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Impact: trickles, tears, trouble

In the run up to events in the postdigital intimacies series, we’ve been recording preview videos, which can be found on the media page. As part of these discussions, we have asked contributors about the impact of their research, or – maybe better – how we try and change the world with the work we do.


All the responses to this question have demonstrated how valuable the speakers’ work has been to the communities with whom they work. However, in thinking about this question, one conversation and one preview video response have continued to reverberate with us, and raised further questions. Borrowing from Katrin Tiidenberg’s 3 c’s of ethics, we want to think through the 3 t’s of impact: trickles, tears and trouble.


The three t’s have folded into how we’ve begun thinking about the wider ‘impact’ of the network itself, both as a requirement of funding, and because we care about the continued issues raised by new relations of intimacy that collapse notions of public and private spheres of life.


First, in a post-event refection, Amy Dobson identified the way that feminist research has ‘a trickle’. Feminist research, critical race theory, queer studies exist in a climate that, for the most part, feels hostile. Jessica Ringrose and Kaitlyn Regehr and Debbie Ging’s talks both spoke to some of this hostility. And yet our language is still shaping the discussion; the outcome of decades of feminist research before ours, of which we relate to and draw inspiration, and identify work still to be done.


Intersectionality is one example of important feminist terminology that now shapes the everyday. Intersectionality, coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 work in black feminist legal studies, described how white feminist efforts in legal processes reproduce racism, and allow racism and sexism to co-exist. However, it is now a term used across feminist, anti-racist and activist efforts, and has percolated into the everyday language of social justice (listen to Crenshaw’s podcast, Intersectionality Matters!).


In using feminist terms, we are part of that trickle: or, in the case of intersectionality, the stream.


The second, the tear, was inspired by our discussion with Shaka McGlotten’s, as part of the preparatory work for their preview video. In that discussion, they suggested the impact of their work was more about the “tear”, allowing others to “get into their feels a little bit”. Paying homage to Lauren Berlant in the week of their passing, Shaka’s talk urged us to delve into and swim around in the ambiguities of the ethics of sexualities and intimacies research and resist the urge to set up moral boundaries that would circumvent the creative thinking-feeling relation.


Research that moves people to tears or to ‘feels’ might not be the easiest thing to measure, in the terms often described by funders (that said, see Tina Kendall’s application of boredom to change-based agendas in her preview talk). Or it may require new auditing of impact through Tiktok followers rather than google scholar citations. But interestingly, the call to tears moves us too. It creates a complex knot, our affective pull towards affecting others, it has an impact on ourselves as researchers and academics to create a feeling in others. We all remember reading work that moved us to tears or feels, resonated deeply with us; who wouldn’t want to pass that affect on further?


Tears are also bound up in trickles, and vice versa. The ability of a term to shape the language and concepts we use to make sense of the world must, to some degree, make us feel.


Finally, there are troubles. Many have pointed out the way feminist, anti-racist terms have become diluted, lost their radical or critical capacity, or ability to trouble others – for example when Hilary Clinton misapplied intersectionality during the US presidential debate. In relation to tears, these are also taken up in other, less progressive, ways. To refer back to 2016 again, Trump. A further trouble, then, is the wider cultural contexts, and some of the difficulties we face in doing publicly engaged work.


As Jessica Ringrose said in her preview talk, we need to take the impact agenda seriously, in terms of “actually doing socially engaged, meaningful social justice work”. Trickles and tears are ways we can engage with this, while ‘staying with the trouble’, as Haraway (2017) has famously pronounced; the imperative upon feminist scholars to deeply engage with the material dilemmas we find ourselves in. Indeed, returning to Berlant, we continue to grapple with the cruel optimism of the academic impact agenda; the promise of enacting social change whilst playing one’s part in the neo-liberal performative machinery of university life.

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