My Feminist Research Manifesto

As a PhD student, I study the relationship between feminist groups, legal reform and social change with respect to rape and sexual violence in India. Rather than just focusing on ‘what’ legal reform or social change is, it looks at ‘how’ they are done. My study draws upon and contributes to a burgeoning anthropology of policymaking. The study of policymaking and reform requires an ethnographic approach that is horizontal across the movement and engages stakeholders vertically from powerful state actors to grassroot activists.

My motivation for writing this blog comes from having to constantly explain why ethnography is a useful method for my doctoral research, defending it against critiques that it is not international enough, positivist enough, rigorous enough. I wanted to use this blog as a way to articulate the lessons learned this past year. Building on Sara Ahmed’s idea of a feminist killjoy manifesto, I have developed my own feminist research manifesto to “expose the violence of a patriarchal order,” unearth power dynamics and upend the natural way of doing things.[i] I hope to use these  principles in the field, while researching and writing, and whenever I am asked to explain what I do.

My dissertation is an explicitly feminist research project. Feminist methodology is an interpretivist approach to research. An interpretivist approach begins with the recognition that facts are culturally mediated and socially constructed. Correspondingly, there is no one true perspective, unlike what positivists claim. The aim of such an inquiry is to delineate how shared meanings and power dynamics structure the social world. Using an explicit feminist approach implies three things: 

  • An epistemology of how knowledge is produced from a feminist standpoint.
  • A collection of methods that reflects upon power relations in the field and in academia.
  • A goal of challenging current structures and fostering social change.

Based on my research and experiences, these are the core principles behind my feminist approach to the dissertation: 

Principle 1: Don’t Just Document, Notice

Being a feminist ethnographer starts with a desire to “make everything into something that is questionable.”[ii] To question everything, I will invest time and move beyond a description of events. This necessitates paying attention to events and assemblages across times that could lead to things that might have otherwise been ignored. Through noticing, I aim to highlight the difference between the “story we know” and the “story we need to know.”[iii]

Principle 2: Listen 

A feminist methodology aims to create conversation and discourse with others, not merely about them – it involves speaking to rather than speaking for. In terms of writing a feminist ethnography, I will highlight the words and experiences of the participants and respect their agency.

Principle 3: Be Reflexive 

I will remind myself that I will be embodied and embedded in the field through a multiplicity of forged identities and relationships. Our bodies are ‘tools’ to get to the field and shape the knowledge we gain from the field. Our bodies have cognitive and affective influence on the research we carry out. Our social positions “influence what questions we ask, whom we approach in the field, how we make sense of our fieldwork experience, and how we analyse and report our findings.”[iv]

Principle 4: Care over Power 

I will work to minimize harm in the research process. While the inherent power dynamics of the researcher-researched make building trust difficult, I will focus on creating non-hierarchical relationships where the researcher and the researched invest their time and share experiences. Building an ethic of care provides participants with a safe space for catharsis, self-reflection and self-acknowledgement. Caring also involves actively thinking about the well-being of participants and letting that concern guide the research project.

Principle 5: Galvanize

I aim to serve as an ethnographer-activists or writer-activists in multiple ways:

  • By framing ethnography as a discursive process leading to new ways to see the world and engage with it;
  • By representing the invisible or marginalized, I will narrate threats that are perceived as being outside the traditional ambit of what or who matters;
  • By engaging in ethnographic looping – the practice by which insight from research is fed back into local communities.

Principle 6: Don’t Run away from Emotions 

Dominant approaches to research create a hierarchy between thinking and feeling. A feminist researcher moves beyond the duality of thinking/feeling and intellect/emotion by bringing the role of emotion in research “home to the reader.”[v] I will be aware of  the reflexive process between my emotions and research – emotions influence our research and our research can affect us emotionally. This approach of researching-the-researcher or emotionally engaged research is one where thinking and feeling fuse, and emotional needs of participants and observers are accommodated.

Principle 7: Take Care

Feminist research foregrounds the impact being in the field can have for the researcher. Risks faced in the field are filtered through each ethnographer’s positionality. Additionally, when working on issues of violence, conflict or inequalities can have lingering effects for a researcher. Awareness of the emotional toll of research is necessary to minimizing secondary trauma and preventing burnout. Taking care of oneself is akin to safety announcements on airplanes about oxygen masks – you have you put yours on before you can help someone else. I realize that if I want my research to have an impact on the lives of the marginalised and disenfranchised, I must ensure I am in the best possible position to do so and this involves taking care of myself. 

My manifesto is a work in progress. It is constantly evolving based on the literature I read and the research I undertake. Do you have any principles in mind for your research? To get you thinking about feminist and interpretivist research, here are some reading recommendations:

  1. Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1996.
  2. Campbell, Rebecca. Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  3. Davis, Dána-Ain, and Craven, Christa. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. 2016.
  4. Hanson, Rebecca, and Patricia Richards. Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2019.
  5. Lewin, Ellen, and Silverstein, Leni M. Mapping Feminist Anthropology in the Twenty-first Century. 2016.
  6. Naples, Nancy. Feminism and Method: Ethnography, Discourse Analysis and Activist Research. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  7. Pachirat, Timothy. Among Wolves: Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power. New York City: Routledge, 2018.
  8. Rosaldo, Renato. The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014.
  9. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2015.

Written by: Dipali Anumol, PhD Candidate, F19

[i] According to Ahmed, a manifesto is “a statement of principle,” “a mission statement,” “a declaration of intent” and “to make manifest.” A manifesto is grounded in what exists but aims to cause a disturbance by rendering a new order of ideas. 

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

[ii] Ahmed, 2017, p2. 

[iii] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2015, p18.

[iv] Naples, Nancy. Feminism and Method: Ethnography, Discourse Analysis and Activist Research. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[v] Rosaldo, Renato. The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014, p105.