This article is based on my personal reflections on the challenges and benefits of an ongoing interdisciplinary doctoral dissertation project. Presently, I am in the completion phase of a PhD with the title, “Street-Based Sex Workers’ Vulnerability to Police Corruption in the Western Cape, South Africa.” The dissertation is based on a study that crosscuts the disciplines of law and gender studies, under the broader umbrella of the social sciences.
As a lawyer with a legal practice and advocacy background, and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and Master of Laws (LLM) degrees, my PhD program is registered in a Law Faculty. My main supervisor is a professor in the Gender Studies Department within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the same university and my second supervisor is a professor in Law. Prior to commencing this study, I had limited experience with empirical research, which was not conducted within an academic environment. Interdisciplinarity in an academic context is thus new to me.
When I started my study, I did not frame it as an interdisciplinary study. I viewed it as a doctorate in law which would be written from a human rights and criminal justice perspective. After commencing research and interviewing sex workers, I realized that my research questions required that I think about ways of conducting further research and answering my research questions not only from a legal perspective, but also from a social perspective because of the gender and class issues that came to light, and because sex workers constitute a socially and legally marginalized group of people in the South African context. My initial main and co-supervisors were both legal researchers based in the Law Faculty, but the interdisciplinary nature of the study later necessitated the appointment of a main supervisor with expertise in social science and primary research.
Background to the study
The main objective of my study is to investigate the reasons for street-based sex workers’ vulnerability to police corruption in the Western Cape. The study aims to map the factors and circumstances that make street-based sex workers’ vulnerable to police corruption. It is further aimed at making recommendations on measures that can be taken to reduce sex workers vulnerability to police corruption. A feminist-legal analysis using an intersectionality lens and feminist standpoint theory is used to reach and analyze the study findings and make recommendations. The latter has also influenced how the study has been conducted. A qualitative feminist research methodology was used to conduct semi-structured interviews with sex workers which involved me asking open-ended questions which permitted them to tell their stories as they chose to.
Interdisciplinary nature of the study
The specific issues that this study has unearthed through interviews with sex workers in relation to how they experience police corruption and the application of an intersectionality lens in analyzing and reaching findings have made this study one which is interdisciplinary in nature. After analyzing the interview data, I concluded that the factors and circumstances that make sex workers vulnerable to corrupt policing can be divided into three categories: legal, social, and socio-economic. These categories have required me to make recommendations that offer legal, social, and, to a lesser extent, economic solutions to address and reduce the harm experienced by sex workers due to corrupt policing.
The application of an intersectionality lens to the interview data, analysis, findings, and recommendations compelled me to identify factors beyond the factors that are only legal, even though I am inclined to do so because of my legal practice and academic background. While I have been able to categorize these factors, they cannot be considered in isolation from each other because they are interconnected and many of my recommendations respond to one or more categories of factors or to all of them collectively and simultaneously. Solutions to the factors and circumstances that make sex workers vulnerable to police corruption have to be holistic and, to the fullest possible extent, all-encompassing to improve the lives of sex workers and protect them from the human rights violations at the hands of the police that are characteristic of their experiences. Furthermore, the fact that sex workers constitute a marginalized group of people, primarily comprised of women, who often make the decision to sell sexual services as a means of survival despite the fact that sex work is criminalized in South Africa, makes the use of an interdisciplinary approach to the study necessary.
Primary research in a discipline that does not commonly use this method in gathering information.
When I started my PhD, both my main and co-supervisors were law researchers who were experienced in supervising post-graduate dissertations in law, but neither of them had experience conducting empirical research themselves or in supervising a dissertation with its main source of data deriving from primary research. This is because in law, primary research as a main source of data for dissertations is not common. My supervisors had supervised studies involving interviews, but these interviews were supplementary to data obtained through desktop research because the main source of data for law studies is commonly secondary data from desktop research. This does not mean that doctorates in law do not produce new and original knowledge as the analysis of existing research and data makes these doctorates unique. The fact that my initial supervisors were not experienced in primary research meant that they were learning from the process with me but were not able to guide me through the process. This issue was remedied once my current social science supervisor was appointed.
Unfamiliarity with the ethics clearance procedure and the risks associated with interviewing members of a ‘vulnerable’ group.
Similarly, I experienced some difficulties with obtaining ethics clearance through the university ethics research committee. My supervisors did not have experience with the ethics of managing risks associated with the interview process and could only provide limited advice. I was unfamiliar with the procedure and requirements and had no experience in empirical research to guide me. The reality is that most law researchers have not followed the process for obtaining ethics clearance for conducting interviews with participants.
Despite my unfamiliarity with the ethics process and requirements, many of the challenges in obtaining ethics clearance for my research were because the interview participants were members of a marginalized group of people whose conduct of selling sexual services is criminalized. Understandably, the ethics committee had concerns about the risks of interview participants’ identities being disclosed through the study even though measures were put in place to prevent such disclosure. If the interview participants’ identities were disclosed, they could face possible identification, targeted profiling, and arrest by the police, resulting in prosecution and punishment. Once their status as sex workers is publicly known, they are likely to face stigma and unfair discrimination by family members, their children, intimate partners, service providers, and members of their communities. The latter can result in sex workers being disowned by their families, ousted from the communities where they live, and refused essential services provided by the police, public healthcare facilities, and other service providers.
Whilst the decision to interview sex workers was risky from the outset, the sex work industry is not new to me as I worked with sex workers and participated in advocacy and litigation to protect and advance sex workers’ human rights while employed at a non-profit organization, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. I am confident that I am able to protect the interview participants’ identities and present a dissertation that will produce new data and analysis to support litigation and advocacy to respect and promote sex workers’ human rights. The reality is that if I did not have previous experience in working with sex workers, the chances are that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to interview sex workers because of the criminalized status of their work. My first-hand experience with sex workers has given me an in-depth understanding of their lived realities and this is primarily the reason for me electing to embark on a study that can be used to improve their lives.
Part of my reasons for choosing feminist standpoint theory as a theoretical lens in this study is to ensure that sex workers are given a voice and are able to produce solutions to their own problems. This theory supports the notion of ‘Nothing about us! Without Us’ which is essential for any study involving women and marginalized groups as it is focused on the quality and impact of narratives offered by the interview participants.
Different approaches in different disciplines
It is not unheard of for doctoral students in law faculties to register for Doctor of Philosophy degrees (PhDs), but most students register for Doctor of Law degrees (LLD) which can be described as ‘black and white letter law’ doctoral degrees. The PhD and LLD structures are different, and PhDs in the Law Faculty will be structured differently to social science PhDs. For example, an LLD or PhD in the Law Faculty will incorporate a literature review as part of chapter one or the introduction to the dissertation while a PhD in social sciences dedicates a chapter to the literature review. Similarly, an LLD often does not use a theoretical framework while a PhD-in-law may do so, but it is generally required of a PhD in social sciences.
After my gender studies supervisor was appointed, my process of writing, approaching my research, and structuring my thesis unfortunately led to some confusion and left me with the feeling of being torn in different directions. At times I was uncertain of which approach to take because of how the two disciplines approached research and writing so differently. For example, as a lawyer, I have been taught to write in the third person at all times, but I am aware that any feminist writing must be presented in the first person because of the importance of my positionality as a researcher. In retrospect, and now that I have one supervisor guiding the finalization of my dissertation, I have realized that at times there were simply ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ with conflicting approaches and opinions. Besides having a gender studies and law supervisor at some stage of my PhD process, I also had two different mentors and a change in main supervisor after my initial supervisor retired and later passed away. These factors all added to a stressful experience trying to navigate a process that called on me to learn new approaches to researching and writing. These issues are all additional to the general challenges that I have no doubt all PhD students experience based on a study of this magnitude and the high level of academic rigor expected of doctoral studies. This terrain is unknown to any doctoral student.
Finally, as a lawyer, I have very little experience in conducting research in the social sciences discipline or on theories and research methods. Unlike the legal research component of my thesis, finding sources that are commonly known among social science researchers was new to me. This required me to spend more time on the social science research component of my study.
Undeniably, the interdisciplinary nature of the study has slowed my progress toward the completion of my dissertation but, as will be seen later in this essay, the benefit of this approach outweighs its disadvantages.
I believe that my dissertation will be a unique product of the Law Faculty because it is an interdisciplinary study based on empirical research, and because very few law students have previously engaged in such studies before me. In this regard, I will also be able to supervise students who would like to conduct primary research in the law faculty on legal or interdisciplinary studies. The study will contribute to strengthening and expanding interdisciplinary research, which is an area of research the university is encouraging researchers to delve into. Furthermore, my analysis, findings, and recommendations will offer a unique, diverse, and original contribution to the literature on the topic because of its interdisciplinary nature. Once completed, the study will mean that I can offer some level of unique and special skills and contribute innovative ideas to existing research-based knowledge by publishing journal articles and book chapters. Undoubtedly, this study is of high learning value for me as I am not only exploring literature in a new discipline but have also learned about research methods that are not often used in law. The interdisciplinary approach adopted in this study pushes me to think critically and beyond the boundaries of my own discipline.
The most important learning outcome of this study is that solutions to problems need to be holistic and all-encompassing when conducting research on topics that involve marginalized groups who have a need for their lived realities to be improved. My future work will involve an interdisciplinary approach of some kind as it will seem incomplete or presumptuous that only legal solutions can fix social and human rights issues.
Despite the challenges that I have experienced with the study to date, the benefits of its interdisciplinary approach outweigh its disadvantages. The process of this study is an experimental journey that undeniably comes with setbacks because it forces me to think beyond the boundaries of the discipline in which I am trained and to explore research methods and approaches to solutions that I have not explored before. It contributes to my academic and intellectual development because I am required to consider various perspectives and approaches to producing new knowledge.
I conclude by posing the following questions to readers: Is the structure of training at universities too insular? Are students from undergraduate to post-graduate levels of study receiving sufficient training on the full range of available research methods, even when these methods are not used in their disciplines? Should legal studies incorporate more exposure to non-legal modules at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels?
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