Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

WAB vision

For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.


Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.


Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?


Emotion Rules in Feminist Book Reviews: An Inroad to Improving Feminist Relationships

By: Lisa Kalayji

WAB 2Swimming through the endless tidal wave of demoralising political think pieces and scholarly jibber-jabber in my mostly academic Twitter feed, I came upon an account called ‘ShitMyReviewersSay’, which features the cruelly scathing comments that anonymous peer reviewers write about the hopefully-to-be-published academic journal articles of their colleagues. The account’s handle? @YourPaperSucks.

Its purpose, other than to give us an opportunity to chuckle at what, under different circumstances, makes us want to either cry or set a university building ablaze, is to highlight the absurd magnitude of the viciousness that peer reviewers will direct at their colleagues when given a chance to do so anonymously.

It’s cathartic to have a laugh at this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t come in the form of a satirical Twitter account, our reaction is a lot different. ‘What the hell?!’ we wonder incredulously. ‘Couldn’t you express your criticism in a less ruthless and petty way? What good does it do you to ruin someone’s day and treat their carefully nurtured brainchild of a paper like garbage?’

ShitMyReviewersSay reminded me of the book reviews in Trouble and Strife, the radical feminist magazine I’m doing my PhD research with.

Trouble and Strife published a fair number of book reviews – feminists write a lot of books! – and over the course of my research I’ve found that there’s a vast deal we can learn about a group of people, be they academics, radical feminists, or any other group, from the way they review each other’s writing.

My research is about emotion culture: the system of rules and social norms that prevail in a society or social group which affect how people feel emotionally and how they express those emotions. Book reviews contain a treasure trove of clues about the emotion culture of the social group that the reviews come from, but in order to see those clues, you need to know some of the things sociologists have learned over the last few decades about how emotions work.

Emotions are relational

As the term ‘relational’ suggests, emotions come up in relationships between people. Because psychology dominates the popular lexicon we use to talk about and make sense of emotions, we tend to think of emotions as states which exist inside of us, are linked to our neurochemistry and our personal histories, and are mostly governed by things like innate human needs for social bonding. All of those things are partially true, but what the sociological study of emotions has revealed is that emotions are actually relational.

Why we feel the way we do in any given situation is constituted by our relationships to the people and things around us and what we understand those things to be and mean.

There isn’t anything in our genetic code that makes us get annoyed when a friend we’re supposed to meet for lunch shows up half an hour late (though our biology is necessary for us to be able to experience feelings), and the feeling of annoyance isn’t something inside of us that emanates outward through the things we say or do (though we do express emotions in that way). We’re annoyed at someone (that’s the relation), and the reason for that annoyance is what we think the lateness signifies. We’re busy people! Don’t they think we have better things to do than sit around waiting? We have to be back at work soon – now we’re going to have to rush through lunch! Our awareness that our friend knows that it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting and that it’s an inconvenience to us is what makes us annoyed – their indifference to our needs and to the agreed conventions of how keeping a lunch date with someone works creates our feeling. Likewise, though, if we found out that they’d been delayed because a stranger attacked them on the street and nearly broke their jaw, our annoyance would quickly give way to concern – what their lateness showed about our relationship to them would have changed, and with it, our feelings about it.

Emotions are subject to rules

Much like there are social rules about how we’re supposed to behave in different sorts of situations, there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to express feelings. If an adult is audibly crying at, say, a fancy restaurant or a business meeting, that would seem inappropriate, and probably make everyone around them quite uncomfortable. If they were at a funeral, however, that would be considered normal and appropriate, and no one would be bothered.

Even if feelings aren’t expressed, there are rules about how we’re supposed to feel.

If, for example, you’re a bit off your game at work because your sister died last week and you’re in grief, and while not actually admonishing you for it, you get the sense that your boss is annoyed with you for not being your sharpest self right now, you might get upset or angry at them. When someone is in grief, we expect others to respond with compassion, even if that grief peripherally causes some inconvenience to others – it’s a violation of the social norms of compassion and empathy to get annoyed at someone for being grieved, even if the annoyance is mostly hidden and not openly expressed. The rules are also different depending on what the characteristics of the people involved are. If that person crying in the restaurant is an infant, while people might still not be pleased about the noise, it wouldn’t make them feel awkward and uncomfortable, because we consider it normal behaviour for babies to cry regardless of time or place.

These are all some general aspects of how emotions in social life work in ordinary social situations. What my research is about, though, is the specifically political dimension of emotions in social life.

Social norms about emotions are deeply political, even in most seemingly innocuous daily interactions like those I described above. Rules about who is allowed to feel or express what feelings towards whom divides along a lot more political lines than the differences between adults and children. Anger is generally considered more appropriate in men than in women (and in women is more likely to be characterised as histrionics or emotional instability), and vulnerability more appropriate in women than in men (with men’s abilities to be ‘proper’ men called into question if they cry, especially in public). Rules about emotions are also racialised – even very slight expressions of anger from black men are interpreted as very threatening because black men are culturally conceived of as inherently threatening, while much stronger expressions of anger from white men (or women) are regarded as less threatening and are more likely to be considered justified. Our prevailing cultural conceptions about what characteristics different kinds of people innately have give rise to specific, and often strictly socially enforced, rules about who can feel what and how their feelings can be expressed.

Emotions in feminist book reviews

Feminists do a lot of writing, and a lot about how emotions work in feminism can be learned from examining the books, magazines, pamphlets, manifestos, and websites they write. I’m researching radical feminism, a specific type of feminism (there are a lot of them) which emerged during the ‘second wave’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, and continues today. From 1983-2002, a radical feminist collective the UK published a magazine called Trouble and Strife, and a lot of radical feminist political thought from that period can be found there.

WAB 1Because feminist politics is so substantially borne out through reading and writing, one of the central strategies that feminists use to think through politics is by reading and debating one another’s writing. For that reason, unsurprisingly, Trouble and Strife published quite a few book reviews, wherein contributing authors to the magazine reviewed books authored by other feminists. By comparing these reviews, and the responses to them that readers communicated to the magazine through letters to the editors, we can see radical feminist emotional politics in action.

What I’ve found is that the emotion rules in radical feminism are different for relationships between radical feminists than they are when dealing with someone outside that political community. When dealing with fellow radical feminists, they’re more considerate of one another’s feelings, express their criticisms more hesitantly and gently, and are more appreciative of the aspects of the work that they agree with. On the rare occasion that someone breaks this rule and is harshly critical of someone within the radical feminist community, there’s a strong backlash, with others writing letters to the magazine to express strong objections to those criticisms having been published, and some questioning the political identity of the magazine as a whole in light of their decision to publish exacting reviews.

This will ring true for many feminists who currently engage in online activism, who are familiar with the more receptive audiences within their own political communities, and harsher (and sometimes outright vitriolic) criticism from feminists who have a fundamentally different set of political values.

This has profound implications for the future of feminism: if feminists who disagree on crucial political issues are more willing to upset one another, and less desirous of understanding where others are coming from, then we’re likely to see a continuation of the entrenched infighting that has plagued feminism for decades. I’m not suggesting here that we should return to the ‘happy sisterhood’ of yesteryear (which, as many feminists have pointed out, never actually existed). What I do want to highlight, though, is that if we want to understand why conflicts between feminists get so heated and can be so divisive, understanding the emotion rules which give shape to feminists’ relationships with each other is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Once we become more aware of these rules and how our own feelings are shaped by them, we can act to change them, and while this won’t solve all of feminism’s problems, it can go a long way toward generating more fruitful dialogues between feminists who belong to different political communities.

This strategy can be extended to other social movements as well, and it has rarely been a matter of more urgency than it is right now for social movements to be able to prevent the breakdown of their political projects due to irreconcilable conflicts from within their communities. During the currently ongoing period of rapid and disorientating social and political change, understanding the emotion rules of social movements can help us to ensure that efforts to enact positive social change are successful, and examining the way we speak to, speak of, and write about one another is one tool we can use for making sense of our emotion cultures.

You can find all issues of Trouble and Strife on their website at troubleandstrife.org.

The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack


You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises


I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.


This IS ‘proper’ research: Taking on the social science vs. science debate

By: Rosie Smith 

“So why is your research necessary?”

“How do you get funding for research like this?”

These are just two of the many questions that I was asked recently whilst taking part in a competition for PhD researchers at my university. The competition was interdisciplinary and was aimed at showcasing doctoral research at the institution, whilst also providing early career researchers, like myself, a gateway into public engagement. Needless to say the competition was one of the many uncomfortable things I intend to do this year as part of my resolution to be a ‘yes’ woman and challenge myself more.

Finalists were made up of three researchers per faculty (social science, science, arts and humanities), and as a criminologist I quickly found myself gravitating towards the social sciences camp. It was a full day event in which we were judged on a multitude of criteria ranging from originality, impact, accessibility, interdisciplinary scope, and importance. I use the word ‘importance’ hesitantly, as it’s a term that causes particular anxiety when I consider my own research. My work explores the concept of ‘spectacular justice’ and the way the mass media makes the criminal justice system visible and public. I explore this concept by analysing how high profile criminal cases are represented in media archives from the 1800s to 2016.



And whilst I thoroughly enjoy my research, I still often find it difficult to have confidence that my work is ‘important’, and necessary. In part this is because I am self-funding my research, and at times I find it difficult to have confidence in my work when understandings of ‘good’ research are so closely bound to notions of impact and attracting funding. But it is also in part because of situations like these, when I am forced to contemplate the debate around what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

When I was posed these questions, I admit, I was initially shocked and somewhat taken aback by the abruptness with which they were posed. But at the same time these questions draw on some of the existing anxieties I have as I begin the journey into academia. To me, these questions in some way breach the social conventions on conversation etiquette, not to mention conventions on what is and is not okay to ask a frazzled and distressed PhD student.

To the first, I was honest, and launched into the toils of juggling several part-time jobs alongside trying to develop the aura of a rounded and successful academic.

But it was the question “Why is your research necessary?” that caused me more concern. Looking around the room at the other contestants I began to question whether this question had been asked of the other finalists, in particular the natural, computer, and the physical scientists.

I was transported back to the long debates I had as an undergraduate with my ‘proper’ scientist friends. In these debates I would spend hours defending the position that social science is important and necessary, and that the two disciplines can exist in parallel.

I would passionately defend the position that the relationship between the two does not need to be one of comparison. Admittedly, my efforts to convert them were largely fruitless. And I was often left being endearingly mocked, only to be told that “but it’s not a real science though is it?” And unfortunately this is still a plight I am fighting as I embark through my PhD.

It is as if this debate is a matter of either or. You are either a social scientist or a scientist, with very little scope to dabble somewhere in the middle. This was only confirmed as the day progressed. I overheard the finalist next to me ask a gentleman, “Are you going to go to Rosie’s stand next?” To which the gentleman replied, “I don’t think so, I don’t like social science, I’m a more of a scientist”.


Needless to say I tried my best to convince him of the merits of the dark underbelly of the social sciences, but was left wondering why I had to.

I cannot escape the importance of gender to this debate. Despite being interdisciplinary, the competition finalists were overwhelmingly female, with male colleagues only being represented by the science faculty.

Needless to say there are a large number of male social scientists who contribute greatly to the field, but historically the social sciences have been regarded as a ‘feminine’ discipline.

This is supported by statistics on the relationship between gender and higher education degree choices: in 2016, 17,075 men accepted university offers to study a social science subject in the UK, which amounts to just over half the figure for women which totalled at 30,860 (UCAS, 2016). And so I interpreted the questions “why is your research necessary?” and “how do you get funding for research like this?” not only as a judgment on the value of my research, but a value judgment more generally about the credibility of the social sciences as a predominantly female discipline. I couldn’t ignore the feeling that the feminization of the social sciences served as a double mechanism to justify the position of the sciences as superior.

At times I worry that as a social scientist, the rivalry that exists with science, whilst often only in jest or antics, has a direct impact on understandings of what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

And I question the appropriateness of using one set of criteria to judge and compare the value and ‘necessity’ of the two disciplines. In my opinion they are complimentary rather than contradictory fields. And we should be striving to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘proper’ research. Because although my research does not find a solution to world hunger or fight disease, it does have value- just in its own way.

At the end of the day the judges seemed to recognise some of that value too. When the scores came in, I won! It was one of the proudest moments of my Phd so far, as a social scientist, as an early career researcher, and as a woman. This experience has taught me many lessons, but the most important is to take the victories, whether big or small, when they come around. Equally I aim to worry a little less about how much impact my research has, or how much funding I attract (or not) and concentrate on enjoying my PhD and remembering that whilst not earth-shattering, my research is still necessary. All research is proper research.





“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

by Eve Kearney


I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four years with another diploma in my hand and a few more letters after my name.

The past few months have shown me that despite what I was preparing myself for, a PhD is hard.  Sure, it’s not as hard as being a real doctor and saving lives, or starting a family, or moving to a brand new country like so many of my friends are doing right now, but compared to a BA, or even a Masters, it is hard.  Gone are the days of going to class and having your ideas validated, or being graded, or even being able to discuss ideas with your friends – if I want to discuss contemporary masculinities, my fellow PhD friends will want to talk about the Victorian bestseller, or medieval syntax discrepancies.  My supervisor has been nothing but helpful and supportive, but every time I re-read an email draft, making sure it hits the right tone of humour and intelligence, I internally cringe as I hit send, fearing that I’m being too needy or bothering her with my questions – after all, I am a strong, independent, researcher who don’t need no hand-holding…right?

My whole academic career, I knew I wanted to do a PhD – I knew that coming up with original ideas and contributing to my field was for me, and even after I took a year out after my Masters, moving to Canada and starting a new life, the decision to come back to Dublin to work with some incredible people was never difficult. I have been encouraged by countless members of the department that my research ideas are good, and heck, I got As through all of my undergrad, but yet, to this day I’m still not convinced that my thesis is worth dedicating four years of my life to.  Impostor Syndrome is a very real part of academia, and a study as early as 1978 showed that it’s more likely to affect high-achieving females than any other group[1].  Even writing that last sentence made me pause: am I a high-achieving female?  Impostor Syndrome tells me that I’m not, and it tells me that I’ve only gotten this far through luck, or charm, or by fooling everyone around me. Likewise, comparing myself to everyone in the department is a trap that I often fall in to.  It seems that every day, someone is getting a grant, or having a paper published, or jetting off to an exciting conference, while I sit at my desk and try to put together an abstract so that I can keep up.  It’s a real struggle to remember that I am good at what I do, that my research matters, is original, will be a benefit to those who read it in the future.  It feels boastful to say that, but it’s the truth, and I shouldn’t be doing a PhD if I didn’t actually believe it.  I’m only in the third month of my research – papers and conferences will come, and hopefully the feeling of success will come with them.

Wait.  If a PhD is so hard and terrible, why am I even sticking with it? Why do I get out of bed every morning and put in the 9 – 5 on campus?  Because if something is hard, it’s worth doing.  And because I really do love every moment of it. Before I started in September, I pictured the next four years of my life as drinking martinis in the staff bar and using fancy words in conversations with other research students.  While it’s turned out that I’m not actually allowed in the staff bar, and I mispronounce most of the words other people around me are using, it’s turned out better than I imagined.  That feeling you get when everything you’ve been thinking about for weeks just clicks, and suddenly you’re typing a couple of thousand words of inspired greatness is unparalleled, even if it turns out that you end up deleting most of it the next day!  The community I’ve found in UCD and beyond of similarly terrified individuals has been a constant support to me – sure, we’re all quietly competing for publication and funding, but if I’m ever freaking out about something, there’s a list of people I can talk to or grab a pint with, and I know I’m on a lot of lists, too.  The challenge of self-discipline and self-motivation is something I’m finding most difficult, but again, when something goes right and everything makes sense, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth suddenly seems worth it.  And the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that drinking on a weeknight or during the afternoon isn’t irresponsible – it’s “networking”!

I was actually “networking” with one of my friends a couple of weeks ago, an amazing researcher in Trinity working on parasites, and we were lamenting about how none of our research was going how we were hoping.  For me, that’s not being motivated enough, for my friend, it’s none of her experiments going as planned – I definitely have it easy compared to a science PhD!  There was a pause in the conversation, and as I looked around, the thought hit me.  “You know what?” I announced. “To everyone else, the fact that we’re doing a PhD is pretty impressive.  Maybe we just need to be impressed with ourselves?”  We laughed and had another pint, but that idea has stuck with me since.  To answer your question, school is going great, Aunt Jen.  And when I’m finished in four years, I don’t know what I’ll do.  But I know I’ll be impressed with myself.


[1] http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.

A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.


Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].


Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.



[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Irish Law

Who’s left holding the baby now? Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Irish Law

by Sarah Pryor

The rapid rate of development and expansion in usability of genetic technologies in the past decade is both a cause for celebration and a cause for concern.

There is an impetus on law and policy makers to act responsibly in creating and implementing legal tools to aid in the smooth operation and integration of these technological advances into society in order to mitigate the possibility of society enduring any negative impact from the existence and use of technologies in this growing area.

The question asked here is; do assistive reproduction technologies challenge the traditional concepts of parenthood generally, and motherhood specifically, and what impact does this have on Irish law and society?

Quite simply put, the answer is yes, these emerging technologies do challenge traditional familial concepts and norms. The answer as to what impact this has on Irish law and society is exceedingly more complicated.

Ethical concerns

Reproduction is becoming increasingly more medicalised, geneticised and commercialised. This has the potential to diminish the human condition and damage the human population.[1] In a time of scientific, social and legal change it is inevitable that there will be periods of uncertainty. It is under these conditions of uncertainty that identity and ethics must be debated, and boundaries must be established in order to ensure that no negative experiences come to the broader population due to the advancements being made in the area of assisted reproduction.

The ethical concerns surrounding the increased medicalisation of human reproduction range greatly.[2]

The most challenging element of reproductive technologies is the fact that the issues being debated are deeply personal and sensitive, meaning that no one experience is the same and as such, there is difficulty in establishing a standard of practice, as well as a legally and ethically balanced acceptance of the use of these procedures. These difficulties are inherent to discussion surrounding human reproduction.

Assisted Human Reproduction in Ireland

Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) was not formally recognised as an area in need of governmental oversight until the year 2000 when the Commission for Assisted Human Reproduction, herein referred to as ‘the Commission’, was established and the need for comprehensive, stand alone, legislation in this area was recognised.[3]

The Commission and subsequent report were welcomed as a move towards the recognition of a set of newly emerging social norms in Ireland; both in terms of medicine and reproductive technologies and also in terms of the traditional nuclear family and the growth towards new familial norms. However, following the publication of the 2005 report there was little done in the way of proactive implementation of the set out recommendations.[4]

Political conversation centres around the disappointment that questions surrounding the protocol of AHR services and their use must be addressed via judicial channels and that there is not legislation in place to counteract the need to use the Irish Court System to get answers.[5]

The lack of legislation in this area means that the only avenue for the guidance of medical practitioners comes from the Irish Medical Council “Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for registered medical practitioners”.[6] Several cases in recent years have been brought to the High Court and Supreme Court in order to solve the maze this legal vacuum leaves patients struggling through.[7] These cases, as recently as 2014, have highlighted the necessity for legislation in the area in order to protect all parties involved.

The role of religion

It is important to recognise the cultural history of Ireland and the importance of the social and political role of the Catholic Church for many years. Older Irish generations were reared in a country in which contraception was illegal and women did not work once they were married as their societal role was in the home. Newly emerging technologies, such as surrogacy, further challenge these traditional values.

There is an unfortunate pattern of political and religious control over a woman’s right to reproduce and the conditions in which it is ‘right’ for a woman to have a baby. For a long time in Ireland, there was no real separation of church and State. The ramifications of this have rippled throughout Irish history and up to the present day – no more so than in the area of the reproductive rights of women.

Parallels with the Repeal the 8th campaign 

Although distinctly different from the abortion debate, and the argument for the repeal of the 8th amendment, certain parallels can be drawn in how the government has responded to calls from various groups to provide guidance in the area of assisted reproduction and how these calls have been largely brushed to the side. On the introduction of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, Minister for Justice & Equality Francis Fitzgerald removed any reference to surrogacy because it was too large an issue to merely be a feature of a more generalised bill, so there is indication that positive movements are being made in this area – the question is when will they actually be formulated into real, working policies, laws and protocols?

ARTs and the Marriage Equality referendum

Until 2015, marriage in Ireland was exclusively available for heterosexual couples. The 34th Amendment of the Irish Constitution changed this, effectively providing for a more equal society in which traditional Irish values towards marriage were replaced with a more accepting stance, something which was voted for by the Irish public through a referendum.[8]

The gravity of such a change in Irish society has implications beyond just marriage. Laws regarding areas such as adoption were relevant only to the married couple and, within that context, this meant only heterosexual couples. Irish family law was written with the traditional ‘mother, father and children’ family in mind. It is fair to say that family dynamics have changed significantly, and the movement away from traditional concepts of family is increasing. With the passing of the Marriage Referendum, marriage in the context of law and society has taken on a new meaning, and the symbolic nature of this recognition of a new familial norm is plain to see. The Irish electorate voted for this, and public consultations on Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) have illustrated the support of the Irish people for ARTs, and for legislation regulating their use – and yet, still there is none.

ARTs are used by heterosexual and homosexual couples alike. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 has made movements towards acknowledging new familial norms in Ireland and was a welcomed symbol of the future for Irish society as increasingly liberal and accepting. Although many pressing issues are not addressed within the Act, such as surrogacy, the support for the enactment of new measures regarding familial relationships is a deeply reassuring acknowledgement of the changing, evolving nature of Irish society and their views towards non-traditional family units. While this is to be welcomed, it simply doesn’t go far enough.

The role of the mother

One area that has not been addressed in any significant way is the greatly changed role of the mother.

Mater semper certa est – the mother is always certain. This is the basis on which Irish family law operates and it is this historical, unshakeable concept that is being shaken to its core by the emergence of ARTs.

Traditional concepts of motherhood are defined solely through the process of gestation.[9] A birth mother, in the context of Irish law, is the legal mother.[10] This has remained a point of contention in the Irish courts, demonstrated in the 2014 Supreme Court case addressing the rights of a surrogate mother to her genetically linked children to whom she did not give birth. Denham CJ addressed the ‘lacuna’ in Irish law, emphasising the responsibilities of the Oireachtas, in saying that:

“Any law on surrogacy affects the status and rights of persons, especially those of the children; it creates complex relationships, and has a deep social content. It is, thus, quintessentially a matter for the Oireachtas.”

Chief Justice Denham further stated that:

“There is a lacuna in the law as to certain rights, especially those of the children born in such circumstances. Such lacuna should be addressed in legislation and not by this Court. There is clearly merit in the legislature addressing this lacuna, and providing for retrospective situations of surrogacy.”[11]

The emergence of ARTs as common practice, particularly regarding egg and sperm donation, surrogacy and embryo donation, have created a new concept of parenthood, and more specifically motherhood.

There are deeply segregated emerging views over who exactly is the legal mother, and the social mother, the rights that each participant has, and who is responsible for the donor or surrogate child.

Whilst some of these issues were addressed in both the Commission Report and the 2013 RCSI Report, such as the right of the donor child to the information of their donor, neither delve deeply into the implications of such medical processes on concepts of motherhood and parenthood.

Three fragmented concepts of motherhood now exist; social, gestational and genetic.[12] Although there are established ideologies of parental pluralism within society regarding adoption, the nature of the situation in which a child is born though the use of ARTs is fundamentally different from an adoption agreement which is accounted for in Irish law.

Feminist views on ARTs

Feminist views differ greatly in their resounding opinions on the emergence of assistive reproduction technologies. Arguments are made opposing ARTs as methods of increased control over a woman’s reproduction through commercialisation and reinforcement of the pro-natalist ideologies.[13] Others argue in favour of ARTs in stating that their development allows women more freedom over their reproductive choices and enables women to bear children independently of another person and at a time that is suitable to her; an example of this being the use of IVF by a woman at a later stage in her life.[14]

These complexities exist before even considering the social and legal role of parents in same sex relationships – what relevance does the role of the mother have for a gay couple? What relevance does the role of a father have for a lesbian couple? Does the increasing norm of homosexual couples having children via surrogate mitigate any need for these socially constructed familial roles and highlight the irrelevance of these roles in modern society? The same questions can be asked of a single man or woman seeking to have a child via surrogate – should a person only have a child if they are in a committed relationship? Surely not, as single parents currently exist in Ireland, have done so for some time, and are raising their children without objection from society or the state.

‘The law can no longer function for its purpose’

Regardless of where one’s stance lies on the emergence of these technologies, it is undeniably clear that their use is challenging normative views and practices of parenthood. The traditional, socially established norms are shifting from what was once a quite linear and nuclear view. ARTs allow for those who previously could not have genetically linked children to do so via medical treatments. It is in this way that the situation under current Irish law is exacerbated, and the law can no longer function for its purpose.

Something needs to be done, so that whoever wants to be, can be left holding the baby!

[1] Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts, Born and Made: An Ethnography of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (Princeton University Press 2006).

[2] Sirpa Soini and others, ‘The Interact between Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Genetics: Technical, Social, Ethical and Legal Issues’ (2006) 14 European Journal of Human Genetics.

[3] David J Walsh and others, ‘Irish Public Opinion on Assisted Human Reproduction Services: Contemporary Assessments from a National Sample’.

[4] Deirdre Madden, ‘Delays over Surrogacy Has Led to Needless Suffering for Families’ Irish Independent (2013) <https://www.nexis.com/auth/bridge.do?rand=0.4949951547474648&gt; accessed 25 June 2016.

[5] Roche v. Roche 2009

See also, MR & DR v. An tArd Chlaraitheoir 2014

[6] David J Walsh and others, ‘Irish Public Opinion on Assisted Human Reproduction Services: Contemporary Assessments from a National Sample’.

[7] See Roche v. Roche 2009. See also MR & DR V. An tArd Chlaraitheoir 2014

[8] 34th amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015.

[9] Andrea E Stumpf, ‘Redefining Mother: A Legal Matrix for New Reproductive Technologies’ (1986) 96 The Yale Law Journal 187 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/796440.pdf?_=1471277905944&gt; accessed 16 June 2016.

[10] See, MR And DR v an t-ard-chláraitheoir & ors: Judgments & determinations: Courts service of Ireland [2014] IESC 60.  [S.C. no.263 of 2013]

[11] Ibid, para 113, para 116.

[12] SA Hammons, ‘Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Changing Conceptions of Motherhood?’ (2008) 23 Affilia 270 <http://claradoc.gpa.free.fr/doc/254.pdf&gt; accessed 4 August 2016.

[13] SA Hammons, ‘Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Changing Conceptions of Motherhood?’ (2008) 23 Affilia 270 <http://claradoc.gpa.free.fr/doc/254.pdf&gt; accessed 4 August 2016. See also, Gimenez, 1991, p.337

[14] See, Bennett, 2003 and Firestone, 1971

Women in Irish Ghost Stories

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).

In 1937, Mrs Maggie Gallinagh told Mary Anne Gallinagh a ghost story.

One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.

It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.

The beliefs of Irish people in the past

From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.

The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.

We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.

Ghosts and Irish christianity

The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.


Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.

 Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:

‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’

Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’

This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.

Select bibliography:

Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection: www.duchas.ie

  1. Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).

A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 [1920])

  1. Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).