Troubling empowerment: An evaluation and critique of a feminist action research project involving rural women and interactive communication technologies

Lennie, June (2001) Troubling empowerment: An evaluation and critique of a feminist action research project involving rural women and interactive communication technologies. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Participatory research methodologies and the use of interactive communication technologies (ICTs) such as email are increasingly seen by many researchers, including feminists, as offering ways to enhance women's inclusion, participation and empowerment. However, from critical and poststructuralist perspectives, some researchers suggest the need for greater caution about claims that participatory methodologies and certain communication technologies automatically enhance inclusion and empowerment. These researchers argue that issues of power, agenda and voice in the research context require greater attention (LeCompte, 1995).

The major argument made in this thesis is that feminist researchers need to adopt a more critical and rigorous yet pragmatic approach to evaluating women's empowerment, inclusion and participation, and that this approach needs to include an analysis of diversity and difference, macro and micro contexts, power-knowledge relations, and the contradictory effects of participation. The outcomes of this study suggest that this approach can create new knowledge and understanding that will enable the development of more effective strategies for women's empowerment and inclusion.

To explore and support this argument, findings are presented from a detailed evaluation and critique of a major feminist action research project that involved women in rural, regional and remote Queensland, Australia and elsewhere, a university research team and several government and industry partners. The project made extensive use of ICTs, including email and the Internet, and aimed to be empowering and inclusive.

Given the many contradictory discourses of empowerment that currently circulate, empowerment is seen as a problematic concept. The multiple meanings and discourses of empowerment are therefore identified and considered in the analysis. With the increasing importance of communication technologies in rural community development, this study also evaluates the effectiveness of ICTs as a medium for empowering rural women.

The 'politics of difference' (Young, 1990) that underpins attempts to include a diversity of rural women in feminist research projects presents many challenges to feminist praxis. Chapters 1 and 2 propose that, in evaluating such projects, researchers need to take diversity and difference into account to avoid reproducing stereotyped images of rural women, and to identify those who are included and excluded. This is because of the complex nature of the identity 'rural woman', the multiple barriers to women's participation, and the diverse needs, agendas and ideologies of participants and stakeholders. The concept of seriality (Young, 1994) is used in this study to avoid reproducing 'rural women' and feminist researchers as women with a singular identity.

Chapters 1 and 2 argue that a comprehensive and critical analysis of these complex issues requires an eclectic, transdisciplinary approach, and that this can be fruitfully achieved by using a combination of two feminist frameworks of theory and epistemology: praxis feminism and feminist poststructuralism. While there are commonalities between these frameworks, the feminist poststructuralist framework takes a much more cautious and critical approach to claims for empowerment than praxis feminism. The praxis feminist framework draws on feminist theories that view power as social, cooperative and enabling. Women's diverse needs, values, issues and experiences are taken into account, and the analysis aims to gives voice to women. The purpose of this is to better understand the processes that meet women's diverse needs and could be empowering and inclusive for women (or otherwise). In contrast, the feminist poststructuralist framework uses Foucault's (1980) analytic of power as positive and strategic, exercised in all our interactions, and intimately connected to knowledge. The power-knowledge relations, and the multiple and shifting discourses and subject positions that were taken up in various research contexts are identified and analysed. The purpose of this is to highlight the contradictions and dangers inherent in feminist practices of empowerment that often go unnoticed.

To achieve its practical and critical aims, this study uses two different, but complementary, research methodologies: participatory feminist evaluation and feminist deconstructive ethnography, and multiple research methods, which are outlined in Chapter 3. This eclectic approach is argued to provide maximum flexibility and creativity in the research process, and to enable the complexity and richness of the data to be represented and understood from a diversity of perspectives. Triangulation of the multiple methods and sources of data is employed to increase the validity and rigour of the analysis.

Assessing how well feminist projects that use ICTs have met the aim of including a diversity of women requires an analysis of a wide range of complex social, economic,cultural, technological, contextual and methodological issues related to women's participation. Analysing these issues also requires giving voice to a diversity of participants' and stakeholders' assessments and meanings of 'diversity' and 'inclusion'.

The results of this analysis, set out in Chapter 4, suggest that differences in perceptions of diversity and inclusion are strongly related to participants' and stakeholders' political and ideological beliefs and values, and their degree of commitment to social justice issues. The evaluation found that a limited diversity of women participated in the project, and identified many barriers to their participation.

Feminists argue that women-only activities are often more empowering than mixed gender activities. The evaluation findings detailed in Chapter 5 suggest that the project's women-centred activities, particularly the workshops and online groups, were very successful in meeting the multiple needs of most participants. However, contradictory or undesirable effects of the project's activities were also identified. This analysis demonstrates the need to consider the various groups of participants and their diverse needs in assessing how well feminist methods and activities have met women's needs or are empowering.

Chapter 6 identifies various forms and features of empowerment and disempowerment and categorises them as social, technological, political and psychological. A model is developed that illustrates the interrelationships between these four forms of empowerment. Technological empowerment is identified as a new under-theorised form of empowerment that is seen as increasingly important as ICTs become more central to women's networking and participation. However, the findings suggest that the extent to which participants want to be empowered needs to be respected. While many participants were found to have experienced the four forms of empowerment, their participation was also shown to have had various disempowering effects. The project's online group welink (women's electronic link), which linked rural and urban women, including government policy-makers, was assessed as the most empowering project activity.

The discourse analysis and deconstructions, undertaken in Chapter 6, identify competing and contradictory discourses of new communication technologies and feminist participatory action research. The various discourses taken up by the researchers and participants were shown to have both empowering and disempowering effects. The analysis demonstrates the intersection between empowerment and disempowerment and the shifting subject positions that were taken up, depending on the research context. It was argued that the discourses of feminist action research operated as a 'regime of truth' (Foucault, 1980) that regulated and constrained the discourses and practices of this form of research.

An analysis of a highly contentious welink discussion challenges feminist assumptions that giving voice to women will lead to empowerment, and suggests that silence can, in some circumstances, be empowering. This analysis highlights the intersection of voice and silence, the limitations of the gendered discourse of care and connection, and how this discourse, and other factors, regulated the use of more critical discourses.

Critical reflections on the study are made in Chapter 7. They include the suggestion that an 'impossible burden' was placed on the project's feminist researchers who used an egalitarian feminist discourse that produced expectations of 'equal relations' between participants and researchers. However, these relations had to be established in the context of a university-based project that involved senior academic, government and industry staff.

Drawing on the new knowledge and understandings developed, this study proposes several principles and strategies for feminist participatory action research projects that seek the inclusion and empowerment of rural women and use ICTs. They include the suggestion that feminists need an awareness of the limits to the politics of difference discourse when power-knowledge relations are ignored. A further principle is that there is value in adopting a Foucauldian analytic of power, since this enables a better understanding of the complex, multifaceted and dynamic nature of power-knowledge relations in the research context. This approach also provides an awareness of how processes that attempt to empower will inevitably produce disempowerment at certain moments. Principles and strategies for undertaking participatory feminist evaluations are also suggested.

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ID Code: 18365
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Hatcher, Caroline A.
Keywords: deconstruction, discourse analysis, diversity and difference, empowerment, feminist action research, feminist ethnography, inclusion, interactive communication technologies, needs, participation, participatory evaluation, power, poststructuralist feminism, praxis feminism, rural women
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 26 Feb 2009 23:58
Last Modified: 10 Apr 2015 06:57

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