(Un)written: Who gets authorship credit in collaborative research?

Motelism, 2017

For my work at LSHTM, a new term brings new research. I was very excited to publish our new article ‘Reimagining authorship guidelines to promote equity in co-produced academic collaborations’ last week, open access and free to read in Global Public Health. This piece brings together our thoughts on academic authorship from our recent ACCESS project on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for marginalised populations, along with our Sickle Cell Life project, a sociological study of young people’s experiences of paediatric to adult healthcare transitions. In the article, we argue that writing articles holds high value in academia, but how authorship is decided is often unclear, particularly in co-produced research with non-academic collaborators. We suggest some reasons why, and offer our own guidelines we’ve developed that hope to make sure authors get credit for their contributions.

Writing this paper offered a good opportunity to crystallise some of the discussions we had and are still having as a research team about academic research, authorship, and social justice. It is clear to us that established authorship guidelines, while providing benchmarks for ethical research and publication practices, aren’t always fit for purpose when it comes to co-produced work with different stakeholders. As we reflect in our Discussion:

There are numerous structural barriers to full collaboration that have an impact on authorship. The structural barriers to collaboration in general can be revealed in decisions about authorship – they are highlighted in who makes authorship decisions, and who benefits from them, and the structures and conventions that support and entrench inequities and devalue collaborative in favour of competitive working. 

In light of these tricky contextual norms, we found numerous questions that needed unpacking: who is an author, and what do they contribute? When does an acknowledgement become an author, and when should it? How might we think (a little, in ways sometimes limited by our positions) more radically about academic work that doesn’t muffle less-heard voices? These voices are often less-heard in academia because of the structures and customs of the academic system, so what impediments can we sidestep while still remaining part of the system from which we need approval?

One way to hold ourselves and each other to account in equitable ways of working is through authorship guidelines, which we hope will prove useful as a jumping-off point for others engaged in collaborative work – especially with practitioners, activists, or non-academics, whose contributions don’t always fit neatly into academic ‘boxes’. Having reflected on who tends to be disadvantaged by these boxes, we suggest that spending time thinking critically (and sometimes painfully) about these positions and relations can help to scaffold authorship norms that are fairer and more transparent.

You can read the whole piece open-access here. Look out for our authorship guidelines in ‘Box 1’. They are amended from existing and brilliantly comprehensive offerings of ICMJE/BSA, but incorporate more attention to different stakeholder contributions, and also to co-produced outputs. These are both themes that are long overdue more sustained reflection, and in an academic context of ever-increasing cross-disciplinary and cross-country collaboration, we hope they prove useful for other researchers out there. Fingers crossed!

Let’s (not) Go Outside: Pride inside

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash

Happy pride month! Pride is for life, not just for June, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to count the ways that late capitalism mercilessly co-opts the queer movement for its own rapacious ends. Multinational conglomerates can finally breathe a sigh of relief next week, having ticked off their corporate social responsibility quota for the year.

I’m not entirely sure my mortgage company’s Twitter icon going rainbow-coloured is quite what Marsha P. Johnson or the Stonewall rioters or ACT UP! had in mind – and nor does it lessen the pain of mortgage payments – but it’s been a long year, and we’re only at June: you have to pick your battles.

Onwards and upwards: what better time than Pride month to share with you not one but two chapters I’ve had published in The Life and Afterlife of Gay Neighborhoods (2021), which I’m very excited about. This is a book that gets to the heart of gay neighborhoods and wider LGBTQ+ spaces, exploring the past, present and future of queer lives and communities. Gay neighbourhoods, or ‘gayborhoods’ (I know, I know) have been a hallmark in recent decades of gay urban life, but many are in decline, compounded by economic change, COVID-19 and a shift to online social networking (or have they? I’m not convinced by the latter reasons, and my chapter explains why). I was invited to contribute a chapter based on my research into mobile GPS dating apps, technology, and urban space. What I present explores the much-debated deconcentration and/or decline of gay neighborhoods (and indeed often specifically gay neighborhoods, rather than more inclusively LGBTQ+ neighborhoods) in cities across the Global North.

I situate GPS dating and hook-up apps as a new kind of space for networking, encounter, and – dare I say it – online neighbourhood. I’m not suggesting that Grindr is a virtual gay bar, because there are so many ways it isn’t – not because of its issues with racism, ableism and homophobia (after all, plenty of gay bars are the same) but for its tendency to broker two-way, rather than group, interaction, and that it gives users the ability to make choice-based, rather than random, introductions. However, I am saying that the way that sexual minorities meet is changing almost faster than our physical spaces for meeting can catch up, and I believe that the future of relationship-brokering, socialising and community-building will almost certainly be brokered online.  

Looking more widely, one of the biggest questions facing queer communities today regards space and place. Where can we be ourselves, where is safe, and what does (or could) queer space look like? Do we even need a neighborhood, or should we be capitulating to assimilationist suggestions of integration? Indeed, do we even want these spaces? Being photobombed by hen party attendees does rather dull the shine of Canal Street – but revenue is revenue, and most commercial venues need to find any way they can to increase footfall.

As you can see, there’s a lot to unpack and every turn in this territory leads to more questions than answers. Along with other contributors to the book, I don’t think we can simply say the gay neighborhood is in decline. Gay-oriented commercial premises in many cities certainly are certainly shuttering, but different kinds of queer community spaces are in some cases making up for this decline (and elsewhere not making up for it, which creates its own set of issues). Nor are gay neighborhoods shifting to some online mecca of inclusivity and community.

Nevertheless, there are interesting ways to think about how online encounter sidesteps some of the more tedious or awkward aspects of navigating urban spaces as a sexual minority that deserve consideration, and that’s what my chapter explores. As a bonus, it features lyrics from George Michael’s hit Outside (1998). I aim to please. You can find it here, open access and free to read.

My second chapter, ‘After/Lives: Insights from the COVID-19 Pandemic for Gay Neighborhoods’, is a recent collaboration with Jack Coffin, Amin Ghaziani, Daniel Baldwin Hess Alex Bitterman. The book editors, Daniel and Alex, wanted those of us who had written about future LGBTQ+ neighborhoods to think about how COVID-19 and all its associated baggage might impact on such spaces. Would a global pandemic constitute the nail in the coffin for neighbourhood gay bars, many of which have already been struggling? How about young LGBTQ+ people, many of whom were forced to ‘re-closet’ back at their childhood homes last year soon after starting their new lives at university, college, or a houseshare and enjoying the freedom that came with that? In a public health context in which squashed, sweaty bodies are an epidemiological time bomb, gay clubs and pride parades are verboten. 

But might new possibilities, necessitated by isolation, emerge from COVID-19? Our collective chapter suggests so. We believe that there are reasons for optimism when it comes to new possibilities for LGBTQ+ community and inclusive spaces, based on several trends – including the the potential of mutual aid networks, the power of institutional anchors in LGBTQ+ placemaking efforts, innovations in the interior design of physical spaces, and opportunities to enhance social connections through virtual engagements.

The latter was a very exciting chapter to write, not least because it gave me an opportunity to think about the pandemic in a more engaged and critical way, rather than doom scrolling twitter and worrying about those I loved. Our collaboration involved all of us discussing our ideas in emails and Zoom calls before contributing passages to a shared google doc, with different edits and inputs circulating each day over several weeks. I’m proud (voila!) of the chapter and I hope it proves interesting to a real range of readers.

I should add that this chapter was a group effort – I was offered first authorship not because I did the lion’s shared of the job, but because I am the most junior contributor and the most precarious – that gesture meant a lot to me. You can read it for free here. You can also check out the other brilliant chapters, covering everything from urban planning to cultural readings of gay neighbourhoods, for free, here.

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash

Beyond the PhD: Applying for your first academic post

Motelism, 2017

I was recently invited to write a guest blog for the Royal Geographical Society about my journey to my first academic job, which you can read here. After some early drafts examining my panicky, busy summer on the market back in 2017, the piece became more of a structured how-to guide intended for PhD finishers and other early-career researchers (ECRs) to maximise success in the post-PhD job market. But after a while it morphed again, into more of a reflection on the epistemology of academic work – the ‘knowledges’ of academia and which knowledges are shared or not shared, are open or off-limits, to those of us who are unfamiliar with many of the conventions or unsure of how best to mould ourselves into academic…‘agents’ (not to get too actor-network theory about it).

The thing I kept coming up against was the fact that applying for jobs in academic is just not as simple as a check-list to complete. There is no one action that singularly boosts your chances, brilliant though that kind of golden bullet would be. Many of the requirements for the academic job market are opaque, and this opacity is in some cases congealed into the system, and in some cases conscious and intentional. Where requirements are explicated and mutually understood, some candidates are more privileged than others to be able to achieve such requirements. As a gay student with a PhD in geographies of sexualities, I didn’t always feel that my profile necessarily constituted an easy ‘sell’, but as an able-bodied white male I am still granted privileges that others are not.

I don’t have all the answers – in the piece below I reflect on exactly why this might be, and my concerns probably resonate with many of you – but I do have some ideas. Many of these came about after discussions with former students, current colleagues and other early-career researchers in the field, and notes of my own taken over the years. I was asked to write the kind of blog post I wish I’d read when I was starting to job hunt; with that in mind, here goes.

It’s one of those truisms that finding an academic job is hard. And it really is – it feels somehow unlike finding any other kind of job, and the specific knowledge around academic job hiring processes is something you’re also somehow expected to know, maybe by osmosis. It’s no wonder Imposter Syndrome strikes so many of us. Take for example academic CVs, where longer is better. It goes against every fibre of my being to go over the 2 pages I was always told is the maximum you should fill. Even the listing of education/jobs/experience is differently ordered in an academic CV to CVs in every other job in the world. Don’t get me started on the job adverts themselves, which can be confusing in terms of terminology and contract type, or arcane or confusing working conditions (hello Oxbridge), or freighted with acronyms without explanations. On top of this, salary, contract length and expectations of entry-level posts can be vague, missing or intimidating.

It all results in a task that feels unclear and applications that can feel rather uncertain. Usually, that’s through no fault of your own (as evidenced when you’re several applications in, facing radio silence from each institution). Are you even doing it right? Obviously, the offer of an actual job would answer that question, but academic posts are so competitive that your empty inbox may be more of a testament to a stricken job market than your own merits – and the COVID-19 pandemic has made a precarious market even worse. You will often be rejected without any feedback from the hiring institution. The standard response to requests for feedback is that feedback is only feasible at shortlist stage, but it is invariably difficulty to get to shortlist and interview if you don’t gain feedback on what you need to finesse! In the absence of clear direction from institutions, you may need to utilise a few different approaches. I’ll lay out some that I used.

Here’s what my own journey looked like: In the final year of my PhD, I applied to several lectureships without success. The applications I submitted were for posts that normally required a PhD, completed or near-completion. I took this to mean that they were open to nearly-there or newly-minted PhDs as much as anyone else, but have since recognised that the field of candidates is routinely so huge that many will have progressed a long way beyond this milestone. From asking more established colleagues at my institution, talking with early-career-researchers at a conference that spring, and looking out for the hiring announcements of successful candidates (people increasingly share job successes on Twitter), I realised the reality was that new PhD finishers rarely get these jobs. The market is crowded with brilliant and highly-qualified candidates. Vacancies are limited (and by some accounts, dwindling further).

Most lectureships I applied for were against vastly more experienced candidates, who were usually already lecturers with years of teaching experience, many of whom had convened their own module or taken on additional responsibilities such as admissions tutor or international student coordinator. They had not only already published a monograph, they were also in contract for a second book. At the very least, successful candidates had postdoctorates under their belts, or had worked as teaching fellows for extended periods of time – up to 5 years in some cases.

I would argue that at this point a lectureship is more often not a newly qualified position. It is now much more common for PhD finishers to work on one or several assistantships or postdoctoral posts before getting a lectureship (if they do). Even then, that post is often fixed term.

During my own job hunt, a Research Fellow post at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) caught my eye. It required a PhD in public health or related discipline, including social sciences. Alongside my own research covering some (but certainty not all) elements of sexual health via a PhD researching the mapping of queer male relationships on location-based dating apps, I made sure I researched reproductive health, which was the other component of the post and an area in which I was less experienced. The specification emphasised qualitative methods, which matched my experience, and co-produced research outcomes with communities. My doctoral research was participant-centred and I had been reflecting on making a safe space for sensitive topic discussions, but I wanted to develop this more in future work. The LSHTM post would specifically engage participatory research, so I took my knowledge of participatory action research (PAR) from my own work and brought myself up to speed on co-production and PPI (patient/public involvement) in health.

Motelism, 2017

I revised (and revised, and revised) my academic CV, highlighting teaching experience as well as research outputs to date. I wrote a targeted cover letter which addressed each of the candidate specification requirements listed in their ‘essential’ list for the vacancy. I addressed each criterion only briefly, keeping the letter to the point, but then noted down longer answers to consider for a potential interview stage. The hiring panel requested academic and non-academic writing samples, so I included a published article but also a blog I had written about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and its impact on LGBTQ space. I was shortlisted for interview(!) and prepared obsessively. I read articles, chapters and media pieces from the hiring team, and took them up on their invitation to produce a slideshow to present in the job interview. I tried to make sure I could highlight the ways in which my research experience matched their goals and I matched up every item in the person specification to a demonstrable activity, role or expertise. This is so key:

You need to show how you fulfil each and every ‘essential’ criteria to progress to shortlist. If you cannot show this, or don’t effectively communicate how you show this, your hiring panel will not be able to ‘get to’ other elements of your application that are lower ranking in priority.

And… I got the job! It was only a one-year contract, but with hopes of renewing this, pending funding. That happened at the end of year one, and then again six months later, and again a few months later. Three years later, and I’m still hanging on. We are now embarking on a very exciting project – after which point I need to again seek grants, funding or jobs.

Motelism, 2017

This brings me to precarity. One thing I was asked to reflect on in my blog post was worries I had when applying for academic posts. To be honest, it’s not a past tense concern: I’m funded for now, but then I’ll need to generate grant money for future posts. What started as a temporary position became less precarious, but I’ve yet to secure a permanent position, and I know strikingly few ECRs who have managed it. Over half of all UK lecturers are now on fixed term contracts. I worked for several cash-strapped NGOs before my PhD, and yet have never experienced precarity like I see in academia.

It’s not a personal failing of mine – nor of my colleagues, my line manager or even my Faculty. It’s the predictable result of the neoliberalisation of universities. ECRs are good value and high output, and the incredibly high requirements of REF and general institutional reputation require in turn workers who can relentlessly publish lots of high-quality, peer-reviewed research. In this context, the idea of ‘slow’ co-production in research sadly becomes a luxury, even as my colleagues and I have argued for its value.

Some final tips:

  • Find academic jobs advertised on jobs.ac.uk and Times Higher. Jobs.ac.uk is better in my view because it allows tighter filtering by salary level, city and discipline. You can also ask it to direct new job alerts straight to your inbox.
  • Twitter is an incredibly useful tool, not just for academic networking, but for getting to know an institution and who works there (many staff now have Twitter profiles). It’s also useful to catch job alerts from departments in case you’ve missed them on your job hunt.
  • Write a blog. It’s a tip I bet you’ve heard before and probably rolled your eyes at, but it’s true. Writing your own blog as a PhD student is invaluable. I may not keep up a regular blogging schedule, but writing a blog, especially at PhD level, has been useful for thinking ideas through, for connecting with other people online and for publicising my work. My hiring committee told me that they read writing samples closely to check that candidates can articulate ideas, and they judge generalist and academic writing equally. Writing a blog allows hirers to witness your skills already in action as a form of public engagement.
  • My supervisor, who was himself relatively early into his academic career, was a source of invaluable advice, and I would definitely recommend asking to speak with your supervisor in your final year about your job application plans. Ask to do this separately from your normal supervision slot if that’s what it takes to really get your head in the job hunting zone. Talking your plans over with a supervisor is doubly useful if you have sent them your CV in advance for them to review or comment on.
  • Your supervisor has been in your position themselves, and so their advice should be invaluable, but I also know that many supervisors haven’t been on the job market in years (or decades – seriously). Even if they have, the reality of today’s academic job market may be totally different from their understanding. They also might not have time to help you with cover letters or CVs. If this is your experience, ask around to see if another staff member – perhaps your head of department or research lead – would be willing to look over your application materials.
  • Find your university careers service and book a CV appointment. Be clear when booking that you are applying for academic jobs and need guidance on an academic CV and cover letter – the advisor is unlikely to be specialist in that area but at least you’re giving them the chance to check up on the conventions in order to offer you tailored help. In my case at QMUL they didn’t have anyone relevant in-house but hired a specialist for PhD students as and when required – the consultant was excellent, and free for students.
  • Check out websites like The Professor Is In and The Thesis Whisperer. Both include fantastic tips. The LSE careers blog includes interview guidance.
  • Take some precious days away from thesis write-up to rehearse how you can show your interview panel specifically how you are the best matched candidate for the role. I’m always surprised that most people I know don’t do this (they also tend not to rehearse conference presentations either – horses for courses, I guess). It seems obvious that the rhythms and flow of public speaking aren’t perfected on your first run through, and that goes doubly for a speech or presentation. Do I hate it? Yes. Do I force myself to set time aside for the activity anyway so that when it comes to the real thing my flow mitigates my wobbly voice? Absolutely!
  • When universities hire a candidate for a post, they need to fulfil specific criteria to be shortlisted and need to demonstrate their fulfilment of these criteria again in interview, so taking time to really read and think about how you match to these criteria is crucial. Think about it: you need to minimise their labour in matching up what they are looking for when it comes to interviewing their candidates. You need to prepare some of this work for them, so they aren’t having to find ways to invite you to show how you match up – because you’ve already laid it out concisely and persuasively, on the page and in person.
  • Good luck!
Motelism, 2017

Inviting the stranger in

I’m very excited to publish a new article for Progress in Human Geography, co-authored with my friend and former PhD supervisor Dr Regan Koch. ‘Inviting the stranger in: Intimacy, digital technology and new geographies of encounter‘ has been two (2!) years in the making, with lots of coffee and post-work editing. After rewrites, rethinks and reviews, it’s finally out there in the world and it feels like our very own manifesto to the world (though I’m told delusions of grandeur are a sign of fatigue).

The Product

Regan and I had been talking for a year or two about how digital technologies are influencing the ways in which people meet each other, and what they meet each other for. When it comes to daily life for millions of people globally, meeting strangers online for intimate encounters has become the norm. Doing so offers experiences and rewards that are convenient, informative, sometimes meaningful, or which were simply less readily available previously. GPS-enabled dating apps (Tinder, Grindr, Happn) as well as sharing economy platforms (Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit) are built entirely on these kinds of stranger encounters.

Those of you who have read my work will know that it’s my ‘thing’ that digital technologies have progressed at such a dizzying speed that they have become incorporated into routine daily life faster than research can reflect on it, and that creates all sorts of questions that need to be explored and answered. I bang on about it all the time – what happens when you ‘meet’ someone on a dating app but when you convert online introduction to offline encounter they aren’t at all what you thought they’d be like? What kind of slippages happen in that shift? What is the etiquette for AirBnB – is your apartment owner a landlord, or a hotel receptionist, or a new friend who will give you the inside scoop on the city you’re visiting? Or are they all three, or another character altogether that you are having trouble interpreting?

We wondered if the idea of a ‘stranger’ is shifting from something unknown and potentially hazardous to something unknown and curious, or unknown but worth meeting, or even unknown but like-minded. Smartphone apps make meeting an unknown other a matter of choice not chance, and the processes often involve inviting a stranger into your actual home. What does this mean for how we relate to each other as a society? As we write:

As a society we have grown comfortable with stranger intimacies that would have seemed unusual in the recent past. App-based dating is the norm, the short-term letting of one’s home is common, and almost no one thinks twice about getting into a stranger’s car hailed via smartphone. Digital technology has helped to mitigate risks, but it has also changed the way people think and behave. The sociality of sex and dating has shifted such that many people are reluctant to approach someone in public for fear of rejection or embarrassment, yet are quite comfortable having intimate conversations online, discussing sexual preferences, sharing private photos and arranging at-home meetings. 

Our point is not that we are inviting the stranger ‘in’ for the first time because of digital technology – that’s happened for centuries, and as Blunt & Sheringham (2019) and others have pointed out, the idea of home as private makes no sense anyway. Our argument is more that the decision-making process around how we encounter strangers has shifted with digital technologies to make stranger intimacies happen differently today, in ways which deserve critical consideration. And as Regan points out, it’s not just dating apps that are changing our geographies of encounter: ride-sharing apps, holiday rental apps, childcare, domestic help and DIY apps all bring the stranger ‘in’ using platforms that verify ‘matches’ through ratings, rankings, or public profiles. These products are incredibly useful for many people, and like dating apps, they can broker valuable social connections. They do however come with their own exclusionary politics – the privilege of smartphone ownership and access to 3G; the racialised, gendered and social hierarchies that are always at play in services that sell your ‘self’ (and yes, that includes dating apps); and limitations imposed by geography, economics and availability.

There are both opportunities and challenges for users of these innovative products, and rather than coming out as ‘for’ or ‘against’ them, we’re interested in thinking about how they influence daily life for a whole range of people. Our point is that digital technologies are kickstarting social encounters and ways of thinking about strangers and intimacy that deserve more study. As a conclusion to the article we lay out some ideas for how to go about this kind of research, and we consider which voices might be less heard when undertaking that kind of endeavour. One thing is for sure: apps aren’t going anywhere, and they are so central to many people’s lives (and livelihoods) that sustained social science research is long overdue.

The Process

For me, working together on this paper highlighted the opportunity to think big-picture. Together, we developed ideas that we really do think are important and that we hope signal a step-change in geographical and sociological thinking about how digital technology is incorporated into how humans interact in contemporary societies.

What the process also showed to me was the value in thoughtful, considered, long-term thinking. My enthusiasm to get words on the page and my tendency to sketch things out without looking at them from a range of different perspectives and viewpoints was usefully tempered by Regan’s slower and more methodical way of working. In a surprise to no-one, my random torrents of ideas, scatter-gunned on the page, really do benefit from another pair of eyes and another person’s thoughts. I have never written an article as closely with another person as this. My other co-authored pieces are certainly collaborative, but follow a more straightforward process of meeting with co-authors to discuss a topic and themes, circulating a growing text document, and meeting up again here and there in person (or now remotely) to continue our discussion. Different people take responsibility for different sections and we comment on each other’s ideas and arguments, but different papers have different ‘owners’. This is generally a good thing because it means that in a group effort, someone is corralling the process and making content and editorial choices.

But what was interesting about this piece was how it followed all of the above protocols but more intensely. This one document was more rewritten and revised, and more discussed, and more agonised over – line by line – than I’ve ever experienced, including my own PhD. The reading and researching was significantly slower, as was the writing process. We discussed theory a lot – far more than I would have chosen to, left to my own devices – in ways that made my brain melt but got me truly thinking analytically. It’s a time-consuming way of doing things and we could’ve filled the word limit three or four times over with the text content we ending up cutting, but the finished result hopefully speaks to a really concentrated product. I guess it’s like orange squash – Regan made me make sure that every line counted, every reference was thought-through and read (and re-read – Regan, if you’re reading this, know that I have never known a more thorough academic) and that every argument was ‘needed’ in an academic context where total written output grows exponentially by the day. I can’t speak for Regan, but I know that it was a productive process for me.

This kind of co-authorship takes time and that these things are corners that cannot be cut. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about with my LSHTM colleagues when it comes to co-production – something that we call ‘slow co-production‘ – but I guess I hadn’t applied it in my mind to the writing process itself, as someone who flings words on the page at a rate of knots. So here’s to more thoughtful writing.

And as for the paper? Now that it’s finished and out there in the world, we hope it takes on a life of its own.

The finished product

This Sickle Cell Life, co-production & academic research

This sickle cell life

Enter a capRecruitment information for This Sickle Cell Life participants (Photo: Anne Koerber)

New month, new writing. I’m taking this opportunity to take my mind off COVID-19 – there’s certainly plenty of valuable coronavirus articles you can find elsewhere – but that’s not to say what I’m posting today doesn’t cover some really important work. 

I thought I’d write about the work we’ve been doing at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on This Sickle Cell Life, a recently completed qualitative research project that talks to young people about their lives and experiences of having sickle cell disease. The project is particularly special, I think, because it also works directly with sickle cell patient experts and a sickle cell carer to produce some of the most exciting research I’ve ever done – but more on that later. I should also add that some of what I’m writing about are based on team discussions and reflections; we’re writing this up in more detail with our co-authors and I’ll keep you posted on how it progresses.

I got involved in This Sickle Cell Life with Professor Cicely Marston and Dr Alicia Renedo when I started here at LSHTM in 2017. Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the project explores how young people experience transitions in moving from paediatric to adult healthcare services. This includes for example how our participants experience GP surgeries, scheduled hospital visits or unscheduled (i.e. emergency) trips to A&E. We also explored the personal and day-to-day experiences of young people living with sickle cell disease. We were aiming to answer questions including: What is the relationship between a young person with sickle cell and their doctor, and how does this change if you move away from home for college, university or work? And why do young people with sickle cell delay going to the emergency department when they have a sickle cell pain crisis? (Read this excellent overview by Sickle Cell Society for more on pain). We then cast the net wider to think about family, school, sex and relationships.

Our aim was to offer a much-needed sociological picture of how a young person with sickle cell navigates their life and their future, to mirror the more extensive clinical and quantitative research that has been published about the condition. That’s not to say that sickle cell research is exactly a crowded market – Simon Dyson, who has made brilliant sociological contributions over many years, has rightly noted the lack of sickle cell research compared to other chronic health conditions, and how social, economic and ethnic determinants play into this marginalisation:

‘…impairment is primarily socially created by environmental factors, consumption patterns and accidents and not by genetic disorders.’ (Dyson 1998: p.123).

sicklecells - Wikipedia commons

Sickled cells (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)


Fieldwork was already expertly wrapped up by Alicia when I joined the project, but I got to be part of the really interesting results analysis, discussion and dissemination work, including an engagement event with the public which in turn led to some fantastic community projects of its own. You can read more about the work here, but what I’m going to focus on in this blog was the role of ‘co-production’ in the project: put simply, that means working with different ‘kinds’ of people to produce research that is a collaborative effort. Co-produced research recognises that expertise is held by a range of people rather than only the usual suspects (in this scenario, academics or clinicians). Advocates of co-production hope that the research findings developed are more rounded-out and take into account the ‘embodied’ knowledge of people who are living the journey themselves (see Renedo et al., 2018 for more).

One of the distinctive features of This Sickle Cell Life was that it was co-produced with two young sickle cell patient experts and a sickle cell parent/carer expert from the outset. All three have extensive knowledge of sickle cell and life with sickle cell, and already advocate for healthcare improvement in their own lives. They were involved long before I was – right from the project planning and application stage before funding was granted, in fact. They were also paid for their time. Partnering with these three experts added a very important facet to the research we conducted. There is a lot of talk in public health research about ‘PPI’, or patient & public involvement with healthcare, similar in some ways to P.A.R (participatory action research) in social sciences, particularly geography. In the NHS, the motto ‘nothing about me, without me’ represents one way in which patient involvement is rationalised. Funders and grant-giving bodies are (rightly) keen to see meaningful involvement with the communities (sometimes also called beneficiaries) who are most relevant to the research being done. Co-production can also shine a light on the power imbalances than often happen in a traditional researcher-participant relationship in social sciences research which can reinforce all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies and prejudices.

SickleCell-futures- emergency dept

Documenting the participatory dissemination event for This Sickle Cell Life (Photo: Anne Koerber)

In our project, we agreed with our patient experts that it was particularly important that their voices were heard, because they contributed expert knowledge of their bodies and their own health conditions, as well as helping us at the findings stage highlighting themes that were most pertinent to improving healthcare environments for people with sickle cell. We further argued at every stage (to colleagues, institutions, sceptics – anyone who would listen basically) that our involvement processes needed to be considered, balanced, and properly thought-through – lip-service involvement doesn’t help any party and it is not in the spirit of meaningful participation. We wanted to amplify less-heard voices and hear stories from our patient experts and carer experts because their analysis of their own, and others’, experiences of sickle were invaluable. Our collaborators’ input contributed a different side to more traditional qualitative research; as a team, we worked to interpret the data and draw out the implications for practice.

The highlight of the project for me was not just the valuable findings that came out of 80 interviews with young people, which are research outputs of their own brilliantly managed by Alicia (which you can read for free here), but the process of co-producing research with patient experts and carers. I have discussed the idea of co-production a bit in my own digital technology and sexuality research, in which I (loosely) explored the co-production by both researcher and participant of a safe discursive space for covering sensitive topics in sex and sexuality in fieldwork research (which you can read for free here). But This Sickle Cell Life made co-production central from the start and throughout the full four years of the project; it is clear to me only now how truly different this way of working is, and the value it adds.

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Attendees at the participatory dissemination event for This Sickle Cell Life (Photo: Anne Koerber)

The winding road to publication: How expertise is framed in academia

What was interesting was how our co-produced research outputs were received by peer reviewers for academic journals. Having learnt so much from our patient experts about how their experiences reflected what our results showed us about participants’ experiences, we invited them to write an academic article with us. We did this by discussing study findings with them and inviting them to discuss these themes with us as I took notes and recordings to write into a larger discussion. It was a long process, involving lots of conversations in cafes, on the phone and by email to coordinate our different experiences and expertise. Academic articles are a very specific product, and only 7 years into academia I’d largely forgotten how alienating the process can be for the uninitiated. I think it says a lot about the publication process that it really does resemble an iniation of sorts: even within its confines, privileges exist and some are more able than others to call on resources, connections and knowledges to participate in system).

However upon submission, several reviewers critiqued what they felt to be overly personal accounts of sickle cell. Even having noted our co-produced efforts and celebrated this ethos, reviewers still picked out patient expert passages that they felt were lacking objective research – questioning the expertise of those who were best placed to be reflecting on the study findings. Where our patient experts told us how their experiences chimed with those of the participants when it came to hospital care or chronic ill health or family issues, and I wove these reflections into our discussion section, reviewers felt this expertise was anecdotal or somehow unscientific – as if the rest of the qualitative dataset was by contrast unobjectionable or markedly positivist when of course it wasn’t. We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge was somehow too ‘real-life’.

We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge was somehow too ‘real-life’.

I have sympathy for the reviewers, too, because despite the best will of a whole range of actors to more actively incorporate a range of knowledges into academic publications, establishment traditions prevail. This clashes with what I guess I would call the out-of-place-ness of equitable authorship, which synthesises a range of voices, including those which are non-establishment and may contribute in different (often refreshingly different) ways than are standard. None of this is to say that it wasn’t a valuable experience, but it was a long one. Critical Public Health and its editors did support our approach, with suggestions back and forth, and published what will be the first of several co-produced articles (read it for free here).

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That leads us to one of the curious tensions in this kind of work – our collaborators are clearly experts, but they’re not academics. Does that matter? Well, it shouldn’t – especially given the UK NHS drive to centre patients and public at the forefront of research and healthcare involvement. And yet the process of publishing papers with our patient experts was not straightforward. It required different ways of working than what we were all used to, and different approaches – and that’s before we consider the lengthy journey we then had publishing our co-produced academic article, where roadblocks re-emerged.

I came to see that the key contribution of any author is their contribution to ‘the work’, and this can go far beyond typing up results or making an argument for changing UK healthcare practices in an academic article. Instead, it is about having conversations – in ways that ensure equity between all parties – and then using academics’ toolkits to package this co-produced knowledge whilst maintaining its integrity. For us, a more liberatory outcome would have been yet more unconventional than the finished piece. Maybe this would have taken us further from what makes an academic article an academic article. Well, you might argue, if you really want to publish more collaboratively, perhaps a different format would be better suited – a commentary, or an editorial, or a blog – and we are in the process of doing all those things. But this argument overlooks the ostensible openness of academic publishing to co-produced and public involvement endeavours. We’re all supposed to be embracing that ethos…aren’t we? There is work to do, it seems, in lining up expectations with conventions in co-produced research outputs.

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Workshopping involvement at This Sickle Cell Life participatory dissemination event (Photo: Anne Koerber)

Final thoughts

As for the research itself, it’s been a fantastically valuable project for better understanding the health and social conditions of sickle cell, and I’m not just saying that because I helped with it. There are definitely ways we can further improve on our approaches to co-production for next time (though when I see some of the supposedly co-produced work elsewhere in health research, I feel like we’re doing a damn sight better than most!). It’s also not to say that our co-production work was straightforward or easy; on the contrary, it was a very different way of working than what I had been used to, and took a lot of back-and-forth and constant communication between all parties to stay on the same page. But that ongoing relationship, and that time taken to gather views from around the table really ought to be how we always operate: with care, consideration and dialogue between all parties at all times. We came to define it as ‘slow co-production’, which I’ve blogged about before and we lay out what we think are its strengths in this article. It is only within the tight parameters of contemporary academic research contracts that this valuable, lengthy process feels like a luxury or an inefficiency. I should add that the NIHR were very supportive of our approach and helped us build into our budget money to support exactly this kind of process, and they also gave us a generous timeframe in which to generate all this co-produced work.

I also felt humbled by the ethic of care that the project entailed, and it has led to a personal reflexive shift for me as a researcher. Previously, I think I had rather uncritically worked within some of the unhelpful tropes of social science research – including what constitutes ‘knowledge’, who or what entities ‘hold’ knowledge (and you see it performed nowhere more starkly than in healthcare settings), and of the power imbalance between researcher and participant. Now I think twice before internalising the status quo of privilege and position in knowledge-holding (and knowledge exchange). I think more about how practical experience informs knowledge – or is overlooked by systems of knowledge and knowing – and who actually gets a seat at the table in supposedly collaborative endeavours. Cicely and Alicia have written about all of this and more, and you can read this work here, here and here.

Meanwhile, early-career researchers like myself can learn much from the opportunity to do some worthwhile epistemological ‘resetting’ when it comes to thinking about how to plan, frame and conduct our research. Pursuing co-production helps us recognise the importance of prioritising equitable social science research that values all voices equally and recognises a range of expertise, rather than relying on the (often colonial, socially-structured, privileged) expertise bestowed – and often still prioritised – by academia.

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Some of the This Sickle Cell Life collaborators (Top row L-R: Patrick Ojeer, Ganesh Sathyamoorthy, Sam Miles, Nordia Willis, Alicia Renedo, Andrea Leigh. Bottom row L-R: Cicely Marston, John James, Siann Millanaise. Photo: Anne Koerber)


This Sickle Cell Life was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (project number 13/54/25). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the HS&DR Programme, NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health.

Oh, What Do You Do To Me? the City says to Tinder

Happy new year! 2020 opens with something fun, because we all know academia hurts the brain coming so soon after a winter break spent mostly horizontal.

London Skyline Sam Miles

I was recently invited by The {Urban Political} podcast to give an interview on dating apps and urban geographies. The {Urban Political} produces podcasts on ‘contemporary urban issues with activists, scholars and policy-makers’ that aim to advance our understanding of urban environments and how we might make them more democratic. They wanted to discuss my research on the relations between online dating apps and the production of urban space, especially with regards to sex and sexualities. I said yes because I was so intrigued by the questions presenter Dr Markus Kip posed:

Do apps like Grindr and Tinder make the city a more loving place? Do they make dating more safe for women or trans people? And do they cohere greater acceptance of queer cultures, or the opposite?

These are important questions. When put to you by someone not in your head, as it were, they have the helpful effect of sharpening focus on what is really at stake when it comes to the reality (and future) of digital technology and the welfare of sexual minorities.

People’s lived experiences are important. Thinking about the consequences of changing physical environments through the use of dating and hook-up apps beyond simplistic readings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ offers us a real opportunity to think critically about what these platforms mean not just for individual users, but more widely for society, community and geopolitics.

urban politicalThat’s not all: in the podcast we also discuss what app companies do with the data that users provide (whether willingly or unknowingly), and what ethical boundaries are being tested in this kind of data sharing – as well as the ethics of app use itself. I’ve argued before that locative media technologies have grown at such a rapid pace that mutually-agreed social codes for use are yet to catch up with the development of these sophisticated platforms, which can lead to clashing expectations between users. I believe these (perfectly valid) tensions will be replicated and amplified across a wide range of social networks and ‘smart’ technologies in the near future as digital technologies become progressively more integrated into our daily lives.

As for the question ‘what needs to happen at an individual, collective or technological level to make online dating more useful or pleasant?’, there are any number of answers, and for me none of them are definitive. It’s become clear over recent years that dating apps are not an alternative utopian world, free from the ugliness of ‘real'(!!) life – numerous reports of racism (special mention for #KindrGrindr), femmephobia and fat-shaming on just Grindr alone exemplify exactly that. But maybe there is space for a future of sociality, solidarity and support (#SSS?) for sexual minorities who network online. We already see these kinds of networks in action in queer organising, online communities, and support groups at various scales and in various guises. There is no reason why dating and hook-up apps cannot similarly be collectively co-opted to embrace more ‘promiscuous’ socialisation to combat loneliness, more political solidarity with a range of queer identities and livelihoods, and more support for sexual rights agendas, whether they be PrEP provision or sexual & reproductive health rights. We can make it a 2020 resolution, can’t we?

You can listen to the podcast here, and check out other Urban Political podcasts here. There’s plenty to choose from, from the Hong Kong protests to heritage vs. gentrification. Thank you Urban Political for inviting me to be a part of the movement!


Not My Type? Queer male practice-based identities online

I was invited last year by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Catherine J. Nash to write a chapter for their new book, The Geographies of Digital Sexuality.

geogsI thought for a long time about what to write about. My work has been moving over time from queer male technologies and fieldwork ethics to sexual behaviour, and from there to sex and sexuality more generally, as our new ACCESS project at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine develops. I’m still fascinated by technology, sex and relationships, but looking globally at some of these relationships in very different contexts – marginalised populations, challenging settings, and complex geopolitical environments in the global South. I’m well aware that gay and bisexual men in Europe and north America are a comparatively privileged sexual minority, and that the lives and experiences of a wider range of people need further amplification – especially given common misunderstandings about technology use in socioeconomically disadvantaged settings. People are often surprised to hear that smartphones are used almost everywhere in the world. This includes within seriously deprived settings, where it may be the single most important object for a family’s livelihood or income. That does not mean it is not also used for communicating, partner-seeking, or pornography in any number of these settings.

Nevertheless, one of the things that people still ask me a lot about when they hear about my PhD and its research into smartphone dating apps is about people’s behaviour online: things that people complain about seeing again and again. It’s as if there are a list of the ‘usual suspects’ to be wary of when using dating or hook-up apps, from the ubiquitous time-waster (‘talk, talk, talk, and yet never agrees on concrete plans to meet up) to the catfish (‘Amazingly good looking but interested in me!’, or ‘keen to meet but there’s something weird about the photos’).

Image result for carrie bradshaw it got me to thinking

In the words of Carrie Bradshaw (sorry): It got me to thinking… Could we sketch out different ‘types’ of dating app user? Would those ‘types’ translate between queer and heterosexual? Do different apps host different types?

My qualitative fieldwork suggested that male-male apps contained ‘types’ that were far more specifically defined, and more commonly recognised by a whole range of users, than anything I was reading about being theorised elsewhere, so I looked into it further and developed three ‘types’ of user: the Embracer, the Timewaster, and the Minimalist. Whilst the vignettes I write in the chapter are fictional, they are amalgamated from a range of real-life users I spoke to, augmented by the profiles of other users that my participants discussed repeatedly (and usually in strongly positive or strongly critical ways). These profiles build an interesting picture of different modes of use for a market-dominant app like Grindr or Tinder. These profiles, and the strong feelings they provoke in others, also speaks to an argument I bang on about a lot: that the social codes of these GPS-enabled apps have yet to catch up to their digital sophistication. The result is user enthusiasm for what these platforms can offer in meeting new people – especially important for sexual minorities – tempered by real frustrations about other people not taking the app seriously, or taking it too seriously, or just not reflecting the user’s desired path to encounter.

Even more fascinating perhaps is the finding that the Timewaster – an app user who is keen to chat, seemingly reciprocates interest, and yet keeps postponing a date or other physical meeting, seemingly content to exist only in cyberspace – is almost universally criticised by users. Yet many of these same users sometimes exhibit precisely this behaviour themselves. This paradox serves to emphasise that we must not think of ‘types’ or user typologies as somehow fixed, but instead flexible categorisations that users might adopt, consciously or not, at different times in their app use over time. You may not see yourself as a time-waster because it’s not a trait you think is very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes you’re not that person to another frustrated user.

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Feeling a bit seen right now? Don’t worry, everyone seems to fit some of these behaviours some of the time, and that’s no bad thing. But thinking more about what these categories mean and how social and/or sexual connection happens (or doesn’t happen) online can help us to think about larger questions far beyond the scope of dating apps like who we are when we’re online, and why that still feels ‘removed’ or disembodied from what should by now be a more taken-for-granted, ‘smoother’ hybridised digital-physical reality.

Still feeling seen? The chapter is called ‘Going the Distance: Locative Dating Technology and Queer Male Practice-Based Identities’ and you can read it here, or view the full book listing here.

Let’s talk about sex

Unpredictable outcomes

Motelism, 2014

I was invited by the journal Area to write a blog for their outreach website Geography Directions, based on my recent (open access) article ‘“I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research’. I’m reblogging what I wrote here, in case readers find it interesting. In it, I discuss how researchers go about interviewing people about sex and sexualities, and question the extent to which we should share our own experiences as researchers. Think of it as a guide to some of the ethics of fieldwork in sex and sexualities research for the uninitiated. It’s something I get asked about a LOT!

The (in)famous male-male dating and hook-up app Grindr recently celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the anniversary, a whole range of articles have cropped up variously celebrating and lamenting Grindr’s influence across the world (by which I mean literally across the world – it counts nearly 4 million active users across 234 different countries (Grindr, 2019)). What makes this generation of mobile phone matchmakers different from the online platforms that went before them, for example Gaydar, match.com, Yahoo chatrooms? Apps such as Grindr are GPS-enabled, which enables users to ‘rank’ other users of the app by proximity, ensuring that potential matches can be discovered and introduced in real-time across physical space.

Reflecting on Grindr’s first decade, The BBC identifies a ‘rocky relationship’, whilst VICE magazine explores Grindr’s relationship with identity fraud and drug-based ‘chemsex’; meanwhile, Gay Times reports that 56% of Grindr users believe they can find true love on the app. Whatever your opinion on it – and there are many – there is no doubt that this mobile phone matchmaker, along with its competitors Hornet, Scruff & Jack’d, has had a profound impact on gay and bisexual communities. These apps have also opened up new avenues for men seeking sex with men (MSM) who for whatever reason – familial, cultural, or religious – do not identify as gay or bisexual.

Grindr example

Grindr stock image

The bigger question raised by these recent articles seems to be: how do dating and hook-up apps impact on same-sex and queer relationships today? This question cannot be answered by quantitative usage data alone. After all, we know that high usage does not necessarily mean high popularity. We need to explore peoples’ real life experiences in order to more fully understand the impact of dating and hook-up apps on same-sex and queer relationships.

I decided that the best way to get a detailed understanding of how these apps influence sexual and social behaviours would be to interview users about their experiences online, offline, and in the ‘hybrid’ space bridging the two, where virtual introductions result in real-life encounters. My doctoral research revealed some important findings: (1) that dating and hook-up apps play a significant role in how men now meet other men, especially within wider debates about the ‘death of the gay bar’, and (2) that the relationship between mobile phone dating app users and the people they meet can be awkward, with social cues yet to catch up to the sophistication of the technologies in use.

The sensitive nature of the research topic meant that there was an array of ethical and practical challenges for me to grapple with during my doctoral fieldwork. In my recent Area paper, I reflect on some of these challenges and explore how researchers and participants can work together to create a meaningful space that not only enables data collection, but facilitates honest and valuable conversation. I consider what the researcher’s responsibility should be for a participant’s safety in this discursive space. I also reflect on how ‘involved’ I should be as a researcher. I’m a person, not a robot, and several decades of feminist research has already explored the strengths and issues bound up in bringing ‘yourself’ into the research field (for example, see Bain & Nash (2006) and Smith (2016)). But the opposite extreme of the objective, positivist robot researcher is the inappropriately involved one, a role which would be both institutionally unethical and personally unacceptable. I therefore identified my own boundaries as well as the participants’s boundaries. The result was a co-constructed discursive space that we worked together to construct, perhaps surprisingly, in totally public venues and in one-off, hour-long interviews rather than more private or longer-term meetings. These were not ‘intimate’ spaces in a traditional sense, but nevertheless the space-within-a-space that we constructed invited app users to speak about highly personal experiences, some for the first time ever.

I also make the case for the using public places for staging sensitive conversations. The assumption that private matters cannot be discussed in public requires a rethink. Public spaces like libraries or cafes enfold within them more private spaces – not just actual booths or nooks, although these can contribute – but I’m thinking here about more conceptual spaces. These are built simply via one-to-one, in-person conversation in a space where a hubbub of background talking, or the hiss of coffee machines brewing, provides a backdrop to conversation that can be very productive.

Finally, when it comes to dating and hook-up apps in particular, I suggest that people are particularly keen to share their views because the social norms of dating app use are so complex and still so poorly understood. For lots of people online dating remains taboo. In this context, the chance to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences when it came to the digitally-introduced, physically-involved relationships these platforms offer may have been liberating.

Love dating apps or hate them (or both), what I hope the article communicates is that we need to talk more with users about the ways in which technologies impact on our personal lives, in order to think about the social codes developing from their use that will inform a whole range of wider contexts.

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Bain, A., & Nash, C. (2006) Undressing the researcher: Feminism, embodiment and sexuality at a queer bathhouse event. Area, 38, 99–106. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00663.x

Damshenas, S. (2019) 56% of Grindr users believe they can find love on the app, study finds. Gay Times. Retrieved from: https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/community/119691/56-of-grindr-users-believe-they-can-find-love-on-the-app-study-finds/

Fox, L. (2019) 10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47668951

Grindr. (2019) Grindr.com. Retrieved from: https://www.grindr.com/

Miles, S. (2017) Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1595-1610: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1340874?tab=permissions&scroll=top

Miles, S. (2018) Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass. e12407. ISSN 1749-8198 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12407

Miles, S. (2019) “I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research. AREA. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/area.12550

Smith, S. (2016) Intimacy and angst in the field. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 134–146.

Staples, L. (2019) Grindr Users Talk Highs and Lows After Ten Years of the App. VICE Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59x83d/grindr-users-talks-highs-and-lows-after-ten-years-of-the-app-1

Still getting it on online: queerness & technology


Cupid’s arrow, lovestruck…you get the picture. (Motelism, 2015)

This latest blog post is adapted from a piece I wrote this week for the DEPTH research group at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In it, I discuss the publication of my new academic article ‘Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies’ in the journal Geography Compass. If you’re interested in geographies of sexualities, queer theory or space, think of this post as a sort of primer to introduce you to some of the wordier(!) themes explored in the article itself. 


By way of introduction, I thought I’d borrow from my latest article to give you a snapshot of what I’ll be talking about in this blog post:

I call on contemporary scholarship to demonstrate how [mobile phone] platforms offer a way into answering larger cultural questions about cruising, queer social life, and space. I conclude that these locative digital media occupy a distinctive position in the history of queer technologies and signal a shift in how gay male online spaces are both conceptualised and experienced.

In the social sciences, theories of sex and sexuality have long been tied up in ideas of space and place. There are any number of examples we can think of, from the spaces of sex work and how these spaces are regulated or policed, to the rise (and more recently, fall) of the commercialised ‘gay village’ in the global north, which is often discussed in terms of its relations with economics and gentrification.

Trying to better understand the relationship between sex and sexuality and space is important because beyond theoretical ideas, it has an impact on how a location might influence sexual identity, practices or safety. For example, healthcare interventions for sex workers might depend on a safe space accessible from their working space. Civil rights demonstrations or an LGBTQ pride parade in a repressive political environment can be read as a temporary ‘queering’ of the orthodoxy or regime by making space for sexual difference in streets normally controlled by the mainstream. For a real-life example of this, you check out an old blog post of mine on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and why sexuality and space are important concepts.

My own research has focused on digital technology and sexual practices (you can read previous blog posts on it this work here and here). I have been interviewing ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men, including but not limited to gay and bisexual men) to learn more about how recent developments in technology mean that queer male space is not just physical, but virtual too.

 Geography Compass invited me to write an article for them reviewing the history of queer male online space. I think this topic is particularly fascinating is because the social sciences have long tracked physical queer spaces, and this research is widely known; less is known about how online platforms contribute to producing or re-making queer spaces. What I specialise in is locative media – by which I mean GPS enabled mobile phone apps – that are now very popular amongst MSM to network and meet others for social and/or sexual connection. These locative apps include Tinder, Grindr and Hornet, and have a huge user base around the world. Grindr alone counts nearly 4 million users per day.

I argue that the development of mobile internet over the past decade, and the GPS abilities that are now built into even basic smartphones, strongly influence how men meet other men for relationships and sex. This in turn has an impact on ‘offline’ LGBTQ venues such as gay bars or cruising sites, as well as traditional understandings of ‘queer community’ and what that might mean. As I write in the article:

Male–male locative media can strengthen and extend social‐sexual networks, facilitating meetings with like‐minded men across a borough, district, or city. This is especially true among the users for whom a queer community is out of reach because of their isolation, whether familial, social, or geographical.

Of course, being connected to other sexual minorities through an app does not automatically constitute a community, but some users do report a sense of like-mindedness, even if this does not match up with the more established ways in which we define community.

Beyond MSM populations specifically, this idea of technology redefining community, whether for better or worse (or indeed both!) is crucial to how we understand how technology mediates human behaviour. In a public health context, technology needs to be harnessed in ways which are alert to local conditions, whether that is in terms of unequal access to technology, or an affinity (or restriction) to certain kinds of communication device. At the same time, the widespread adoption of mobile phone technology – 5 billion people worldwide now have access to mobile phones – shows that digital technology ‘on the go’ will become ever more central to daily life. The job now is to extend research carried out on mobile digital technologies and sexualities to different populations to help us understand more about how these platforms will impact on social and sexual practices in the near and distant future.

You can read the full article here and follow my Twitter updates on it (and unrelated rants about Brexit, Trump and the tabloid press hereas well as Twitter updates from the DEPTH research hub for you social scientists and public health fans out there.

No decision about me, without me: Public involvement in health


London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine serving 1920s Atonement vibes.

One of the interesting things in my post-doctoral research fellowship at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has been researching the social science of public health.

A priority in the delivery of health services by the NHS for some years now has been patient and public involvement in healthcare. One example of this direction in healthcare that you might have heard about is the NHS initiative ‘No decision about me, without me’ (2012 – ongoing), which seeks to put the patient at the centre of the care that they receive, with the aim of better involving them in their own healthcare when ill.

In this free, open access article that me and my colleagues recently published for the Journal of Health Design, we look at this idea of patient/public involvement via ‘co-production’ – the idea that the public gets involved in shaping their care by working together with doctors and other healthcare staff to grant all parties the best possible results. For the patients, this is good health and a feeling of being included, and for the staff, this means good relationships with those they care for and healthy, happy outcomes.

slow coproduction.PNG

It’s an interesting idea but not without its detractors (including for example: “Why should patients be considered ‘experts’ when that’s what doctors spend 6 years in medical school for?” “Why is the NHS so reliant on buzzwords like ‘co-production’?” “Is this kind of involvement vocabulary just another fad?”) but there is a lot that I like about the ongoing shift to think more laterally about public involvement in healthcare. As well as being a good idea in terms of hearing from less-heard voices in the healthcare system, who have historically been marginalised and as a result suffered from poorer health, the consensus from the bodies that make up the NHS and NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) is broadly that these co-production approaches make a lot of sense in the modern hospital system. As well as improving patient-clinician relationships, patients feel empowered in having a say in the care they receive, and some outcomes also point to cost efficiencies. This is, of course, vitally important in a political climate which has sadly seen the NHS increasingly positioned as the albatross around the government’s neck, no matter the lip service they pay it when they’re put on the spot. Plus ça change…

Either way, as a research field this kind of public involvement work is interesting for a whole range of audiences, and though the case study we use is our own ongoing research on young people with sickle cell disease (you can read more about ‘This Sickle Cell Life‘ here), the idea of ‘slow’ co-production, which emphasises quality, qualitative fieldwork that gets space to ‘breathe’, can be extrapolated to any number of different research activities that involve the public. And by involvement we’re talking here not just about the public as what has been seen traditionally as the passive research subject, something to be examined to aid in building our knowledge of social life; but in more meaningful terms as active collaborators in thinking about their care. Indeed, why not? Anything that can deepen people’s engagement with health and how they access and receive care has to be a good thing, right?

The article is free, open access and – rare indeed! – really quite short. Check it out if you fancy, here. Whilst I’m talking about public health, you might have seen that the NHS is turning 70! You can read about some of its amazing work over the past 7 decades here and here, plus check out the debate on Twitter here with the hashtag #NHS70LSHTM.