Sara Scott (1998) 'Here Be
Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist
Sociologist in Uncharted Territory'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/3/3/1.html
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Received: 22/7/98 Accepted: 29/9/98 Published: 30/9/98
This is a reflexive, feminist account of knowledge production that endeavours to make visible the specific social and political context that shaped the researcher's engagement with ethical and epistemological issues, the selection of interviewees, structure of interviews, the questions and answers of the research interviews, and the interpretation of 'data'. The collision between the lived experience of the researcher, that of her informants, and the 'discourse of disbelief' surrounding the subject of ritual abuse, is understood as crucially determining of the research knowledge produced. Attention is given to the disembedding process by which research moves from specific, emotional and embodied encounters to academic articles, and the implications for belief/disbelief in this process.
I am 31  years of age. I was born in Scotland and grew up in the North-East, where as a teenager I became involved in anti-fascist and feminist politics. I lived in Oxford and Lancaster before settling in Manchester in 1983, with a degree in feminist theory and a job as a youth and community worker. I joined Manchester Rape Crisis the same year and have been a volunteer counsellor there ever since.
Over the years I have been involved in various groups and campaigns and written a fair bit about sexual violence. For 7 years I worked in social action broadcasting, where I was involved in the early days of the National AIDS Helpline. In 1992 I managed a helpline following the Channel 4 transmission of Beyond Belief (on ritual abuse). A report of this was published in Valerie Sinason's (1994) Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse.
I first began supporting a young survivor of ritual abuse in 1990. I have learnt an enormous amount from her, and from other survivors I have met or worked with in recent years. I gave up my job in October 1993 in order to undertake this research. I live in Manchester with a partner, a friend and a spaniel. (Biographical note, 8/11/94)
...what had been fairly clearly established - that child sexual abuse happens mainly at home, and is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men - is now being obscured in the public consciousness by the idea that it is carried out by some god hating weirdo devil worshippers who do it at the behest of their satanic master. (Letter to Community Care 7/3/91)
It should be recognised [...] that adults who claim to have been ritually abused, usually known as 'survivors', have been very influential. While their stories are said to confirm what children have said, in fact survivors are probably more significant in creating a climate of belief before cases involving children are discovered. Most survivors are women, though there is a male survivors group in London. (La Fontaine, 1994: p. 4)
[W]e can work with what 'knowledge' we have, while recognising that it may be erroneous and engaging in systematic inquiry where doubt seems justified; and in so doing we can still make the reasonable assumption that we are trying to describe phenomena as they are... (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983)
'A comprehensive report that validates survivors realities[...] Something accessible to survivors who have not yet spoken of their experience for fear of disbelief.'
'Serious media attention to a piece of research that could stand up to scrutiny and even to bigotry.'
'Just find a way to make it matter that we all survived.'
There are lots of things I'm not prepared to talk about in any detail. I'm probably protecting myself and you. I want you to believe what's happened in my life, and you to make other people believe kids are living like this now. But there's some things people just aren't ready for. (Dorothy: p. 2)
It ['story-telling'] indicates that there are areas left in which feminist practice can take root within empirical sociology. In somewhat visionary terms, it can be seen as a methodological catalyst: something which can aid the transformation of the research process without compromising our feminism. (Graham, 1984: p. 124)
I mean I can send you photocopies of any of that lot if you want it.
Don't worry about it, we can just...
This is what you call...Talking with that [a journal] in front of me is easier than talking about being in the room, so that's why I'm doing it. And I know why I'm doing it as well! (Laughter)
And I know why you're doing it! (Pause) But if you can just give me an idea what sort of stuff...
I could read it out of the books really...Because so much of it I don't...feels like it wasn't me, it's actually very difficult to... (Beth: p. 24)
Deeply embedded notions and expectations about the 'normal' course of a life, as well as unconscious rules about what constitutes a good story, shape a personal narrative as much as the 'brute facts' of existence do. (Personal Narratives Group,1989: p. 13)
[Speaking of her paternal grandparents] I don't really know much about their lives, we didn't really get told. [...] What we did get...well...in the visits we were over there, um, just putting bits together...was that there was some family connection between them. [...] There were photographs from when they were babies [...] with their names underneath. [...] I mean they were married, we presumed, but whether it was a legal marriage, I don't know. (Sinead: p. 1)
The term 'stories' inevitably incorporates the idea of fiction and leans towards locating the main event at the level of discourse. 'Narratives', as well as having the disadvantage of being merely a posh word for 'stories', pushes forward form and structure above content. Even 'accounts' are always-already 'competing accounts'.
'Life histories' take themselves more seriously as resources for knowledge. Within these 'reports' are respectful of peoples efforts to tell the truth of their lives. At the same time 'reports' and 'accounts' are always situated tellings, and the terms remind us that 'reporting' and 'accounting' are active processes of reflection and construction. (Scott, 1995: p. 8)
Satanism appears to have been imported from the Bible Belt of America. The signs of Satanism and its connection with child abuse were first reported in the US by people who had an interest in the existence of Satan. Satanism gives their religion a sort of ghostbusters glamour. Fundamentalists have always had a taste for the apocalyptic. (Sunday Correspondent 23/9/90)
The panic spread to Britain early in 1988 through several channels including the evangelical Christian movement, in books and testimonials of survivors and 'Deliverance' ministries, and through 'experts' from the US who spread the message here in newspapers and on conference circuits. Once here, the stories have been spread by Christian organisations such as the Association of Christian Psychiatrists and the Social Workers of the Christian Fellowship, by churches, anti-occult campaigners and by born-again 'survivors' of Satanic abuse. (Independent 7/10/90)
2 It could be suggested that ethnomethodological and interactionist research was post-modern before its time
3 In Dorothy Smith's terms 'experience is a method of talk,' it is in 'how people talk, the categories they use, the relations implicitly posited between them' (Smith, 1997: 394), and in what they take for granted, that we gain access to the social character of people's worlds. We do this in everyday life, feminists did it self-consciously in consciousness raising groups, feminist researchers do it systematically in the analysis of interviews. Experience may be the starting point for feminist research as for feminism, but it is in the analysis of experience that the potential for change lies.
4 Throughout this paper I use the term ritual abuse which I define as: 'systematic physical, sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by groups using symbols and rituals and supporting their practices with claims to an occult/religious belief system.' Half of my interviewees used the term Satanism to describe the belief system of their abusers, the others described a pan-theistic occultism which they did not specifically label Satanic. However, during the course of the research I also received questionnaires from, and met with, women who identified themselves as survivors of ritual abuse but whose abusers identified themselves as Mormons, Neo-Nazis, Pagans, Hindus or belonged to 'traditional' African cults. The survivors in my sample had been abused in all white contexts in the UK and USA, and often described their abusers as extremely Right-wing and racist. (Four British women who had lived in or visited Africa during childhood also described abuse in multi-racial contexts.) I have chosen the term 'ritual abuse' in part because it leaves open the possibility of connecting experiences across race and culture, whereas a focus on Satanism or Satanists (Sinason,1994) reduces the possible phenomena for analysis to a specific cultural context.
5 La Fontaine's conclusions that there were only three substantiated cases of ritual abuse reported to the authorities between 1988 and 1991, and that these were quite unlike the 'satanic ritual abuse' reported by adults as they involved one main perpetrator who claimed 'spiritual powers' and one or two collaborators in the abuse, and: "the ritual was secondary to the sexual abuse which clearly formed the primary objective of the perpetrators" (La Fontaine, 1994: 30), was based on questionnaires sent to Chief Police Officers, Directors of Social Services and the NSPCC. The other 81 cases of alleged ritual abuse she regarded as unsubstantiated.
6 A preliminary questionnaire for ritual abuse survivors was distributed through Rape Crisis Centres and other services supporting sexual abuse survivors, it was also sent to members of RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support). Ninety questionnaires were distributed and 36 completed and returned.
7 'Far from rushing around swapping stories, the survivors I talked to were mostly reluctant to meet others or even to read about similar experiences. There were two distinct strands to this reluctance, the first was influenced by their knowledge that they stood accused of having 'caught' ritual abuse from books, or of having memories 'implanted' by therapists and other 'believers'. The second strand was fear of meeting someone who was still involved or in contact with ritual abusers, or someone they had abused or been abused by.
8 The collective 'memory work' of Haug et al. (1987) provides one model for such research.
9 Michelle Davies does precisely this in an analysis of the memoirs of incest survivor Sylvia Frazer (Davies, 1993). I cannot help wondering if Davies would have undertaken a similar analysis on interview data she had personally collected from an unpublished survivor. Similar questions are raised by Ken Plummer's Telling Sexual Stories (Plummer, 1995) in which he discusses interviews undertaken in the 1970s with people we may assume he is no longer in contact with.
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