Sociology

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A researcher’s struggles
Luc S. Cousineau

Researchers using feminist theory in immersive qualitative research like ethnography must contend with a feminist ethics of care, where the researcher is compelled to treat their participants like people, engaging with and protecting them from potential harm (Hesse-Biber 2012). But what happens when the act of protecting the individual conflicts with the feminist imperative to “repair our world” (Stanley and Wise 2013: 23)? Beyond dated critiques of feminist ethnography (Stacey 1988), there are emotional and epistemological challenges when working with ethnography and feminist theory on what Fielding (1990) calls “unloved groups”, for example, groups on the far and extreme right. The conflict that gives rise to these difficulties is between the emancipatory and equity work essential to feminism and the imperative to expose anti-equity rhetoric and ideology. Using a long-term study of two men’s communities on Reddit as grounding for its theorisation, this chapter will explore the ethical dilemmas and decision-making when determining what content, whose names, and what details to publish in academic work on groups that have the potential to cause social (and physical) harm. It will examine the misalignments between theory and practice when researcher interest in exposing dangerous ideologies conflicts with the call to protect. What meta-ethical hurdles might we jump to justify our own practice? Using the author’s experience in having to address these challenging issues, this chapter will expand the conversation between feminist ethics, ethnographic work, and academic activism, and how these can (and cannot) come together in research on the far right.

in The ethics of researching the far right
A consideration of environmental constraints on risk management
Antonia Vaughan

Academics are increasingly understood as being at risk from harms such as networked harassment, threats, attacks to credibility, and vicarious trauma. Best practice for protection against such harms emphasises the importance of obscurity, control over available information, and the prioritisation of personal wellbeing. However, researchers operate within a neoliberal environment that rewards visibility and productivity, in part through engagement with the digital sphere, public scholarship, and publication. By focusing on two harms (networked harassment and vicarious trauma), this chapter highlights how the behaviours necessary for success contradict best practice for managing risk. It argues that this contradiction produces an antagonistic relationship between success and safety, requiring researchers to negotiate between the two. Ultimately, this chapter critiques the individualisation of responsibility for success and safety which overlooks the uneven experience of harm and invisibilises how environmental factors constrain researchers’ abilities to protect themselves. In doing so, the system privileges certain voices and increasingly embeds harm in the conduct of such research.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Embracing and navigating failure as a principle in research on the far right
Balša Lubarda

The concept of ‘failure’, established in critical (social) anthropology, stands for an incessant critique of moral relativism characteristic of ethnographic research. Embodied in the practice of reflexivity and positioned advocating, failure brings about an ‘incomplete ethnography’. Building on four years of ethnographic research and more than seventy qualitative interviews conducted with far-right representatives in six countries, this chapter seeks to unpack the notion of incomplete ethnography, serving two main purposes. First is to contribute to the broader and still ongoing debate on policing the scholarly boundaries of ethnography as a method, that is, the differences with respect to its application in sociology, anthropology and political science. Second is to reflect on the theoretical and practical use of the notions of ‘failure’ and ‘incompleteness; in producing knowledge about the far right. Ethnographies are incomplete when ethnographers fail. Some of these failures include frequently changing research locations amid security concerns, the ethics of care in conveying the research aims to our interlocutors and audiences, the inability to establish a rapport, the role of informality, the perils of romanticising or exaggerating the ideological danger, or failure to sufficiently account for field relationships in theorising. In spite of being a constitutive part of virtually any ethnographic experience, hence not exclusively bound to far right research, failure in the field and the ‘incomplete ethnography’ remain subject to the rigorous standards characteristic of any (other) research undertaking.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Critical reflections for the field
Kurt Sengul

As critical scholars of race implore us to consider the structural and systemic nature of racism and to move beyond individualistic and attitudinal understandings, the proliferation of the global far right has reinforced a ‘bad apple’ view of racism within the scholarship. The purpose of this chapter is to offer a reflexive account of conducting a PhD thesis on Australia’s most prominent far-right politician, Pauline Hanson. For many, the return of Pauline Hanson to the Australian parliament in 2016 signalled the return of the ugly politics of race that characterised Hanson’s first stint in politics in the 1990s. The collective agreement that Hanson’s return represented the resurgence of racism in Australia corresponded with Ghassan’s Hage’s point that “white Australians have an interest in someone else perceived as ‘irrational and/immature’ … by distinguishing themselves from the ‘extremists’” (2000: 246). This chapter suggests that in the absence of a risk critical analysis, scholars of populism and the far right risk (re)producing individualistic understandings of racism through our narrow focus on far-right actors. Drawing on the Australian case study, this chapter aims to produce a set of critical provocations for scholars researching the far right within colonial and settler colonial contexts where racism is woven into the very fabric of society at a structural level. The chapter concludes by arguing that anything less than conceptualising the far right within a broader system of race, colonialism, and white supremacy risks the field becoming an obstacle to the project of dismantling them.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Politics, privilege, and practical concerns
Aaron Winter

This chapter will reflect on my research experience and decisions about how to engage with the far right as part of a wider examination of the racial politics of research on the far right – most notably how research into the far right often: (1) underplays race and racism; (2) assumes the whiteness and white privilege of the researcher and relies on white ignorance, including when it comes to the challenges, risks, and harms to racialised and otherwise targeted researchers; and (3) underplays its politics and subjectivity while constructing anti-racist and antifascist work as biased, political, or non-objective. I will discuss these issues and their implications, as well as how addressing them can help us understand and oppose racism more effectively and promote a more reflexive and anti-racist approach to far right studies.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Meghan Tinsley
,
Ruth Ramsden-Karelse
,
Chloe Peacock
, and
Sadia Habib

The re-ignition of the ‘culture war’ in Britain has thrust research on cultural heritage into the political and media spotlight. Research on the material traces of Britain’s imperial history, such as the National Trust’s report on its properties’ historical relationship to colonialism and slavery (Huxtable et al. 2020), has come under severe public scrutiny, with its authors accused of imposing a contemporary political agenda on the past. Similarly, academics who support the removal of statues that commemorate slavers and colonisers have been accused of ‘erasing history’. Government ministers have lent their support to these charges, introducing legislation that impedes changing the names of sites or removing statues from public spaces. Within this context, we reflect on the ethics of research on memory and cultural heritage. We draw data from interviews we conducted with forty anti-racist activists, heritage workers, and government officials, as well as from workshops conducted with young people and poets, under the auspices of the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity’s ESRC-funded work package, ‘The Changing Shape of Cultural Activism’. We argue that amidst its newfound visibility, research on cultural heritage is inherently political – such that declining to call for change or promoting a ‘balanced’ view of history is an endorsement of imperial amnesia and nostalgia. Further, amidst the prevalence of media and government accusations of ‘erasing history’, we argue for the importance of providing a counter-narrative, grounded in histories of empire and slavery as well as the literature on power and public space.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Jean Beaman

In this chapter, I draw on insights from my many years conducting ethnographic research in France as a Black American and US citizen, and non-French person, to discuss the challenges of conducting research on race and racism in a seemingly colourblind society. I also reflect on my own social location and positionality, which inform both how I conduct my research and how it is received by others, in both France and elsewhere.

in The ethics of researching the far right
Towards an ethics of talking ‘about’
Katy Brown

The far right has become a hugely popular area of research, yet there has been limited engagement with the specific ethical implications posed by studying these groups. With the way that academia can contribute to the political dynamics for which it offers interpretations, there is an urgent need to deal with these questions and reflect on our practices. Such considerations take on particular significance in the context of the mainstreaming of the far right that we see today. Not only have some far-right parties enjoyed greater electoral success, but there are many examples of far-right discourse becoming normalised in mainstream circles. It is not simply far-right groups that are responsible for such shifts but those at the heart of what is considered ‘mainstream’, whether that be prominent politicians, media outlets, or other popular figures such as authors, sportspeople, and celebrities defending exclusionary positions. Academia too is implicated in these processes, with different levels of consciousness and reflection in this regard. This chapter focuses on developing an ethics of talking ‘about’ the far right, whereby the way that we disseminate our findings forms a key area of reflection. The lens of mainstreaming offers a way for us to visualise the role that academia may play when talking ‘about’ the far right, using the case of the populist hype to evidence some potential pitfalls. By engaging with these questions, it is hoped that we can start to build towards a more comprehensive ethics of talking ‘about’ the far right within academia.

in The ethics of researching the far right
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Oral history, far right research, and the paradox of the ‘vocal minority’
Imo Kaufman

This chapter explores the tension between safety and good qualitative research practice in oral history interviews; interviews which seek to uncover far-right machinations in UK gaming spaces without talking to members of the far right, or far-right adjacent groups, themselves. Through a close examination of interview excerpts, in which four interview participants independently referred to a toxic, othered ‘vocal minority’ in gaming spaces, I will explore how the far right can linger in interview data without actually being present. This examination is reflexive, as I consider the specific implications of my own positionality and experiences of gaming space as a Jewish researcher. By scrutinising my own positionality, my paradoxical research practice (investigating a community without talking to them) and how far-right ideologies operate, I will unpack the ideological knots that my research has become tangled up within. Using an excerpt from a Louis Theroux documentary, in which he visits Nazis in America, I will demonstrate how the Jew’s negotiation of both literal and metaphorical boundaries allows her to exist between binaries and resist far-right ideological operations – or to find power in her failure when she cannot successfully subvert them.

in The ethics of researching the far right
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Covert research in digital far-right ‘red zones’
Jackson Wood

Contemporary researchers of the far right face a range of ethical challenges, including navigating institutional ethics. I argue in this chapter that Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) stifle innovative research when it is perceived as ‘risky’, which has the effect of reproducing harmful discourses about the far right. I draw upon my own experience, where my doctoral research methods were labelled the “modus operandi of fictional political thrillers”. My methods involved covert participant observation of far-right digital spaces, which posed an undue risk for the HREC for two overlapping reasons. First, covert research challenges notions of informed consent, which is typically presumed to be a baseline requirement for ethical research. Second, the HREC drew on popular, media-driven stereotypes of the far right, which had the effect of constructing my field site as a metaphorical digital ‘red zone’. In turn, the HREC was discursively positioned to consider my research as prima facie risky. Overall, I argue that institutional ethics would benefit from drawing on the rationalities of situated ethics and cultures of care, which treat ethics as an ongoing social practice rather than a one-off process.

in The ethics of researching the far right