Feminist Research Design and Institutional Gatekeeping Mechanisms

In their essay "Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research," (College Composition and Communication 46 (1995). All page numbers correspond with the reprinting in Feminism and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook.) Gesa E. Kirsch and Joy S. Ritchie give careful consideration to several problematics in feminist research and critiques of traditional research practices, including the notion of the "value-free observer," the essentialization of the identities of research participants, the lack of reliance on or overreliance on experience as a ground for knowledge claims, the conflict between an ethic of principles and an ethic of caring (for participants), ethical dilemmas encountered in research*, and the power differential between researcher and participants. The article is an excellent overview of feminist research design, but I was a little disappointed with one thing.

In my Feminist Studies coursework and in studying for my preliminary exams, I've encountered calls to include research participants in the design of studies and the making of knowledge, and I was pleased to see that Kirsch and Ritchie engage with this call. Several times throughout the article, they stress the importance of researcher-participant collaboration:

[W]e propose that composition researchers theorize their locations by examining their experiences as reflections of ideology and culture, by reinterpreting their own experiences through the eyes of others, and by recognizing their own split selves, their multiple and often unknowable identities. Further, we propose changes in research practices, such as collaborating with participants in the development of research questions, the interpretation of data at both the descriptive and interpretive levels, and the writing of research reports. (p. 141)

Since researchers cannot assume that they understand what is relevant in the lives of others or even what are the important questions to ask, research participants must be invited to articulate research questions, to speak for themselves, to choose the occasions for and forms of representing their experiences. (p. 145)

Whether we study basic or professional writers, we need to ask participants to collaborate with us, to help us design our research questions, to ask for their feedback, to answer their questions, and to share our knowledge with them. (p. 146).

Engaging in more collaborative approaches to research can help reduce the distance between researchers and participants. Participants can be brought in as co-researchers; those who have been marginalized can be encouraged to join in posing research questions that matter to them. Not only should participants co-author the questions, they can also work with researchers to negotiate the interpretations of data at both the descriptive and interpretive level. (p. 153)

Okay, that's great; I'm all for it...but Kirsch and Ritchie do not at any point in the article address the very real obstacle of institutional gatekeeping mechanisms, specifically the IRB. I've done a study in the course of which I had to deal with getting IRB exemption, and it, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, is the academic equivalent of a complete rectal examination. At my institution, they have very strict rules of engagement when it comes to the initial contact of research participants; you have to show the IRB a copy of the letter you will use to ask them to participate in the study, and you cannot contact them until you get approval from the IRB. To get approval from the IRB, you have to answer a few questions about your research design (read: you have to have it all planned out in advance). From the exemption form for Category 1: Investigational Strategies in Educational Settings (classroom research):

5.1 Describe the objective(s) of the proposed research including hypothesis, purpose, research question and relevant background information, etc:

5.2 Describe the study design and methodology:

5.3 Describe the tasks subjects will be asked to perform. Include in the description frequency and duration of activities, educational tests, etc. Attach surveys, instruments, interview questions, focus group questions, etc.
If all students will be participating in the educational practice, a consent form must be signed by the student (and parent if under 18) which states that they allow you to look at the results of their participation in the activity for the purposes of research.

5.4 Describe what non-participants will do during this period (activities and supervision):
It is important that the study design not penalize students who will not be participating if not all students will be participating.

From the exemption form for Category 2: Surveys/Interviews, Standard Educational Tests, Observations of Public Behavior:

5.1 Describe the objective(s) of the proposed research including purpose, research question, hypothesis and relevant background information etc.

5.2 Which methods will this study include?

Check all that apply:



Experimental/Control Design

Field work



Oral history




Other, specify :

5.3 Describe the research study design.

5.4 Describe the tasks subjects will be asked to perform. Describe the frequency and duration of procedures, psychological tests, educational tests, and experiments; including screening, intervention, follow-up etc. Reminder: No personal or sensitive information can be sought under exempt guidelines. (If you intend to pilot a process before recruiting for the main study please explain.)

I thought, okay, this is what they want to know if you want an exemption from review. Maybe they're a little more flexible when you apply for full review? Nope. It says the exact same thing. I didn't want to make such a strong claim about my IRB without talking to them, though, so I called them yesterday and explained the collaborative approach to research. How are such research designs received by the committees? I asked. The woman on the phone said, "Well, I don't know, you'd have to write a very detailed explanation of exactly how you want to go about your research, how you want to include participants" etc. etc. I asked if there were any precedents that she knew of, if anyone at the university had ever proposed a researcher-participant collaborative research design to them before. She said, "Maybe, but not that I know of." I'm skeptical as to how this kind of study would go over. The impression I got from the IRB is that even if the researcher includes participants in the design, she must still have complete control of the collaboration, which kind of misses the point of collaboration. Have there been any strategies in the field of Gender Studies--or Rhetoric & Composition--on how to "sell" researcher-participant collaboration to IRBs?

Kirsch and Ritchie also point out problems with the way traditional research reports are written:

Traditional research reports, for example, urge writers to come to conclusions and announce their findings. That process demands that researchers make coherent what might be fragmented, and thus that they might sometimes reduce complex phenomena or erase differences for the sake of developing coherent theories. (p. 155)

They argue that it's necessary to make a case for "multiple voices and diverse interpretations," for "multivocal reports" (p. 155). Gatekeeping comes into play here as well, this time in the form of review boards. Has the case been made for such reports? Again, I'm skeptical. Even most feminist scholars, when reading a manuscript, want a coherent argument. Overall, this was a good article; maybe my reading of it is too pessimistic. Anyone have thoughts on the topic or IRB anecdotes you'd care to relay? I'm sure the critiques I've made have been made by others before; this article was published in 1995, after all, and I don't have subsequent issues of CCC handy to see if there were response essays, but I did search the CCC archive database and didn't find anything. At any rate, the gatekeeping mechanisms haven't changed much, if at all, since then.

*Examples of ethical dilemmas Kirsch and Ritchie point out include: "How can or should researchers respond to participants who do not share the researcher's values, who oppose feminist research goals, or who do not identify with feminist causes?" (p. 150). They recommend that feminist researchers use the following questions to guide them: "Who benefits from the research/theories? What are the possible outcomes of the research and the possible consequences for research participants? Whose interests are at stake? How and to what extent will the research change social realities for research participants?" (p. 151).


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I've read this article recent

I've read this article recently and I agree that there are a lot of institutional forces that make it difficult for collaborative feminist research to be "pure." I also think there are a lot of social forces. How do we account for the fact that research participants might not be interested in the research, or interested in thinking about it in ways that academic fields might find productive? I'm not convinced research can ever be an equal collaboration.

Collaborative Research

"I'm not convinced research can ever be an equal collaboration."

Yeah, I agree, Hannah. The researchers I've read, including Kirsch and Ritchie, have acknowledged that it can't be equal, but the goal is to make it as equal as possible. As you point out, when the researcher and participants disagree, it's a big problem. I was just wishing Kirsch and Ritchie had said something like, "We realize there are institutional gatekeeping mechanisms that inhibit researcher-participant collaboration. As researchers, we should enter into a dialogue with human subjects review boards and meet at conferences for caucuses and/or special interest groups."

I was wondering if NWSA had such a caucus or special interest group. They don't. I was dismayed to see that their caucuses, task forces, and interest groups center more on identitarian categories than on issues in feminist theory and research.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.