Monday, 20 June 2011

How to research bisexuality well

A year or so ago, on a bi academics email list, I wrote - following one of those emails asking for research participants that make you reach for the clue-bat:

Could there be some kind of "what people doing bi academia and bi activism suggest" web page, for students to compare their design against.

Then when such requests come in, we can suggest that they check their design against this established set of guidance.  That it's not compulsory to meet all of the guidance but that it will greatly  enhance the value of your research (with a sly hint that you may have a  better chance of passing on your course, to appeal to self-interest!)

It would need some worked examples on questions around gender and sexuality that we reach some consensus around as good ways of  phrasing.

Probably we'd have a couple of suggested solutions to problems rather than a One True Way.  And examples of Getting It Horribly Wrong, with why it will produce less useful or misleading data.

Maybe it's already out there.  In which case lots of us having it bookmarked would be clever. 

It's lots of potential drafting and honing work I'm magicking up, I  know, and I also know that I'm just about the least able person here to write it! 

But it could perhaps de-personalise such arguments in future: not starting at "I think your survey design is awful" but at "have you looked at this established resource on designing research in this area to acheive effective results?"... then if they blithely carry on regardless, it's their own lookout!
It got a fairly positive response as an idea but no-one picked it up and went with it, so recently I had a first stab at drafting it.  Does the below make sense?  Is it any use?  Bear in mind that at BCN magazine and at my local bi project, we get undergrads doing BA work as well as PhDers and so on, so it's to my mind more worth talking about basics like accountability to the community than one would perhaps like to think of as needed with PhDers.

Feedback from all quarters welcome!
"Researching and reporting (bi)sexuality - well"

**Why we have written this**

As bisexual community activists and / or academics working in and around issues of sexuality and bisexuality, we come across many researchers seeking participants for, guidance or, or peer review of work. There are some common questions, and unfortunately frequent errors that people make when first embarking on research around bisexuality. 
So we felt it would be helpful to have a fairly simple "FAQ" to help you get the right start.
We think it's important because we've run into issues like:
- whether researchers feel they are accountable or not to the community
- problems where badly planned or implemented research fails to distinguish sexuality (and particularly bisexuality) well - situations where those problems in turn lead to poor evidence
- this damages academic rigor and reputation
- it also damages the wider bisexual community through misleading findings, reporting, and through impacts on policy making and public discourse.
- and it poses problems for a researcher whose work may be less highly reviewed, or who may gain a reputation that makes it harder for them and others to find willing participants for future work.

**Poor Practice**

Among the issues we've come up against are problems:
- in definitions and research assumptions
- in defining the group of people surveyed or researched
- and with analyses that group or equate "all LGB", "all L+BW", "all G+BM" where it may be that bisexual and homosexual experiences differ in important regards.

**Why It Matters**

- better research is in everyone's interests
- a better understanding and modelling of sexual orientation leads to more honest findings
- it helps in building an evidence base on bisexuality and bi experience
- in turn funding academic work
- and also the results of research that distinguishes bi experience and bi needs helps with funding of nonacademic work of direct impact on bisexual communities

**Good Practice**

(this is where I'm just not an academic and it shows!)
- there are a number of print and online spaces where you can advertise for participants, and a number of groups and events which you could attend to talk to people.
- however, use these spaces appropriately and with respect; remember you are working with people not some kind of exhibits or reference books.  State who you are, have the option of people contacting your institution / tutors, be clear what the research is for and if people are not comfortable with you being in a space as a researcher respect that they may well need to be in that bi space more than you do.

- respect of the diversity of labels, beyond straight and gay
- diversity of labels vs practice: bi, pan, omni, and how these are all imprecise 
(aside: what I want to get over here is what I tend to phrase as "bi is to pan as lesbian is to gay woman" - there are not neat discrete boundaries - someone can probably explain that better)
- "bisexual"/"bisexuality" not "bi-sexual"/"bi-sexuality". You wouldn't write "homo-sexuality" or "hetero-sexuality"; similarly the "b" words have been around long enough not to count as neologisms and so there is no need for a hyphen to impart meaning.

**Considering your target research subjects:**

Bisexual People Are Not All Going To Be
- polyamorous / non-monogamous
- white
- academic or comfortable and familiar with academic terms / language
- out as bi
- taking on or owning the label
- in the lgbt scene
- in agreement
- in the bi scene / spaces
- willing to be interviewed

**Question Structures**
- this bit I really am over to you Proper Academics out there, with the textbooks and the library access! Can we have some good and iffy examples to help people?!

**Getting Further Help And Advice**

- this is only a sketchy guide because of trying to fit so many areas of research into one document
- engage with groups like biuk and academic_bi e'list and seek peer review of your questionnaires etc before going 'live', or if that has already happened, be open to positive critical examination of wordings and engagement
- talk to bcn & bimedia or equivalent groups in your own country / catchment area
- commit to sharing your findings with the wider bi community both academic and nonacademic e.g. through submitting articles or precis in Journal of Bisexuality, Bi Community News, etc, so that others benefit from your work as well as you.
- deliver on that sharing of findings when your research is done.
Like I say: feedback very welcome.  And when the polished version is written I shall link to it from here so y'all don't try and use this early attempt!


  1. This is a great start. I really like the part about researchers 'introducing themselves' (stating what course they are doing, who their tutors are etc). I've seen too many examples of: "Hello, I'm a complete stranger. I want to know some very personal information before my next assignment is due. Tell me everything."

  2. I'm glad you're doing this - it looks great so far.

  3. Thanks both :)

    And @ Jacqueline - oh, gosh yes! 8)

    Though the "and then I will take the information and go away and you will have fulfilled all my needs and be forgotten" is the bit that really grates with me.