SHL Priority Areas: Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology research journey 

By Sharon Webb 

In my last blog I discussed the Sussex Humanities Lab’s priority research areas, and the thinking behind their implementation. This time around, I’d like to focus on the priority area that I lead — Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology (ICCT).  ICCT was conceptualised to bring together and to create coherency across a cluster of activities, and to highlight some of the values that inform the Lab’s work and how we operate as a research community. ICCT also reflects the way in which the Lab, its culture, its people, have offered me a focus that has helped develop and broaden my research profile, and the collaborations I am part of.

Since joining Sussex in 2015, I have integrated my work on digital preservation and digital archives with community archives and heritage work. From 2018, and upon reflection motivated by the explicit feminist values of our original leadership team — particularly Caroline Bassett, Tim Hitchcock, and Rachel Thomson — Cécile Chevalier and I have developed research and teaching that incorporates techno-feminism, and intersectional/queer/feminist Digital Humanities, with an investigation of these histories, alongside practical and creative interventions such as coding workshops and creative coding initiatives.

More recently, Irene Fubara-Manuel and Sandra Nelson have joined us in these efforts. Both contribute to our ‘Techno-Feminism: History and Practice’ MA module and have developed a programme of work for our ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology’ network called Reflexive Re-Tooling: Alternative Workflows for the Feminist Researcher. Irene is also Co-I on ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, alongside Cécile and I. (You can follow each project on Twitter: @FACT_ntwrk, @FullStackFem). Kate O’Riordan, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, has also informed the way in which this research, and community, has developed. It’s also important to acknowledge the inclusive intersectional feminist frameworks, networks, and research that already existed at Sussex: my work and the Lab have benefited from these.  

In many respects the ICCT priority area reflects a research journey. It echoes the myriad ways that we build capacity around clusters of research and how we build community, connections, and networks that are valuable not only in terms of research output but research environments and cultures. The ways in which we manifest our research as individuals become part of a larger collective conversation — and that is the point!

Highlighting and centring community in this area was important. “Community” in this context is not, I hope, empty virtue signalling, but instead echoes a long tradition of working with community groups at Sussex and at the Lab. It acknowledges that perspectives outside of our academic circles should be included. These perspectives have a place within academic work, and are equally important, and sometimes more important, than the perspectives of professional academics. It also encourages us to think more about non-traditional research methods, outputs, and ways of disseminating, about the collective benefit of our research, and about new ways of listening and responding.  

In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the artists who took part in our Brighton Digital Festival event in Nov. 2021. ‘Subverting Digital Spaces’ was co-organised by the Lab (under the umbrella of the ICCT priority area), the Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities project, and Laurence Hill, visiting fellow at the Lab and Digital Curator of the Full Stack Feminism project. Artists and activists Teresa Braun, and Jake Elwes both spoke to subverting  

traditional digital platforms … [of] … queering datasets and developing digital tools for social intervention. Collectively, they … [draw] … from Intersectional, Black, Feminist, Queer and Trans activisms to create online spaces that challenge normative social constructs and their omissions.

Subverting Digital Spaces

Both artists represent aspects of ICCT and of the ways in which performance within and across digital spaces can subvert dominant narratives around gender, sexuality, and race. Interacting with technology, like machine learning and AI (particularly deep fake technologies in the case of Jake) highlighted not only how these technologies can be “queered,” but also the way in which queer and intersectional feminism have a role to play in questioning, disrupting and challenging digital spaces and technologies, spaces and technologies that often promote or amplify far-right sentiment and ideals of “normality” (or heteronormativity). Both artists investigate drag performance to subvert technical spaces, as a means to disrupt data sets based on normative bodies and normative abstracted models of the world (as represented/propagated through training data sets in AI, machine learning, and/or neural networks, for example).

What transpires from these experiments and performances are powerful interventions that highlight social, cultural, and techno-social inequities, imbalances, accompanied by methods or ways to subvert these. Jake’s work especially resonated – in Jake’s words, what happens when you introduce 1,000 images representing queer expressions, bodies, drag queens, drag kings

into a standard homogenised data set of 70000 images of human faces which is used as a standard to train facial recognition systems … which contain very little of this otherness? … [The resulting output] shifts all of the weight in this neural network from a space of heteronormativity into this space of queerness and queer celebration.

Jake Elwes

Jake questions whether we want to be in included in these systems, or whether we want to break them, to queer them. In this sense autonomy and agency within and over representation merge with questions of technological surveillance and acquiesces (or consent and unconsent). The big questions here are what models of the world are we building, what models do we have control over, and what models are impacting our engagement (or disengagement) with our world? How do technologies (AI, machine learning, neural networks) reduce our world to classifications and binaries, and indeed how do they perpetuate old systems of classification and categorisation? Both artist presentations offer useful and unique moments of reflection about the digital world we live in – or the digital world that is imposed upon us.  

As a research cluster, ICCT (Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology) brings together and highlights the manifold ways the digital world (imposed on us) has the capacity and potential to be as systemically unjust, bias, and dis-enfranchising as our “analogue” world has historically proven to be. Yet, (on a more positive note) it also highlights the potentials of individual, project, and community interventions, often collaborative, to mitigate this harm and transform our digital environments and spaces. In this regard, the Lab’s open workshop, organised in collaboration with FACT and under the ICCT umbrella, to celebrate Ada Lovelace day (Oct. 2021), Building a Feminist Chat bot, as well our seminar withProfessor Patricia Murrieta-Flores, ‘The future of the past. The development of Artificial Intelligence and other computational methods for the study of Early Colonial Mexican documents’, highlights some of these interventions and ways of working. Both consider the ethics of building tools using AI and machine learning algorithms. In particular, Building a Feminist Chat Bot which stems from an ongoing collaboration between FACT, the Reanimating Data Project, Suze Shardlow and the Lab, centres a feminist ethics of care with relation to building tools and interfaces. It “builds a chat bot” but this is probably the least important aspect of the work –instead the process of building, the collective coding and skills sharing, are more important than the end-product. Centring work around a feminist ethics of care is not always easy. It requires additional resource and can become emotionally challenging – but it is worth it. Values of care are not maternalistic but instead centred on values of listening, of making space, of empathy (for those in the group as well as those you are building “for”), of ethics. It is a way of working that ideally should be embedded in how we do research anyway, but as a method makes these approaches explicit.  

SHL’s ICCT priority area includes intersectionality — not as a diversity-waving add-on (see Sara Ahmed On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)), but as a means of working in an ethically, feminist, community, and queer informed approach. Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities (a two-year AHRC-IRC funded project) explicitly draws upon intersectional feminism and is investigating how we embed these values within and across Digital Humanities practice and research. It explores what feminist DH methodologies look like and how we can develop a framework to encourage their inclusion through the life cycle of digital projects and creations. Intersectionality has become — alongside equalities, diversity, and inclusion — a bit of a catch-all term, but we use it with intention. It outlines our positionality as a lab, as a research community. In many ways, it also recognises our aspirations, and recognises the need to constantly think and rethink who we are and who we, as the Lab, want to be.  

You can find details and some recordings of some of the events mentioned here in the Lab’s past events listing. For more information on our research projects please visit, and for information on other priority areas.

SHL Priority Areas — what are they and why?

A short reflection one year on 

By Sharon Webb 

In 2021 the Sussex Humanities Lab, one of the University’s four flagship research programmes, reviewed and re-evaluated its research structure. In an effort to amplify voices within the Lab, and to attract new voices and contributors from outside of it, we devised eight so-called priority areas that reflect current research and the expertise of our members. These priority areas allow us to highlight our research and provide a structure for our seminar and open workshop series, as well as a way to support strategic research development and grant capture. A year in, we are reflecting on how this structure has or hasn’t worked. Either way, through this structure we have managed, despite Covid challenges, to develop a programme of work which has provided crucial points of discussion, dialogue, debate, and growth.  

Our priority areas aim to further build research capacity across the University and to provide entry points to new Lab associates and to the wider community. We recognise that for some it can be difficult to know exactly what the Lab “does,” and we hoped our priority areas would help demystify that. The fact is, we do a lot: we are diverse, and we work in such an agile manner that it can be difficult to pin us down – this has its advantages and disadvantages!

We define ourselves as a Lab because we are a space of doing, of experimenting, of making (watch this space for a co-authored chapter on this very topic soon). Our collaborations cut across boundaries and as a group we all work in an explicitly transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion. Our work is also value-driven, with a concern for ethics, equalities and diversity work, and by social justice and sustainability issues. In that regard, we are driven by a set of values explicitly written into the fabric of the University of Sussex, and indeed values embedded in our home school, the School of Media, Arts and Humanities. It is probably no surprise then that many of our priority areas reflect these values and concerns, cutting across disciplines and subject areas – such as ‘Philosophy of AI’ or ‘Uncertainty and Interpretability of AI’ , led by Beatrice Fazi (MAH) and Ivor Simpson (EngInf) respectively. ‘Experimental Ecologies’, led by Alice Eldridge (Music), is concerned with developing wider disciplinary understanding our (human and other organisms) environmental relations in the anthropocene, where the biosphere and technosphere are irrevocably linked.  In this way ‘Experimental Ecologies’ aims to foster:

post-disciplinary research where arts and humanities, natural and computational sciences, traditional indigenous knowledge, and everyday local experiences have an equal footing in addressing key environmental issues at human-environment interfaces.

In this area, “an equal footing” is key, and this perspective and outlook informs much of work in other priority areas developed by Lab members. My own area for example, ‘Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology’ (ICCT) highlights, challenges, and disrupts the way in which computational technology reproduces and reinforces various inequalities in society. It is concerned with, reflective of, and feeds into the value system of the Lab but it is also concerned with research that is driven by perspectives of equity and inclusion. Above all it is community driven, and its foundations are born from collaborative work with queer and intersectional feminist communities and research praxis – community perspectives are on par (on an equal footing) with academic ones. This priority area reflects existing work within the Lab, specifically through the ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology (FACT) Network, the ARHC-IRC funded network grant, ‘Intersectionality, Feminism, Technology and Digital Humanities’ (IFTe), whose overaching objective is to:

‘un-code’ gendered assumptions, question our digital environments and systems, and embed intersectional feminist methods and theory within DH with a view to the creation of new DH futures

And more recently, ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, a two-year project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the Irish Research Council and part of their ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research Grants Call. This project aims to develop feminist praxis, methodologies, and ethics from within and across Digital Humanities projects and research. “Full stack” means we are concerned with issues related to inequalities in DH that span from the infrastructure layer to the representation layer – it reaches, and cuts, across all types of environments. In this sense, the Lab’s priority areas represent critical mass of research that grows through engagement within and across the Lab. 

You can read about all our priority areas and ways that you might get involved here: 

Our priority areas represent things that we care about, things that we want to grow, areas we want to foster and nurture. They are not static or fixed but rather a means for us to articulate our priorities but as we know priorities change as we as individuals, as members of society, as colleagues in a School/University develop. We nurture these areas not for the Lab’s own benefit but for the benefit of those that engage with us.  

So, reflecting a year on, does the structure work? Maybe it doesn’t matter what structure we have if the right conversations are happening, if the right collaborations are developing, and if ultimately our members, our community feel involved. Our research structure can only be judged by the collaborations and research they foster, and in this regard, I think we’re not doing too bad!  

Prepping Robo_Op (2021)