On SAGE Insight: The Violence of Impact: Unpacking Relations Between Gender, Media and Politics

From Political Studies Review

Published in Association with Political Studies Association

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Impact now forms 25% of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) agenda. Its current definition has been broadly taken to mean a positive interpretation of the role of academia in public life. But is this engagement always positive? What happens when responses to this engagement are negative? And what happens if the impact of this engagement on academics themselves is negative? The building of impact requires academics to engage in public dissemination activities, and media are often a key mechanism through which this is achieved. While we may think these spaces are gender neutral, they are far from gender blind. The argument here is that the current impact agenda fails to account for existing gendered divisions within the academy, which are reinforced and co-constituted by public engagement via a gendered media structure.  In order to explore the ways in which women experience the impact of the Impact agenda through the dissemination of their research, the author of this paper undertook a preliminary survey, to gain access to interviewees. Respondents were situated across disciplines and a range of research topics from science, social science and arts and humanities. The initial survey was sent to a variety of women’s networks and mailing lists in political science, feminist studies, the Black British Academics Network and University women’s networks across the country, The primary objective was to gain an understanding and insight in to women’s experiences and as the nature of this research project is qualitative, surveys this were followed up with invitations to participate in interviews.

In wider society the #MeToo campaign, emanating from the work of Tarana Burke, has brought women’s experiences of sexual abuse, harassment and assault to media attention. Notably, speaking out about these experiences in and of themselves have led to further violent abuse on social media. The fundamental argument in this article is that we need to ‘join the dots’. The ways in which media discursively construct women is political in the ways in which gendered norms are legitimated. This is intimately bound with an HE context. Media and academia interact and co-constitute raced and gendered norms and expectations. The author argues that the Impact agenda itself serves to embed the gendered and raced nature of HE though its interpretation and the denial of the negative impact that engaging in this agenda can have upon a diversity of women academics. A politics of the ethics of public engagement takes account of the ways in which gender precedes and structures the mediated context of higher education and the ways in which knowledge is both constructed and disseminated. This crucially invites us to reflect on what and how wider social and political power structures may be reinforced, rather than challenged by public engagement and in the Impact agenda. In this interactive co-constitutive context there is the negative potential (and reality) of the silencing of a diversity of women’s knowledge.


Engaging in public discussion and debate are crucial aspects of the impact agenda, but what are the politics of this engagement? What happens when female academics engage with, or are reported by, media in disseminating their research? Does negative impact ‘count’ as impact? Adopting a poststructuralist intersectional feminist analysis, this article uses the REF policy agenda as a case study in order to explore these questions. Drawing on extensive qualitative interview data, I operationalize the concept ‘cultural sexism’ as a mechanism to connect micro and macro analysis, using cumulative individual experiences to render visible wider social and political power structures. This article argues that while women may seek to actively build impact and public engagement in to their research agendas, we need to be cognizant that the site of interaction between media and academia is gendered and raced. I argue that we therefore need to reflect upon the ethics of pursuing a policy which (1) disproportionately exposes a diversity of women to structural and symbolic violence (2) has the potential to silence women’s contribution to knowledge and (3) conversely may serve to simply privilege masculinised assumptions as to what does and does not count as knowledge.

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Article details
The Violence of Impact: Unpacking Relations Between Gender, Media and Politics
Heather Savigny
First Published February 26, 2019 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/1478929918819212
Political Studies Review

academiaintersectionalitygendercultural sexismimpact

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