Through the process of research professors are able to enter an academic conversation with goals that range from solving a social problem to giving voice to particular communities. Interviews, surveys and participatory observation serve as channels that seek to deepen and broaden our understanding of certain groups of people. What is done with the results of months of data collection can range from a change in policy, to simply sharing the findings with other academics. What happens when research is conducted, policy does not change and communities are left “damaged”? By using Eve Tuck’s desire-based research, I will explore the ways in which research can either give voice to or silence communities. Are researchers truly giving communities a voice, even if the act of research is simply a representation of their stories? Who is listening to these voices besides the researcher and the academic community? What is the purpose of research if voice and/or change are not outcomes?
In the article “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” Eve Tuck begins by calling on communities and researchers to reimagine the ways in which research is conducted. She argues that traditional research is “damage-centered” in the ways in which it focuses solely on the painful experiences of people in urban and native communities. Damage-centered research portrays communities as victims by asking them to speak about the ways in which they have been exploited, under-resourced, and silenced. This way of conducting research leaves communities feeling damaged and broken, with little chance of the findings resulting in policy-change. Instead, she advocates for what she calls “desire-based” research, one that recognizes the complexities of human beings, and that acknowledges “ the loss and despair, but also the hope, the visions, and wisdom of lived communities” (Tuck, 417).
How can we conduct desire-based research? While Tuck emphasizes the need for desire-based research, she does not fully explain how this research can take place in a way that involves the communities. Without the collaboration of communities and researchers, desire-based research seem impossible. How can an outsider represent their voices? Although she does suggest that communities and tribes must provide guidelines and set boundaries about how and when research is conducted, she does not provide alternative ways in which communities can become part of the process. In other words, the important question here is how can desire-based research be conducted without the communities themselves? Through damage-centered research, it is easy to see why and how collaboration is not a priority. As Hooks explained, researchers give an illusion of giving voice by asking people to speak, “but only speak your pain” (Qtd. in Tuck, 413). This sounds almost like a demand. The problem with damage-centered research is that it does not truly give voice to the communities it seeks to give voice to. Instead, it places a demand that asks communities to hide parts of their identities that do not fit the image or story that the researcher is seeking, even if these parts are integral to their stories. The parts that are often ignored are those of hope and perseverance, those that complicate the narrative that urban communities are broken and that are therefore not appealing to those that want to change public policy.
Desire-based research, in its effort to distance itself from damage and to illuminate the ways in which communities have power and hope, must work collaboratively with the communities. In other words, research cannot be done to them but with them. How can desire-based research be conducted in partnership with communities to truly give voice to and represent their stories? An example of how it can be done is what our 360 cohort is experiencing at the moment. We are learning to understand others’ and our own complexities by exploring our histories, our emotions, our thinking and our experiences in and outside of the classroom. This process of rethinking and reimagining how we tell our stories was most evident to me during our first 360 lunch when a student, Sasha, said that she knew that she was able to speak more in our classes because she felt that her experiences were valuable and she was taking advantage of it. By saying this, Sasha not only recognized the ways in which she feels silenced at the college, but also the ways in which she feels important and valued in these particular classrooms. By not apologizing for this desire to take advantage of the opportunity to speak more often, knowing that it will be more difficult in other settings, she presented us with the complexities of how she sees her place on this campus.
We are conducting desire-based research together because it is a collaborative endeavor. By exposing ourselves we complicate the narrative that we are either privileged or damaged. We acknowledge that even in privilege there is damage and that in damage there is privilege. I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to my experience at Bryn Mawr. As a woman of color, feeling used because of my skin color and not because of my value has been a weight I’ve carried on my shoulders for the past three years. It wasn’t until recently that I recognized that in many ways, I had internalized this “damage-centered research” in thinking about myself. If I was to think of this experience in a “desire-based research” type of thinking I would recognize that the reason I am asked to represent Bryn Mawr in so many ways is not only because I’m a woman of color, but because I’m a hard working woman of color. I’d recognize that there are many others on this campus who have been privileged precisely because they’re not of color. Finally, I would acknowledge that these opportunities have lead me to travel, to network, and to attend events that I enjoy and help me grow as a student. With this desire-based thinking, I recognize that I have options, and that I can say no when I feel exploited and yes when I want to take advantage of the opportunity.
Desire-based research could be used as a way for communities to explore their histories in a way that acknowledges their complexity. It would prioritize the wellbeing and benefit of the community before the needs of the researcher or funder. By conducting research in a way that really allows communities to speak from a place of honesty, not one of satisfying demand, the result will be more transparent, beneficial, and real. It will no longer be a way to exploit communities because they will be at the center of the thinking and a part of the process. Those who choose to participate will be part of the planning and envisioning. They will draft questions and be proactive in deciding what they want to answer and what they’d rather not. They will be active in the analyzing and will not allow the researcher to misrepresent them or their desires. Most importantly, they will demand access to the final work; they will ask that it will be written in accessible language so that they too can take advantage of the process. In this way, the research will truly be desire-based, a project with communities not on communities in order for their voices to be heard.
Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” Harvard educational Review 79.3 (2009): 409-424.