This is a deeply strange time to have a new peer-reviewed article out. I’ve been on strike for weeks, and otherwise on annual leave, planning a move south (for my new job) which may well be indefinitely postponed. It’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis, nor the fact that the most helpful thing I can do right now is stay put.
The article was originally drafted in 2018, and based on experiences I had during fieldwork and while disseminating my research between 2013 and 2017. With the pandemic upon us, this previous decade feels like deep, distant history. Here in the UK, the true, awful toll of the illness is yet to become apparent; yet cities are beginning to turn silent as we self-isolate, political axioms are turned on their head, and all conversation turns eventually to the virus.
In this context, it’s easy to wonder if any of the work we did a month or more prior could possibly still be relevant. And yet.
My new piece is titled A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy, and it is published in Sociology, the journal of the British Sociological Association. I use my experiences as a trans academic as a case study to talk about the huge inequalities endemic within universities, and how these disproportionately impact those who already experience forms of social marginalisation. My aim is not simply to chronicle the harms of marketisation, transphobia, sexism, and racism, but to also propose a way forward. We need to start thinking and acting more collectively; in addition to workplace organisation and union activity, this is relevant to how we design and implement our studies.
My proposed “methodology” involves bringing questions of solidarity and mutual support to the procedure of research design. Universities have long been bastions of privilege, with mechanisms of exclusion are unthinkingly built into every aspect of academic life. The only way we can possibly open up higher education is through creating systems of support which acknowledge and account for pre-existing inequalities, and these must be embedded within the process of knowledge creation itself.
My article uses the example of suicide within trans communities to illustrate this principle. Suicide ideation and suicide attempts are especially common among trans people. As such, it is highly likely that any given trans academic will either be suicidal, or will have friends who are. Consequently, if trans people are to stand a reasonable chance of surviving within the university, this is something that should be accounted for in research design and funding proposals as well as in wider institutional support structures.
It’s impossible right now to know when and if the world will return to “normal”. I have seen some contend that this cannot be possible given the devastating number of predicted deaths, the shock to our economic and political systems. Others observe that the prevailing social order has survived before, and argue that any emergency measures to support workers who have lost their livelihood and/or increase police powers will inevitably be reversed in the long term.
However, what we do know is that universities have historically been remarkably resiliant – as have the inequalities in our society. Whatever happens next, we must continue to fight for a better world, and that includes within academia.
We can already see this beginning to play out in the UK as universities scramble to shift their activities online. Managers are relying on staff to carry on teaching, conducting research, and undertaking assessment and monitoring activities such as the REF. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to balance working from home with looking after partners, housemates, and/or families, wrestling with IT systems that have been heavily undermined by cuts as shiny new buildings stand empty on our campuses. We cannot possibly expect to carry on as normal.
It is in this context that I invite you to read my new article, as and when you find the time and mental energy. It is one of the most difficult and vulnerable things I have ever written. I am really proud of it. It helped me think through some small ways in which I might change my work patterns and practice of solidarity, as part of a far larger push for change. I hope that in turn, it might help you also.
Update 17 July 2020: the article has now been published in Volume 54, Issue 4 of Sociology, and is also now available free to read on the journal’s website. I have updated the links to reflect this.