Interdisciplinarity is fabulous

I’m going to try something slightly different today. I’ve been thinking about my PhD and some of the work I’ve done and am planning to do and wanted to try the thing where you write a blog post about your ideas that may or may not turn into some paper / dissertation writing. Last week, during the writing group, I started writing these thoughts down in a word document. At the beginning of the session I said that I was going to try to write a blog post, but since the writing group lasts for two 75min sessions, the bit of text ended up being a lot longer than a blog post. I started re-writing bits and putting in some stuff that turned it more into a weird outline / paper / chapter hybrid as opposed to a blog post. So, I’ve decided to give this kind of blogging another go in one of these morning blog sessions. I now only have roughly 15-30 mins to write this, so am going to just go at it.

I’ve written bits of academic writing about the methodology I’ve used, but haven’t done much writing about the ‘role’ of the technology, or in fact the role of the work and collaboration that goes into designing the technology when working with (politically active) charities. Using sex work support services as an example of charities that work within a particularly political space, I’ll outline briefly how I think the development of the technologies, the talking about technologies with staff and service users, and the deployment of technologies can play a role in their service delivery.

[edit: while I’d like to do this, I think that’s going to have to be split up into a couple of other posts. Here I’ll talk about the different literatures and how I currently think they fit together]

Before doing that though, I think it’s important to outline the gist of some of the literature that has brought me to thinking about these things. There are three areas of academic research that intersect when talking about the ways in which digital technologies can support sex work support services on a number of different levels: Socially engaged HCI research, Sex Work Research, and Social Work Research.

There’s the literature in HCI that explores spaces of social justice through social justice-oriented interaction design, or through examples of work that is based in feminist, post-colonial, or other social justice-oriented spaces. These topics are starting to be addressed, and some researchers are beginning to explicitly call their work ‘feminist’ or ‘social justice oriented’ (which is great!) but there is still something lacking for me. I’m not entirely sure exactly what that is yet, but I’d like to see a more nuanced engagement with these theories from the social sciences. Having said that, the work I do and the ways in which I think about this work is partly inspired by the growing group of researchers working in this space.

While trying to navigate this rapidly evolving space of socially engaged and justice oriented HCI publications, I do also appreciate the long history of reflexive, social justice oriented, and activist research that is present in some of the sex work research literature. A paper I keep going bak to for some reason is Phil Hubbard’s ‘Researching female sex work: reflections on geographical exclusion, critical methodologies and ‘useful’ knowledge’. It’s a pretty old paper (published in 1999) and is focused on the difficulties of a non-sex working male when engaging in research with women who sell sex (which arguably is quite different to what I do), but for some reason I keep coming back to this paper. It brings up some interesting points about ‘useful’ knowledge and ‘critical methodologies’ which, when coupled with the reading I’ve been doing in the socially engaged HCI literature, makes a lot of sense to me.

The third space of academia that I include in the weird venn diagram of literature that seems to be building my PhD is Social Work literature. I’m going to be honest and say that this is the bit of research that I’ve read the least in so far, but I’ve got a stack of papers that I want to get through that brings out debates within the discipline around whether or not social work is based in social justice, what this social justice could look like, and how social work practice engages in social justice work. This is particularly interesting to me, as I also keep coming back to Feis-Bryce’s Huffington Post article on why the third sector must be political. I understand that ‘being political’ and engaging in social justice work are different, but I also appreciate that they are deeply interwoven. Particularly when looking at sex work support services and the services they provide for their members, clients, or service users, the importance of social justice debates becomes important.

Working at the nexus of these three areas provides me with a unique possibility of looking at the research area from a different perspective. Often HCI research brings in new theories and research areas, but too often the engagement is not deep enough to provide nuanced debates. At the same time, sex work research is very good at providing these nuanced debates, but not very good at engaging in research with digital technologies (though there is a move towards doing research on the use of digital technologies, but here this is the part that doesn’t provide too much nuance). And lastly, in social work debates the topic of social justice oriented service delivery seems to be a debate without a clear answer. Meanwhile, I’m stuck working in this mess of research fields, theories, and practices. Trying to navigate the language and detail that is needed for these different areas is difficult and confusing, but bringing these together will ultimately help me understand the space better. It’ll help me think across the fields, through the disciplinary boundaries, and as such help me “decide how [we] can best make a contribution to debates surrounding the oppression of excluded groups” (Hubbard, 1999). Bringing in the pragmatic elements from HCI and social work, and some of the activism that takes place in social work practice however, allows us to go further than contributing to the debates surrounding sex work research, policy, and law. It allows us to engage in the fight against oppression of excluded groups by engaging more directly in pragmatic work that fights this oppression, while simultaneously theorising and contributing to the academic debates surrounding this as well.

“If our mission is to improve the safety of sex workers how can we remain silent when policies are introduced that will harm them?”


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