All academic books are borne from the experiences, passions, biases, and ambitions of their authors. Here, we tackle these and other influences head on. Despite academic norms that often steer us otherwise, the authors of this text discuss the work of research by also discussing the background of knowledge production in academia, which takes place among broad structural contexts arising from the neoliberalization of the university and its colonial roots. We posit that it is essential to bring a critical, intersectional feminist, justice-oriented lens to not only our fields of study and specific research projects but to the context in which we undertake this labour. We call this approach dirty methods. 

In line with this, we begin by digging into the origins of our author collective. To avoid cleaning up the pathways we took to get here, we include reflections on the starting points of this project, an origin story that evolved far beyond the simple premises that we began with. As we argue throughout this text, where things begin, their grounds, and the broader forces shaping them are as relevant to knowledge production as the decision-making about sample size, interview techniques, and data analysis procedures that are often the core matter of methods scholarship. 

We began this work as often insecure and, despite our many privileges, uncertain graduate students. Even as we gained greater stability and job security as academics, we held on to many of our insecurities as we worked to understand the contours of our scholarly work and the realities of doing research in the contemporary academic context. This starting point fits especially well as this work is intended primarily for graduate students and early career scholars who are negotiating the vulnerabilities and insecurities of academia right now, within a system that produces and preys on these very feelings while marginalizing everyone who does not ‘fit’ the parameters of the normative researcher subject-position based on gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality. As a group of authors, we have varied relationships to these categories but all of us are white, which became an increasingly important position to tackle as we progressed with this project and an unresolvable factor that we grapple with. But to begin, revisiting our ideas in the early days of this project helps to situate our critiques and unearth how the concept of ‘dirty methods’ became resonant for us. 

Where we started

The authors are part of The Fourchettes – Critical Methods in Technocultures, a collective of colleagues and friends from various disciplinary backgrounds who came together in 2015 to share observations about pushing digital research methods in media and communications in more critical directions. The choice of the word for our collective is not trivial: “fourchettes” in French means “forks” in English, two languages that we share. A fork is a domestic object, a technical object, an artefact. A fork can feed you; it can also prick you if necessary. Naming our collective The Fourchettes symbolized the decisions we made every day, as researchers, teachers, and citizens, hoping to emphasize the power and responsibilities that go with them, how they can be nourishing but also how they may inflict violence. 

Initially, the word “fork” came up again and again while we were trying to make sense of our common, yet diverse, experiences in academia and research, as media, communication, and gender studies scholars. In discussing what preoccupied us, we came back to the times when, faced with various options, we had to decide and choose one avenue over the other. At this fork, why did we take the road we chose? Why did we take one that we thought was sometimes a harder or a less strategic one? Was the fork we took more meaningful, or were we following the path we knew best, or that we thought might enhance our CVs in what we have been trained to think of as the academic ‘market’? 

As researchers, we have to choose all the time. We are constantly making decisions about doing a project on this topic or that object, collecting this data but not that data, labelling this or that a certain way. Everyday, micro decisions shape what we study, how we do it, with whom, and ultimately what knowledge we produce. What lies behind these multiple “small” decisions? How big might the impacts of such decisions be? When are they ethical decisions? Professional or career decisions? How (and when) will we know we made the ‘right’ decision? As we progressed, we began to realize how many of our points of decision were shaped by other influences and forces beyond what the methods guidebooks suggested to us. Surfacing, making explicit, and talking about such decision-making points with the rest of the Fourchettes became a central part of our ongoing discussions.

Today, the Fourchettes is a network of seven to ten researchers (with people moving in and out depending on the project and their commitments at a given moment in time) who engage with intersectional and feminist approaches to think about the socio-technical, cultural, and political aspects of digital culture and media. When we were emerging scholars, we felt a pressing need to regroup peridiocally to discuss our experiences of academia so that we could support each other around the emergent ethical and methodological questions we were dealing with. By building and sustaining this group over time, we came to understand that we also actively wanted to embody and enable interventions in our respective disciplines and sectors. This included research in general, our disciplinary areas in the academy, and community-engaged work. Of course, we wanted to contribute to the development of more critical, or more ethical (often but not always digital) research methods, but we also wanted to interrogate ourselves as accountable researchers which includes the specific subject-positions we occupy. We still work toward this objective even if some of our initial commitments have shifted. These interventions aim to think about methods and methodology through the prism of our potential and our responsibilities as researchers.

The uncleaned-up truth of this originary collective work is that it was based on our needs for connection and community in doing academic work. We first met during the time we were doing our doctoral work, and like many PhD students, we were ambitious and idealistic about our ability to do something worthwhile in the world. But we were also at times intimidated, unsure, and resistant to the way that academic structures attempted to assimilate and shape research and researchers. Many of us were in a bilingual French and English PhD program spanning three universities based in Montreal. Some of us became friends and colleagues at conferences or summer schools. Many of us felt like outsiders in the academic world — a sensation we have come to understand as more universal than unique. As we imagine to be the case for many readers, we found academic work to be more joyful and less intimidating when we could share our experiences at penny-pinching lunches at conferences, get feedback on draft essays from audiences of critical friends, and be open and honest about the frustrations involved in the intense and often solitary work of a PhD (see friendship). Through this, we became a loose group of people who knew they could rely on one or more of the others to be there for academic, professional development, and personal matters. This is a typical element of the format of scholarly networks — we connect through academic discussions but also karaoke and dancing and conference buffets. These moments were significant for us because in addition to support, they surfaced many threads of common interest, even as we worked to differentiate ourselves from the growing field and define who we were as scholar-activists. 

By the time most of us were finishing our PhDs, we realized that we were lucky: we had accidentally-on-purpose nurtured a cohesive network of committed, active scholars that sought to find ways to make the academy more responsive, more compassionate, more inclusive. While this sounds very pleasant, the dirty truth is that these collaborations aren’t always easy. We had and have quite different approaches to our work, not to mention personalities and professional backgrounds. Back when our network was formed, we were also entering a highly competitive labour force and there was no guarantee that any of us would land a job in a place we wanted to be. In fact, we would often be in competition with one another, not just for jobs, but also for grants, book contracts, and all the markers of success required to make it into the academy. 
Still we maintained our relations post-PhD. We scattered across Canada and internationally to post-docs and first jobs, but leveraged resources available to us to stay connected. This included in 2015 when Tamara Shepherd came up with the (we think) brilliant idea of using some of her modest start-up funds to host a gathering of what would become the Fourchettes in Banff, Alberta following the annual conference of the 2016 Canadian Communication Association in Calgary. Then Mary Elizabeth Luka, in concert with several other members of the group, submitted a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Connection grant the same year to leverage that funding for what became 12 seminars in four countries involving 500 people between 2016-2017 (see movement of money). These moments were significant because they gave us the opportunity articulate what kinds of priorities we had in our research, particularly in terms of ensuring that it was rooted in community and policy engagement and in critical intersectional feminist work both theoretically and methodologically. In the case of the Connection grant, where Luka and the team coordinated a wide range of seminars internationally, we learned that this desire chimes with scholars in women’s and gender studies, communication studies, human-computer interaction, computer science, visual arts, sociology, geography, data science, business, and marketing. These events also attracted some professionals from the field, including digital media producers, social media practitioners, platform developers, and computer programmers. It was through these meetings as well as conference presentations and publications (e.g. Luka et. al, 2015) that we came to see that the concept of dirty methods had a wider resonance than for our relatively insular collective. The below is the product of those encounters and how they informed our research work beyond them.

Who is this for?

This isn’t a “how to” on methods. Instead, we imagined the kind of content we would have liked to have in hand during our early research efforts inside the academy. As we became supervisors and colleagues ourselves, we continued to check in with students about the kind of approach that might work for them, first through the 12 Fourchettes seminars we ran in 2016-17, and since then, in our day-to-day work. We hope to help graduate students and postdoctoral researchers think about how the work they are doing now will impact their possible career trajectories, the supervisor they want to choose, and how they want to collaborate with colleagues and peers while negotiating doing critical work in a neoliberal environment.

Students are expected to learn how to do research through imitation, largely as a form of individualized apprenticeship, and consult methodological textbooks that offer clean, rigid, and disembodied recipes but pay little attention to the management of personal, collaborative, and bodily experiences, sensations, and anxieties. Outside of textbooks, methods sections in journal articles and methodological appendices in manuscripts and dissertations are predominantly about successes, sometimes written in a defensive style intended to appease reviewers or committee members. Charting out and monopolizing (and monetizing) innovative approaches, datasets, and analyses is another common strategy. Many publications focus on innovating methods to account for the changing media and communication infrastructure (Kubitschko & Kaun, 2016) by singling out approaches like digital ethnography (Pink et al., 2015; Millette et al. 2020), or visual studies, or specific digital tools and methods such as issue networks (Rogers, 2013). Scholars have begun offering behind-the-scenes reflections on obstacles, mistakes, and challenges in digital research, yet the embodiment of the researchers and their institutional contexts themselves remains absent. In the edited volume Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online (Hargittai & Sandvig, 2015), for example, the contributors’ invisible bodies remain distant, unspecified, and universal. The ‘secrets’ revealed are more akin to tips for cleaning up messy research rather than playing around in the dirt. By contrast, authors working from feminist and anti-colonial approaches do emphasize the embodied messiness of research. We wanted to take inspiration from such approaches and apply them to methods in a way that spotlights what is dirty.

We also wrote this for emerging and mid-career researchers who work both inside and outside the academy; that is to say, people who are engaged in community-centred, collaborative, participatory and otherwise human- and social-issues-involved research, whether they are located within the academy or not. As we developed various ways of working collaboratively or collectively on the social issues we addressed together over the last decade, we have become deeply invested in imagining equitable ways to generate research that could be helpful on the ground as much as in theory. This includes the troubling and amazing ways in which academic work processes must be conceived and activated in concert with other organizations, stakeholders, and audiences. We therefore see this work as of use for other scholars interested in pursuing social justice in the academy.

The following will also be useful for anyone who feels their research falls outside the norm of standard academic practice by providing a series of exemplars of such work and how it has been enacted. Our previous presentations have shown us that these kinds of frank conversations are often catalysts for self-reflection and institutional critique for others. We aim to do this more widely than a talk or panel ever could. We are keen to share the experiences we have benefited from with other experienced qualitative researchers — especially in arts, culture, communication and media studies — looking for examples and comparative work for themselves, their research collaborators, and their students. We also want to use this as an opportunity to invite experienced quantitative researchers into conversation, particularly those seeking an in-depth understanding of the advantages and challenges of qualitative research and how to connect their research to these approaches, including community-centred, collaborative, participatory and otherwise human- and social-issues-involved research.

Given our multi-disciplinary focus and diverse intended audiences, we have aimed to use plain language as much as possible, while not shying away from — and challenging — more dense or disciplinary-specific language. This is meant to support readers who are curious about how research is done today in arts, culture, communications, and media studies. In the best of all possible worlds, it will pique interest in developing more responsive and inclusive ways of approaching research in the industries, communities, organizations, and sectors we examine. It may also be useful as a way to recognize the research these groups do all the time even if it’s not called research in their context, providing ways to articulate it within academic discourse. In the next section, we outline the theoretical and methodological basis for what we are calling dirty methods as a way of indicating our philosophical and political underpinning for this work.

Approach: what we mean by dirty

The most remarkably consistent encouragement we have received over the last decade was the response of our diverse audiences to the notion of “dirty methods,” while we morphed first into the Fourchettes and then on to Zamblams as we thought about what this project would look like. And while it seemed self-evident to each of us what we meant by dirty methods, it also became clear that there were many nuances, misunderstandings, elisions, and opportunities to explore – more, even, than we imagined. But what was also clear was that the idea of dirty methods was spot on, at least in terms of what we aim to do. Not surprisingly, it took several years and drafts to arrive at the following core elements of dirty methods that we explore. And we don’t expect it to end here; there will be more ways of thinking about using and recouping what we mean by “dirty” in the context of academic research. So that is where we start. 

Quand on veut vraiment faire de la recherche critique, le travail devient rapidement dirty, à commencer par le travail à faire sur soi — qui est inconfortable et exigeant comme le soulignent mes collègues, mais aussi à faire autour de soi pour éviter de reproduire des rapports de pouvoir problématiques. In terms of methodology, our experiences have taught us that dirtiness is often the original state of methodology. The clean, meaningful, step-by-step presentation of methodology always comes afterwards. To get there, you have to try, make mistakes, fail, rethink your questions, unpack your assumptions, and do it again.

As this indicates, the dirty methods approach highlights how knowledge production and circulation are politically charged, especially when they are presented as “clean” and neutral. At the same time, rather than proposing a singular, universal approach to research, dirty methods envision the right to narrate and to imagine alternative narratives around knowledge production that resist the urge to tidy up. Two key areas of scholarship that this work is in conversation with are those related to: (1) feminist methods, especially intersectional approaches and specifically postcolonial, Black feminist scholarship, and Indigenous methodologies; and (2) science and technology studies (STS), especially feminist and postcolonial technoscience. These are two broad communities of scholarship whose insights we think are urgent to embrace for doing research differently in contemporary communication studies, and that inform how we have conceptualized ‘dirty.’

Given the lessons of this scholarship and our experiences, we argue that our research process is messy and our methods are dirty. We openly acknowledge and embrace the dirt and the mess that research makes, bolstered by the many feminist, queer, decolonizing, critical race, and disability scholars cited here who have taught us to resist cleaning it up. Our aim is not to rebrand an old practice but rather to reanimate and politicize the practice of research. We want to help resurrect radical reflexivity, researcher accountability, an epistemological-ontological frame, and situated perspectives and partial knowledges, while re-inserting emotions and bodies into the research process. We aim to challenge the individualization of neoliberal academic norms by foregrounding how scholarly work is always dependent on networks characterized by unequal power relations. We want to acknowledge our complicity in these systems of power and work to dismantle them. We write now because we face exclusionary ways of working, organizing, teaching, knowledge sharing, and recognizing and rewarding activity in the academy. We operate within increasingly neoliberal and precarious research climates (including in universities) that decenter bodily experiences and by-products of research energy: sweat, tears, fear, pleasure, anxiety, failure, disappointment, joy. As a response, we feel compelled to understand the contours of the forces structuring intellectual engagement while highlighting undervalued ways of knowing and being. Examples demonstrate how activism, advocacy, research-creation, and community partnerships are simultaneously dirty and productive. We offer glimpses into how collaborative authorship both works and doesn’t work to communicate ideas. By digging into these emerging practices in contemporary knowledge production, we work to reveal and embrace the striations, breakdowns, mess, and muck that underlies it all.

Dirty methods are about reflecting on the people, territories, communities, systems, policies, organizations, technologies, and relations of power entailed in contemporary knowledge production. They are about foregrounding the collaborative, networked nature of this work, through a process of ideation and authorship that reveals these dynamics rather than concealing them. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed (2017) introduces the idea of “sweaty concepts,” which can be positioned as an analogue to our version of dirty methods. Inspired by Audre Lorde’s (2007) rendering of her own experience as a resource for theory building, Ahmed characterizes a sweaty concept as a survival tool — “another way of being pulled out from a shattering experience” (2017, p. 12) — by highlighting the relationship between theory and what is lived. Sweaty concepts are bodily, they come from a difficult bodily experience and, in that way, they demand that we refuse to eliminate the effort and labour from writing “because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere” (Ahmed, 2017, p. 13). Dirty methods are exactly this: untidy representations of the research process as a political project. By embracing openness and reflexivity through the sensorial, via trial and error, ‘false’ starts, and starting again, dirty methods hinge on untidiness. Generative encounters come from finding ourselves in positions of “not knowing what to do or say,” that sharply contrast with clean write-ups moored in “abstract systems of cultural competence” (Gunaratnam, 2008, p. 34). To engage with everything behind or outside of the methods section, everything unsaid and unsayable in the methods textbook, entails attaching research methods to bodies, human and non-human alike, just as sweaty concepts manifest theory as bodily experience.

As media and communication scholars who study digital practices in a variety of forms, we began this project within a space that is influenced by those who excitedly wish to capture more and more data, advocate for the benefits of ‘neutral’ collection and analysis tools on offer, while (often) happily bracketing questions of politics to the side, outside their purview. Instead, we wanted to assert that data itself is inherently ‘dirty,’ whether it is missing, wrong, or offered in a non-standard way (Kim et al., 2003). While some authors carefully show us how to cleanse our data to better mine it, we wondered how we might instead embrace this sort of dirtiness. Preferred modes of analysis always marginalize other modes: so, for instance, as big data grows into a privileged mode of capturing reality, small data is devalued (Latzko-Toth et al., 2017, p. 200). The observable turn toward big data across many disciplines thus implies a turning away from other approaches. The new disciplinary logic of digitally-enabled and data-driven modes of research reifies ideals of cleanliness: objectivity, purity, vision, and omniscience. As a result, diverse ontologies across disciplines are suppressed (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). Despite working within this space, dirty methods are not here to deal only with studies of the digital; in fact, we see many scenarios wherein the digital ought to be decentered to avoid deterministic analyses. We are not interested in ‘hacking’ or ‘disrupting’: terms from Big Tech that we’ve so easily folded into our lexicon as descriptors for innovative or transgressive practices. Rather, our focus is ‘Research’ (with a capital R) — that institutionalized practice we are groomed for that is so often registered by its final outputs: modes of knowledge mobilization and dissemination that actively perpetuate the idea of research as a seamless, contained, unilinear, and frictionless process rather than its desired outcomes: to contribute to better understandings and potential actions, no matter how complex, incomplete or messy these may be. As researchers and collectives, we are bundles of nerves, sutured together by contradictory impulses and emotions, motivated by our investments in professional ethical commitments, personal well-being, and social justice. Thus, research, even when conducted under the best of intentions, is never directly prescriptive or proscriptive regardless of how cleanly it is presented.

Dirty methods resist the normalization of increasingly opaque modes of research by critically engaging with the messes we all make in knowledge production and understanding that we are implicated in ‘cooking the data’ (e.g., Bowker, 2006; Gitelman, 2013), which we aim to make useful rather than detrimental. As we have noted previously, “From an ethical standpoint, there is a cautionary tale to be realized [through the parallel] idiom of ‘cooking the books,’ a method of unethically altering financials and facts to a specific advantage” (Luka & Millette, 2018). If awareness and acknowledgement are first steps, then, we must first turn the spotlight on our own research practices, demonstrating the ways in which the power relations between heterogeneous actors enable and constrain particular forms of engagement in our work. We highlight how these forces specifically impact projects oriented toward social justice, an aim that we all differently enact in our research practices and as a collective of collaborative authors. Through this critical, situated, and reflexive set of explorations, we demonstrate how an openness to and engagement with ways of knowing and being that do not centre Euro-Western perspectives can be curtailed in the contemporary system of academic knowledge production, delineate who benefits and who does not from these configurations, and propose recommendations and challenges to research norms moving forward. 

To resist the normalization of cleanliness, we assert the need to do more than expose and critique the forces that perpetuate it. We draw much inspiration from Mary Douglas’s (1966) exploration of purity, which leads her to question what exactly is impure or dirty. Douglas sees society as communicating to us what is out of place. Ultimately, “dirt is essentially disorder” (p. 2), which offends the norms of order, control, and conformity. Dirtiness is for example a colonial trope linking indigenous populations to nature, savagery, and exoticisim, the absolute other to modern white settlers. Colonial frames that assert divisions between epistemology and ontology also cast nature as dirt such that humans are given greater access to agency, while the non-human world has little to no agency (Watts, 2013). Instead, dirt — like all of the natural world — has agency (Watts, 2013) and plays a vital role in shaping our research projects.

Dirty methods acknowledge how complicated, unclear, value-laden, and pregnant with choices our research is and our scholarly lives are. Dirty methods are about becoming comfortable with disorder. In French, dirty has many negative connotations including naming an object or incident as vile, unfortunate, or embarrassing. En français, “dirty” connote la poussière, la saleté et l’illégalité. Comme l’argent obtenue par fraude ou contre-bande (dirty money). At worst, it comes with an illicit meaning, at best, it’s covered in dust. Instead of scrubbing ourselves clean and dusting off all of our surfaces to be seen as respectable and legitimate, we want to stay in the mud and search for another way of learning, doing, and being. Dirty methods involve anticipating dirty research. It means expecting errors and missteps — getting dirt on your hands — because we will trip in the mud and we won’t know what we tripped on, or whether what we tripped on created alternative understandings. We openly examine our own ‘dirty laundry,’ while refusing to see it as a dishonourable practice (Anderson, 2000). Dirty methods pursue this kind of understanding: lifting the carpets and opening the cupboards, so to speak, in our houses of knowledge production to better understand what is swept away in these trends, techniques, and tropes.

Working on revisions to this during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant reckoning with the fact that the word ‘dirty’ has taken on new significance. While our fear of the virus once meant paying close attention to everything we touched, the term ‘hygiene theatre’ has since acknowledged that we continue to rely on ‘solutions’ that simply try to clean it all up into neatly divisible categories (Thompson, 2021). Plexiglass, installed as a barrier with the aim of offering protection between customer and employee, has also been regarded as a type of theatre intent on maintaining some sort of purity and security (Mattern, 2020). These insights recall Douglas’s (1966) large scale analysis of hygiene behaviours and cultural rituals across the globe that aim to clean up ‘dirt,’ widely defined, so that our world can remain orderly. While Douglas (1966) demonstrates how beliefs about dirt are often tied to danger and encourage associations with contagion, she also asks us to consider “how dirt, which is normally destructive, sometimes becomes creative” (p. 160). The ‘dirty’ in dirty methods is also about this creative recuperation of the anomalous forms of dirt – that which does not fit or is pushed out, silenced, or left unwritten, unpublished, and unsaid. Dirty methods encourage scholars to reconsider the cultural norms that dictate how much we can reveal about our failures, our difficult and unresolved decisions, our emotions, feelings, and our bodies. Refusing the traditional order of things and committing to disruption is a running theme. It is also a strategy that became more and more accessible to us as we found more stability and security in academia, and one that is supported by decades of feminist and critical race theory.

Dirty Methods are a feminist project of uncomfortable reflexivity

A commitment to dirt in a disorderly sense also helps us recognize that there are multiple feminisms and that the word ‘feminism’ itself does not always fit. Indeed, it is feminisms — in a plural form — that we are engaging with and interrogating, in opposition to the perception that feminism — in singular form — exists as a homogenous, linear, and unidirectional enterprise. This is in part because of the tendency for ‘feminism’ to be understood synonymously with white liberal feminist ideologies, but it is also an acknowledgment of the diverse modes of conducting feminist analyses in addition to those adjacent analyses that prefer alternative labels to ‘feminist.’ Fields that may appear to a scholarly outsider as very similar because of their broad social justice orientation can in fact be at odds with one another. Some scholars who are more aligned with critical race theory or decolonial scholarship, for instance, have not always embraced the “feminist” label in their work, and have spent time highlighting the exclusions arising from mainstream feminist work (e.g., Angus, 1995; Maracle, 1996; Crenshaw, 1991; hooks, 2000). Vanessa Watts (2013) demonstrates how feminist scholars like Stacy Alaimo and Vicky Kirby continue to make hierarchical distinctions between humans and nature that problematically predetermine agential capacity and Donna Haraway’s work (1988) engages with Indigneous histories as “an abstracted tool of the West” (p. 28). As Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it, “Because the experiential base upon which many feminist insights are grounded is white, theoretical statements drawn from them are overgeneralized at best, and often wrong” (1991, p. 67). Similarly, while disability studies, queer studies, and trans studies often converge around critiques of normalization, each area of scholarship has battled with feminist studies scholars who refuse to recognize such work (Malatino, 2021). Janet Halley (2006) has gone so far as to encourage scholars to “take a break from feminism” in order to prioritize openness to disparate theoretical perspectives. Openness aligns with our dirty orientation. As a result, grappling with various diverging “feminisms” (Hayden & O’Brien Hallstein, 2012), or feminist inspirations, is itself a messy task that we embrace.

As this indicates, dirty methods are also about engaging politically by revealing power and attending to it openly and reflexively. The first place to start with this kind of reflexivity is in foregrounding our own bodily orientations, feelings, commitments, and refusals. Intersectional feminist approaches demand reflexivity about the positionality of the researcher within and among their research subjects and objects. For example, Patti Lather’s (2001) discussion of postmodern ethnography emphasizes the difficulty of executing the ideals of messy texts, partial epistemologies, fragmented writing, and challenges to authority and legitimacy in fieldwork and research given our training. We therefore provide — as Lather does — reflexive accounts of our tools, techniques, and tactics to demonstrate how feminist inquiry can function in the climate of digital media. Our self-reflexive approach to dirty methods also draws on Jasbir Puar’s (2011) critiques of the standard uses of intersectionality, given that we want to see researchers taking their own intersectional identities, complicities, and oppressions into consideration and making their privilege, and the questions that it raises, visible. As Kim England (1994) describes it, “reflexivity is self-critical sympathetic introspection and the self-conscious analytical scrutiny of the self as researcher” (p. 244, emphasis in original). England praises reflexivity for its capacity to provoke self-discovery and ignite new hypotheses. Our a priori theoretical positions ought to be challenged when we conduct research. Ultimately, everything ought to be open to challenge. In a sense, the feminist politics of definition and representation we advocate for also embraces a personal micro-politics of registering alternatives.

Dirty is also meant to convey discomfort in reflexivity. The decisions made and positions taken up through the process of research are rarely comfortable ones. Instead, we feel the uncertainty and unresolvability of tensions throughout the forks in the road of planning and executing projects, representing realities through writing and speaking, and assuming certain kinds of legible expertise. As a feeling that structured the process of undertaking research during many of our own experiences in graduate school and beyond, we want to highlight discomfort as a central affect in the production of knowledge that nonetheless tends to go unnamed or is even actively concealed in the ways we talk about our work. Incongruous experiences of having our positions and politics questioned, challenged, and undermined are dirty moments of discomfort that we aim to bring forward rather than hide away.

Indeed, the value of acknowledging discomfort is part of what Wanda Pillow (2003) identifies as the generative possibilities for reflexivity in research methods. In a survey of the term’s feminist iterations, Gillian Rose (1997) explains reflexivity broadly as a strategy for “situating knowledges” (cf. Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding), “that is, as a means of avoiding the false neutrality and universality of so much academic knowledge” (p. 306). Rose concedes that despite its various implications, reflexivity is generally approached as a means of checking one’s own privilege as a researcher. Typically, this sort of reflexivity manifests in a self-consciousness about the methods of data collection and how these are shaped by power relations (Rose, 1997, p. 309).

Pillow’s (2003) critique of reflexivity, however, claims that employing reflexivity as a recognition of self risks “a simple identifying of oneself or a telling of a confessional tale, which certainly continues to work to identify and define the ‘other’” (p. 182). Moreover, the way that the self can become reified through reflexivity hinges on a modernist conception of truth and identity as stable categories, promising a release from the tensions of representation through an omniscient perspective. Gayatri Spivak (1988) argues that “making positions transparent does not make them unproblematic” (p. 6), and this assertion gets at the heart of reflexivity’s role in dirty methods. Reflexivity is used to make power and privilege visible in ways that, rather than resolve contradictions, invite further critique. As Pillow contends, what researchers should be aiming for are “reflexivities of discomfort” that open up ethical tensions for greater scrutiny; this is a “reflexivity that seeks to know while at the same time situates this knowing as tenuous” (p. 188). Circling back to the concept of situated knowledges, reflexivity thus dirties the positions a researcher occupies as part of systematizing knowledge production.

Over-valuing a detached and distant empiricism in academic inquiry is dangerous (Haraway, 1988, 1991, 1997; Harding, 1991; Spivak, 1998). The power of the researcher to speak for ‘subjects’ of the academic gaze has been thoroughly interrogated for its tendency to construct a seemingly universal perspective of the researched. Positivist and many post-positivist epistemologies often necessitate an imposed dichotomy between object and subject, where the researcher’s gaze appeals to omnipotence and mastery over an ordered social world. Yet, as England (1994) contends, the “openness and culturally constructed nature of the social world, peppered with contradictions and complexities, needs to be embraced, not dismissed” (p. 243). She argues for flexibility in research, which means disavowing the idea of “appropriate” methods and recognizing that “the only inevitability [in research] seems to be unreliability and unpredictability” (England, 1994, p. 81). In Donna Haraway’s (1988) careful deconstruction of the “science wars” that pitted radical relativism against uncritical positivism, she notes that the feminist project is not simply one that critiques the constructed nature of knowledge, but is an approach that creates and provides a critical and reflexive account of the world.

Closely linked to reflexivity is the notion of positionality. In feminist standpoint theory, social position (e.g., as marginalized due to gender, class, race, etc.) is cast as the core of epistemology in that social location can become the locus of collective political struggle (Hartsock, 1983). Patricia Hill Collins (1990), along with other Black feminist thinkers like bell hooks (1984), developed standpoint theory to deal specifically with intersecting modes of oppression by insisting that the notion of a standpoint is itself constructed and heterogeneous in that it connects collective politics to the everyday lived experience of marginalized people: “Because group standpoints are situated in, reflect, and help shape unjust power relations, standpoints are not static” (Collins, 1998, p. 201). In this sense, proponents of standpoint theory tend to see positionality primarily “from below” (hooks, 1984), although increasingly, positionality has been used in research methods as a way to reflexively engage with researcher privilege (as noted by Pillow, 2003). So while there is a relationship between positionality and standpoint theory, positionality can also be used in ways that are not specifically feminist in their politics, but rather more generally reflexive about the ways that knowledge is produced by people occupying particular social locations.

Either way, a dirty methods approach to positionality draws forth its discomforts: simply acknowledging a position does not make that position comfortable. One major discomfort are the ways we, as a group of white researchers, deal with whiteness in the text. A lot of the thinking on reflexivity and positionality is attributed to white feminism even though critical race and Indigenous scholars have been working with kindred concepts for far longer. For example, Indigenous methods consider “how you are going to use your ways of thinking (epistemology) to gain more knowledge about your reality,” and see a specifically “tribal” epistemology as one that encompasses “all our relations” of environments, ideas, and concepts as interdependent (Wilson, 2001, pp. 175-6). For non-Indigenous researchers, a “relational accountability” perspective offers a means of understanding knowledge production as a collective process and researchers as having a responsibility to that collective (Pualani Louis, 2007, p. 133; Singh & Major, 2017, p. 7; Barad, 2007). A relational approach honours “the primacy of direct experience” (Cajete, 2000, p. 66), and views “experience as a legitimate way of knowing” (Kovach, 2005, p. 28), including ways of knowing that have been ignored, absorbed, co-opted or subsumed (Todd, 2016).

Dirty Methods contend with the colonial history and presence of our academic systems

The western, colonial context of the university continues to trade in forms of legitimacy and discourse that shape how we think, who we are invited to think with, and who can access the resources and support required to succeed and perhaps even thrive in this environment (Henry and Tator, 2009; Coloma, 2017; Henry et al., 2017; Todd, 2018). This context for research gives rise to whiteness as a universal standard that saturates the public space of the university and continues to obstruct and suppress hiring and recruitment practices that aim to alter the diversity of our faculty and students (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017). It also reminds us of painful lessons gleaned from typical studies of Indigenous populations by non-Indigenous researchers working within more positivist, “observational”, and extractive paradigms. Vanessa Watts (2013) argues that non-Indigenous thinkers also have a tendency to cause harm when they draw from Indigenous perspectives but retain control over how they understand and operationalize agency, such that humans maintain unique access to it. She argues that this practice distills the meaning of Indigenous perspectives and re-interprets them through a colonial framework that separates humans and nature from one another. Movement toward decolonizing the university and its epistemological-ontological foundations is thus critical for making room for people to tell their own stories and to decrease the prominence and authority of white European ways of knowing and being.

For us (the authors), this means especially acknowledging and reckoning with our whiteness as part of a “maze of ethical issues” in the embodied politics of research methods (Kovach, 2005, p. 31). We (the authors) must work to uncover the specific ways in which our white privilege operates and functions to sustain white supremacy and colonialism. This is work that will span our entire academic careers and must be pursued despite the knowledge that there is no final resolution. One such result of this work is to fashion ourselves into what Pualani Louis (2007) terms “academic allies” that support epistemological-ontological approaches that decentre Euro-Western thought within an often oppressive institutional context (p. 136). Yet allyship and moves to decolonize are themselves contested terrains (Patel, 2011), adding a layer of messiness that we embrace and reflect upon. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) highlight the dirty disorderliness of solidarity and decolonization, both of which ought to be unsettling. As they write, “Solidarity is an uneasy, reserved, and unsettled matter that neither reconciles present grievances nor forecloses future conflict” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 3). Cleaning it up reinforces settler futurity. Drawing on their work, we strive to avoid cleaning up the uncomfortable affect and disorderliness that comes with working towards decolonization. As settlers ourselves (the authors), we agree with settler scholar Monique Giroux (2017) who acknowledges that this process “will likely be painful for settlers because it will be profoundly unsettling. If it feels good, if it feels easy, if it feels comfortable, we’re not doing it right.”

Dirty Methods mobilize intersectional approaches

When invoking intersectional feminism, we acknowledge that intersectionality is at once a buzzword and a marginalized research perspective. As an umbrella term to denote scholarship probing the myriad discriminatory and empowering processes at play in everyday subject formation, intersectionality trades in metaphors about the interrelations of axes, suggesting terms such as crossroads, assemblages, alliances, matrices, imbuing, interplay, pluralizing, overlapping, weaving, entangling, and interlocking. Bringing together critical race and feminist theory, intersectionality provides a common label to previously existing theoretical and political endeavours, and it has been recognized as “the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made so far” (McCall, 2005, p. 1771). Yet, intersectionality often remains invisible and marginalized in media and communication scholarship. In demanding the simultaneous consideration of multiple axes of oppression, doing intersectional research implies messing up predetermined, singular categories of analysis. The introduction of dirty methods builds on this challenge of intersectionality to see “various components of identity as interdependent and co-determinative rather than additive and discrete,” and to thus re-orient “the epistemological ground of politics to coalitional politics” (Hayden & O’Brien Hallstein, 2012, p. 100). For researchers, building a coalitional politics by untangling the interwoven strands of more or less prominent modes of domination isn’t easy — it’s uneasy. Aside from a group of notable intersectional gender and critical race scholars who study digital media (e.g., Apprich et al., 2019; Benjamin, 2019; Brock, 2020; Gray, 2012; Nakamura, 2007; Noble, 2018; Noble & Tynes, 2016; Sharma, 2013) and conversations stemming from the #CommunicationSoWhite discussions in the US and Canada (Chakravartty, et al., 2018; Hirji et al., 2020), mainstream media and communication scholarship has largely overlooked intersectional studies of digital culture.

There are several explanations for this absence, beyond the general push toward ‘clean’ normative and non-social-justice oriented mainstream scholarship. Critics have, for example, wondered how intersectionality can be operationalized, by asking questions such as “[h]ow does one pay attention to the points of intersection? How many intersections are there?” (Chang & Culp, 2002, p. 485). Jenny Sundén (2007) has pointed out that “the unmanageability of intersectionality calls for strategic choices, but also for critical reflections on in/ex-clusions and the consequences” (p. 34). She adds that in doing intersectional research, “it is not the counting [of multiple axes] that counts, but the doing of the work on the in-betweens, the work on the messiness of relational power” (p. 35). Sara Hayden and Lynn O’Brien Hallstein (2012) describe the challenges of bringing intersectionality into the practice of doing communication studies: 

Once the multiplicity of identity, oppression, and resistance is acknowledged, the difficulty resides in developing ways to analyze and discuss these multiplicities. It is the exploration of this difficulty – the doing of intersectional work or the practice of intersectionality – that requires much more discussion and attention. (p. 100, emphasis in original)

We aim to mobilize intersectionality’s critical potential to reflexively engage with our own research process: what subjects and objects, forms of agency and subordination, do we want to centralize and why? And as a result, what people/territories/processes/technologies do we name, and which ones do we leave unnamed and excluded and thereby invisible and untouched? Visibilities and invisibilities have been central to the concept of intersectionality since its articulation by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) in relation to second-wave feminism as a “crucial black feminist intervention challenging the hegemonic rubrics of race, class, and gender within predominantly white feminist frames” (Puar, 2011, p. 51). As a result, it is whiteness that is often disrupted by intersectionality while other frames (masculinist, classist, abelist, etc.) are less scrutinized. The specific way that intersectionality has been mobilized points to a particular concern among the authors for the way whiteness works in our own scholarship as an invisible hand of privilege. And indeed, critics have pointed out how intersectionality can be used superficially as a form of whitewashing (Liu, 2017). In this complex way, identity and oppression always operate in tandem. Considering intersectionality as the exploration of “positionalities along axes of power” (Yuval-Davis, 2011, p. 13) offers a productive space in which to  accommodate a multidimensional and reflexive scrutiny of power as a kind of friction. As Michel Foucault (1978) famously noted in his distinction between power as “potentia/potestas,” there is potential for subversion in every system of domination: “where there is power, there is resistance” (p. 95).

Dirty Methods are oriented toward complex relationships

The ‘dirty’ in dirty methods has another possible implication, of a relation to sex in some kind of salacious or even obscene manner (i.e., doing the dirty, dirty jokes). This is one of the implications of dirty that we do not explore in our writing, and indeed was not one that arose in our many discussions of why we find this metaphor productive. Perhaps this is a surprise given that we frequently touch on relationality and embodiment, including when we use speed dating as a metaphor and reference revelations of sexual impropriety and abuse within the academy as part of the context of knowledge production. Dating also enters into our discussion of research ethics as a way of framing the intimate exchange of information about our projects while navigating relationships ripe with power dynamics. However, we see reason to resist this particular connotation of dirty when discussing methods. When we are suggesting the need to dig up and unearth the often-sanitized elements of engaging in academic knowledge production, in many ways we are pointing to the need to pay attention to the least ‘sexy’ priorities, commitments, processes, and influences that shape our methods. ‘Dirty’ does not refer to titillating or morally borderline factors contributing to our work in the contemporary university but instead to the very banal, commonplace, and at times even boring political and institutional forces that play a deeply political role in our research practices. However, we do think this work is exciting — not in the same way as the smutty or arousing — because an embrace of what we uncover, those dirty realities, enables us to think more clearly about what we are producing and aligning with in our research. We see this as of particular relevance for research methods invested in praxis and social justice, but also more broadly for those interested in interrogating the grounds on which their academic processes and knowledge production occur.

Following Anna Tsing (2005), we deliberately employ this ‘friction’ between entrapment and empowerment as a metaphor to describe the diverse and, at times, conflicting engagements that constitute the contemporary world. Our engagement with the world — personal, political, professional — is co-constituted by what Tsing describes as, “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (p. 4). Friction is productive in that it provides a conceptual platform, or a space of possibility, through which we might encounter the complex realities of co-dependent relationships, between scholars (including ourselves), our communities of practice, institutions, and the funding bodies and agencies that materialize and therefore legitimize some of these relationships. And when we tease out the relationships that shape our scholarly practices, we might also assess what our affinities to individuals, groups, institutions, and, indeed, aspirations, can obscure or invisibilize in our own critical scholarly endeavours. We find ourselves, at times, especially as emerging scholars, caught in the ebb and flow of expectations that are both self-imposed and institutionalized. In further developing such possibilities for “feminist research praxis” (Leurs & Olivieri, 2014), we engage with dirty methods to guide us through overdetermined vantage points.

The broader idea of collectivity that dirty methods hinges on incorporates an ethic and practices of care (Luka & Millette, 2018) that accounts for empathy and shared commitments to action in the research process, both of the researcher and “the researched,” challenging the assumption that these are mutually exclusive. In such “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1999), the researcher holds an empathetic responsibility to hold space for a spectrum from pain through joy as integral to lived experience represented and analysed in research. This process of empathy both extends to the people being researched and doubles back onto the researcher themselves: “Guided by an ethic of care, emotionally engaged research helps foster intellectual clarity, and a deeper understanding of our research and research participants. This ethic of care must also, however, be extended to us as researchers” (Blakely, 2007, p. 65). This insight has been thoroughly explored in Black feminist scholarship, which highlights the significance of reflecting on both the researcher and the researched in knowledge production as a component of decolonizing dominant research structures. Feminist, Indigenous and queer theory exploring an ethic and practices of care signals the challenges of how much work it is to hold space and to extend and support caring and allyship from the academy (e.g. Cole et al., 2018; Tallbear, 2019). As explored in the movement of money vignette, one approach is to share research and institutional resources so that everyone involved in the project is not faced with punitive delays in payments, or compelled to contribute emotional labour for which they are not compensated or which might be harmful. This is a crucial commitment — and one that is difficult to achieve — in the context of often all-encompassing pressures in the university and capitalist systems to be productive and frequently extractive rather than inclusive, mutual or generative. As Kovach (2005) argues, research that seeks to be emancipatory for marginalized voices must recognize how the university — as an extension of the state — often further silences those voices (p. 21). Furthermore, the neoliberal technological acceleration of the university visible in its push towards quantification and objective management, are turning universities (particularly those in the ‘Global North’) into “a place where professors and students are exploited by a management that is largely clueless about the ‘true’ and more profound purpose of the university — that of independently pursuing justice, knowledge, truth and emancipation” (Hoofd, 2016, p. 2). Such an irony is not lost on dirty methods that foreground these kinds of unresolvable tensions stemming from entrenched social power asymmetries.

In developing dirty methods, we scrutinize our own and others’ practices of care, while drawing on empathic methodological protocols. For example, feminist participatory action research, or F-PAR, provides insight into ways of working with communities to conduct direct action research and link practice to theory collaboratively and ethically. It provides a means by which to transcend the implications of “giving voice” in theorizing to engage in knowledge production with rather than about marginalized groups (Krumer-Nevo, 2009; Smith et al., 2010). Intersectional and postcolonial F-PAR considers relationality in terms of power, focusing particularly on sharing the power of definition and decolonizing asymmetrical relationships through action research (Frisby et al., 2009, p. 19). In this way, an ethics of care could allow us to move towards a more “social-justice oriented, feminist data studies” (Leurs, 2017, p. 133) by challenging our own practice and asking difficult questions about exploitation, agency, and meaning-making. As a community of researchers, The Fourchettes aimed to evolve in a caring way, working to surface and observe our own discomforts and dis-eases.  

It is Indigenous scholarship and postcolonial technoscience that allow us to recognize how dominant research modes naturalize and constitute a new hegemonic form of aggregation and aggression, spreading orientalizing values of surveying and hierarchical categorization that are typical of (imperial/colonial) late modernity (Connell, 2007; Vowel, 2016; Watts, 2013). Indigenous methodologies reveal an ethical imperative that is grounded in an appreciation of and revaluing of epistemological-ontologies, particularly those that have encountered the colonial violence embedded in western knowledge systems (Pualani Louis, 2007, p. 131). This is a huge contribution to the notions of reflexivity and positionality, but as white settler authors primarily working and living in a settler colony (Canada), what does it mean for us to invoke Indigenous methods while we continue to benefit from colonial oppression? Vanessa Watts (2013) would argue that we the authors, as non-Indigenous scholars, may merely abstract Indigenous thinking and use it as a resource without fully contending with the epistemological-ontological consequences. On the other hand, can we afford not to acknowledge and think with the contributions of Indigenous methods scholars? We cannot keep reproducing the fallacy that the core of what has become understood as feminist politics was developed by white women. Nor can we disregard epistemological-ontological frames that redistribute agency. It is an uncomfortable position that opens the door to cultural appropriation, “woke-washing,” and white guilt.

So there is an unresolvable double-bind here surrounding the politics of positionality and cultural appropriation. We feel that it’s important to name and recognize the influence of Indigenous methods in highlighting the unresolvable tensions in how we come to know what we know. But of course, a long history of settler cultural appropriation and western research with Indigenous peoples suggests that this invocation of Indigenous methods is deeply complicated (just as the use of the term ‘tribal’ above — a term introduced in this context by Indigenous scholars — sparked a discussion amongst us). By being reflexive about our own complicity in colonial systems and institutions, our intention is to enact respect for epistemological-ontological paradigms outside the institutionalized western model and commit to listening to and seriously engaging with Indigenous frameworks, particularly when they fundamentally unsettle our own orientations to research and to our own positions in the wider world. This is the necessary spirit of discomfort underlying dirty methods.

Yet, as noted above, this reflexivity about our own complicity in oppressive frameworks is not meant to absolve us. Alexis Shotwell’s (2016) work on purity politics, complicity, and compromise asserts that “it is not possible to avoid complicity,” which means that we ought to “start from the assumption that everyone is implicated in situations we (at least in some way) repudiate” (p. 5). Ultimately, Shotwell asks us to shed our compulsion towards “purity politics,” an orientation that is impossible to actually execute anyway within our lives (or, as we would rearticulate here, within our research practices). Instead, Shotwell encourages us to “shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures” (p. 8). If we are to acknowledge our own intersectional positionality as researchers, we cannot avoid also recognizing our complicity in the pasts and presents that are intimately connected to the futures we hope to engender. This holds, for example, for strategically sharing (and giving up) institutional power and recognition, the privilege of time, access, networks, and authorship. Or, if we have avoided it up until now, we ought to find ways to uncover this dirtiness — or “complexity and complicity,” as Shotwell puts it — and anchor this work within our research practices, recognizing that we cannot subscribe to the fallacy of “purism” that would have us believe that we can wash our hands clean by merely making enough ethically clean decisions.

And why is this discomfort particularly “dirty”? In a pragmatic sense, it is contrary to the idea of research methods as suggesting a clear and direct set of steps that can be used to “collect data” from respondents. Rather, the ways that studies are designed implicate all kinds of decisions that may make us uncomfortable as researchers (e.g., recruiting people from marginalized communities). This kind of feeling is not one that typically gets aired in public settings, like articles or conference presentations, if indeed it ever surfaces in private conversations about our work among colleagues and friends. In an ethical sense, incorporating reflexivity and positionality to try to absolve oneself from researcher privilege only papers over the unresolvable tensions that arise from the differential ways that people from particular social locations can occupy positions of legitimacy in academic and public contexts. In a political sense, the kinds of solidarities, allyships, and co-conspiratorial relations that we imagine our academic work to promote are also often at odds with the kinds of benefits we personally and professionally accrue from generations of colonial policy and social stratification.

When learning about research methods during graduate school or at other early stages, one often hears that, rather than delivering answers, all research does is present additional questions. By framing dirty methods as uncomfortable, we suggest that those additional questions can extend beyond the artificial boundaries of a research project to undermine the researcher’s existential comforts. There are dirty tensions behind even good intentions.

Dirty Methods sit with rather than dispatch ambiguity

To activate dirty methods, we first took a reflexive approach and engaged in explicit self-aware meta-analysis. “Reflexivity as introspection” as Linda Finlay (2002) names it, describes a process through which a “researchers’ own reflecting, intuiting and thinking are used as primary evidence” (p. 213). The process itself is also invested in “examining how the researcher and intersubjective elements impinge on, and even transform, research” (p. 210). Finlay suggests how engaging in reflexivity is “full of muddy ambiguity”, which was a compelling figure of speech for us to think with as we sought to delineate the scope of our project on dirty methods. To claim ambiguity in research is normally troubling because it undermines the heritage of Western scholarly traditions that exalt precision, rigour, and objectivity. These are precisely the norms dirty methods undermine by exposing the assumptions about doing research that are overlooked and distorted.

Ambiguity was a generative concept for us, but it was not a precise marker for our positionality. More so than ambiguity, this project taught us about the strengths of what Taina Bucher (2019) identifies as ambivalence. As Bucher writes:

Far from being agreeable or a cop-out, the ambivalent position means having to negotiate an ongoing tension without necessarily finding resolution. The kind of ambivalence I have in mind is not about occupying an indifferent position. It’s not an ‘anything goes’ attitude, nor does it involve compromise. Ambivalence isn’t a lack of belief, but rather the ability to ‘stay with the trouble’ of questioning basic assumptions and to be transparent about them. (p. 3)

Bucher argues for the virtue of ambivalence because it allows us to perceive and comprehend conflicting and contradictory things (Bucher, 2019). As an alternate mode of critical positionality, ambivalence makes it possible to observe the relative strengths and weaknesses of a range of positions, activities and engagements within academic research contexts and spaces (Zeffiro, forthcoming). Ambivalence is the capacity to see competing versions of things at once.

The process of articulating dirty methods effectuated a revaluation of our personal and institutional affinities and the deliberate unsettling of comfort zones. Early in the project, the authors had to confront how we also constitute the very system that we seek to refute and transform. As a group of white scholars, our project is punctuated by hegemonic whiteness. We acknowledge this throughout the text, not as an act of virtue signalling, but as an opportunity to disentangle the ways in which we have benefited from our whiteness in our work and in our roles within the University (see also: Lugones & Spelman, 1983). Race is our central analytical category. At the same time, our individual experiences that constellate our collaborative voice are shaped by personal experiences and by factors such as class, gender, legal status, nation, (dis)ability, language, and the politics of location. We come together in sameness but also in difference.

We sought to find a productive and generative analytical model that could encapsulate our ambivalence, split-affinities, and fragmented loyalties, sometimes performing as faithful to the institution and the academy while subtly trying to unravel both. Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of the feminist killjoy (Ahmed, 2010) is perhaps closest to what we sought to articulate, but it could not fully address the duality and doubleness some of us experienced. To help explain the ways in which academia – the institutions, traditions, norms, practices, and people — is complicit in upholding colonial capitalism and white supremacy, unintentionally or otherwise, we conjured the figure of the double agent. The double agent as dirty method is an analytical approach to attend to the double role we play as critical scholars in (un)sustaining academe. We employ the figure as an interpretive framework to tease out the sense of playing both sides due to our split-affinities and fragmented loyalties.

As a trope the double agent shares similarities with the doppelgänger, notably in how the literary motif has been used to challenge the autonomy of the sovereign subject. In The Doppelgänger: Literature’s Philosophy (2010), Dimitris Vardoulakis explains how the term is attributed to the German author Jean Paul (Richter) in his 1796 novel Siebenkäs. In English, the term is translatable as “double” or “look-alike”, a motif that is now a constant presence in fiction. “[T]he doppelgänger”, writes Vardoulakis “is always in a process of formation and hence transformation; it remains to be elaborated; it is but its being, its ontology, its presence, is not only linked to a past but also laden with a future” (p. 7). Similarly, the double agent is applied in the text to emphasize the limitations of researcher autonomy; as researchers, we are always already accountable to our participants, audiences, collaborators, past and future projects, students, and of course, the institutional spaces through which we work. Perhaps what is most compelling about Vardoulakis’s articulation of the doppelgänger, which we import into our configuration of the double agent, is how the author situates the figure in the political for how “it allows for an extrapolation of the conditions of possibility of action” (p. 6). 

The double agent as an interpretive framework provides us with a new analytic for critiquing our own institutional culture(s) and the broader climate of the neo-liberal university and not without simultaneously critiquing our own role(s) in it. We are at once products of the system, benefiting in a multitude of ways as white (feminist) intersectional scholars, while also recognizing how through our diverse experiences of being interpellated into the governing norms of the university, we have also been subjected to its benign violence (Allen, 2014). Ansgar Allen argues how we must object to the subjects that we have become if we are to revolt against the ingrained belief of education – including academic research – as an incontestable social good. 

The double agent as method provides a framework for refusal by centering the grit, grime, discomfort and failures that can also punctuate research. Such moments that constitute dirty methods are quite often subdued, ignored, or hidden to maintain the optics of research as a virtuous process. As we argue, it is by recognizing our own complicity – by sharing, naming and inhabiting the discomfort of failures and omissions — that the double agent understands what precisely constitutes the possibilities of action (see also: Kovach, 2005).


With an eye toward diverse communities of scholarship, we bring together a group of authors whose research represents diverse objects of study, often by mobilizing and critiquing digital methods, and for whom critical questions of epistemology, ontology, ethics, and power are always central. We elucidate the dirtiness of research methods through reflection on diverse ‘moments’ in academic knowledge production. By focusing on dirty moments in the research process, where we face choices that shape not only our findings but the ways in which certain modes of knowledge production are legitimized (or not), we offer an important alternative to accounts of methods that read more like a procedural checklist. Rather than demonstrating how to conduct a study with a given research method, we illuminate the politics that underlie our decisions and practices as digital culture researchers across the complicated process of undertaking research. Again, while our work attends to digital technologies — through our method or object of study — we are careful to avoid overemphasizing the digital when it is often relations between people and social structures that we are more interested in. At the same time, and in keeping with the dirtiness and mess, it is the magnification of the digital within our respective fields of study that has brought us here. We include a wide range of activities, from the entanglement with digital technology via humanistic frameworks, to the politics of citation, to the unpacking of gendered and racialized substrates of knowledge production including ‘dissemination’ and ‘canons’ of scholarly work. Our approach also asks questions about power hierarchies in the researcher/researched relationship back into the discussion, a topic of particular significance given that informed consent is increasingly bypassed by third-party disclaimers in platform policies, which renders refusal of participation obsolete in digital media and communication research.

We also include a consideration of scholarly activities often considered peripheral to research, such as teaching, conducting administration, and fostering community relationships, since the relationship between these activities and research is often overlooked or disadvantaged by the hierarchical value systems entrenched in academic life. We critically question each part of the research process, from the framing of the ‘problem’ to be analysed, to the research design and ethical review process, to participant identification and recruitment, and finally to data analysis, writing, and distribution of the research findings. Through this, we unpack the political and ethical dimensions of knowledge production in research and advocate for dirty research practices that challenge established ways of knowing while recognizing that all tensions cannot (and perhaps should not) be resolved.

In summary, we hope that the dirty methods approach serves as a go-between in the act of theorizing power and the gesture of disassembling the power of theorizing by finding new ways to vocalize assumptions and silences that are otherwise assimilated within standardized methods, tools, and scholarly language. We seek to make generative and productive the tensions between disciplinary silos and confusions of interdisciplinary conversations, the “stuckedness” (Hage, 2015) of being at a loss when linking empirical data with pre-existing theoretical frameworks and the anxieties of grappling with new methods. Research is embodied, material, often tedious, and unspectacular. Everyday life is full of paradoxes and ambivalences, and dirty methods seek to embrace these tensions and provide a sense of how to think through them in media and communication scholarship.   

Rather than focusing on individual research questions or project-specific theoretical approaches, we address common issues faced across the authorship team in relation to specific moments in the research process. In what follows, we describe and discuss the content.

We begin with “Becoming Researchers: The Dirty Business of Training Research Methods”, which addresses the classic first step into the academic career, the PhD scholarship and thesis process. Doing a PhD entails getting very dirty because it involves learning and doing original research, often for the first time. To be clear, this does not explain how to formulate a good research problem or an efficient methodological protocol — there are a surfeit of such instructional texts. It’s about the dirtiness of the method behind the whole process: how can we conduct, survive, experiment with, and even enjoy the PhD process? How can we develop a practice of self-care when precarity and free labour is often the daily, normalized reality for PhD students? How should we deal with what is embedded in discourses of ‘imposter syndrome’? How might we negotiate the power differentials with one’s advisor and supervisory committee? This text reflects on the intellectual, but also often emotional, embodied, and neglected journey entailed in this first moment of independently leading a large-scale research project by collating our reflections on the process of becoming in academia. This part of the process is a gray zone. The purpose is not to give ‘10 easy steps’ or clear-cut answers to difficult questions. Instead, we open the black box of this ritual to create a conversation about this dirty business, one based on our experiences as students and supervisors, and one that we hope will productively inform current and former PhD students about the universality of doubt, second-guessing, and isolation. We reflect on our own network as a mode of collectivism that we think can challenge these expected, negative individualized experiences.

Next, “The Glorious Messiness of Methodology: Speculation, Intra-actions… and Glitter,” engages in a demystification of methodology as a messy process with the aim to share power between the researcher, the ‘researched’ and our broader communities. It unpacks how dirty the development of methodology can be, and proposes ways to embrace it, and even find glimmers of joy throughout. We mobilize feminist materialism as a theoretical background and demonstrate how ‘speculation as (dirty) method’ can help us make sense of the constant adjustments and adaptation required during research. This evolution of methodology is at the center of our argument and dealt with through an exploration of how diffraction, refraction and intra-actions act as useful methodological attitudes to react to the hazards of fieldwork. Derived from better understanding our own positionalities, speculation as method asks us to consider our own stance as one among many and applies it to the conduct of research at every stage of the process, from the moment we think about a research question to the dissemination of knowledge. We bring these concepts to life through examples from our own research projects and academic life. In our research practices, we have partnered and engaged directly with the public, grassroots community organizations, funding bodies, corporate media organizations, policymakers, and a range of other professional stakeholders. Being able to navigate these diverging agendas and emergent constraints entails dirty processes that are often not discussed in detail. We address them and share our experiences of speculation in research, while re-situating ourselves as researchers in the world. 

Frictions arise when one’s personal commitment to modes of critical research collide with a broad research climate focused on trends, intensity, and output. As an analytic, ‘friction’ foregrounds the conflicting engagements that constitute the often-jumbled merging of research, administration and university culture. While in most contexts, we are critics of the computational tools and techniques contributing to the institutionalization of prescriptive research paradigms, we also increasingly have become champions of the ways in which these emerging tools and techniques are contributing to an expanding array of research methods and sources of evidence. Moreover, this double movement takes place within institutional contexts forged from colonial and exclusionary values. To make sense of and learn from the frictional dynamics of doing university business, the figure of the double agent is conjured to understand how the constant sense of playing both sides relates specifically to the larger colonial project that is ‘the University.’ The double agent surfaces the tacit assumptions imported as a researcher/administrator from white hegemonic masculine culture into digital research contexts. By staying with the discomfort of recognizing how the biases of their white privilege uphold White colonial rationality, the double agent submits to a vulnerability so consuming that it becomes unthinkable to resume university ‘business as usual.’

Next, we explore the context of engaging in critical community-engaged research in the contemporary research environment. “The Curious Life of Social Justice in Academia” spans three geographic contexts, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. We explore funding calls, strategic areas of research focus, the emphasis on knowledge mobilization and its impact, as well as the complicity and co-optation that can occur when certain communities, such as ‘refugees’, are prioritized in research calls. Here we reflect on encounters with these initiatives in practice and what they reveal about the ideal academic research subject as well as the tensions underlying this figure. As we discuss, the irresolvable conflicts that arise are a product of the neoliberal processes shaping academic work. Through our consideration of the entanglement of politics, policy, and discourse in relation to academic scholarship focused on digital media and social justice, we demonstrate how funding and research priorities enter into conflict with politicized approaches and perspectives, establishing restrictive new definitions and standards for ‘excellent’ research.

“From Process to Policy and Back Again” takes as its starting point the ‘policy reflex’ in communication research papers that often conclude with implications or recommendations for policymakers. Through a reflection on our own policy reflexes, we explore what evoking the policy domain means for the research process and subject position of the researcher. This is a timely concern given that one of the assumptions embedded in funding priorities like knowledge mobilization or impact is that social research should enact a broader public benefit specifically through influencing the development of public policy. Attempts at policy advocacy in the context of internet regulation have foregrounded the dirty task of translating critical research, including into federal telecommunications policy submissions and expert testimony. What happens in this translation is often a simplification or a bending of the argument to fit discursive frameworks that are legible in the policy space. Moreover, the quasi-judicial contours of that space systematically deprivileges voices that diverge from the ‘unmarked’ white, male homo economicus of late capitalism. Far from being a direct transposition of findings, translation in such an overdetermined political space fundamentally shifts the terrain on which the research is done, warping the whole context for making certain methodological choices. This example of the dirtiness of policy intervention shows how methods are not linear but jagged and circular; how the trajectory of knowledge that gets created tends to loop back on itself in recursive, forking paths that implicate a set of troubling politics. These paths further suggest ethical decision-making that implicates the researcher personally, both in the development of knowledge as well as in some idea of public benefit and notions of ‘value’ and ‘power’ as articulated in the policy domain. 

We then consider ethical questions that arise as we engage with Research Ethics Boards (REBs), faculty members, graduate students, and all of the other people who become involved in our research projects. “On Power and Relationships: Making Kin with Research Ethics” explores how these relationships evolve, especially as we gain more experience with the academy and considers over a decade of decisions and conversations related to research ethics and how we have navigated various scholarly relationships. We investigate how our own identities and confidence as scholars intersected with how we understood the function of REBs, their presumed authority, and the operation of power within a wide range of relationships related to our research projects. Early on in the career of a researcher, it may feel like the REB exists merely to exert ultimate authority over research projects and control access to ethical knowledge. However, in our experience, this relationship evolves and researchers may even find themselves joining an REB as a faculty member. Some geographic locations where we have conducted research have required engagement with REB processes unfamiliar to us, entailing more stringent ethico-political considerations. This further shapes research agendas as required by institutionalized systems. Here we consider the gamut of REB relationships, with a particular focus on how relative privilege as well as vulnerability shapes these interactions. After discussing the historical relationship between academia and research ethics, along with our concerns about laissez faire attitudes towards digital ethics and faculty frustrations with institutionalized ethical obligations, we offer a ‘fireside chat’ consisting of several reflective stories of our own ethical encounters in research.

Finally, “Conclusions,” pulls together the various situations in which we’ve engaged in dirty methods to discuss how this approach to methods fundamentally implicates both privilege and vulnerability. As a unique contribution to understanding methods, we explore the complicated emotional and embodied resonances of doing scholarly research. 

Process: vignettes and authorship

Vignettes serve as interludes in the text. They present moments where a story or a reflection in a more undisciplined way can highlight our process in writing, as well as broader experiences of doing research, that accord with a dirty methods sensibility. Sometimes, we use the vignettes to try out different modes of talking about our work that put forth attempts at novel ways of sharing and revealing the lived realities of academic research that enliven our arguments about the dirtiness of our methods. We also see these as sandboxes for exploration and how they might be read and understood as an open question — a dirty proposition we embrace.

Rather than reiterate existing content, the vignettes function as brief evocative descriptions, accounts, or episodes. Interweaving personal and professional encounters, which include reflections on successes and failures and the extraordinary and mundane, the vignettes reanimate the tensions, frictions, harmonies, and enchantments explored, but with a focused lens on how individual encounters have shaped our collective authorship. While they often include reflections on emotion and affect, we did not find that writing the vignettes, offered us individual catharsis. Instead, we use these revelations about sentiment in doing research to speak more directly to our readers and encourage more conversations in class or within other research collectives about these and other pertinent topics. Whether these experiments resonate with our readers is an open question, but we hope our attempts at least inspire other speculative approaches to reflecting on knowledge production.

As the format of the vignette suggests, in addition to reflexively interrogating our own research practices, we aim to challenge the modes of writing and presentation that characterize academic scholarship. Our co-authored approach is another intervention, which highlights how critical thought is a collaborative endeavour and recognizes the ways that knowledge is the product of collective labour. Our approach to writing what constitutes this text focused on shared challenges as well as diverging approaches and questions about these questions, as we read through each other’s contributions. In this way, we engaged not only in reflexive accounting of dirty methods but we used the power of collaboration to tease out frictions, messiness, and questions of complicity, positionality, and privilege.

Part of the process that we have reflected on a great deal has been how to deal with the white elephant in the room: the lack of BIPOC voices. We discussed potentially inviting other, non-white authors to contribute to the content. For example, one of us raised the possibility that a BIPOC graduate student of theirs could potentially co-author a vignette while another mentioned BIPOC friends and colleagues who we could invite into the project. But this sort of ‘solution’ to the whiteness of our work felt contrived and tokenistic. Would we be inviting such collaboration solely because the potential collaborator was not white? It seemed exploitative. So in the end, we maintained our initial group (minus a couple of authors who had to bow out due to overcommitment) even though it is a fairly homogeneous team. This is one of the dirty questions that we still don’t have a good answer for: aside from thinking with and citing BIPOC authors (which we have done), how can we destabilize the whiteness of authorship without hastily inviting BIPOC scholars (themselves often overworked through the ‘uses’ of their non-white status for all kinds of extra labour) to jump in midway through a project that began without them, or without tapping into traditional wells for exploited labour by coercing BIPOC graduate students to contribute as deadlines approached? One idea is to frame this as ongoing work, an opening for a much broader set of reflections, comments and critiques on the thematic of ‘dirty method,’ while openly discussing how and why we ended up as a group of only white people and how we plan to move forward.

Even within our relatively limited group, we’ve had many divergent perspectives and have tried to keep those in the text. We experimented with various ways of representing this heterogeneity — for example, for a time, working with differently colored text to denote individual viewpoints (an “authorship rainbow”) and icons to indicate who was speaking in the first-person singular voice. While the constraints of academic publishing and considerations of accessibility and legibility limited our ability to represent changes in viewpoint through these visual means, it also presented us with an opportunity to wrestle directly with the dirty methods of academic authorship.

The way we approached writing duties similarly tried to balance the collective and individual voice, where each named contributor started the process of organizing and writing some parts based on an identified topic of interest, and then other authors engaged in commentary, contribution, and editing. Throughout, we aimed not for agreement across authors but a polyvocal tapestry of thoughts and questions to emerge based on this dirty approach to writing. There is no software or secret formula enabling such a process — we have found consistent communication via email and online meetings setting out challenges and priorities on a monthly basis, with an attunement to individual workloads and personal and professional situations, to be the only way to facilitate the messiness of co-authorship. An ethics of care, as we have previously discussed, is vital to this process.

This work therefore deals with authorship outside of the norms and traditions of how the contributors are cited. While it was important to us to have a collaboratively authored text, we also deliberately chose to interrupt with individual stories that do identify who is speaking. Sometimes this was necessary because of a specific project that was being discussed, but the choice to name an author is a direct reflection of the openness and vulnerability that undergirds our dirty methods approach. There are still some sections written in the first person that remain unidentified and in these cases we wanted to signal that openness and vulnerability can also be understood in more universal ways, that is, without attribution to a specific individual. Furthermore, we are following in the tradition of other critical feminist scholars of emerging technologies and academic structures, including the 11 authors of “For Slow Scholarship”, who describe their collaborative work as shifting from individual stories told from the first person singular about isolating experiences in the academia to a collectivist approach to responding to these feelings. In their work, 

what emerged was not a singular, universal voice, but experiences that cut across multiple trajectories representing different times in our lives. Our experiences of the neoliberal university as students, contingent faculty, probationary faculty, and tenured professors are both unique and noticeably consistent. We see the themes emerging from our narratives not as universal but ubiquitous. (Mountz et. al, 2015, p. 1239)

While our text and approach bear similarities to this, we wanted to find a way to acknowledge our collective authorship in a way that would not collapse us to the first name author as in the previous citation. We were inspired by Lilly Nguyen, Sophie Toupin, and Shaowen Bardzell, writing as SSL Nagbot, a “‘hack’ of academic authorship” (2016, n.p.) meant precisely to disrupt the expected structure and hierarchies that commonly rank and value academic credit. Rather than leaving an equal contributor as last on a list because such a fate has been determined by the English alphabet and attempting to create a pervasive mathematics of contribution, we have followed the lead of SSL Nagbot and created the pseudonym ZAMBLAMS.


There were a number of features we came up with that would communicate the spirit of dirty methods through the reading experience by challenging the conventions of typical academic publishing. 

Some of the wilder ideas we had included a cover with a hologram that would scramble up the authors’ names when viewed from different angles, to subvert typical conventions of author ordering. We recalled the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories where plot twists and surprise endings could be accessed by making choices that would direct the reader to different pages. We talked about incorporating paper with varied textures and colours as a material signal that this is not a neat, clean final version with crisp white pages. The use of pop-up or push-and-pull elements could disrupt the flatness of pages to suggest alternate versions of certain stories. And, to materially manifest the dirtiness of dirty methods, we imagined issuing small packets of dirt. Readers would be invited to open the packet and play with some of the dirt in order to draw their body more actively into the process of reading.

In practice, we realize that few of these ideas couldn’t make it in due to the constraints of publication and also international border restrictions on soil and soil-related products. Perhaps in the end our only challenge to form is maintaining an overall sense of collective authorship, which in itself was a difficulty that we embraced. At times the only solution involved signalling the specific author’s experience being discussed to preserve an individual voice.

Dirty methods entail a reorienting of typical research priorities based on cleanliness. More than that, dirty methods suggest that reflexivity about the politics of methods, while important, is simply not enough (e.g., Pillow, 2003). Dirtiness means staying with discomfort, problems, and power imbalances, and learning to integrate everything that’s not clean into a process of producing knowledge that is contingent and embodied. This sort of messy social justice approach to research methods doesn’t provide any easy answers; instead it unapologetically throws up more, and deeper, problems. Through its structure, analysis, process, and form, it provokes contemporary communication and media researchers to consider and indeed embrace their own dirtiness in academic work.


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