Embracing Discomfort in Research

Embracing Discomfort in Research

Trying to write and theorize about a culture other than my own is difficult.  It makes me feel uncomfortable; I have put off writing this post for days. I think some of this hesitancy comes from not wanting to say the wrong thing, not wanting to be wrong, and most importantly, not wanting to offend.  I had a conversation with Jane Kenway while she was visiting about whether Australia is a part of the Global South, forgetting, or not knowing, that with that label comes an association with third world countries that does not make sense to put on Australia.  I left this conversation feeling uncomfortable and naive, although these are the conversations that I need to be having to understand the culture I am studying the best I can, just as anyone beginning research on a new culture needs to begin by doing.

While writing my paper about femininity in an elite schooling environment in Australia, my first instinct was to draw on the feminist theory and gender theory of education that I have learned in previous classes.  This information is a good foundation to base my argument on, but after Adam suggested that I read Raewyn Connell’s work, I realized that I need to be more careful with my assumptions that our theory from the US and UK (which is almost entirely the range of the work that I have studied in the past) applies to the situations that I am discussing in Australia.  To remedy this problem, I have made the decision to only use the works of Australian authors to theorize the significance of the data that I discuss in my paper.

I have found a problem with even this approach, however, because in this, I am making assumptions, based on the Global Northern theory that I have learned and read, about what is significant to theorize about in my paper.  At Adam’s suggestion, I have taken measures to reflect about whether there were parts of my analysis that I was missing, and I have found a few places where I needed to consider Australian culture to get a full understanding of what was happening (some of which should have been more obvious to me, but since I know little about Australian history, I never would have made the connections without reading a book about Australian culture).  While reading Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, I found a description of the ‘White Australia’ policy that was enforced until the 1960s that did not allow people to immigrate from Asia to Australia.  This provided strong historical roots for the Asian racism that I saw in the data and was trying to contextualize in relevant gender theory. It strengthened my argument, and I gave myself a pat on the back for figuring this out.

I was then reading Raewyn Connell’s Gender in the World Perspective, and in it, I found a single line about the local history of drag culture in Australia. Since a large part of my argument is fixed in the comparison between Everdeen and Hillford, the school in the mockumentary Ja’ime King: Private School Girl in which Chris Lilley plays Ja’ime in drag, I yet again found a potential aspect of Australian culture that would make the Australian students understand the show differently than I do because of nuances in Australian culture that I do not understand.  I found resources on the history of drag in Australia and found a wealth of information about how it has been used as a political tool to call attention to problems in the society by making a joke of the issue rather than creating an anger-filled argument. Yet again, this only strengthened my argument, and I gave myself a pat on the back for figuring this out.

But should I have been celebrating the fact that I learned these things about the culture that I was researching? Shouldn’t it be a given that I spend time to understand the place that I am researching instead of just the topic? Isn’t that my responsibility as a researcher?  Raewyn Connell argues that many people have tried to apply gender theory of the metropoles in the Global North to places where it does not necessarily apply. Her arguments made me realize that a lot of the ways that I was trying to understand my research needed to change: I shouldn’t approach it as looking for the finite set of ways that Australian culture is different from the US culture that I understand and that Everdeen is different than the public US high school that I attended, but instead first recognize that I can never say that I understand Australian culture and second learn as much as I can to be as equipped as possible to write about the culture in Australia and the culture with the walls of Everdeen, even if it requires some discomfort along the way.