In the past, just as now, family relationships sometimes needed to be maintained across distances. Today Facebook does the job well, with family members staying in touch by posting short comments, and very often sharing photographs of the activities and the loved ones’ material world. These statuses root people in their familiar (sometimes unfamiliar) surroundings, acting as both reminder and reassurance for family members and sustaining and sometimes forging familial contact...
“Age is often overlooked as an issue of diversity, especially within the publishing world. As a result of this disregard, romance fiction, so often at the forefront of social change for women, is losing its place as a feminist trailblazer, especially for older women, and it’s missing out on an opportunity to make money...”
Reading Clare Holdsworth’s blog recently, I was reminded of the difficulties of producing good auto-ethnographic research. My background is in comparative literary & cultural studies. Whilst I have never shied away from mixing high-, mid- and lowbrow material from various periods, I have always found it difficult to bring my creative practice which is mostly writing and photography into my research. As a co-editor of Materiality of Love (with Anna Malinowska) and Critical Love Studies (with Amy Burge), I have supported auto-ethnographic research and creative practice as research.
In 2018 I ran three pilots in community-based, participatory research through creative practice. Emma Wolverson and I trained with the help of John Killick [ https://www.dementiapositive.co.uk/john.html ] Hull City of Culture volunteers in co-production of poetry with people who have dementia. We then ran an event for people with dementia and their spouses/partners at Butterflies Memory Loss Group at which we co-wrote poetry about love and relationships. The participants enjoyed it, and there were some very moving texts which we collated in a brochure. I then ran a series of writing workshops with the Spoken Word Collective at the Warren Youth Centre greatly aided by the group’s facilitator Joe Hakim. The process was exciting and fruitful. We produced a zine with the help of Mike Barnes at Type Slowly [https://www.typeslowlystore.com/ ]. There was also a launch event where some of the young writers performed their material. This was followed by writing workshops with the LGBT+ group at the Warren which is facilitated by Hannah Watson. This series of workshops was probably the most fun, as the young people were very lively and expressive. They were also not very interested in publishing or publicly performing their material. To read one’s text to one’s peers for an immediate reaction was the main attraction. It helped with internal bonding of group members and ultimately was not meant to go beyond this context.
For various workshops during the year I wrote creative texts, some autobiographical, some fiction, some auto-fiction about my experiences with love and relationships. The aim was initially not to appear like a researcher who is primarily interested in harvesting data. I wanted to contribute some of my imagination and some of my vulnerability to the group processes. It surprised me how much I enjoyed creative writing which I had not practised very much for ten, fifteen years. That is a reason why subsequently I produced two per-zines (personal zines) and started selling and trading them. I have sold quite a few and have given away some to mostly positive reviews by those who like zines as a medium or who have an open mind towards unconventional creative practice.
What I have not quite come to terms with, is the issue of quality. I can write excellent analyses and criticism of literature, but I am not an excellent writer of creative prose. If we understand zines as low-threshold, direct means of communication through print, mine are perfectly fine. They are firmly rooted in post-punk and DIY culture which are not preoccupied with mastery or professional standards. On the other hand, I am a professional researcher into cultural means of expression. This remains unresolved for me and may spur me on to do more of both.
What I am currently contemplating, is how my autobiographical creative practice could and maybe should play a role in my research. I have used it as a catalyst in the community-based research processes. But what else can my creative practice provide for my research? Creative writing about love and relationships may express complexities and ambiguities which academic prose cannot capture because there is no academic vocabulary to do so. I think there is great potential in this.
There is an obstacle to this in my research which is shyness. It may very well be that my relationship history and my life-long intellectual and emotional investment in matters of the heart could offer more insight through creative practice. I am not sure, however, whether I have the courage to write about my experiences where they really matter to me. So far, my creative writing on love has avoided anything which is emotionally unresolved for me as a person, and anything about the longest romantic relationship I have been having, the one with my wife.
Writers of autobiographies understand that no person is an island. Any writing about the self contains large chunks of the biographies of other people, usually those who have been closest to us. It is conceivable that in the future I will seek consent from my wife and my family to write about them. It would probably take a bit more work to persuade the ethics committee at my university to give me permission to undertake such work as research. What is lacking is my resolve to go down this route. It is one thing to open up about complex emotions in community-based research. It is another one to do so in research publications.
This is not the end of the thought process, though, in spite of the imminent end of this blog entry. One of the early lessons I took from working with the Spoken-Word artists at the Warren was to encourage fiction and fictionalisation. The twilight zone of fiction is an ideal site to engage with our most difficult and our most intense experiences. Spoken-Word artists are commonly expected to be authentic in their expression. There is a tendency to reduce these artists to representatives of (marginalised) communities. Writers of fiction are given more opportunities to explore, to speak in tongues and through characters. Genre fiction is one of the ways of creating enough distance between the author self and the content of the text to establish a safe space for the author and eventually their readers to do insightful research through creative practice.
This takes my train of thought from auto-ethnography via autobiography to (auto-) fiction. The linkage with my own research is something I will need to contemplate further – possibly when I have grown in confidence about my non-academic writing.
Dr Minna-Kristiina Ruokonen-Engler is a sociologist, research associate and lecturer in women’s and gender studies at the Institute of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences at Goethe University and a research fellow at the Institute for Social Research Frankfurt, Germany.
Her research interests lie in the field of gender, diversity, migration and qualitative research methods, especially biographical methods. Methodologically, she is interested in exploring the role of emotions and affects in qualitative research process. In her current research project, she is exploring social mobility, emotion work, love and affective (in)equalities, as well as transformations of gender and intergenerational relations in families of migrants.
She has written widely about gender, intersectionality, migration, and belonging; diversity, social inequality, racism and discrimination in institutional settings; gendered labour migration and societal integration; gender, diversity and anti-racist education in teaching, as well as about the use of interpretative research methods, especially biographical-narrative research approach, in the field of transnational migration studies.
LRN founder Michael Gratzke was interviewed for this article which appeared on WIRED shortly after (!) Valentine’s Day:
In the 1960s, a young social psychologist called Arthur Aron was looking for the right area to focus his research on – at the time, the norm in social psychology was to look for something which hadn’t been studied before. Then he fell in love. Soon, he was carrying out experimental studies using university students, and brain scans on people who were in love, falling out of love and recently divorced.
Even if you don’t know Aron’s name, you’re probably familiar his 36 Questions. A set of questions that become increasingly personal as you work through with your partner. In the original 1997 study, two of the lab technicians who did the experiment eventually got married.
“People thought it couldn’t be done,” says Aron, who is now a researcher at Stonybrook University in New York. “Two of the original researchers, some of the first ones, got in huge trouble in the US – because people just didn’t believe it could be studied scientifically. One of the things which helped was some of our first studies, showing the effects in the brain – people see it in the brain, and they think, ‘Oh, love is real!’.”
Throughout history, poets, writers, and artists have tried to piece together what love could be. But it’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve made real scientific progress towards understanding the processes in our brain that give us that giddy feeling. But then along came online match-making platforms, dating apps, and social media – and people were quick to jump to the most dramatic conclusions about how this impacted arguably the most intimate parts of our lives. The problem? There remains little research to say that this is the case.
One problem in social scientific research is the availability of participants – so a lot of research on inter-personal relationships and closeness, particularly decades ago, was carried out with university students. Researchers looking at how to create a close relationship, for example, may carry out experimental studies. “Experiments are the best,” says Aron. “The problem is that even if you bring in people who are already close, they have all these different histories. That’s why we did the 36 questions, because you give two people an activity to do to get close, and then you get people to do a small talk activity for the same amount of time, and you can measure their hormones or their attitudes.”
Other methods include field experiments, surveys, brain scans and representative national surveys. One of the problems is that this kind of research often uses data from people who are easily available, such as university students, or even anecdotal, small group samples. But with the advent of digital surveys, researchers have been able to cast their nets further afield.
“Technology has actually given us new tools to study love. It’s helped us do very rigorous research, and get consistent results across studies which are replicable, on topics which really matter, both practically and theoretically,” says Aron.
Huge amounts of data have helped, too. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, was one of the first to publish research into the processes behind love – how dopamine courses through your brain, which parts light up. Now, her role as chief scientific officer at Match.com has put her in contact with huge amounts of data from all around the US. In turn, that’s helped her chart trends and sift through the sensationalism around love and technology.
“I create these questionnaires, around 200 questions, along with my colleagues,” says Fisher. “We farm it out to groups that collect data, from around the US, and we collect information on a nationally representative group of over 5,000 people. And then you’re just swimming in this data.” Fisher and her colleagues have been doing this for around seven years.
“From my research, it seems like there’s this massive misunderstanding, even if it’s not necessarily a generational gap. I think nowadays, singles don’t have the time or the money – they want to work and they’re ambitious, and they want to be stable before they settle down – so there’s kind of slow love, and much more caution,” says Fisher. Biological anthropologists, like Fisher, argue that the desire to love is a survival mechanism, one which won’t be trampled over so easily by new technology. Others, such as sociologists and critical theorists, also argue that young people now aren’t so taken in by the traditional ideas of marriage, or even a cultural emphasis on romantic love.
“It’s fascinating – people who are now in their late teens, early twenties – they do take love and relationships seriously,” says Michael Gratzke, a professor of literature at Hull University, who has helped pioneer the field of critical love studies. “But they tend to criticise how romantic love is emphasised in society, and they’re more comfortable, I think, with complicated relationships and patterns of love.”
Gratzke emphasises the value of having various perspectives or voices included in a conversation. “Love is so complex that you need experts from all kinds of fields,” says Gratzke, “What’s important in critical love studies is that it focuses on the experiences of actual people.” The proliferation of dating apps, as well as liberalising attitudes to sexuality, has also meant that marginalised communities have new ways to form connections. “A lot of the research into how technology has changed relationships is really only starting to be understood,” says Gratzke. “But we do know that if it’s hard for you to go out to a local gay bar, or if you live in a rural setting, then these technologies can make those relationships, those connections, more available.”
When VCRs came into existence in the 1980s, many speculated that it would kill intimacy, because pornography would become available at home. Even when the printing press was invented, the worry was that it would cause information overload. “Before the first academic articles about Tinder were published, influential media pieces, such as the one by Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair,framed the topic in a very negative way,” says Christoph Lutz, who researches mobile dating at the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society. ”Subsequent research found that the actual practices are much more nuanced and less concerning.” When there’s new technology, people tend to wonder whether it will kill something, or cause a big collapse. But we probably just haven’t figured out how to use it best, and more research on the area will illuminate the way.
“What you get quite a lot is this notion that love has somehow changed a lot recently,” says Gratzke. “If you take literature, where they’re describing a world of landed gentry, and every single person in the room knows the backstory of everybody else, and then they’re ranked, and in a sense, they swipe left and right. We have very great anxieties around romantic love, but we need to have a closer look.”
This article is part of our in-depth series investigating how technology is changing love, sex and relationships.
From keeping an intimate secret from the internet to the battle to destroy super gonorrhoea, we’ll explore the technologies and ideas changing how we all live and love – for better or worse.