She thinks she is a foundationalist thinker, in the sense that she mainly thinks our knowledge emerges from building blocks. Hence, she thinks the emergence of new knowledge often involves looking at data differently, or asking different questions.
For instance, regarding domestic violence - a main area of her research – she thinks that researchers including herself tended to totalise the violent man’s identity: they didn’t see him as anything other than a violent man. So interviews were rather pre-empted: women were asked about the effects of violence upon them, their children, and so forth. Women would mainly talk about this construct of the violent man; other aspects would or might come out in small ‘asides’ that she (Donna) didn’t pick up on or pay attention to. Whereas if you did an interview not just focused on domestic violence, and asked the woman to talk about her life and her relationship with the man, it became clear that his identity appeared as much more split to the woman than it ever was to the researcher. The woman fundamentally saw the man differently to the researcher.
This is an example of how emergent material comes from what she never thought to ask before: it comes from ‘stepping outside’, looking more reflexively, rather than the data not being there. But she thinks too that this ‘stepping outside’ can be blocked from happening, since on some level, you’re always looking to build up your theoretical understanding or perspective. We develop this and hang on to it, and it can be threatened by looking outside the usual.
She also thinks about emergence happening in terms of the intersection of issues. She’s currently developing a project with a colleague that looks at women, work and chronic illness. Chronic illness has always been understood in a quite medicalised way, in terms of a sociology of health paradigm; the ‘women in work’ issue has set quite separately from that. So they’re interested in putting chronic illness in third place, rather than up front, and looking at how the illness gets managed. So this is about identity again. This isn’t dismissing the seriousness of chronic illness, but rather not identifying a person as a person with a chronic illness – it’s looking at illness as something a woman manages, and that is only one aspect of their life rather than the defining aspect.
So new understanding – and new theoretical ways of understanding an issue – she thinks can emerge from hints in the data that aren’t picked up for a while, from looking at data differently, and also through intersection: people from different fields will ask new questions.
Frances: is there a sense that things emerge ‘out there in the world’, in our social life, that don’t have to do with our perspective?
Donna: Perhaps. One possible example of this that she’s currently grappling with is ICT and its impact upon sexual identity. She did some research earlier, asking young women (adolescents) about sexual coercion by young men, and got unexpected answers – pressures for instance to engage in far more ‘explicit’ kinds of sexual acts. It seems that relatively easy access to explicit material – far more is more easily accessible now than say twenty years ago - via ICT had really changed the things young men were asking young women to do. So this flags up two issues relating to ICT and its impact upon sexuality and exploitation of women. First, how ICT ‘contributes’ to sex education, in terms of how much information young people get, when they get it, and what they think is acceptable. And second, the implications of this for young women in intimate relationships with these young men. Young men watching a pornographic video may understand that the story in it is inaccurate, but may see the sex acts in it as realistic, or possible – in a way that they would not have seen before – and that the way women act in those films is realistic.
So – in terms of ICT and its impact upon sexual identity: is this a new means to the same end, or something new? Does ICT just expand the range of ways in which women can be sexually exploited, or violence against women can be perpetrated (i.e. more of the same pressure upon women to engage in sexual activity, though involving younger women and more women because certain pressures are now more frequent)? Or is this something beyond pressure - are certain expectations being normalised, i.e. women can be expected to engage in more ‘explicit’ types of sexual practices in a way they would not have been 20 or 30 years ago? And if we look at adult men in existing relationships, ICT can be used to cyber-stalk, and it greatly enhances the capacity to put people under surveillance. For instance, men can use mobile phones to check who women have been contacting and who has contacted them.
Frances: How would you distinguish between changes that are more of the same vs. something new?
Donna: That’s where we are now – wanting to undertake research in this area to address this issue.
Frances: And in social science terms, the development of the theory is the identification of something new?
One thing Donna is also interested in re. the use of ICT is the use of a virtual self and non-virtual self. People can create a virtual identity online [in chat rooms, etc.], which can be completely different to who they ‘truly’ are. In domestic violence, one of the major indicators of violence is sexual jealousy – and this can extend to (in one case) a husband’s jealousy of what he thought was his wife’s virtual (i.e. online) affairs/relationships with other men, which to the husband was as bad as actual affairs. Virtual identities are an emergent phenomenon, she thinks, in that you couldn’t do this without the technology – it’s a truly new phenomenon in social life, not an adaptation or alteration of something that already existed.
The question of whether health is in any way something that emerges, reminds her of older sociological work (Goffman) about disease as a ‘career’/identity. She thinks sometimes that in a current wish to be inclusive, there’s a potential for researchers to define people as a service user or a carer – to totalise their identity through efforts to engage them in research. She doesn’t want to totalise them. But she’s also aware of how disease can be prioritised, in terms of daily routines, things people do as part of dealing with their illness – so that disease is part of a person’s identity but in ways that are normalised, so much a routine part of life that ideas aren’t even articulated. Though this also changes over time, and with changes of circumstance, such as with move from school to employment, for instance, or with advancing years. And she wants to explore this too in her project on women, work and chronic illness – how people accommodate their health, or not.
There’s the example of a friend’s daughter who has a serious auto-immune condition. She’ll train as a teacher; her health wouldn’t allow her to do a full-time job, but she’s planning to be a supply/relief teacher so that on the day, she could decide whether she’s fit to work or not. So this is an example of plans driven by her health. This decision about work, Donna thinks, probably has improved the daughter’s health by reducing her anxiety. She doesn’t have to worry about her ability to manage a full-time job; she’s not fully healthy, but is active to the extent she can.
These kinds of issues/accommodations, and the impact of illness (including changes in or onset of disease, unpredictable disease – and is there a point at which it might be economically more viable not to work, and to go on benefits instead?), at various stages of life and disease and in various life circumstances, are what Donna wants to explore in the project.