do the ethnography without the elicitation in the interviews, it'll just be my analysis and not the students' feedback.

The best thing about the first day in the city was going round the charity shops when I got bored of just walking round and round! They were pretty good for books. I picked up three books which all have a link to my research – or that's how I justified it, any way ;)

I also have a bit of the thing about only reading/buying books by women authors lately.

One is another novel by Anita Diamant, I just read her The Red Tent which was an amazing look at pre-monotheistic “Middle East” women's culture and society. Although women and men seemed to be separate then, women were largely left to themselves and ran their lives as they wished – childbirth, raising children, celebrating womanhood. It made the horrible ideas that monotheistic religions have had about women really stick out. I really enjoyed the book because it showed that women have not always been subordinate, passive objects in sexual relationships. In many ways the book hints that Judaism and Christianity were to blame for women's disappearance from public life. Anyway so the new book I got by Diamant is called The Last Days of Dogtown which I think has themes of women in “male” roles, this one set in 19th C America.

The next book I picked up is by Margaret Forster – I've never read any of her work before. This one is called The Memory Box and from the back it was quite clear that it portrays the women characters as having complex lives, not binaristic good/bad mother/whore stuff as happens so often. So that appealed to me, obviously.

The third novel was appealing not for strong women characters but for its seemingly links to things I have been reading/thinking about my own research – that cities shape the people who live there and people shape the cities where they live, it said on the back. It's called Marlene Dietrich Lived Here and looks at post-war Berlin trying to recover it's sense of self, and the people there trying to regain theirs. Quite topical while I am researching the importance of place to embodiment.

I also read a great historical novel recently called Company of Liars set during the plague. Slightly trashy but riveting, so I ordered the author's (Karen Maitland) other novel.

Time to get back to the proper reading...

Visual ethnography part 1

Recently I began the visual ethnography part of my data collection, where I become a participant observer of some of the visual cultures accessed by the young people I am working with in school. Based on what they tell me of the places and activities they engage in, I am developing or enhancing the photo and image collection I have asked the young people to do, by also taking and collecting some of my own images that I find in the areas of Leicester or media/online visual cultures that the young people use. Partly this was a practical issue based on previous experiences of students not bringing back many photos, so a sort of insurance policy in the event of having nothing to work with, but I can't just put that in my methodology so I'm trying to think of the best way to explain why I am also taking photos – after all, I am not a 14 year old, nor a resident of the city, so why would the ways that I view and experience the city be important?

Sarah Pink in her Doing Sensory Ethnography argues that ethnographers can use the senses as a way to access the sensory experiences and perceptions of participants in a field, so that we can begin to imagine some of the ways in which senses provide meanings and experiences for the participants. Or something. Also, given that photo elicitation will be heavily used in the second interviews, any photos I bring still depend on the responses of the young people to them. This means too that I am not sure whether I need to get all my ethnography done before the second interviews, or whether I can continue afterwards, despite getting no further responses from young people. If so, I have this week and maybe two days next week in which to get it all done, visiting a few different places in Leicester with my camera and notebook.

Any way, so the first day of ethnography. I went round two of the major shopping areas in the city. The big thing that struck me was a sense of feeling drab in my own clothes and needing to buy new things! I suppose that is the point of shops, to make you want to buy. But living in a little village where I rarely visit malls like this, I don't often get that feeling. I wonder whether young people who maybe got to town frequently with their friends also experience the physical culture of the shopping mall in the same way. This is only partly relevant to my study but I think it's important to know whether young people feel pressures on their bodies and appearances, and this might have an impact on the way they engage with PE and physical activity. How to tap into that in interviews, might be tricky. Need some advice on that.

Recently at the Forgotten Bodies conference in Exeter I asked how Fat Studies etc. can offer alternative ways of valuing bodies in PE and other school physical cultures? What can PE learn from advocates of non-normative bodies in order to offer more empowering and inclusive experiences and learning environments? ...