This paper brings together two different ways of knowing failure, with a view to offering epistemological, methodological and ontological resources for undertaking feminist research. The idea behind ‘two ways of knowing failure’ is to make a point about the kinds of knowledge, data, and methods that are legitimate and valued in the research assemblage, while showing how a feminist ethnographic position can leave one vulnerable to feeling your whole person is a failure if parts of one’s research do not work. On face value, readers could be excused for thinking this research experience really does not matter: who cares if I feel like a failure? Especially when all the experiences of failure end up creating a portfolio of successful ethnographic work?
I maintain that recognition of the complexity of the research assemblage and the gendered nature of the research assemblage does matter in terms of supporting the work of emerging feminist ethnographers, who surely have similar experiences of feeling like a failure, experiences that are not necessarily echoed in the existing literature on methods and failure. Another way of saying this is that I am going on record talking about research failure so that women who fail in aspects of ethnographic research methods can understand their failure as normal, as something others have experienced, and perhaps as a step to success. Failure and success are enmeshed, although experiences of failure do not make this clear. Through putting academic and esteemed ‘theories of failure’ alongside first person, methodological experiences of failure in fieldwork, I mean to suggest that it is popularly seen as acceptable within social research assemblages to write about the political significance of failure (see, for example, Halberstam 2011), but not to actually do fieldwork that fails. Doing fieldwork that fails is somehow taboo, despite the gains made towards appreciating the political significance of failure in queer and disability theory.
While this paper is about methodological failure, it arises from a broader project working with responsive ethnography to explore the common ground between people of different faith backgrounds. The substantive content of my research project on religion is not taken as the focus of this paper, as I am arguing that methodologically, ethnographic work blends one’s experience of fieldwork with one’s sense of self and that this presents particular challenges and vulnerabilities for feminist researchers. In being and becoming a responsive ethnographer, one cannot always plan research: one must often relinquish control. Not being in control often feels like failing. The experience of being a woman researcher, and an outsider trying to belong to a culture that is not one’s own, can also at times feel like failure. Being brave enough to experience failure, then, is perhaps a pre-requisite for undertaking feminist ethnographic research. In developing a feminist ethnographic perspective, on running a trans-national empirical research project, I have come to appreciate the epistemological resources that feminist literature on failure provide for those of us who agree with critiques suggesting happiness and mindfulness can be neoliberal technologies; but more than this, I’ve had to live with feeling like a failure while assessing data sets that contain moments of failure that are often methodologically significant and aesthetically interesting. The project on faith, belonging, community and identity about which I write is a very successful project, in the respect that the research methods broadly work well and I am obtaining rich data as well as impacting the communities in which I work. Sometimes I believe the methods I have invented will outlive me as a person. I explain these methods in other publications (Hickey-Moody 2017 & 2018; Hickey-Moody & Harrison 2018) and give a little more detail in what is to follow, but this paper is not about what I see as being ‘successful’ about the way they work. This paper is an expression of my desire to speak to the magnitude of my experience of the utility of accident, the labour of gender, utility of vulnerability and the significance of responsivity.