Learning to hear: developing methods for listening to women’s experiences of silence

The way we listen as women researchers is, I suggest, a form of spiritual practice that has many of the qualities of prayer understood as the most attentive listening to self, other and God we can manage. ... We listen to what is explicit ... what is implicit but not directly said, and to what is null or absent - the inconceivable, unsayable, or not yet capable of being articulated. ... As in prayer, so in research, the discipline of waiting is a core gift and skill.

Nicola Slee1

The act of listening as a person or a group describes their faith practices is fundamentally a theological act. ... Listening is that crucial act of love for which human beings long. With careful listening can come gifts of being heard, known, understood.

Mary Clark Moschella2


As the focus of my inquiry is women’s chosen practices of silence, it was important that the methodological approach I adopted and the resultant methods used in gathering and analysing the data privilege experience as a locus of knowledge and women’s experiences over historical androcentric biases in the ‘gender-blind’ study of religious practices.3 This chapter outlines the methodologies and methods chosen for consistency with these concerns, and the overall design and processes of my research.

Principles informing the research design

This inquiry is located within feminist practical theology. Neither feminists nor practical theologians espouse a single methodology. Similarly, ontological and epistemological positions held within these disciplines are multiple. I will therefore outline the basic principles from within the spectrums of beliefs, values and practices within these fields which together form the interpretative framework for my research. As research methods used by feminist practical theologians are equally varied, recognising the value of both qualitative and quantitative inquiry as a feminist research tool,4 the principles I outline also inform the methods selected in my research design. Echoing the principles of feminist research identified by Slee,5 the three principles informing my inquiry are listening to women’s different experiences, empowerment and liberation, and researcher reflexivity.

Listening to women’s different experiences

The overarching principle of listening to women’s different experiences combines two fundamental principles of feminist research. First, explicitly foregrounding women’s experiences of the practices being investigated, reflecting Ruether’s statement that feminist theology’s uniqueness ‘lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use of women’s experience’.6 Foregrounding women’s experiences exposes normative assumptions around male authorship of spiritual practices and the minimal discussion of women’s practices of silence within the dominant discourses of feminist theology. Reclamation of all aspects of women’s experiences from their ‘invisible, unnamed and underground’7 position beneath the assumed male norm is central to feminist theory and theology. Instead, these are acclaimed as normative, as a source of knowledge and are used as a primary resource for reflecting upon reality and testing theological doctrines and assertions.8 As Sandra Harding states, basing research in women’s lives leads to claims about women that are ‘less false - less partial and distorted’ than those which emerge when the starting point is male experience.9 However, feminists long since recognised the philosophical and theological difficulties of beginning from an undifferentiated presentation of women’s experience, obscuring differences of race, class, religious affiliation, education, (dis lability and sexual orientation. Yet Graham proposes that although generalisation renders ‘women’s experience’ an unsatisfactory category, it remains a ‘strategic utility’ for speaking about women’s lives as feminism continues to expose and oppose failures to acknowledge women’s full humanity.10

The need to acknowledge particularity within women’s experience necessitates the second fundamental principle: listening for difference and diversity as women name their experiences. Feminism’s critique of its earlier lack of differentiation in presentations of women’s experiences highlighted the imperative to acknowledge diversity: ‘if the experiences of women create knowledge and reality, then ... this knowledge and reality are plural, because the experiences of women are varied and diverse’.11 However, within feminist discourse difference is not straightforward.12 Graham identifies three distinct uses: women’s experience as distinct from assumed, normative understandings of human experience rooted in those of men, an acknowledgement of plurality of experience amongst women which also rejects suggestions of any single difference between binary categories of gender, and the poststructuralist perception of difference as an unstable social construct which, in its enactment, entrenches the diversity of societal interests. Attending to difference and otherness between women is a key hermeneutic principle in

Developing methods for listening 51 feminist theology.13 Yet, as Linda Hogan suggests, utilising a hermeneutic of difference requires more than valuing difference. To be central within the interpretative process of research it requires ‘employing difference as an analytical category and allowing it to inform both our interpretation and our underlying philosophy’.14

Valuing and intentionally seeking differences between women’s experiences requires attentive listening to their words and non-verbal communication, and to the particularity and situatedness of each individual. The knowledge participants offer is situated within their unique narrative,‘filled with specific meanings, values and expectations’.15 To interpret an individual’s comments it is necessary to understand what these mean ‘to that particular person within her particular context’.16 In addition, situated knowledge is spoken by what Tina Miller identifies as one of three different subjective voices: a ‘public’ voice that is professionally defined and acknowledged, the ‘private’ voice of lay knowledge derived from informal interaction with others and a ‘personal’ voice of self, often constructed around emotions, intimacy and the body, which seldom fits closely the accounts offered by public or private voices and may contradict or challenge these.17 Researchers must not assume that participants speak ‘with a coherent and consistent voice’ as they are ‘constantly situating and resituating ... in shifting relation, both to the other person and to [their] own rehearsed and retold meanings’.18 Recognising the different voice with which a participant is commenting is, therefore, crucial in interpreting their narrative. Miller also highlights that speaking with the personal voice involves risky self-disclosure, particularly if what is expressed is not thought to be commonly shared or is discussed infrequently. Gathering women’s personal and private voices with the intention of placing them in the academic arena exposes these voices to public scrutiny. Courage from the participant and establishing trust with the researcher are therefore required, particularly if participants are to speak with their personal voice.

Empowerment and liberation

A key theme within feminist discourse is that in narrating their experiences women construct new meanings and knowledge which empower and liberate them. For research participants this occurs primarily through finding language to voice their experiences. However, by disseminating research, women’s empowerment and liberation is gradually extended into wider society. Neuger states that attaining empowerment to name ‘one’s self, one’s environment, and one’s God’ by regaining voice and language has been ‘a primary agenda’ within feminist theology: ‘It is in finding that language and claiming the right to speak it that empowerment for change is made possible’.19 Yet assumptions that telling one’s story is inherently liberating and empowering are challenged by Paul Antze and Michael Lambek: ‘there is nothing liberating in narrative per se. Merely to transfer the story from embodied symptoms to words is not necessarily either to interpret it or toexorcise it’.20 Telling, without hearing by both narrator and listener, cannot be an agent of change in and of itself. Anne Opie identifies three ways that research participants may be empowered by their narrative being heard.21 First, marginalised people are empowered when what they express is taken seriously. In addition, the ‘inbuilt therapeutic dimension’ of being listened to and listening to themselves creates opportunities for participants to reflect upon and re-evaluate their experiences,22 during their interview and reading its transcription later. Such listening empowers them to respond differently, generating change or new freedoms. Third, research that attends to the experiences of marginalised groups has potential to subvert established perceptions and undermine inequalities inherent in conventional structures of power. Despite these opportunities for possible empowerment and liberation amongst research participants, and the eventual extension of these possibilities to wider society, Jan Berry concedes that ‘the empowering of some may mean the continued oppression of others’.23

Moschella proposes that asking another to describe their religious practices is an empowering invitation because it ‘honors the speaker’, inviting entry ‘into a theological conversation, free to express his or her own thoughts about God, rather than merely receiving the ideas of experts’.24 However, Berry also cautions researchers that describing some experiences may disempower participants by reinforcing feelings of humiliation, shame or victimhood.25 Recognition of this is pertinent to any exploration of under-researched practices, where experiences recounted by male religious or clerics are perceived as normative and where women’s lives may necessitate different patterns of discipline from those traditionally sanctioned by patriarchal church authorities.

Additionally, participant narratives can take on form and content linked to their ‘perceptions of “acceptable” ways of voicing their experiences’.26 They may consider what is required to meet imagined expectations of the professionalised researcher and her perceptions as a subjective individual: participants ‘size us up’ in order to situate researchers and determine what responses are expected.27 Potential for empowerment through discovering new personal or private knowledge may be subsumed beneath semiconscious desires to please or ‘get it right’ faced with ‘the power of public experts’.28 Further, reminiscent of risks Miller identified in speaking with a personal voice, practical theologians Swinton and Mowat caution that interviews are ‘a gift that can be received, treasured and accepted, or abused, manipulated and implicitly or explicitly discarded’.29 Any such treatment disempowers participants and curtails possible avenues for their liberation.

Researcher reflexivity

Within feminist research methodologies researcher reflexivity is accepted as ‘an essential feature of what is “feminist” about it’.30 However, Caroline Ramazanoglu and Janet Holland suggest that the meaning of reflexivity,

Developing methods for listening 53 and how to achieve this, is ‘difficult to pin down’.31 Their initial description of it as critical reflection ‘on the place of the researcher in the process of knowledge production’32 echoes Liz Stanley’s earlier portrayal: reflexivity ‘should locate the feminist researcher firmly within the activities of her research’.33 In Slee’s expanded explanation, reflexivity has to do with transparency concerning the research process. Evidenced in the way research is conducted and written up, it makes visible ‘the commitments of the researcher and the conditions under which knowledge is constructed’.34 But Ramazanoglu and Holland’s nuanced description highlights the interplay between researchers’ power and their construction of knowledge: reflexivity is the attempt to make explicit the existence and exercise of power relations in the research process by unpacking ‘what knowledge is contingent upon, how the researcher is socially situated, and how the research agenda/process has been constituted’.35

Awareness of the hidden and explicit power relations between participant and researcher is central to designing feminist and qualitative research. Researchers hold significantly more power than participants. This begins in selecting participants, develops as questions are formulated and asked, and is fully employed as researchers analyse and ‘take the women’s private words’ into the acclaimed ‘public world of academia’.36 Feminist researchers seeking to empower and liberate women consciously utilise methods that aim to be non-oppressive. Frequently feminists adopt a ‘bottom-up approach’,37 taking participants’ words and perspectives as the starting point. Despite vigilance to minimise power differentials between researchers and participants in all stages of the process, the impossibility of designing a study that eliminates imbalances of power is widely recognised.38 Participant power ‘begins to ebb away’ once a consent form has been signed.39 For as researchers listen to, interpret and represent participants’ personal, private and public voices they cannot help but reinforce the hierarchies of power and knowledge inherent in their respective roles as private and public individuals.40 As Kay Standing states, ‘However equal the methods of access and interviewing, we, as researchers, still hold the real power ... to translate and interpret’.41 Given this power imbalance it is imperative that ethical considerations about how researchers access and relate to participants before, during and following interviews, and how the contributions of participants are heard, analysed, interpreted and re-presented in research findings are paramount in researcher reflexivity. Without this critical reflection, any empowerment and liberation women gain through participation in research is undermined by processes within the research design which are - however unintentionally - exploitative.

Reflexivity only occurs if the researcher is committed to intensively listening to and scrutinising herself throughout the research process. She must attend to her own public, private and personal voices, acknowledging and reappraising the context, known biases and presuppositions her subjectivity brings to the research. Many feminist researchers develop reflexivity throughwriting a research journal. This becomes a repository for honest reflection where researchers actively document how their experiences, thoughts, questions and emotions contribute to the research’s journey. Although remaining a personal document, journals are sometimes quoted to reveal limitations in the researcher’s own perspectives, to acknowledge mistakes made in the process of research or to identify how aspects of self-understanding relate to the lived experience of participants. Research journals are therefore a significant ‘source of insight’ for reflexivity and for recording the creation of knowledge throughout the research process.42

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