Occasional musings on Doing This PhD.
I worked for 10 years in the NGO sector. I didn’t quite fit – but then, if you spend your whole life looking for the space that’s exactly you-shaped, that’ll be a pretty unsatisfying life. I fit well enough. I learned a huge amount, and it formed my values and my friendships. I’m glad of it.
About 7 or 8 years in though, on the back of two (paid) internships and a year’s (paid) maternity leave, I realised that I had a passion and possibly a flair for research, and that’s how I ended up here. Doing This PhD.
I’m researching the impact of violence against women on African women living in Ireland. Important stuff, right? My theoretical lens (you have to have one of those) is stigma and shame. It’s a good theoretical lens, academically robust, and currently remarkably popular. I find there’s a groove, a community of people seized by this very subject, perhaps even a space where I can fit. And yet –
Early on in my data collection, it seems to me that stigma and shame are not the things that are crippling my research participants. Exclusion is; and in particular, for those still in the asylum process, Direct Provision. One woman complains: “It is many years I have been in This Kilkenny, and still I have no friends, no money.” Poverty is there too.
I don’t want to be too Mazlovian here, but I do think there’s a responsibility among researchers to recognise priorities. I’m delving into a tiny nook of people’s experience, and within that nook, encountering worlds. That’s how these things are supposed to work. But it’s my job to contextualise it too. I’m reminded of discussions about urban regeneration, the promise of good architectural design in deprived neighbourhoods (in this case, the design in question involves passive surveillance; provision of overlooked public spaces; permeability – I learned all the buzz words a long time ago). It’s good stuff, well researched and valid. But the truth is that bad design isn’t a significant driver of anti social behaviour and criminality. Poverty is. If you’re really seized of the importance of addressing deprivation in inner cities, even if you’re an architect expert in social design (if that’s a thing), you need to demand interventions that reduce poverty and offer opportunities and dignity to the residents.
Similarly, as I deepen my expertise on the role of stigma and gendered shame in the lives of migrants, I can’t be deaf to what they’re telling me. Which is that they can move past their experiences of violence, if they’re allowed to. If they can get out of the institutions that we have put them into.