Author Archives: Bryony

Qualitative Research Methods in Action

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

birkbeck_qualitative_methods_day_webOn 23 May 2017, Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology was delighted to host a one-day conference to discuss the latest methodologies in the field – Qualitative Research Methods. Qualitative research is an area of growing interest for organizational psychologists because of its ability to provide unique insight into trends in thought and opinions, and dive right to the heart of a problem. The day’s presentations and panel discussions provided a fantastic platform to engage with the work of academic staff, current and recently completed PhD students from the department, with a particular focus on the challenges and opportunities posed by the participant-researcher relationship that develops over the course of a study.

What are Qualitative Methods?

Where both qualitative and quantitative research methods play a pivotal role in contributing to understandings of work and organizations, qualitative research comprises a wide range of methods developed from a variety of theoretical perspectives and underpinned by a range of philosophical stances. These include critical, postmodern and social constructionist perspectives, reflecting the landscape of influential European philosophies.  More traditional positivist quantitative research methods are used to quantify the problem by generating numerical data for statistical analysis, but qualitative research typically applies inductive methods to explore socially constructed reality, focusing on meanings, ideas and practices.  This approach can provide rich data about sense-making, identity, and lived experience that quantitative studies simply cannot match. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches have their strengths and limitations but essentially they are used to address very different research questions. The Department of Organizational Psychology is committed to a plurality of research methods and their underpinning philosophies as a means of enhancing the methodological options available to work psychologists.

The focus of this event was on the participant-researcher relationship in qualitative research with a particular focus on the role of trust, time and technology.

Building the Trust

So – qualitative data collection takes time, but are there other challenges in qualitative research? Certainly, but the biggest challenge can also be considered the biggest opportunity – the relationship that develops between researcher and participant. The audience heard this first-hand from several presenters, like PhD student Jane Setten. She described trust as the ‘central mechanism’ to her longitudinal study, in which she will meet her participants over several years to map changes in their work-life situations. While the relationship between researcher and interviewee could, in the first instance, create a barrier to authentic and useful data if the participant was wary of the researcher, it can become a window to ‘successfully understand a situation or behaviour from an insider’s perspective’. Qualitative research methods rely on the researcher-participant relationship – it is a key part of co-constructing the data to analyse.

The audience also heard from Paula Fitzgerald, who shared not only her experience of qualitative photo-elicitation and interview methods but a great example of how – regardless of discipline – a research journey is rarely linear. Paula’s qualitative data collection resulted in her beginning to analyse her own experience of conducting research, from the researcher’s perspective – ‘an embodied experience’. Her work shed light on the role of the researcher as nuanced and permeable, and the idea that a researcher can be seen by their participants either as an insider or an outsider.

In Pursuit of Publication

The OP Qualitative Methods in Action day succeeded in providing an informal overview of leading-edge, innovative methods that are currently being used by qualitative researchers in the department. However, qualitative research, like longitudinal case studies carried out over a number of years, and visual approaches, like responses to pictures and participant video diaries, are still considered less traditional than quantitative methods. Student and staff presentations were thus augmented by an insightful keynote on the challenges and opportunities in publishing qualitative research, delivered by Professor Bill Lee, from the University of Sheffield Management School. Professor Lee has not only published widely on topics across management and related disciplines, but is also an associate editor for Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management (QROM) and of the European Management Review (EMR). At EMR he has recently established a new section, “Methodology Matters”, which provides a peer-reviewed outlet for articles that make a methodological contribution.

After leading the audience through the development of opportunities for qualitative research, and the context on which the debate on research methods is based, Professor Lee highlighted the importance of perseverance and resilience in pursuit of publication. New sections such as “Methodology Matters” open up new opportunities for people interested in methods and associated fields, helping to bolster accessibility and diversity within all research fields.

The Department of Organizational Psychology would like to thank all participants and attendees for their thought provoking presentations, posters and questions.

You can follow Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology on Twitter @bbk_orgpsych or find out more about upcoming events on their website.

The graphic recording of the day’s proceedings was provided by Laura Sorvala, from Auralab. You can follow her on Twitter @_auralab or visit her website.


Enough is Enough: Secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection

This article was contributed by Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities

A visit to the Warburg Institute always provides food for thought; indeed its very system of book classification is designed to precipitate serendipitous findings. So, I should not have been surprised when our Arts Week jaunt to uncover the secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection, led by its least secretive of guardians, Dr Paul Taylor, provided me with a way to think about our Arts Week lead of art and politics, but I was.

The Warburg Photographic Collection is a library of images that runs from the early Renaissance to the eighteenth-century. As Dr Taylor explained, it covers that period because what Erwin Panofsky called the pre-iconographic and the iconographic exist in a particular relation during that time. So, if we see an image of a woman beside a pool we might think about it pre-iconographicallly – woman with pool. But if we are to think about it iconographically in the period 1450-1790 we are likely to think about the wither Susanna and the Elders (the Bible) or the classical goddess Diana, bathing with her nymphs because that is what Renaissance and eighteenth-century viewers might have had in mind. To stay with classical imagery, we might similarly understand a woman with a helmet on her head in pre-iconographic terms as – just that. However, considered iconographically she might be, or suggest, Athena, and the woman with snakes in her hair that she is killing shares the complex iconography of Hydra, with all the associations of rebellion and misrule. The collection stops in the eighteenth century because, as Paul reminded us, that was when artists and viewers began to think differently about images and for a time these associations faded. Nowadays, of course, they are a smaller but always available part of the thinking of an artist or a viewer and sometimes they give extra resonance not only to the images of artists as different as Cy Twombly and Cindy Sherman, but to the images we find around us in the our image-drenched everyday.

Thinking about pre-iconographic and iconographic looking is an important part of what   modern readers of the internet practice astutely all the time. Renaissance iconography can help us to see more clearly that thinking about images iconographically can add depth and resonance and make us understand more deeply the messages a particular image is offering or, often, selling us. And it is this, of course, that set me thinking about a specific hairy political problem that I have been struggling with. The problem is hairy in several ways –  it is tangled; there is something at stake, and, above all, it is a problem about political hair. Can Erwin Panofsky’s idea of the iconographic help me to understand the iconography of hair as it is playing out. Let us try the method.


Credit: Think London

Hair was brought to the attention of the viewing public when Donald Trump began his political ascent. His hair, like that of Boris Johnson, is unruly and speaks of disruption but also, I think, of the retention of youthful energy into old age. Jeremy Corbyn’s beard, of course, leads us not only to the Bible but to all the images of distinguished masculine age, but the neatness of hair and beard might be a careful distraction. More attention is paid to the appearance of female politicians. It is not that images of men don’t carry meanings but that in many systems of images, not only the Western art that makes up the bulk of the Warburg Photographic Collection, images of women signify instability. Modern politicians know this and part of life for a female politician must be using her image to her advantage – but always with an eye to forestalling problematic associations. Women in the public eye know all too clearly that part of what iconographic thinking does is make visibible some of the living connection between art and politics. Theresa May moves on the stage of world politics beside men whose hair draws comment, and (as Gaby Wood’s fashion-homage to May in Vogue tells us) we know that she is herself interested in fashion. So why has the image projected by her own sleek bob been so little remarked?


Credit: The Margaret Thatcher Foundation

If thinking about May’s hair as a bob is pre-iconographic, it can, nevertheless, take us towards some potentially helpful iconography. Perhaps the most obvious visual antecedent for a female Conservative Prime Minister is Margaret Thatcher and in some ways Theresa May has drawn on that legacy. She does it carefully, though. Just as she has told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ she has said ‘Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative, I am a conservative’ or on 4 June 2017, apparently marking the latest attack over which she has presided as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, ‘Enough is enough’. These structures of speech are analogous to thinking pre-iconographically in that each rejects an invitation to make an association; they stop short of agreeing to a meaning that comes from outside the control of the speaker. The soundbites strongly associated with Margaret Thatcher such as ‘The lady’s not for turning’ are strong assertions and have over the years been subject to exactly the repurposing and satire that at least the three sentences I have quoted by May resist by refusing image, metaphor, analogy. If May’s speech is distinct from Thatcher’s in attempting insulation and resisting bold, unruly, assertion that might make her vulnerable, I think the same can be said of her relationship to Thatcher’s image. There is little to connect them beyond their use of suits and that is hardly a connection in the wardrobes of political women. May makes little use of Thatcher’s visual image altogether and a comparison on their hair bears out this question. Thatcher’s hair is bold yet fixed in a style now redolent of the aggressive management style of the 1980s when Teresa May was also making her way in politics.

By the time Teresa May caused a stir by putting some spring in her step by wearing a pair of leopard-print kitten heels to the Tory conference in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was long gone. Tony Blair has been elected on a landslide victory. The Tories were nowhere and May was not a particularly important politician. As the eagle-eyed commentator on the politics of fashion, Hadley Freeman, noted in The Guardian there might be some significance in May’s fashion choice. Could May be distancing herself from the difficult Thatcher image by fashioning her own image – in this case by using ‘the old trick of wearing an implausible item in order to create a new image and divert attention from a tiresome past?’ In the end Freeman decided that May liked shoes and liked fun. Yes, but fun and shoes still might have meaning.

princess_dianaFirst coming to politics under Thatcher, May’s formational years were not dominated by the fashions favoured by a woman born in 1925 and whose power hair seemed to grow into a larger and larger helmet as her popularity waned. Much more appealing to a Tory woman born in 1956 might be the fashionable dressing of another, potentially much more sympathetic, political figure – Diana, Princess of Wales. And if we look at the iconography of the People’s Princess in popular memory we can, I think, see much of what May quietly claims from the Thatcher years in her subtle iconography of heel – and hair. Of course, in the 1980s Diana was a troubling and troublesome figure of constrained femininity. However, as time passed, her femininity and fashion sense were remembered. She was beloved, a fashion icon and had the other kind of 1980s hair – various versions of a bob. Any young Tory politician would want to annexe some of Diana’s charisma and good looks. But with May’s subtle appropriation of heel and, especially, hair we might also find something of Diana’s set-apart quality and, of course, it can’t be missed that Diana was political – but she was a princess, not a mucky politician.

Vivienne Westwood by Mattia PasseriDiana was a princess, May was not and was only likely to attain power by a long and careful game. But they both liked fashion, and their tastes were shaped in the eighties. If one Queen of eighties fashion was Diana, the other was of course Vivienne Westwood. Producing madly wearable brilliantly iconoclastic clothes Westwood’s iconography was like Diana’s singular, but much more heavily Elizabethan. She can readily be found as Queen Elizabeth I and II and her Elizabeth gown is at present on display in the Chatsworth chinoiserie. As we now all know, May succeeded in the long game and soon after her accession to rule she made a speech about Brexit – wearing her ‘lucky’ suit. If the trouser part of the suit annexes the panther power of punk, like the leopard she trod in, then its Vivienne aspect fills in the regal dimension from head (hair) to (leopard) toe. If May is a ruler she is a queen – isolate, singular, and deriving her power from a mixture of personality and taste, not from power-dressing, muck-slinging politics.

All this, of course, makes us ask what is the iconography of a female ruler – not helmet haired like Athena or Thatcher, but subtle, powerful, yet without vulnerability? What might Diana and Vivienne do for her?  Well, Vivienne Westwood’s designs draw on the twin iconographies of Britishness (the tartan we find in May’s trouser suit) and the queens Elizabeth. Her designs suggest a rebellion restrained to an iconographic tradition of Britishness that punk both satirised and marketed and that was ultimately absorbed into Cool Britannia and the Olympic iconography of 2012. Westwood’s regal iconography combines deference to royalty and a fantasy of her own regal rule. There is no mistaking that just as her dresses might make a queen, so, too, they mean she is indeed a queen.

If we move up to the hair, then the bob is one of the most common and versatile styles for women’s hair. It can look natural, and that is the way Teresa May wears it (pre-iconographic again) yet it is often saturated with cultural meanings and knowledge. If we look back to the 1980s to think about bobs other than Diana’s, perhaps Debby Harry of the band Blondie offers an example of the bob. Like May, Debby Harry wanted to annexe values to her brand, but none of them were natural; her bob calls up Marilyn Monroe’s. Yet, where Monroe was wrecked by fame, by the time we were all looking at Debby Harry’s bob she had already survived heroin addiction: she was older than most punks; she was a woman and the band, brand and hair were hers – and her hair said it all as the name of that band: Blondie. So if Harry claimed and reworked classic feminine icons of modernity to offer a knowing bid for a modern kind of freedom in which the ‘natural’ was long past, May’s use of the blow dried natural look speaks of a return to nature but also, once again, an avoidance of the iconographic: no helmet for her rather subtle styling, subtle colour and age-appropriacy. Yet for all that May’s hair says to us ‘hair means hair’, the gently groomed and subtly coloured ‘natural’ bob is claiming the power of a quiet femininity that is mixed with brand princess.

Of course, I began by saying that men have an easier time in terms of meaning. Many are allowed to stay in the pre-iconographic. So as I am writing just before an election why can’t I offer some balance by considering Corbyn’s hair? That would be a different topic. Just for the present, though, perhaps we can visualise his head with hair and beard outlining a pineata. As it is repeated and violently struck, sweets and trophies fly through the air at some velocity. It is time to return to the Warburg Picture Collection to ask Dr Paul Taylor for help on the iconography of Corbyn as a pineata …


Dystopia Now

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker from Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities

dystopiaOn Friday 26 May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17.

Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history. To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread.

In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had been occluded. Laura De Simoni, in a study of Philip Ridley, reminded us of how dystopia can be represented on the stage as well as the page.

In a panel on gender and dystopia, Nick Hubble read the work of Naomi Alderman and Iain M. Banks, while Sean Donnelly considered the value of young women as potential role models in dystopian Young Adult fiction. The symposium also contained a panel dedicated to the work of MA students. I was only able to catch the third of three papers here, but this – Eden Davis’s reading of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge (2013) in light of the history of counterculture – was impressively erudite and delivered with panache. I heard good things, too, about the two MA speakers I had missed, Frank Jackman and Lawrence Jones.

The afternoon brought two papers discussing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006): Alice Reeve-Tucker stressing its element of Christian redemption, Diletta De Cristofaro making a case about the treatment of time in this and other narratives. A question from the floor raised the issue of science fiction and literary fiction as different, though perhaps overlapping spheres. This was one of the issues that remained of interest to me: how far does dystopia belong to SF, and how far have such issues spread beyond particular genres into what is often called the literary mainstream? The same point might apply to the author Cory Doctorow, whose brand new novel Walkaway was discussed by Chris Pak. An impressive voice in recent science fiction studies, Pak gave the impression that his work was broadening its remit, though his use of the term ‘neoliberalism’ to designate the world system was queried in the wake of recent claims of the retreat of globalization.

Hollie Johnson introduced us to a vision of ecological dystopia in the age of climate change, which was echoed in Amy Butt’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140, in which sea levels have risen around Manhattan. Butt’s paper was distinctive in reading dystopian fictions alongside architectural practice. I found it particularly interesting that she used illustrations of the new architecture posited by novels, including Robinson’s. Butt demonstrated how such visual imaginations of a high-rise world can be a bridge between dystopian fiction and actual city planning, though she also expressed caution about the distortions that illustrations can produce as representations of literary narratives.

Where Caroline Edwards’ opening keynote had grounded us in dystopia’s history, Mark Bould’s closing address was oriented to the present. Bould started from recent dismissals of dystopia as ‘monotonous’ and ‘politically wrong’ by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek respectively: while reluctant to agree with them, he expressed distrust of dystopia as an adequate form for our time. Despite Ray Bradbury’s suggestion that the point of dystopia was to prevent, not predict, the future, Bould declared that such fictions seemed to have done little to prevent the worst aspects of the contemporary world. Indeed Bould limned a damning picture of that world, arguing for the affinities of the contemporary West with fascism. Perhaps the trouble with dystopia, Bould proposed, is that it is no longer sufficiently different from our shared reality. Bould’s barnstorming address closed our day on dystopia by provocatively questioning the value of the genre. Still, the discussions throughout the day gave evidence of the critical reading and thinking that people are doing under this rubric. Notwithstanding the ominous global developments implicit throughout the day’s discussions, it was inspiring to see so many scholars come together, share their work and make connections.



Women and careers in STEMM: challenges, barriers and achievements of pioneers and today’s professionals

This post was contributed by Viviana Meschitti, a member of the Birkbeck TRIGGER team

trigger-pisa-event2On May 22 2017, the two TRIGGER teams from Birkbeck, University of London and the University of Pisa came together to organise an event to discuss the career pathways of women in STEMM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine. The focus of the event was to discuss challenges and barriers to women in STEMM areas, in which they are significantly underrepresented, but also to foreground vital breakthroughs and achievements. The international collaboration of the TRIGGER project serves to show that the importance of gender equality is recognised worldwide, and was emphasised by the commitment expressed by the three male senior executives of the University of Pisa, who welcomed the participants and the audience of more than 30 people to this workshop.

There are nuances within each working environment and within each discipline, but whether it is biology, computer science or the arts and humanities, there are still many problems to overcome on the road to achieving gender equality in the workplace – from unconscious bias and career breaks, to flexible working and promotional opportunities. As many previous TRIGGER workshops have highlighted, the most important point made at this event was that one cannot place a high enough value on collecting data, which can be used as evidence of problems and solutions.

Rita Biancheri, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pisa, kicked off proceedings by providing an overview of the European data that clearly demonstrates an underrepresentation of women in STEMM disciplines. She also focused on the phenomenon of the “leaky pipeline”, an image used to illustrate the number of women decreasing along the academic career path from PhD to Professor. Disciplinary culture plays a pivotal role; Professor Biancheri presented the work that the TRIGGER team conducted at Pisa with a particular focus on engineering and medicine. In engineering, there is already a clear underrepresentation of women at undergraduate level, but the phenomenon of the leaky pipeline is not as significant later on. In the case of medicine, the number of women undergraduates has started to equal and even overcome those of men for many years, but then the leaky pipeline is particularly strong, meaning that a small minority of women occupy positions at the top of the academic sphere.

Representing the Birkbeck TRIGGER team, I shifted the focus to the situation at Birkbeck, and highlighted two points: first, that there is an increased pressure on more junior scholars to succeed in obtaining grants or publishing; and secondly that, independent of their familial situation, women are still the ones expected to “take care”, both within their family and their respective department. She highlighted the case of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck, which has been recognised historically as an especially good environment for research and for women researchers. The importance of having role models (like Rosalind Franklin, for example), and of the willingness to bring in women, has been reiterated by staff members participating in the TRIGGER research.

Ania Lopez, a mechanical engineer, works for the Italian National Council of Engineers to promote women’s careers and contribution in the engineering sector. She highlighted the achievements of recent years: an increase in women joining the Register of Engineers and the launch of “Ingenio al femminile” – an initiative to promote women’s contribution. An annual event is organised within the framework of this initiative, to discuss research on issues affecting women’s careers, such as the gender pay gap. Last year’s event was attended by equal numbers of men and women, which she considered a great achievement.

Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda, researchers at the Polytechnic of Turin, presented the European project MoMoWo, focused on promoting women’s contributions in Architecture and Design. They discussed the issue of women not being represented in books about the History of Architecture, and have created a database to collect the history of almost 200 hundred women architects active in the last century, to underline their ground-breaking work. They also stressed the importance of raising awareness of the profession in younger generations; in collaboration with several architects, they have organised open days for people interested in visiting ateliers.

A panel discussion followed these presentations to shed light on a number of associated topics. Ania Lopez described women’s feeling of marginalisation, and that their avoidance to voice concern might be difficult if they are in a minority. It is vital to provide women academics with transferable skills to boost their confidence, but also, at a grassroots level, to train parents to educate their children as equals and avoid gender segregating activity. Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda also focused on the family issue – how can women with small children be seen as able to focus solely on their career, when they are always placed in a position requiring challenging negotiation? This prompted discussion on the issue of quotas and meritocracy: Ania Lopez underlined that quotas do not help to promote women’s professional image, while Caterina Franchini suggested the problem must be reframed and seen in the wider context of underrepresentation of some specific groups.

The learned outcomes can be summarised as follows:

  • In different disciplines, the problems in relation to women’s underrepresentation are different: it is important to regularly collect and monitor data and design tailored initiatives
  • Women’s historical contribution within disciplines should be foregrounded
  • It is vital to increase young people’s awareness of the opportunities offered within the professions
  • Both women and men must be educated to consider and discuss the challenges related to gender equality.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics, which provided a funding grant for this event.

You can find out more about the TRIGGER project on our website or follow us on Twitter @TRIGGERbbk