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September 05, 2005

The research process

This chapter aims to make transparent the processes involved in knowledge production within my research. In considering issues of research design, data analysis, epistemology, power and ethics, I aim to show their interrelationship and the way in which the research process and method of analysis forms an intrinsic component of knowledge production. As Skeggs argues, knowledge is not formulated in a void and legitimated by an abstract, disembodied ‘knower’, but rather is constructed, interpreted by specific researchers positioned within particular structures of power and privilege:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (1997: 17).

In this chapter we will examine the background to the study, the research design and method of data analysis employed in my research. Having outlined the basic choices I made in conducting this research, I will discuss the methodological and epistemological consequences of these choices, showing the way in which they shaped my findings and the knowledge that was produced.

4.1 Background and sample
My own interest in the area of men and unemployment was piqued as a result of my part-time job as an administrative clerk for a project called ‘Grey Panther’ offered by the Office of Part-Time Education (OPTED) at Leeds University. This project was established in June 2004, and aims to help males aged 45+ who have been unemployed for over six months to undertake a vocationally-relevant course of study comprising discussion sessions, group exercises, ‘soft skills’ sessions such as CV-writing or interview techniques, and work placement. Through my involvement in the ‘Panther’ project from an early stage, which involved speaking to potential beneficiaries about their experiences of unemployment, I became aware of some of issues facing unemployed older men on an everyday, lived basis.

The participants of my research were eight white, unemployed men aged between 45 and 60 from the Yorkshire and Humberside region (mostly Leeds area), who were attending a week-long ‘Panther project’ ‘summer school’ in June 2005. While some participants had heard about the programme through Job Centre Plus advisors, others had seen the course advertised in the local press, or heard about it by word-of-mouth. As such, participants tended to be fairly motivated to attend, viewing the scheme as an aid rather than an imposition. Unlike similar training courses offered in conjunction with Job Centre Plus, the ‘Panther’ course is not mandatory or linked to benefit receipt. The facilitators on this particular course created a safe space for the group to vent their feelings of anger and outrage with regard to their unemployed position.

Although they shared various commonalities (their age, ethnicity, gender and the fact they were all long-term unemployed), the group was far from homogeneous, with the result that they had very varied responses to my questions. The participants came from a variety of class and educational positionings, which meant they had access to varying amounts of cultural, social and educational capital. Three of the men were linked with Job Centre Plus and depended on this for benefit receipt. These dimensions of difference affected their perceptions and representations of experiences and situations and meant that often openly challenged other participants’ interpretations.

4.2 Research design
I initially conducted participant observation over the course of the one-week summer programme with the eight men described above. This gave me an initial understanding of some of the issues and topics that were pertinent to them. I followed this up with a focus group, as I felt the topic was particularly suited to interaction in a group context. As I was known to and had built sufficient trust amongst the members of the group, I introduced my research to them at the end of the week-long summer programme, and asked them if they would be willing to be involved in a recorded focus-group discussion at a later date. The ‘Panther’ project manager helped me to set up a mutually convenient date and booked a seminar room at the university for this purpose.

As Tonkiss (2004) suggests, using a focus group enabled me to elicit information not easily observable ‘in the field’ in order to explore the men’s experiences of unemployment in greater depth. My participant observation and involvement in the ‘Panther project’ as an administrative assistant was useful in formulating my research questions and to inform the focus group discussion guide. The discussion guide was devised in a logical order, so that 'warm up' questions were placed at the beginning and built up to the more important and complex questions towards the end (appendix 1).

The focus group took place on the 8th July 2005 in a seminar room at Leeds University, lasting approximately two and a half hours with two fifteen minute breaks. Seven of the eight original group members were present (one was unable to attend). Before the discussion I outlined the broad research aims, reiterated my position on confidentiality and anonymity, and checked that it was okay to record the discussion. I also encouraged them to express their views as freely as possible by stressing that there are 'no right or wrong answers'. I recorded the discussion with a Dictaphone and made fieldwork notes of my general impressions of the discussion.

The focus group was keen and lively, and I found that I did not need to prompt much to elicit the kind of information I required. Indeed, the discussion proceeded quite naturally along the lines of themes I had envisaged when writing the topic guide. The most difficult part for me was ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to express themselves. Guiding, stimulating and facilitating the discussion was crucial to the success of the focus group. Providing interesting material for research and ensuring all participants were sufficiently as ease to disclose occasionally quite private info was also important.

After the focus group I transcribed the tapes, a process that was useful for giving me an overall impression of the discussion and the emergent themes and discourses. However, the quality of the recordings, volume of the participants’ voices and interruptions meant that sometimes I was unable to understand comments or attribute them to a particular person.

4.3 Doing research with a friendship group
The participants all had a significant relationship to the research topic , as they were all long-term unemployed and had recently participated in the ‘Grey Panther’ summer project at Leeds University. Although they were not known to each other at the beginning of the summer project when I conducted my initial participant observation, by the time I carried out my focus group they had spent a considerable amount of time together in an official capacity on the course, and had begun to formulate friendship groups and to meet socially outside the formal context of the project. Tonkiss (2004: 201–2) suggests that this might create problems in terms of established relations of power, disagreement or consensus being brought into the research setting. Certainly, assertive voices tended to dominate and direct the group discussion, and it was sometimes difficult to ensure that all participants had equal opportunity to express their views.

However, I would argue that familiarity could also be seen as an advantage with this particular group. Their friendship allowed their differences in opinions and interpretations to be discussed openly, as they knew each other sufficiently to express disagreement and to disclose quite private information. The fact that they had common experiences meant that as a group they were able to give specific examples of events that they all knew about. The friendship dynamics of the group, the subject of the research, the familiar setting, and the fact that I was known to them and had already build up a friendly rapport with them through my work on the project, were all factors that enabled the focus group to be successful. It was possible for the participants to feel at ease ‘in the familiar’, meaning that they were keen, lively and open in their interaction with me and the other group members.

4.4 Discourse analysis
Because of the interactive nature of the focus group data, I analysed the transcripts using discourse analysis, a process that is concerned ‘with how language is used to create and secure meanings, how competing accounts are negotiated and how speakers draw on certain interpretive repertoires in making their arguments within a given discursive context’ (Tonkiss 2004: 2050). I understand a discourse to refer to a particular set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, narratives and statements that together present a particular version of events (Burr 1995: 48). Unemployment, for example, is represented in various and often conflicting ways by different sources e.g. the media, government, people who are unemployed etc. The knowledge and experiences voiced by the men were always mediated through the discourses available to them to interpret and understand their situation.

Furthermore, discursive constructions are linked to the shaping of social institutions and practices of social regulation. Foucault (1984), for example, argues for a theoretical understanding of discourse as a realm in which institutions, norms, subjectivity and social practices (such as enactments of masculinity, gender roles etc.) are constituted and naturalised. We saw an example of this in the literature review with McVittie et al’s study (2003), which found employers employed egalitarian discourses to mask and legitimise age discrimination. In employing discourse analysis as a mode of analysis I aim to show how meanings are constructed around work, unemployment and masculinities, and examine how the men positioned themselves to accept or resist particular representations of their experience.

I began by searching for recurrent themes in the transcripts, a search which was partly guided by the findings of existing research outlined in the literature review and partly a result of my own impressions of the discussion. I colour-coded the transcripts into approximately ten broad themes that were frequently spoken about, for example ‘public life’, ‘education’ and ‘work’. These themes not only fed back into the initial research questions, but also modified them to create new questions and topics. Having established the main themes of the discussion, I conducted a close critical reading of these. I identified the different ways in which a particular theme was talked about and constructed, looking at the type of language employed, rhetorical devices and images that fed into particular discourses. For example, I examined the ways in which particular versions of masculinity were sustained through specific discourses endorsing the notion of the ‘public man’ and ‘provider’ / ‘breadwinner’. I also tried to understand how the men resisted discourses that positioned them as helpless, or employed particular discourses in order to attempt to renegotiate their masculine identities.

Crucially, the different backgrounds and positionings of the participants meant that they were able to access certain discourses more easily than others. For example, one member of the group was familiar with and well-versed in pro-feminist discourses, meaning that he challenged other participants about their understandings and interpretations of gender and work. Rather than confusing my interpretation of the data, I deliberately looked for patterns of variation and contradiction in the transcripts, examining the ways in which the men attempted to reconcile conflicting ideas.

4.5 Methodological and epistemological issues
My methods of data collection and analysis allowed me to gain insight from a variety of perspectives, providing the flexibility to pursue topics arising through previous discussion. Most importantly, these methods captured the interactive quality of the group and the way in which they were keen to explore social and cultural meanings, knowledges and discourses surrounding their experiences of unemployment. Using a focus group meant that I was able to examine the way in which the men defined and positioned themselves in relation to public discourses surrounding unemployment, accepting particular discourses and resisting others.

An important methodological assumption underpinning my choice of methods and mode of analysis is the idea that opinions, attitudes and accounts are socially produced and shaped through interaction with others. The group context of my research was important for exploring the way in which the men articulated and justified their ideas in relation to others, placing the emphasis on social interaction and collective meanings:

[Focus groups] are not simply a means of interviewing several people at the same time; rather they are concerned to explore the formation and negotiation of accounts within a group context, how people define, discuss and contest issues through social interaction (Tonkiss 2004: 194).

Rather than assuming that there is a tangible social ‘reality’ that can be accessed and ‘objectively’ presented through neutral, colourless language, I wanted to show how the men used language to (re)present their accounts of the social world. I thus adhered to the viewpoint that ‘language is both active and functional in shaping and reproducing social relations, identities and ideas’ (Tonkiss 1998: 248), regarding language as an inherently social practice which actively orders and shapes the way in which the men interpreted their experiences of unemployment. Far from viewing language as speaking its ‘truth’ in a straightforward referential way, it is subject to varying interpretations and put to different uses depending on context and its potential for explanatory power (Skeggs 1997: 26).

As such, knowledge is not only context-dependent but also necessarily partial, with the result that interview data are ‘situated’ and bound to the research situation in which they were collected. This has methodological implications in terms of the generalisability of my research findings, which cannot be viewed as representative of the discourses expressed by other unemployed men outside the context of the focus group. As Gibbs (1997) argues, while focus groups may aim to reproduce the interactive aspect of naturally occurring social processes, they are not inherently naturally occurring interactions, offering no guarantee of what people say or how they interact outside the research context. Furthermore, as Skeggs points out, the transcription of spoken utterances and experiences into written format inevitably fails to capture the subtleties of expression, nuance and feeling (Skeggs 1997: 28).

4.6 Power and ethics in the research process
The partiality of representation described above has ethical as well as epistemological implications. In adopting a poststructuralist approach which emphasises discourses, multiple interpretations and the constructed nature of experience, I do not anticipate my analysis of the data to perfectly match the interpretations of my participants. As research and writer, I had the ultimate power of production and explanation, selecting the words that were used and subjecting them to my own interpretations. However, I tried to avoid othering and mis-recognition in the research, placing the men’s voices at the centre of my research wherever possible. I would argue that although the men were used for purposes of research, they were nevertheless active agents who were not prepared to be exploited, providing perceptive and challenging insights into their experiences.

In one sense I was in a position of power as moderator because I could decide which topics were discussed; however, the men also had clear ideas about what was relevant and important to them. I encouraged flexibility in the discussion to allow the emergence of themes I hadn’t previously considered. Furthermore, the men’s experiences of the focus group discussion seemed positive insofar as they communicated them to me, providing a safe but challenging environment to discuss topics that were important to their lives. They told me that the session had represented a chance to ‘sound off’ confidentially amongst other people who understood their position. As Gibbs (1997) argues ‘if [a focus group] works well, trust develops and the group may explore solutions to a particular problem as a unit, rather than as individuals’. In this way, the focus group appeared to provide a potential source of support and empowerment for the men.


May 07, 2005

Notes on Skeggs chapter

Follow-up to Thoughts on an essay from L'Etrangère

Q. How has the author addressed questions of epistemology, power/ethics and research design in the research process?

Beverley Skeggs - Formations of Class and Gender Becoming Respectable (Sage: 1997)
Notes on Chapter 2. Respectable Knowledge: Experience and Interpretation (pp. 17–40)

Methodology / Design
feminist ethnography in the form of a longitudinal study (over 11 years) – 'ethnography by default':

It is a feminist account of doing feminist research which engages with debates in feminist methodology and epistemology (Skeggs 1995: 17)

Involved:

  • intensive participant observation
  • using information relating to national/local economy, housing, poverty, education stats to 'map' details of 'the general economic and cultural framework in which the women were located, producing a geography of their positionings and possibilities' (ibid: 21)
  • life history – tracing the trajectories of women through the education system – and use of biography to construct a case-file for each of them
  • formal / informal interviews and meetings with family members, friends, partners, college teachers (btw what IS Skeggs 1994b – find out)

Methodology = historical materialism

Participants: initially women Skeggs was teaching on a Community Care course in an FE college… expanded to 83 women on 3 different caring courses

Research question 1: 'Why do women, who are clearly not just passive victims of some ideological conspiracy, consent to a system of class and gender oppression which appears to offer few rewards and little benefit?'
As the research progressed it entered into different theoretical debates, posed various questions and met with problems which were products of the time, problems that were 'historically contingent and located' (ibid: 22).

For Skeggs, issues centred on 'power relations and how to avoid constructing the research as object or other' (ibid: 23). The ethnography was politically-motivated 'to provide a space for the articulations and experiences of the marginalized' (ibid: 23). Marcus (1986) offers a critique of this notion of 'ethnographer as midwife' – delivering and articulating that which is expressed as vernacular in working-class lives – yet Skeggs argues that 'this provision of representational space' for those marginalised, pathologised and othered is important (Skeggs 1995: 23).

The theoretical framework was determined by its explanatory power but was continually modified through a dialectical relationship with participants:

I was mostly attracted to Marxist feminism for its explanatory power and its vocabulary of anger and injustice: it addressed concerns in my life and the women's and as the research progressed I found other theories such as post-structuralism, Bourdieu and Black feminism enabled sense to be made of the micropolitics of power I was experiencing and documenting' (ibid: 23).
knowledge becomes more than just a matter of power, normalization and legitimation because only some theories work (ibid: 24).
Theories are not relative: some have practical adequacy in relation to their subjects / objects of study (ibid: 24).

Representation and interpretation
Skeggs recognises the partiality of her account of feminist ethnography and the processes it involves, arguing that knowledge is not formed in a void but rather is dependent upon one's positioning within structures of class and privilege, and points to the dangers of disregarding researcher location (and correspondingly his/her access to different forms of capital) in the research process:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (ibid: 17).

Skeggs argues that feminist researchers are often guilty of ignoring the process through which 'experience' is interpreted and represented, in their bid to prioritise experience:

Representations are interpretations. Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation (ibid: 28).

Yet Skeggs shows awareness of her own role within the research process in terms of selection and interpretation: 'it was me who made decisions about what I thought was worth knowing about' (ibid: 28, my italics). She acknowledges the unavoidable loss of information – of expressions, nuances, feelings and embodiment in the research – things she claims to be 'unrepresentable' when transcribing experience into written utterances.

This partiality of representation has both epistemological and ethical implications. In considering what it means to validate someone else's experiences, Skeggs adopts a poststructuralist approach which deems that knowledge is always mediated through the discourses available to us to interpret and understand our experiences. This means that the interpretations of the participants are sometimes at odds with Skeggs' own analysis, a result of differing contextual positions in relation to discourses of knowing and experiences of speaking (ibid: 29). This is a question of ethics and epistemic responsibility since as writer, Skeggs has the ultimate power of production, simultaneously seeking to produce interpretations that are 'vigilant, responsible and critical', consulting the women rather than claiming to be 'the absolute knower of others' (ibid: 30). In this way she creates a space both for her own voice as researcher and the voices of her participants, striving for an open dialogic relationship, but nevertheless retains ultimate responsibility for interpretation:

Rather than change my analysis to fit the analysis of the women of the research, which has been suggested by some feminist researchers, I want to make a claim for using the interpretations produced through dialogue, but over which I have ultimate responsibility and which are generated in relation to the research questions I investigated. I discussed my ideas and interpretations with them and they would challenge, contradict, confirm, etc. This would enable me to reassess my speculations and frameworks, sometimes leading to modification, abandonment, but also to reassertion (ibid: 30).

For example, although the women reject a class-based analysis of their positioning, Skeggs maintains this as an explanatory framework for her findings. Even though she sometimes refuses the interpretations offered to her by her participants (rather constructing new theories to explain their responses e.g. chapter 5), simultaneously she strives to be both accountable and responsible. She cites Code (1987, 1988) who argues that 'responsible knowers look for the fullest possible explanations to understand the situation at hand; they recognize their implicatedness in the production of knowledge and claim responsibility for it (rather than claiming it magically produced' (ibid: 30). She therefore produces her own interpretations, but does so in a highly self-reflexive way through which she is acutely aware of the various types of interpretations with which she is engaged – revealing rather than concealing their places, values, functions, appropriateness and purposes (ibid: 31).

At times, however, she acknowledges a 'lapse in reflexivity' in which she maps her own frameworks on to the experiences of the women without listening to their explanations, a failing she attributes to a desire to impose order on an otherwise messy research process. She points out that traditional approaches to handling large amounts of research information – transcripts, notes and tapes – impose 'a greater homogeneity than I was experiencing' in its search for thematic coherence (ibid: 32). Instead she emphasises contradictions and differences in her findings, not only noting the disparity between words and deeds, but also by stressing the way in which contradictions may be held together on an everyday, lived basis.

Searching for coherence is an impossibility, an ideal and a fantasy (ibid: 32).

Self-reflexivity / positioning of researcher
Recognising that knowledge products are deeply embedded within disciplinary practices linked closely to other theoretical and political debates, Skeggs attempts to unpack the processes involved in reaching methodological decisions. This involves a great deal of self-reflexivity (c.f. Bourdieu?) in analysing what it means to be a feminist researcher and examining how her own positioning impacts upon the research she undertakes. She does not accept a straightforward relationship between ontology and epistemology, however, but rather claims that although we are positioned within a particular location, this does not determine our thoughts in an uncomplicated linear cause-effect way.

I continually recognize how my locatedness informed methodological decisions and ultimately the final product (ibid: 17).
Researchers are located and positioned in many different ways: history, nation, gender, sexuality, class, race, age, and so on. We are located in the economic, social and cultural relations which we study. These positions inform our access to institutional organizations such as education and employment. They also inform access to discourses and positions of conceivability, what we can envisage and what we perceive to be possible (ibid: 18).
In drawing attention to classifications and positionings I am not arguing for a direct correspondence between being and knowing, rather, that to ignore the location within structures of privilege and power relations as a condition of knowledge production, which includes the designation of objects and the conversion of cultural into symbolic capital of certain groups, means that what we receive as knowledge is always partial and always in the interests of particular groups (ibid: 20).
Epistemic responsibility involves recognizing our desires, power and implicatedness in the different practices we occupy (ibid: 38).

Skeggs appears acutely aware of her own positioning in relation to the women throughout the study – 'a process of connection and disconnection: of partial, full and non-connections' (ibid: 34) – a positioning that changed and was constantly changing. Because of her similarity in class background, she claims to feel 'less like a class tourist who voyeuristically explores the differences of the other' (ibid: 35). Skeggs had to deal with feelings of guilt, fraudulence and a sense that she did not belong as a result of her newly acquired privileges, writing of 'a sense of physical and metaphorical escape' each time she left an interview in the later research stages. In this way she is never able to achieve Kuhn's (1982) 'passionate detachment', though through time is able to establish more distance.

I experienced my position as privileged researcher, itself a visible acknowledgement of class transition, as deeply disturbing, generating an uncertainty…[missing words on my copy]... which in turn influenced the research production by injecting tension, a result of my projected anxiety, into our relationships (ibid: 35–6).

Nevertheless, this dual positioning offers dual benefits for the purposes of the research, as Skeggs is able to break down the traditional distinction between knower-known and the process of class normalisation. She depicts herself as Deleuze's (1986) 'nomadic subject', both engaging with the women from a position of shared identity but simultaneously subjecting herself to potential changes from that encounter.

Power and privilege - legitimating knowledge
Skeggs outlines the way in which knowledge has traditionally placed a role in the (re)production of power and legitimacy. She criticises the conventional positivistic notion that epistemology is free of values, location and context, an abstract form of theorising detached from those who produce knowledge output (who therefore view themselves as exempt from responsibility). She also discusses the normalising processes through which subjects become knowers, objectifying 'others' (objects to be 'known') through their deviation from the 'norm' (NB Skeggs does not explicitly refer to Foucault here, but his ideas re: normalisation and objectification appear to be relevant):

Certain knowledges are normalized, authorized and legitimated; only certain groups are seen to be respectable, to be worthy objects or subjects of knowledge (ibid: 18)

This of course raises ethical issues for Skeggs in her own research, who claims to be have been made 'continually aware of the ease with which those researched can be constructed as objects of knowledge without agency and volition' (ibid: 19). Paradoxically, her initial interest in the group of white, working-class women arose from her own class background and feeling herself to be 'a misrepresented object of sociological and feminist knowledge' (p. 19), but at the same time she acknowledges 'the pressures, seductions and ease by which rational knowledge can be applied' and the need to continually resist this temptation.

Skeggs also warns against interpreting the working-class women's practices from a position of privilege, arguing that even feminist theory is not exempt from 'the tacit and normalizing effect in knowledge [that] operates by taking one group's experiences and assuming these to be paradigmatic of all' (p.19). In other words, feminist methodologists tend to occupy a position of privilege – to be white, western and middle-class – and it is these positions that specify the agenda for what is to be 'known' in the name of feminist theory:

We always need to know in whose interests [knowledge] has been produced and whose interests are represented by it (ibid: 20).

Skeggs criticises her own research for the absence of a developed critique on race, a result of her normalisation in the production of knowledge during the early stages of the research (ibid: 36). Although race informs her theoretical analysis to a certain extent, the language of black feminist writers providing the inspiration and legitimation for her sense of class-based alienation and sense of outrage, she stresses that it is not studied in itself as a production category. She asks the question:

If, as researchers, we are in a position to contribute to knowledge normalization does this mean we also have the power to legitimate? (ibid: 37)

In other words, how do feminist researchers validate the experiences of women? And in turn, which institutional positions and relations of power limit or enable us to do so? Skeggs argues that firstly feminism itself is not sufficiently established amongst the legitimators of knowledge to be an authorising discourse. Secondly, even if she does have the power to legitimate the experiences of the women, does this have a transformative impact in any concrete or materialist sense?

What role experience?
Skeggs argues that many concepts in feminist theory develop from 'partial experiential descriptions' e.g. motherhood. Again, however, these experiences evolve within power relations in the interests of specific groups and are invested in by other groups, which in turn gives experiential value to specific representations that cannot be applied to all women as a homogenous group (c.f. chapter 6 for a illustration of this point). The representational challenges through which knowledge becomes situated therefore develop from:

…interrogating the production of categories, their applicability, the experiences of them and from assessing their explanatory adequacy for different groups of women in different relations of power at historically specific times and places (ibid: 21)

While feminism, in its earliest forms, attempted to 'reclaim, validate and provide space for women's experiences', in doing so it prompted a battle over whose experiences count as knowledge (Skeggs 1995: 24). De Lauretis (1988) argues that experience is the foundation of feminism, in that feminism developed as women began talking to each other about their experiences, feminist theory providing a means of understanding and interpreting these articulations, which in turn prompted the formulation of a 'new way of seeing' that could be used to 'reinterpret prior experiences' (ibid: 25). Thus the development of feminist theory was informted through a dialectical process, an attempt to challenge descriptions / classifications / universalist assumptions made from the descriptors of male experience and 'objective' knowledge. This gave rise to a specific institutional space in the academy which contained its own legitimation and enabled a whole body of feminist theorising that was not dependent on approval from male stream knowledge sources.

Feminist standpoint epistemology – this hinges on the claim that 'all knowledge springs from experience and that women's experience carries with it special knowledge and that this knowledge is necessary to challenge oppression' (ibid: 25) c.f. Hartsock, Rose, Harding, Jagger. In other words, the experience of oppression is said to give rise to particular knowledges, and for theorists adopting a strong standpoint position (e.g. Harding 1991), these knowledges are seen as epistemologically privileged.

Women's subordinate status means that, unlike men, women do not have a clear interest in mystifying reality and so are likely to develop a clearer and more trustworthy understanding of the world. A representation of reality from the standpoint of women is more objective and unbiased than the prevailing representations that reflect the standpoint of men (Jagger, 1983: 384)

However, Skeggs points out that the use and concept of experience has been problematic to feminist theorising, as it contains different meanings and takes a variety of forms, being put to different uses. Furthermore, she argues, not all experiences are relative in terms of explanatory power. She does not reject experience outright, but rather argues that experience may be formative but it does not play a role in constituting 'true' or 'rational' knowledge, adopting the premise that 'it is not individuals who have experience but subjects who are constituted through experience', and that rather than writing off experience as inconsequential it is necessary to see it 'as central to the construction of subjectivity and theory' (ibid: 27):

So I want to hold on to experience as a way of understanding how women occupy the category 'women', a category which is classed and raced and produced through power relations and through struggle across different sites in space and time. I do not, however, want to argue for experience as a foundation for knowledge, a way of revealing or locating true and authentic 'woman'. Nor do I want to suggest that we have to have experiences before we can take up a standpoint. Experience informs our take-up and production of positions but it does not fix us either in time or place' (Skeggs 1995: 27).

i.e. experience —> productive of subjectivity —> we are known / knowers
rather than experience —> knowledge (since mapping is dependent on context)

Stress is thus laid on the access to instances of take-up, movement, recognition and occupation of the positions available and it is assumed that these are neither fixed nor fixing… knowledge is situated, is produced from social subjects with varying amounts of cultural capital, located in a nexus of power relations (ibid: 28).
Experience as a concept cannot be abandoned but must be analysed in its specificity. Experience is central to the production of subjectivity, to the production of raced, classed, sexed and gendered 'woman'. It is also the means by which links can be generated between the epistemological and the ontological (ibid: 38).

Research - what value?

Skeggs realises that the extent to which her research can 'make a difference' may be limited, stressing that for most of the women, the impact of her research was negligible to their lives. But through providing a 'safe space' to discuss issues of concern, and by offering 'feminist understandings and interpretations for the things that were troubling, intriguing or exasperating', she argues that she is able to offer explanations of the way in which individuals are bound to structures beyond their control (c.f. Bourdieu), thus reducing feelings of personal inadequacy:

The ability to put this [self-blame about unemployment and educational disillusionment] into a wider perspective blocked their tendency to victim-blame and take on responsibility for social structural problems (ibid: 37).

In political terms, she hopes that her research impacts upon social policy or popular culture 'in a way that blocks the continual representation of working-class women as a disturbing site of social order' (ibid: 37).

feminist theorists have a limited, but necessary, role to play in the legitimation of rhetorical spaces produced by those who do not have access to circuits of knowledge distribution (ibid: 39).

She stresses that although she does not have the power to convert their capital in order for social or economic change to occur, she does have a voice capable of challenging hegemonic representations and epistemic privilege, and access to speak directly to those in a position of power:

What I can do is challenge those who have the power to legitimate partial accounts as if representative of the whole of knowledge and to challenge the classificatory systems which position 'others' as fixed (ibid: 37).

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