A few days ago, I attended a research seminar where a female academic was presenting a paper on constructions of motherhood. While the presentation itself, and the discussion that followed, were very interesting, I was fascinated by the final question asked by an audience member during the Q&A. The audience member wanted to know what messages the academic had for her two teenage daughters, whose fascination with and engagement in celebrity culture worried her, both personally and politically. The academic responded in the way we all do when we’re not sure how to respond in such moments – she asked the questioner about what messages she had for her daughters.
Aside from the question about how useful(or not) of such strategies are in bridging the gap between academia and the ‘real world’, I was particularly interested in how the academic used her own status as ‘child-free’ to enable her to avoid the audience members’ question. Firstly, the academic disclosed that while she was researching motherhood, she was not ‘actually’ a mother. Then she turned to the questioner and said ‘but you are a mother, so you know better than me – what do you think?’ The questioner clearly wasn’t prepared for this – after all, up until that point she had clearly been positioned as the student, the one who was to learn from the academic, who was – in contrast – the authority on the subject. So the questioner muttered something unrelated to the research findings about “well, what I always do is talk to my daughters….” drawing on the only knowledge she had – the experiential knowledge that comes with being a mother.
These discursive moves made by academic and audience member tell us something interesting about how the subject positions of ‘woman’, ‘feminist’ ‘academic’ and ‘researcher’ occupy different spaces and can be usefully mobilised depending on the demands of the moment. In our paper, published this week in Qualitative Research Journal, myself and Dr. Nollaig Frost discuss how our own subject positions of mother/child-free played a role in our own research into motherhood. At the time of the research, we both identified (and still do) as women, as feminists and as academics. However, Nollaig was a mother and I was child-free, and in our paper we reflect on how these subject positions shaped the process of the research, including: identification of research topic, access to participants, choice of method and how the mobilisation of our various subject positions shapes research practice – particularly during interview interactions with mothers. We also discuss what other feminist academics have shared about their experiences when researching motherhood, and our conclusion discusses how the mobilisation of different subject positions threaten our (often conflicting) goals as academics, women, mothers and feminists.
The seminar experience recounted at the beginning of this post highlights how subject positions continue to be mobilised long after ‘research’ is complete and once ‘dissemination’ is underway. And it raises further intriguing questions: in the final analysis, does ‘mother’ trump ‘academic’, to the extent that a female feminist child-free academic cannot advise mothers about what their research findings might mean for them? Or perhaps motherhood does not trump academic, but the idea that it can do may be a useful tactic in particular contexts to skilfully respond to a challenging question while keeping an academic’s authoritative status intact?
Our interest in pluralism in qualitative research is shared by others, and more can be found on the collective Pluralities in Qualitative Research blog.