The last vignette touched on the question of vulnerability directly, but this is a theme that has arisen throughout our discussions of dirty methods. Indeed, our desire for a collectively authored text was, in the end, interrupted by many individual stories that we shared and in which we deliberately chose to identify ourselves as a way of modeling the very openness and vulnerability we sought to draw out of our dirty methods approach. Vulnerability is a topic we explore further in this conclusion, as it relates to many of the dirty realities of contemporary communication research explored across Dirty Methods, including affect, care, power, and exclusionary structures related in particular to white supremacy and colonialism, and our own forms of privilege. To think more about the next steps for recognizing, acknowledging, and working with dirtiness in communications research, we end the conversation with questions and commitments related to vulnerability in our research contexts, with the aim of inviting further discussions and interventions prompted by the concept of dirty methods we have explored throughout this text.

Surfacing Vulnerability in Research

We want to close Dirty Methods by reflecting further on vulnerability because we understand that the imperative to cleanliness in research means reflecting on dirty methods can seem to place one in a position of lack, deficiency, or inferiority when revealing what’s been swept under the carpet. We want to address the topic of vulnerability head on here because we want to highlight both that vulnerability is omnipresent in research and academic work anyway, and that reflecting on it can enhance our intellectual projects.

There is generally a cloak over feelings of vulnerability that circulate in academic communities. We may ‘confess’ them to our friends, or more visibly reflect on them through the pervasive discourse of ‘imposter syndrome’ and the sentiment that we are illegitimate, false, and in danger of being caught out at any time.

However, despite these very real and quite universally recognized sentiments, vulnerability is rarely discussed in research contexts outside of feminist and decolonizing scholarship exploring the value of autoethnography (for an excellent review see Todd, 2020 as well as an exemplary discussion in Ahmed, 2018). Its most familiar articulation tends to be through the lens of institutional research ethics (see for example On Power and Relationships), with a focus largely on those being researched, and a notion of some groups possessing an inherent vulnerability in need of ‘protection’ (e.g., kids, people living with disabilities, those dealing with mental health issues, or Indigenous populations), rather than a structural understanding of how vulnerability is constituted through the systems of domination that create and enable relations of exploitation.

Pausing for a special category of research participants like youth is driven by assumptions of vulnerability and risk, yet these assumptions have been fiercely challenged by many scholars (Bracken-Roche et al., 2017; Luna, 2009; Luna & Vanderpoel, 2013; Levine et al., 2004; Ritterbusch, 2012). Youth are typically understood as “inherently vulnerable to coercion, undue influence, and heightened risk” (Ritterbusch, 2012). The concern largely stems from a presumption that youth have a diminished decision-making capacity, which is understood in comparison to an abstract, ‘default’ research subject (Luna, 2009). Reflecting on an ethnographic project undertaken in Colombia with “female street youth,” Amy Ritterbusch (2012) explains that the “bureaucratic discourse” she encountered was “out of place in the world of Bogotana street girls” (p. 17). Using Participatory Action Research principles, Ritterbusch was eager to collaborate with her subjects instead of concentrating on how to best protect them. During her fieldwork, the problematic assumption of vulnerability was clearly dispelled. In fact, it was Ritterbusch herself who required protection on the street and it was her subjects who were fully capable of protecting and teaching her. While critiquing the paternalism embedded in institutional ethical guidelines, Ritterbusch (2012) advocates for “a collaborative and relational process involving all research actors (i.e., all of those touched by the research process)” (p. 19). This position bolsters our objective: to read ‘youth’ into the categories of ‘researcher’ or ‘REB,’ both of whom are decision-makers and actors in the research process. We question the default position that these actors are somehow immune to their own vulnerabilities, or capacity for diminished decision-making.

The concept of ‘youth’ is imperfect but appealing since it signals an actor who is a novice and therefore ill-prepared or vulnerable in particular settings or under certain conditions. As academic researchers, we intermittently move through various levels of experience, competency, and decision-making capacity. We may be students ourselves, precariously employed researchers, or junior faculty members. Perhaps we are tenured faculty with decades of research experience or experienced professionals who have moved back into academia after a long career in the field, but in any case, have shifted our research to such an extent that the new sets of ethical considerations we are confronted with are suddenly unfamiliar and confusing. Whoever we are, it is impossible for us to avoid complicity (Shotwell, 2016) and we must reckon with how we are implicated and do so in the open even if it makes us feel or appear vulnerable.

Recognition of the link between vulnerability and expertise and experience (or indeed oppression and inequality) remains rare despite renewed interest in research ethics guidelines emerging in response to the questions opened up by technological change, perhaps most notably in the study of digital technologies (franzke, 2020; Markham & Buchanan, 2012). Vulnerability is not often interrogated specifically, with some exceptions within disparate fields from bioethics (Macklin, 2003) to internet studies (Tiidenberg, 2018). However, even within these explorations, the focus remains firmly trained on the participants, communities, and subjects of the research, with very little consideration of researcher vulnerability in most institutions, outside of institutional risk management, including for example, needing to outline access to insurance when traveling to locales deemed to be dangerous, usually in the sense of physical vulnerability (e.g., areas experiencing conflict, prisons). 

Still, these discussions of the contours of vulnerability provide some useful directions for considering researcher vulnerability in how they respectively articulate two key insights: 

1) How at times ethical relations between researchers and participants feel wrong or right (what Tiidenberg describes as the resonance of the idea ‘don’t be an asshole’ and the embodied and emotional dimensions of professional conduct); and 

2) How in some circumstances ‘harm’, ‘exploitation’, and ‘injustice’ do not coincide neatly when considering research across contexts (as Macklin notes, sometimes, for instance, communities are exploited without being harmed). 

In the first scenario, relationships between researchers and participants exist in the murky emotional space of what conventional qualitative methods texts term “rapport” (e.g. Cresswell, 2015). Rapport building at the beginning of a research relationship and rapport maintenance throughout longer-term research partnerships is important for fostering a reciprocity between researcher and researched, and as Marilys Guillemen and Kristin Heggen (2009) suggest, engendering a climate of mutual respect. But that respect is undermined, or at least dirtied, by the ultimate objective of this relationship work, which is to elicit participant vulnerability in order to generate rich qualitative data (Guillemin & Heggen, 2009, p. 292). As Jean Duncombe and Julie Jessop (2002) similarly describe in their research process:

Uncomfortably, we came to realize that even feminist interviewing could sometimes be viewed as a kind of job where, at the heart of our outwardly friendly interviews, lay the instrumental purpose of persuading interviewees to provide us with data for our research, and also (hopefully) for our future careers. (p. 108, emphasis in original)

They go on to connect the work of relationship building to emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983), a fruitful concept for thinking through the particular burdens that the idea of rapport places on researchers who are women and/or people of colour (e.g., Oakley, 1981). Moreover, as the quote implies, most researchers experience an uncertain career path in an era of increasingly precarious working conditions. As Ann Oakley (1981) suggests, the only way to get around the dual researcher-participant vulnerability in interpersonal contexts is to get past what she terms “the mythology of ‘hygienic’ research with its accompanying mystification of the researcher and the researched as objective instruments of data production” (p. 58). So while researchers are developing relationships that can feel good or bad, this kind of negotiation isn’t experienced by all researchers in the same way, and it is further complicated by the instrumental demands of collecting data that can be assimilated into a largely aspirational career trajectory. 

This is further complicated by how “a certain universality” implicates all of us in different types of precariousness, as Kenneth Kipnis (2001) explains while considering discrete types of vulnerability (p. 13). That is, at one point or another, we all find ourselves in relations of power and may see no option but to behave against our best interests. We are all taught to bend according to social situations: “[s]ocialization itself entails patterns of deference” (Kipnis, 2001, p. 13). Of course, there is no general ‘we’ here: identity categories, like whiteness, invariably offer some of us more privileged access to power (and the capacity to ignore or dismiss power differentials), while others who experience marginalization are systematically denied similar levels of access to power. Yet this thinking does not factor into discussions of vulnerability. Florencia Luna (2009) argues that “one of the shortcomings of current conceptions of vulnerability in research ethics is that they conceive ‘being vulnerable’ as a fixed label on a particular subpopulation” (p. 123). Instead, she advocates for a layered approach that considers the specific, multiple, dynamic, and potentially overlapping conditions or situations that render research participants vulnerable. Yet, as the discussions of dirty methods have illustrated, researchers themselves and those who become members of an REB committee are also subject to vulnerability alongside the positions of power that they occupy.

This leads into the second iteration of vulnerability introduced above, where, despite being centered in research ethics applications, “harm” does not always adhere to the limited means of understanding and measuring harm to participants. While it is of course important to consider how, as a researcher, one can enact just relationships, it’s also the case that sometimes the researcher might experience harm and injustice. Certainly we know this to be generally true for BIPOC scholars in the academy who face racism, increased workloads, and no or few institutional support systems, as Jennifer C. Nash (2019) and others have made clear (CAUT, 2018; Henry et al., 2017). Ruth Pearce (2020) reflects on fear, pain, and vulnerability in the research experiences of marginalized scholars, outlining vividly how both primary and secondary trauma inform the methodologies of the oppressed operating within neoliberal institutions. While acknowledging the commitment to ethical self-responsibility, relative privilege, and support networks that made completing her PhD possible, Pearce also argues for formal and institutionalized support for vulnerable researchers, including the creation of safe academic community spaces for discussion of trauma, pain, and vulnerability in research, ethics panels that consider emotional risks without paternalism as a matter of routine, and greater valuation of co-authorship and collaboration rather than individual work:

These points highlight the primary importance of collective support for transformative approaches to social research, both in terms of the aggregation of individual acts of resistance, and organised efforts to transform praxis (e.g. through union activity). In this way, questions of ethical responsibility towards the self are very much facilitated by the presence of a supportive community of scholarship. (Pearce, 2020, p. 819)

However, how to institutionally enact and recognize research vulnerability cannot simply reaffirm the presumptions about subjects that we discussed above in terms of youth. Consider this story from Mélanie Millette:

I am involved in a research project with community organizations to document how social media platforms and apps are used to recruit and retain girls (young women under 18, the age of majority in Québec) in sexual exploitation. This project is very meaningful to me because I can really feel that my expertise is put toward the service of youth workers and experts in youth shelters. These participants have noticed a shift over the last few years in how high school students, girls in particular, are recruited through online strategies and maintained in prostitution networks. However, this research comes with many vulnerabilities, dirt, and grey zones. 

The social realities, narratives, and ‘data’ that are part of the research pushed me far out of my comfort zone and sometimes trigger loaded feelings. My own understanding of sexual exploitation (in contrast with self-determined sex work) has been challenged by the research. This lens is, itself, at the center of a vivid and polarized debate in feminist groups and community organizations. Even if this debate concerns the sexual exploitation or sex work of women at the age of majority (almost every group of interest agrees that such activities are exploitative when it comes to minors), it brings a certain tension we have to navigate constantly. We also had a hard time obtaining ethical clearance, and as I understand it, that was because the participants are dealing with sensitive and often traumatic backgrounds. But I don’t accept the REB’s paternalism regarding how we could be lured, harmed, or stressed by conducting interviews with former pimps. The principal investigator and myself didn’t yet have tenure when the project started, we both identify as women, and were under 40. We wanted to do the interviews with the former pimps ourselves, and it felt very, deeply, frustrating to read this comment. Would the REB say the same to senior cis-gender male professors? The whole REB process was quite disempowering for me. 

A positive outcome has been that my co-researchers, the students, and the coordinator had the opportunity to bond together. We had to deal with so many obstacles over this project that without real, deep trust among us, it would have quickly fallen apart. This research team is totally supportive! Youth workers bring solid expertise to the table, and we trust them with this knowledge as they trust the academic members with the scientific aspect of the project. There is a lot of respect and good communication. I feel the team members trust me, including both my expertise and human qualities, and I trust them just the same. This is a game changer in such a situation. To come back to Pearce (2020), collective support is key when doing such research. Nurturing a place to share frustration, ethical concerns, and, yes, vulnerabilities has been instrumental in this research project, and the support came from the members of the team. Here, even if the institution (through the REB’s report) was trying to support us, it didn’t come across in the right way. 

As this demonstrates, our engagements with the institution can presume our vulnerability in a manner that does not engage with structures of power and historical relations of harm and power. Without losing sight of power dynamics in research, and the historical and ongoing harms enacted by institutionalized academic research structures and subjects, we ask: what would it look like to consider the researcher as a possible vulnerable subject-position without such paternalism? 

Exploring this question might seem counterintuitive, given that vulnerability’s tie to the idea of protection configures this as a question of inability to give consent in a full, free, and informed manner, rather than as related to emotion. For instance, the Council for International Organizations of Medical Ethics International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research (2016) articulates vulnerable individuals as “those who are relatively (or absolutely) incapable of protecting their own interests. More formally, they may have insufficient power, intelligence, education, resources, strength, or other needed attributes to protect their own interests” (p. 57). These ‘limited capacities’ are directly in opposition to the privileges of the academic subject, the very elements of the research dynamic that we must rigorously consider when planning an ethically-informed project. What researcher subject-position does this assume, and how might this be a bit dirtier in practice? Jennifer C. Nash (2019) makes it painfully clear that Black women in the academy do not have the same access to power as their white counterparts nor is their intelligence or authority perceived in the same way. Writing about women’s studies and the field’s particular affinity for intersectionality, Nash describes how “the academy quite literally cannibalizes black women” by extracting their knowledge and service to transform these departments (p. 19). Nash’s work makes a dirty contribution by refusing to ignore the power dynamics at play around her, choosing instead to imagine alternative ways of “doing black feminist labor in the academy that eschew defensiveness and toxicity” (p. 32). There is great complexity to dynamics of power in research that can be revealed by opening up spaces and conversations about vulnerability, a challenge that might be generative to consider but not necessarily resolvable with a set of recommendations or a research toolkit.

Opening Spaces for Opening Up About Vulnerability

One possible direction we would suggest, in line with Pearce (2020), is the creation of a range of spaces for discussing the affective and corporeal realities of being a researcher. We strongly believe that reflections on vulnerability would support and enhance practices of researcher reflexivity and kin making throughout one’s activities. In discussing the dirtiness of methods, we have by necessity opened up experiences of vulnerability in research to reveal the nuances of power dynamics in contemporary research projects. We would further argue that a failure to provide spaces, processes, and discourses beyond the familiar tale of ‘imposter syndrome’ risk necessitating the opposite of vulnerability — a performance of a sort of academic bravado that masks and sanitizes the omnipresent experiences of trouble, complicity, mess, and dirt that are necessarily a part of our work. When we insist on cleaned up methods, we subtly reaffirm the need to hide where things broke down, as though it was something to be ashamed of, eliciting further feelings of shame in a spiralling feedback loop.

We argue that feelings of vulnerability in research are more common than our institutions and structures acknowledge. In a climate where a global public health crisis has elicited a plethora of research activity on new practices necessitated by self-isolation, economic instability, and illness or death, we are all simultaneously engaging in work on trauma while living through it. This is a recent phenomenon but it only crystallizes our overarching argument. Researcher vulnerability can become an obvious concern when we embed ourselves in processes, communities, and institutions that work differently from what we are acculturated to, and in particular when examining violence and harm (as demonstrated by feminist researchers’ long-standing concern with emotion in research). However, it is absolutely universal and normal to grapple with the feeling of not doing it right, even when you’ve done everything right, because in the real world of research what is a best practice is at best a moving target. Furthermore, as Pearce (2020) outlines, academic contexts can be spaces where we experience secondary trauma, an observation that is particularly potent when we consider how the university plays lip service to diversity (Ahmed, 2012) and continues to protect sexual predators (Savigny, 2020). Reflecting on these nuances, some of which we might not experience directly but can certainly envision impacting on the students and early career researchers we work with, can perhaps help us to find ways of being more accountable as well as generating new insight in our work. James D. Todd (2020) compellingly argues for the value of recognizing and embedding anxiety in research and analysis for precisely this reason, noting that attention to corporeality and affect in his research demonstrates “the limiting aspects these feelings might instigate, and indeed (perhaps paradoxically) the possibilities they might offer for enhancing research encounters, augmenting reflexive research practice, and developing relations with participants” (p. 5). Accounting for our vulnerabilities can enhance our interpretations and engagements with our research communities. Overall, it is this position that has motivated the lengthy process of authoring Dirty Methods, and it is one that we hope that we have articulated in such a way that will invite others to join the conversation.

Accounting for vulnerability has become especially poignant for those of us teaching about feminism and social justice, particularly in terms of intersectional approaches, researcher reflexivity, and the idea of ‘sitting with the discomfort’ of recognizing structural privilege as well as systemic oppression without trying to resolve these through ‘virtue signalling’ or becoming frozen with guilt. Yet examples of this in practice to share with collaborators and students is rare. One exception is Alison Phipps’s discussion of writing about white feminism as a white feminist. By articulating her discomfort without providing an answer, Phipps (2020) implicitly accepts the vulnerability of this position:

I am ambivalent about writing about whiteness: I am concerned, as some readers might also be, that in critiquing whiteness from within, I am trying to absolve myself of my own. I am worried that I am trying to be one of the ‘good white people’, who perform what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed (2004) calls a ‘whiteness that is anxious about itself’ and see that as anti-racist action. And deep down, that might be the case. Whiteness is wily: white supremacy is so embedded in our psyches that we end up doing it even while we claim (and believe) it is what we oppose. (pp. 3-4)

Leaving vulnerability and emotion out of discussions of research enables the proliferation of individualized responses, including pervasive dispiriting negative self-talk. What we cannot know is how many people have been excluded from participation because they simply had no language beyond this to explore the complex contours of academic scholarship, including the anxieties, emotional labour, and care work that can be necessitated in teaching and research. And, in terms of the power dynamics of research that we reflect on in the ethical approval process, it can obscure the complexities of being vulnerable in the research encounter. 

What if our research design entailed an engagement with what Tiffany Page (2017) calls a ‘vulnerable methodology’, one that reveals the delicate framework of knowledge production and that centers “questions of ethics: the ethics involved in modes of telling, the sensory and affective responses to the material production of research, and the forms of violence committed in narrating the stories of vulnerable others” (p. 14)? Page reflects on how both vulnerability and invulnerability can coexist within a project, the latter deployed as a method that enables necessary forms of distance from research participants as a form of self-protection, a recognition of the need for the researcher to at times require spatial and affective space that will likely resonate with many who have conducted ethnographic and action research projects. Among our writing collective, we discussed vulnerable experiences and practices such as declining invitations despite lures of prestige, opportunities or other forms of reward. Declining, or daring to say no, is already difficult on the basis of time constraints, but it can become even more complex when you feel you have to decline as a matter of ethical principle: for example to avoid being made complicit in studies which risk reproducing stereotypes, or to avoid all-white panels or “manels” (all-male panel discussions).

Reflecting on the experiences and research projects discussed throughout Dirty Methods, we might imagine places where we can reflect on how what we encountered in the research field looked nothing like the considerations of risk and vulnerability we diligently addressed in our ethics applications. Where the emotional reactions elicited in a group interview need not be scrubbed as though it is a sign of failing to be adequately neutral but can be the focus of the analysis. Where the students we mentor can collectively address negative and also positive feelings rather than anxiously admit their fears at a breaking point. Where it can be sufficiently normalized that we talk about vulnerability, mental health, and disability such that the humanity of being researchers need not be relegated exclusively to feminist theory and those already marginalized in the academy. On the other hand, where can we celebrate friendship, love, and commitment as strengths of research beyond exploitative discourses of passion for work.

In many ways the breaking points are already visible to us, articulated within a whole genre of tweets, articles, commentaries, and think pieces on leaving academia, or staying and cultivating spaces where our dirty methods are shared. We have written this text in part as a way to address anxieties about not quite fitting into the methods of the academy, by turning our focus away from the individual to the structural in academic work while grounding it in lived experience and research. Research, teaching, and even citizenship work in this context can be richly rewarding (which is why we are all still here as of 2022), but these joys can be tempered by often internalized dirty feelings and concerns. This is why we have sought to shift the conversation away from ‘imposter syndrome’ to the processes and practices that foster these worries, to bring to the fore the dirtiness that characterizes all of our activity and how we process these experiences. But ultimately we wish to assert that quitting and refusal are inherently valid responses to when the norms of our institutions are simply too toxic, dysfunctional, exclusionary, and punishing to participate safely and sustainably while maintaining our own values (Ahmed, 2012; Gregg, 2015). One example that attempts to normalize leaving a graduate program comes from Berdahl and Malloy’s (2018) book catered to graduate students considering a PhD or actively pursuing one. More than once, they urge students to identify moments when they ought to seriously determine whether they are actively choosing their program or whether it might instead be an opportune time to leave. They want students to make conscious choices that are in their own best interests. Here are some prompts from their book:

Is the program energizing you, or draining you? Are you excited to start the next stage, or does it make you feel weary? Does the program seem like something you just need to get through, like a root canal or childbirth, or does it enliven you? You may have mixed answers, since every program will have high and low points and good and bad days. But ask yourself these two key questions: If someone handed you an exit degree in lieu of a PhD, would you happily take it and leave the program? And if you were forced to apply for the next stage of the program, would you make that application? (Berdahl & Malloy, 2018, p. 55)

While these questions are quite broad and disconnected from the systemic problems and colonial backdrop of the academy that will lead students to ponder and experience them in very different ways, Berdahl and Malloy (2018) do stress that “there is no shame” in leaving academia (p. 55). It is not a failure to reject structures of exclusion and exploitation, pain and abuse in the academic workplace and to look elsewhere for intellectual, professional, and personal rewards and challenges.

Overall, for us, vulnerability is an especially poignant entry point for dirty methods as it is tied to contextual imbalances in power and a recognition of how values related to gender, race, nationality, sexuality, ability, location, religion, and class shape the very notion of researcher power and privilege. Who doesn’t recognize the idea of being vulnerable in research, and why? Who recognizes it profoundly? And what could it mean for our research, scholarship, and service within and beyond academic spaces to embed this as a normal mode of operating? It might provide at least a direction for seeing the dirtiness of research as a form of rigour rather than something that tarnishes our credibility and our labour, and ideally opens up new conversations from those historically excluded from academic research as part of the difficult work of reshaping participation in the university.


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