How Do You Research?

How Do You Research?

I remember my high school and early undergraduate education, and how I was taught to write my essays without using a personal stance. We were told that using pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ would weaken our arguments because these words suggest a biased, personal connection to the topic. If I wanted to be taken seriously as an academic, then I needed to distance myself from my subject matter, otherwise my work would be viewed as compromised and then dismissed.

This method of researching has never sat well with me, and considering the existence of this blog, I think it has never sat well with my fellow bloggers. What is wrong with keeping distance from the subject matter? It is implausible, irresponsible, and boring.

It is implausible because academics research subjects that interest them, and that interest often comes from a personal connection or fascination. It is irresponsible when the subject matter is a land, culture, or people, because keeping the distance from these subjects can result in not recognizing how the research will affect them. It is boring because the personal is what is interesting to everyone; the personal is the ‘human interest’ aspect and it exemplifies why the research is important not only to the researcher, but to the general public.

The personal connection has been understood as a bias, but it can also be viewed as perspective. Too often, researchers have analyzed a culture, people, or land, without considering an insider’s standpoint. This defines an identity from an outsider’s point of view, without letting the people inside define themselves. In acknowledging the personal connection in my research, I am acknowledging that there may be some bias and that I am considering where I stand in the subject. Am I part of the culture, or people? Or am I an outsider who is curious? My stance will affect how I view subject, and discussing it demonstrates that I have taken account of that.

From the position of my stance, I am able to determine my responsibilities to my subject matter. Carolyn Ellis considers responsibility and research in her article “Telling Stories and Revealing Lives.” She mentions that there are three kinds of responsibility of the researcher: procedural (like consent forms), situational (circumstances that arise when researching), and relational (staying true to character, and being responsible for one’s own actions and the consequences to others) (Ellis, 2007: 4).

Procedural and situational are commonly recognized and considered, while relational is difficult to institutionalize. It is to take into account the feelings, perceptions, and considerations of others while remaining true to the research project, and doing what is need to be done while remaining true to the self, even if it effects the findings (Ellis, 2007: 7-8).

On occasion, someone will say something during an interview that they would not normally say. I have had this happen in previous projects and had to ask the person interviewed if I may add it to my research. Doing so gave the person time to consider it and ask me about the relevance of what was said. If I had published without consultation, then I would have exploited that person’s trust, taken away her chance to contextualize the comment, and I would not have had the chance to explain why it was important.

The question that always comes up around research is: Why is this important? A subject matter may be interesting to the researcher, but why should anyone else care? This is probably where the personal is most important. The personal stories and touches illustrate how the research influences the lives of a community, a region, or a nation. It can make it possible to relate to unfamiliar places and people, and when their is relation, their is understanding.

Autoethnography is a methodology that makes it possible to resolve the personal in the research. While ethnography is a method of studying a subject matter in relation to culture, autoethnography researches the subject through the researcher’s personal accounts and experiences with a specific culture (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1). It creates a space for the researcher to discuss their position, their perspective, and their connection. It also provides an opportunity to write or discuss a subject matter in a voice other than the traditional academic one, allowing interpretation through creative writing, autobiography, performance, dance, and art.

In her book, Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography, Tami Spry demonstrates how she incorporates the intimate with the academic through her personal stories of live performance, the actual written scripts of her performances, and her theories on the methodology.  To Spry, those who use performative autoethnography live, breathe, and do the things they study on a literal level (Spry, 17). The body of the researcher is literally the body of the research.

While most of the research discussed in this blog is not performative, the researchers do consider the personal experience, the personal narratives, and how they we embody our subject matter. We know where we stand and why.

Ellis, Carolyn. “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others” in Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, January 2007. Pp. 3-29.

Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner.  “Autoethnography: An Overview” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, Art. 10, January 2011, 1-18.

Spry, Tami.  Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography. California: Left Coast Press, 2011.

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016


The Rhinoceros

Researching the keywords ‘colonies,’ ‘migration,’ and country names (like ‘Suriname’) in an image archives will inevitably result in two kinds of images: photographs and prints. It is a reminder to me that colonialism borders pre- and post-daguerreotype. People wanted to know about the ‘brave new world’ they were occupying, even if they could not see it themselves. Those who did not travel to new and exotic lands would attend talks, read books, and view cabinets of curiosities in order to know about the things they could not see.

People were curious, and they romanticized the notion of ‘discovery’. They wanted the next best thing to being there, to understand the life there, human, plant, and animal. Researching those same keywords will eventually bring up images of animals.

Scientific discovery was closely connected to colonialism and migration. Charles Darwin‘s The Voyage of the Beagle was, and still is, one of the most popular travel memoirs, and it is a scientific field journal documenting exotic wildlife of the Galapagos. Many biologists traveled to new places, and they kept detailed descriptions and sketches of what they saw for scientific purpose. The general public also wanted to know what these scientists saw; therefore, artists were employed to illustrate books and images for talks. I recently found one of these images: a picture of a rhinoceros.


Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Two-Horned Rhinoceros.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1820.

It reminded me of an image I studied in art history class, Albrecht Dürer‘s The Rhinoceros (1515). I learned about it in relation to prints artists made without having a visual basis. Lots etchings and prints were created by artists who have never seen the lands, people, or animals they were illustrating for books.

Dürer drew his image of a rhinoceros from a detailed description, and a rough sketch. He had never seen one before, and never would see one. His illustration is of an animal that looks like it is wearing plated armor, and is very detailed. Regardless of the detail, and the efforts to be accurate, both Dürer’s illustration and the one above are like a version of ‘telephone’. They are interpretations developed from secondary sources; they are based on what other people have seen and passed on through words and sketches.

There is only so much information that can be passed on through words and sketchings. It is up to the artist to interpret and fill in the gaps. I learned about Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ because my drawing instructor wanted to impress upon me the importance of drawing what is real, and not what I think is real based on secondhand sight.

While I am mostly working with photographs for this research project, I cannot avoid the prints and how they were used to portray information to a curious and inquiring public. These images would colour the imaginations and opinions of the people who lived during these times. How were these prints used to feed the public’s opinions on migration, colonies, and other lands?

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016

Culture on Display

Culture on Display

While conducting some research in visual art theory, I came across an article that did not seem related to this blog, at first. It is an essay by Inderpal Grewal, “Constructing National Subjects,” from Lisa Bloom‘s With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture, and it discusses nineteenth century guidebooks to the British Museum.

Guidebooks for the British Museum do not appear related to stories of saltwater and migration, but they are related to the history of colonialism, how people obtain knowledge, and how knowledge is disseminated.

The nineteenth century was the age of industry and discovery, and people were making advances in science, technology, and the arts. Transportation improved, and explorers, commodities, and cultures were being transported around the world. If people could not travel to see other countries, they could see representations of those other countries in museums and exhibitions.

Everyone was intrigued by curiosities from different cultures and would flock to exhibitions (like the Crystal Palace) to see small pieces of an unknown land. In order to understand the strange and unusual, the guidebooks would provide information on what people were seeing in these exhibitions.

However, these little pieces of culture from faraway lands were analyzed within the historical and cultural context of England’s history, and the practices of museums and exhibitions (Grewal, 1999: 46). These little curiosities, analyzed by people in the museums, were the only representations the public would have with other cultures.

Those responsible for writing the guidebooks would praise antiquities from cultures they wished to emulate, such as ancient Greece. They would describe Greek art as “validating and inscribing English values,” as “pure” or “moral,” while Egyptian art was considered “erotic,” “sexual,” and “animalistic,” (Grewal, 1999: 46-47).

While providing analysis of the curiosities, the guidebooks would also relate them to the historical implications of discovery. Regardless of moral or cultural representation, each artifact would be associated with the explorers or excavators who brought back the antiquities for the Empire. Such as the Elgin marbles.

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures from Greece that were remove from the Parthenon and brought to England. There is a debate over Elgin’s permit that ‘allowed’ him to remove the sculptures, but the guidebooks described the removal as an act of heroism. They claim that Elgin removed them so England would have classical sculptures to help teach students, and to rescue the marbles from being destroyed by Turkish rebels (Grewal, 1999: 48). This kind of description was used to incite national pride for those who discovered new cultures, and brought things back for viewing and safe-keeping.

The practices and interpretations in museums and exhibitions were to incite feelings of nationalism (Grewal, 1999: 49) in the people of England. They used artifacts and collections to influence public opinion of colonialism, otherness, and patriotism.

In 1800 there were less than a dozen museums, by 1887 there were at least 240 (Grewal, 1999: 49). They spread information on other peoples, other countries, and other cultures from their own interpretation of them. Through the eyes of the colonizer, not the colonized.

“A visit to the museum was like a guided journey to foreign lands. Here lay the ivories from many Dark places; the spoils of travel, like the novel, the travelogue, narrativized the Other” (Grewal, 1999: 55).

The British museum guidebooks demonstrated what they thought should be valued, and what needed order, discipline, civility. They also demonstrated how people received information about other cultures, people, and places, and that information would influence public opinion. When we look at how general history textbooks are organized for elementary and high school students, or textbook for first year university students, we still see the influence of what was valued in the nineteenth century.

We study the classics first, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Europe, and Britain, and then we see other cultures.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Constructing National Subjects: The British Museum and Its Guidebooks” in With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture. Edited by Lisa Bloom. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota, 1999. 44-55.

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016



They Look Like Dutch Women

I spent some time this weekend looking at the online digital archives of the New York Public Library, and the British Library. I love that more archives and collections are being uploaded, and available as public domain. I searched under the keyword of ‘Suriname’ and found some very interesting images in both collections, some of which I will use at a later date, but I found one this past weekend that I could not get out of my mind.

It is an image of two women walking down a path in light dresses, and holding a parasol. The woman closest to the camera looks a little affronted, or taken aback by having her picture taken, while the woman holding the parasol looks like she is smiling, or proud of being the focus of attention.


Schomberg Centre for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, from the New York Public Library. “The Women Look Like Dutch Women Turned Black.”  The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1915.

I could not stop thinking about the caption for this image: The Women Look Like Dutch Women Turned Black. The image is from a book called Isles of Spice and Palm, and it is written by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill, a zoologist, archeologist, and adventure writer of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Verrill traveled through the Americas (South, Central, and North) taking part in archeological excavations.

Maybe I was intrigued by this image because I have been reading and hearing the phrase ‘like a man’ so much the past week. Researching women in visual art will eventually lead to seeing the phrase ‘she paints like a man’, and it is meant to be a compliment (Heartney, 2013). I have also seen a lot of news articles about Olympic athletes who are women who ‘swim like men’, or ‘run like men'(here and here).

It is strange to see the comparison between the marginalized and the dominant over the course of a hundred years, and still have some people see it as a compliment. Even though Verrill describes the costumes of the women in Suriname as ‘bright and gaudy’ (Verrill, 1915: 219), he also illustrates the people and the place of Suriname as ‘quaint’, ‘enchanting’, and possibly the most interesting city in the world. He considers that he is writing about his experiences in a positive manner.

I have been thinking about these women, and how they would feel being compared to Dutch women, to be told that they are ‘enchanting’, but ‘gaudy’. I especially think of the woman who looks smiling, and proud. I think about the colonized people, the women artists, and the women athletes, and I wonder why we still consider a backhanded compliment, a compliment.

Heartney, Eleanor, et al. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Munich: Prestel, 2013.

Verrill, Alpheus Hyatt. Isles of Spice and Palm. New York; London: D. Appleton and Co., 1915.

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016

Home Is Where What Is?

Home Is Where What Is?

I left my first home around the same time that my father retired and sold our house, and my sister had moved away years beforehand. My father moved to a different continent, and the rest of my family was spread across Canada. My friends had left for university (like me), and I had no reason to return to the place I had called home for most of my life.

Where is home for you?” People would ask me, and I couldn’t give them a straight answer.

‘Home is complicated,’ I would say to them.

They would laugh, and tell me that they asked where, not what. I still could not give them an answer. Was the house I grew up in still my home, even though I’d never be returning? Was it where my dad was, in a country I barely knew? Or was it where I was currently living, a place that I had never lived in, and considered temporary? My sense of ‘home’ no longer existed; it had spread out across the world, and saying that the house I grew up in was still home, did not feel accurate.

Birth home. Hometown. Home state. Homeland.

What makes ‘a home’?

This is a question I have been pondering for years, and I was reminded of it while reading Mira Schor. She is a visual artist and art historian, yet the last essay in her book Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, was ‘You Can’t Leave Home without It’. It is a short essay questioning the idea of ‘home’.

‘Hewing for a moment to traditional dichotomies, house has represented culture, the father, the building, the body public and political, the future, and modernity; home has stood for nature, the mother, the cave/womb, the body private and psychological, the past, and atavism. Home doesn’t depend on a house.” (Schor, 191)

While the idea of home is not dependent on a house, people put a lot of effort into making a home from a house. People surround themselves with family, photos, and material objects imbibed with memories of past travels, and experiences. The home is a collection of memories, specific to the people who occupy it.

I have moved multiple times to different apartments, houses, towns, and provinces, and every time I move, I do what I can to turn my current location into a familiar and safe space. Even though I do not have a connection to the place via my past, or my family, I try to ground myself in my new environment so that it becomes a place I want to live in.

“Domestic security rests precisely on being spared, at least briefly any sense of closure, loss, or mortality. You don’t see your home unless it is threatened, just as you don’t notice your skin unless it is injured.” (Schor, 203).

I have never had to make a new home in another country, which is an idea I explored at length in a class on Diaspora. Diaspora is understood as a group of people who have been forced to disperse from their home/homeland, experience alienation in their new country, consider their ancestral home, culture, and religion to be their true home, culture, and religion, and they plan to return to/restore it one day (Safran, 2005: 37).

Originally, diasporic research focused on the dispersal of people based on force, like the African slave trading and the expulsion of the Jewish people from Judea. However, this developed to include diaspora based on imperialism, trade or labor migrations, or environmental disaster (like New Orleans and Katrina). More recent theories defining diaspora focus on the significance of home. How people leave home, set up a new home in memory of the old home, and plan to return home.

Diaspora is more than the forceful removal of a people to a foreign place, it also involves the longing and desire for a place of security, familiarity, acceptance, and belonging. It is not the house, but the feeling of being home that is important.

I would not say that I am diasporic, but I am almost envious of those who never had to question where there home is. They grew up in a town, in a particular house, and their parents still live there. They are always welcome to go back. They are the people who have never questioned the idea of home, and they tell people where there home is with such ease.

These people have become rarer over time; more and more people smile at me and say ‘Home is complicated‘.

Safran, William. “The Jewish Diaspora in a Comparative and Theoretical Perspective” in Israel Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2005, pp. 36-60.

Schor, Mira. “You Can’t Leave Home without It,” in  Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. Pp. 191-203.

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016


Bordering the Ocean

Bordering the Ocean

I have been thinking about borders. It is hard not to think about them when a presidential candidate is talking about walling off the United States from Mexico and Canada, and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

I have also been thinking about them because I have been reading Gloria Anzaldua‘s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It is a semi-autobiographical book discussing the ideological borders between men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and Latin American and non-Latin American, and the physical border between Mexico and the United States.

Anzaldua describes a border as “a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge” (Anzaldua, 1999: 25).

Borders give the impression of defining and dividing the edge of one thing and the beginning of another. They clarify difference, United States as different from Mexico and Canada, male as different from female, land as different from ocean. However, most of these borders are not visible, and there are people, places, and things that do not fall easily on one side over the other.


Maben’s Beach, Bamfield B.C., Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Is the border between men and women the difference between a XY chromosome and a XX chromosome? Is the border between Mexico and the United States what defines Mexican and American? Is a coast line the border between land and water?


“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Anzaldua, 1999; 25).

I like the visual image of a coastline as a metaphor for borders and borderlands. Can we define this border as the difference between solid and liquid? Wet and dry? Sand and salt water? One can see the border on a map as the black outline that edges countries and continents, but the line is not so fixed when standing on the actual coast. The tide comes in and goes out, soaking the sand, carrying driftwood, and creating tidal pools where life grows.


St. Ives, Tide In, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen


St. Ives, Tide Out, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

At any given moment, the border between water and land shifts. In St. Ives, it can leave boats immobile, tilting on sand, but people expect it to happen because they know the tide will go out. They know that it is a vague terrain that alters with the time of the day, yet they still use it.

And when people go to a beach, they spend most of their time standing in that borderland, letting the waves wash over their feet. They stand both on land and in water.

People, places, and things that are not easily defined gather in the borderlands. It is a place where culture, ideas, characteristics, and people, ebb and flow. It is where things meet, and it is a place where new things are created.

“Living in a state of psychic unrest in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create” (Anzaldua, 1999: 95).

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016

Truth and Direction

Truth and Direction

I am never at a loss for what to read next. I receive suggestions for what to read from friends, supervisors, colleagues, bibliographies, works cited, and by seeing what is next to specific sources in the library.

Who is placed beside Griselda Pollock? Amelia Jones? Judith Butler? Who occupies the same space as Audre Lourde? Sarah Pink? Susan Sontag?

I diligently write down in a notebook every name that is of interest to me, and the names other people think may be of use. However, the lists are too long to consider everyone without cross-referencing. If I have heard a specific name from one person, and I see it in a book or an article written by another, then that name moves up the list.

Trinh Minh-ha‘ is one of the names I recently excavated from my notebook, and I am ashamed that I have not read her works before. She is a filmmaker and theorist who discusses gender, culture, postcoloniality, visual arts, Third World cinema, and autobiography. When the Moon Waxes Red was published in 1991, and discusses feminism, colonialism, and Third World art and culture. I am currently reading this book to provide context to my PhD research, yet in the midst of postcolonial and visual art theory, I found a hidden treasure.

“Contrary to what many writers on documentary films have said, the striving for verisimilitude and for that ‘authentic’ contact with ‘lived’ reality is precisely that which links ‘factual’ (‘direct’ and ‘concrete’ according to another classification) films to studio-made films and blurs the line of distinction. Both types perpetuate the myth of cinematic ‘naturalness,’ even though one tries its best to imitate life while the other claims to duplicate it. THIS IS HOW IT IS. Or was. The unfolding scene is captured, not only by an individual, but also by a mechanical device. The mechanical bears testimony to its true existence and is a guarantee of objectivity” (Minh-ha, 1991: 54).

The desire to portray ‘truth,’ and ‘authenticity’ is the link between factual and fiction. This is not only true in cinema, but in prose, and in photography. People trust the mechanical eye of a camera to portray the truth of a scene, or a subject matter. People trust the camera because it has no agenda, it captures the moment exactly as it happens.

But someone is directing that mechanical eye. Someone is pointing it in a specific direction. That person is telling a story, and that story may be fact or fiction, valid or invalid.

People do not usually question the validity of a work claiming to be fictional. There may be some truth in it, but there is an understanding that it is not 100% truthful. In academia, the validity of someone’s argument is usually found in their sources.

Griselda Pollock. Amelia Jones. Judith Butler. Trinh Minh-Ha.

Academics used to avoid the personal pronouns to demonstrate objectivity, that they were not influenced by personal opinion or interest. Academia has been moving away from this absence of the personal, because research is personal. This does not mean that it is fictional, rather that it is directed. Researchers direct where the research goes, as much as a photographer directs the angle of a camera. This blog acknowledges the “I/eye” in this project, and we should remember that it exists regardless of being human or mechanical.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016

Minh-Ha, Trinh. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991.