Doing it for ourselves: the women’s workshop

by Ros Edwards and Val Gillies

As the academy becomes further marketised and institutionalised, it grows harder to envisage operating academically outside of traditional organisational forms. Yet the resulting pressures, hierarchies and exclusions are leading many to look for alternatives. Can we have study groups and organise ourselves in informal ways that are autonomous from professional associations and universities and still carry academic value? Well, there’s a group of women academics who’ve been doing this independently now for a quarter of a century: the Women’s Workshop on Qualitative Family and Household Research. We can’t say that there haven’t been any compromises to be made or tensions faced, but we’re still going from strength to strength.

The Workshop didn’t start off as the Workshop. It began as a nameless informal support group of five women who met at a British Sociological Association summer school for PhD students in 1988. Back then, the ESRC used to fund the BSA to run what was a three-day long residential summer school and postgrads could apply decided to continue meeting because they were all researching family-related issues using qualitative methods, mostly from a feminist perspective. Five years on, the Workshop had up to 14 active members. People came along by word-of-mouth (little widespread use of email and no twitter available then anyway). The Workshop continues largely to operate through face-to-face meetings every few months or so – although requests for information and discussion of ideas now occur between times by email list. We’ve always met in London – at the LSE, at the National Children’s Bureau, at University College, and now at London South Bank, but we’ve long had members who want to hang on in there even though they’re far away or can’t manage to fit in attending meetings.

A growing group meant that things became a bit more formalized about three years into the Workshop’s existence. Someone took on being co-ordinator, a role that over the years has shifted around between members as and when necessary. The group also became a named entity. Quite a bit of discussion and care was put into coming up with the title, Women’s Workshop on Qualitative Family/Household Research, at the time. And part of that was the decision that it would explicitly be women-only. While this has been reviewed over the years it has retained unanimous support. Another part of the naming discussion was that the group’s title indicates and reflects that it’s as much concerned with the methodological process of qualitative research, with being a woman researcher, and with epistemological debates about how we can know about social life, as it is with the substantive topic of families and households.

As well as holding study group meetings and discussions, the Workshop publishes, both because we feel that we have important things to say but also because we do have an eye to our members’ academic careers. These initiatives reflect some of the shifting stances towards feminism in the academic publishing world.

Our first publishing venture was a special issue of the journal Women’s Studies International Forum (18:3, 1995) entitled ‘Women in Families and Households: Qualitative Research’. The roots of the Workshop are recorded in the introduction to that WSIF special issue, and the introduction also illustrates that in the early days we could say:“no ‘big names’ attend so we wield little academic power”. This is no longer the case when, alongside the post docs and early career researchers, several of us are professors (as is the case for us authors of this blogpost). While this might be seen as compromising our independence it is probably key to our survival. In the early days a postgrad could book a room in her institution for us to meet and maybe even extract some resources to hold a Workshop event with no direct REFable outcome. Now that is less possible and it is the members of the group with ‘permanent’, and more senior, positions who can leverage resources to ensure that meetings are free. In addition, the Workshop now provides a valuable networking space across roles, hierarchies and institutions. What remains true however is the remark in the WSIF introduction that: “we are as likely to celebrate the birth of a baby as the birth (publication) of a thesis, article or book”.

Three years after the journal special issue, the Workshop produced an edited volume entitled Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research: Public Knowledge and Private Lives, published by Sage and still selling well nearly a decade and a half later. Another edited volume came out in 2002, Ethics in Qualitative Research. We had wanted to have the term ‘feminist’ in the title, but while we had the same publisher as for the Feminist Dilemmas book, and its reach hadn’t been held back by having the F word in its title, Sage decided that somehow that wasn’t good for sales. Feminism wasn’t selling in ‘post-capitalist’ times. But the content of the volume is pretty clear, with the introduction to the collection including the sub-headings ‘Being a feminist researcher’ and ‘A feminist perspective’. (And a second edition was published in 2011.)

Another five years on and Power, Knowledge and the Academy appeared, along with a shift of publisher to Palgrave. Any feminist would recognise the nod of the sub-title of the volume: ‘The Institutional is Political’. One of the perennial issues in connection with Workshop edited collections was discussed in relation to this initiative, and is recorded in the introduction to the volume. We mused upon whether we could have a collective approach and put out the publication and its contents simply as by the Women’s Workshop on Qualitative Family and Household Research. The topic of the book – our experiences of power issues in the face of rampant marketisation of higher education – shaped the answer to this question. Back in 1979 the Bristol Women’s Studies Group could publish Half the Sky: An Introduction to Women’s Studies, under the name of the collective. In 2007, in a climate of the (then) Research Assessment Exercise, appraisals, competition for jobs and promotion, and so on, it seemed far less possible not to have specific names as authors of chapters, and less possible for people to feel able and want to put work into editing the collection without named acknowledgement.

But the Workshop isn’t just about publishing outputs, and it’s important to acknowledge this. As much, or even more significant, is that the Workshop seeks to be a forum, a space for all and any of its members to try out ideas, to reciprocally hear and comment on others’ work and receive feed back. This means that the Workshop isn’t all feminist collective sweetness and light (as was pointed out in the introduction to the book on power in the academy). Relations can be strained when editors of a collection have to make decisions about whose work is going to be included in a book, and those who want to be included but aren’t can feel rejected. And there are tensions between devoting Workshop meetings to the publishing project and keeping it open for anyone to feel able to put forward work for discussion, to come along to the meeting and to be given time and attention. Indeed, it’s the lively exchanges at the Workshop that produce the ideas for publications, often with members then stepping forward to act as editors, that drives the Workshop, rather than people who want to edit a book identifying issues to write about.

And despite the tensions, the Workshop as an open and welcoming forum remains as its intention, and also we think also its practice. Senior members reflect on how important the Workshop was as a source of support while doing their PhDs and hugely value the continued friendships and intellectual stimulation while post docs and early career researchers, like their doctoral forebears, see the Workshop as a safe forum to present their work and receive encouragement to publish for the first time. Whatever our career stage we experience the Workshop as standing in sharp contrast to some of the more adversarial academic cultures and contexts in which we can find ourselves. The Workshop remains a rare space in academia where women support each other while also providing excellent cross-generational mentoring and critique. We don’t know if our study group is unique in being an academic group, not institutionalized, explicitly women only and feminist, that’s achieved a silver anniversary and is still as active as ever. We think that we are, but we hope not.

Rosalind (Ros) Edwards is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton. Twitter: @RosEdwards2.
Val Gillies is a Professor of Social Research and a co-director of the Families & Social Capital Research Group at London South Bank University. Twitter: @ValGillies

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