Doing a PhD Applying a Feminist Research Ethic to Study International Practices

By Patricia Salas Sanchez

My feminist doctoral research project explores the contemporary interstate relationship between Sweden and Russia in light of their gendered international, foreign policy and diplomatic practices. The project has been guided by a critical feminist perspective expressed in part through a feminist research ethic since day one. Brooke Ackerly and Jacqui True (2010, 2020) devised and defined a feminist research ethic as a set of questioning practices deployed as a rigorous methodological, ethical commitment throughout the research process regardless of whether it is feminist or not. Whilst my PhD research practice has been inductive, dynamic, non-linear and quite challenging at times, it has also been a constant reflexive process and performance. This intellectual endeavour is feminist-informed, both inspired by a diverse body of feminist scholarship and taking feminist ethical concern with social justice as its point of departure. But the project has also always been a feminist ‘practice’ as it aims to advance our understanding of social, gendered international practices and international power hierarchies or structures of domination in order to transform them.

High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. Source: OCHA photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva Flickr

High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. Source: OCHA photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva Flickr

Feminist questioning practices are associated with a critical feminist theory and a habitually reflexive research performance. The four commitments that undergird a feminist research ethic are: (1) attentiveness to the power of knowledge and epistemology; (2) attentiveness to boundaries, silences, intersections, marginalisation, and normalisation; (3) attentiveness to relationships and their power differentials; and (4) self-reflection of how one’s own situatedness or sociopolitical location is connected to and influences our knowledge and research. To apply a feminist research ethic is to live and perform critical, reflexive and inclusive theory whilst conducting research.

In this way, the overarching research questions as well as the methods and analytical techniques in my doctoral project have been revisited, reconsidered, and have naturally evolved. These changes are consistent with the continual application of a feminist research ethic merged with a Bourdieusian international practice theory methodology that starts with everyday (micro)practices and gives primacy to the empirical.

My project about gendered power relations within International Relations (IR) is based on observation of gendered practices by diplomats in service of international cooperation accompanied by the creativity inherent in feminist curiosity and the intellectual mode of enquiry known as international political sociology (IPS). Attentiveness to different fields of study and disciplinary intersections and boundaries has inspired this research. Guided by a feminist research ethic, it has been provoked by the silence on gendered practices in the recent theoretical and empirical engagement with the ‘practice turn’ in IR; as well as the disregard for IR feminist scholarship that has studied the international in the microcosm of seemingly unimportant everyday, mundane, and situated practices since the late 1980s.

It could be said then that as a doctoral student I am ‘practicing research’ including methods and analytical techniques to better understand gendered bodily, discursive international practices. This feminist Bourdieusian analysis is conducted using multiple and heterogeneous methods adjusted to the specific inquiry and methodology. My research design and methods have been adopted and adapted to avoid potentially dangerous situations and challenges such as encountering inappropriate behaviours or legal risks during my fieldwork. They have also been chosen given the resource and time constraints I face as a doctoral student. For example, I am employing a reflexive, virtual ‘praxiography’ (that is, a writing of practices approached through their virtual, visual aspects conveyed through video and images) rather than practicing face to face participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork in the diplomatic field where only very few researchers have been allowed entry. Attentiveness to relationships and exploring my own situatedness through self-reflection have been crucial in planning my fieldwork in states and at intergovernmental organisations, and expert, ethnographic interviews with diplomats. Last but not least, I practice discourse analysis using an intertextual approach, aware that discourses and practices are intrinsically linked and that both produce power relations.

My doctoral research is just one example of how applying a feminist research ethic can push you to practice and produce more reflexive, ethical and rigorous research.

An abridged version of this article also appears on the MIHE Blog as "Applying A Feminist Research Ethic To My PhD."

Patricia Salas Sanchez is a PhD Candidate at the Monash University's Gender, Peace and Security Centre.