Feminist research, activism, public participation, and social change

Research needs to look towards a future of public participation and institutional disruption, writes Yvonne Kiely, Dublin City University

Research questions often come about in response to an identified problem. Whether this problem is social, scientific, political, micro or macro, researchers attend to the minutest details with their chosen methods in order to affect a change in our understanding of these problems, and ultimately the problems themselves. My own field of feminist media research has, at its core, issues of social justice and disruption; there is a conscious and deliberate aim to readdress inequalities within the media-gender relationship. For many researchers and institutions, the aim is social change.

And change does happen. Since the 1970s – since feminism was realised as a worldwide movement – feminist media research has been disrupting and enriching discussions about the relationship between gender and media in society. The first feminist critique of media was heard in Mexico City at the first of three UN Decades for Women conferences in 1975, and this milestone, where women’s representation by media and within its structures was a central issue, added another critical dimension to the wider feminist movement, and to academia (see Byerly, 2016). The beginnings of feminist media scholarship were rooted within this identification of a problem and the desire to disrupt the status quo for the sake of equality and justice. In doing so, the public, lived experiences of women within media industries became an integral part of how research was directed and articulated in policy and institutional strategy. Today, the field is still evolving and challenging researchers to investigate the structures of our media institutions with fresh critical thinking.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research. As some scholars have written about the relationship between feminist research and activism, “Many feminist researchers have been influenced by the research questions generated by women’s movements and consider it a moral imperative that their research should include women’s voices. They wish to change both the subjects and the objects of study” (Ackerly & True, 2010).

Among many academic institutions worldwide there is a strong and visible commitment to feminist research, gender studies, and the social good that can be achieved through engaging with communities. However, there is a problem within the protocols and practices of higher level education. The reality which all too often acts as a book end to huge swathes of good, painstakingly uncovered knowledge is one of inertia and stasis. From an insider’s perspective, you can see time and time again, significant pieces of research entering a normalised cycle of publication and citation with the full potential of the research itself locked behind a paywall. Uninterrupted access to the vast majority of this knowledge requires you to be a member of the institutional framework – an academic, or a student – which again comes with its own price tag. The reality of these institutional frameworks is arguably the biggest fault of academia. It is a reality that requires us to think differently about the research journey.

It is a reality that can be readdressed with the understanding that the full potential of socially impactful research resides in the encouragement and inclusion of public action and participation.

My journey from research question to publication brought me face-to-face with the stickiest catch-22 of higher level education. In the summer of 2017 I investigated gender in the music industry. Over these months I interviewed six women who occupy various roles within the music industry in Ireland. Coupled with this was a content analysis of two popular music magazines; Hot Press(Ireland) and Rolling Stone(USA). I tracked over forty years of gender on the covers of these magazines and applied a total of 8,721 individual categorisations to the people in these spaces. The result: gender matters in the music industry, and it matters in very specific ways.

It was the decision to make my research publicly available on my website* earlier this year which revealed to me the voices that academic protocols and paywalls are excluding from the conversation. They are the people to whom the research is most relevant.

The first article I published discussed my initial research question and the journey which led me to the real question that needed to be asked about gender, power and visibility in the music industry. Specifically, in relation to women music producers, the question of ‘why are there so few?’ is imprecise, and the figure of ‘less than five percent’ extensively cited by articles is inaccurate. There is a difference between what we see in the visible, widely established music industry, and what is actually there; the question we need to ask is ‘why do we seeso few?’

The second article detailed the investigation of gender on music magazine covers, and for the first time the shared transatlantic trends of how gender is constructed on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stonewere uncovered and articulated.

Combined, these two articles have been read 947 times in almost 60 countries across five continents. Within the space of six months the reach of these articles has exceeded my expectations, and their longevity endures today as they continue to be read. Since the first article was published I’ve received comments and emails from female identifying people in the music industry congratulating me on the research and thanking me for it. Through participatory spaces within online music networks, this research has travelled. Though I cannot say for sure that the people in Albania, Guadeloupe, Mongolia, or Serbia would not have read this research had it gone through academic protocols and been published by peer-reviewed journals, I can certainly speculate as to the difference in reach and accessibility.

One approach that aims to disrupt the traditional boundaries between researcher and subject, and calls for the restructuring of academic frameworks is Participatory Action Research (PAR). Through witnessing the tangible social impact of research sharing in public space, PAR has become critically important to how I conceptualise the research journey.

“Feminist principles of equality, reciprocity, partiality and valuing the voices of ordinary people as expert and authoritative on their own lives are reflected in PAR” (Pain, Kindon & Kesby, 2007).

PAR also asks us to challenge ourselves as researchers.

“PAR introduces new questions about representation, audience and product that compel us to rethink the role and impact of research. More than an epistemological shift, this approach brings commitments to action that push researchers to work in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways” (Cahill & Torre, 2007).

The argument presented by this article is directed squarely at the protocols, politics and paywalls of academic institutions. By all means, we need the peer-review system; research needs to be critiqued and scrutinised by an objective overseer before it is given the zeal of academic approval in a journal. But the cycle of publication and citation behind closed doors needs to be disrupted to allow for public engagement, to allow for the subjects of these socially significant pieces of research to become part of the conversation. For feminist researchers taking inspiration from the questions raised by women’s liberation movements and feminist activism, and for activists who change the language of gender politics and give voice to the changing needs of an equal and just society, there is a mutual interest in the creation of shared participatory spaces, and the disruption of a system which defines access to knowledge as a question of wealth, protocols and institutional status.

*Parts one and two of the ‘Researching gender in music series’ can be accessed here.





Ackerly, B. and True, J. (2010). Back to the future: Feminist theory, activism, and doing feminist    research in an age of globalization. Women’s Studies International Forum, 33(5), pp.464-  472.

Byerly, C. M. (2016). Stasis and shifts in feminist media scholarship. In C. Cerqueira; R.    Cabecinhas & S. I. Magalhães (Eds.), Gender in focus: (new) trends in media (pp. 15-27).

Cahill, C. and Torre, M. E. (2007). Beyond the journal article: representations, audience, and the     presentation of Participatory Action Research. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds),                      Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation    and place (pp. 196-206).

Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory Action Research: origins, approaches and            methods. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds), Participatory Action Research   Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation and place (pp.9-19)


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