The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

Dr Graeme Mearns

Research Associate

Background

Introduction

I am a queer geographer working on the Research Excellence Academy project 'Contested Spaces of Diversity' with Peter Hopkins. This work follows a long period of interdisciplinary research, engagement and impact activity through the SiDE and SoMaG projects with colleagues in computing science.

My core research interests pertain to sexual citizenship, gender and emerging digital technologies, particularly the varied, multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory implications that Web-based technologies can come to have on social, economic and political worlds. Since a young age I have been fascinated by the global travel of ideas and imagery through numerous cultural texts, an interest heightened by global communications technologies like the internet and mobile technologies. Much of my work is geared towards understanding the ways in which increasingly routine and taken-for-granted services such as Facebook or Twitter can have both positive and negative effects on human and spatial relations, depending on the geographical sites and scales in question - that of the individual body, an organisation, the city, a region and so on. 

Whilst undertaking fieldwork to support current research concerning equality and diversity in the spaces of higher education, I am also spending considerable time writing about the work I have previously been involved in. Some of this will mark a return to the core interests in which I was trained as a student at MMU whilst the remainder reflects, critically, on the increased monetisation and marketisation of personal data that has occurred tandem to the popularity of social media. 

I follow both feminist and queer methodological and epistemological stances closely and try to keep up-to-date with an expanding range of computational tools, techniques and approaches that can now be used to undertake research in geography and cognate academic disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. 

Research

'Contested Spaces of Diversity', REA Fellowship

The aim of the Contested Spaces of Diversity project is to investigate the experiences of higher education among students and staff who occupy one or more attribute(s) protected by the Equality Act (2010). The project adopts a qualitative approach and has so far involved a mix of semi-structured interviews and focus groups to begin understanding different perceptions and realities of studying and/or working in the varied spaces of teaching and learning, research, administration and conviviality which compose campus life. Data captured from different groups of students and staff will be examined relationally, whilst the feminist approach of intersectionality provides its theoretical anchor. It is hoped that findings raised by the project will inform equality, diversity and inclusion agendas at the university over time through iterative communication with the Director of Diversity, Faculty Directors and Equality and Diversity Leads. The project will allow insight to be shared with other geographers and scholars of other disciplines, especially those working to build the interdisciplinary field of Critical University Studies. 

Other research

My PhD investigated experiences of gay, bisexual and queer-identifying men in Germany who use online social-sexual networking services to meet others, showing how user-generated content (personal profiles, photos, videos) can be produced by people in ways that challenge rigid configurations of identity and how this manifests spatially to inclusionary and exclusionary effects. During SiDE, I attempted to build on my doctorate in three ways. Firstly, and through working with arts-based scholars and practitioners at Newcastle's CultureLab, by rethinking the concept of 'community' in light of the ways in which digital technologies can be re-appropriated creatively, often in unassuming or 'vernacular' ways. Secondly, by understanding the proficiencies of young people with Facebook, YouTube and other social media for positive impacts on non-digital skills. Thirdly, by extending attention from volunteered, user-generated content to 'ambient' data: information made public online – often unwittingly – via mobile technologies such as the smartphone. 

Following a successful contribution to the ESRC proposal 'Social Media Analysis for Social Geography' (SoMAG), I worked with colleagues in GPS and the School of Computing to determine the relevance of 'geosocial' media data for understanding human behaviours at both local and global scales. This involved using the data analytics tools of the Digital Institute to perform network and thematic analyses on 'geo-tagged tweets' mentioning the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). I was fortunate to work particularly closely with Dr. Rebecca Simmonds who developed the Antares tool as part of her PhD before moving to industry. This relationship aided understanding of geographical patterns in support and opposition to the IDAHOT campaign (as articulated via Twitter) which works to bolster the equal rights of gender and sexual minorities. As part of this collaboration, Prof. Simon Woods (PEALS) also helped me to address the ethical challenges raised by utilising geosocial media data in potentially sensitive research on sexuality. Several of these issues are potent in light of the growing marketplace surrounding 'big data' and the masses of information most of us now make available online. 

I am currently building a suite of research, teaching and engagement activity that will allow me to explore the 'data intensive turn' in the contexts of sexuality and location-based networking applications popularised in recent years. 'Apps' like Tinder,FindHrr and Grindr matter as they shape the ways in which we interact and meet one another, conduct and fail to conduct relationships and what it means to be 'single' or 'coupled' whilst giving way to possibilities for relationships that extend beyond traditional categories. The uses of these tools can be incredibly positive. For example, aiding communication in transnational activist networks, offering new channels for sexual health promotion or simply allowing people to meet in places where they might have otherwise been isolated. However, dating and sexual networking services can also exacerbate stereotypes, maintaining, for example, racial, bodily and/or class-based prejudices that inhibit social inclusion and equal life chances. The policing of same-sex sexual activity by governments in countries which monitor even mundane online communications networks like Twitter provides just one example of how privacy and security incursions can come to have real-world effects on individual lives. Recognising that media reportage around services like Tinder is often bound up with moral judgement of 'hook-ups' many people enjoy through using geosocial media, my research is sex-positive, aiming to contribute to safer use cultures by working between the social and computing sciences, with industry and community groups in the domains of health, leisure and activism. 

Teaching

My role is research centred but I provide teaching support on:

GEO2225 Citizenship in a Global City: Hong Kong (led by module leader Dr. Michael Richardson)

Publications