The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

Dr Graeme Mearns

Research Associate

Background

Introduction

Following his doctorate and undergraduate teaching as an associate lecturer in human geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, Graeme joined the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology to work in the RCUK-funded Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy (SiDE) hub. His work in SiDE was interdisciplinary but he worked closest with Ranald Richardson, Angela Abbott and Liz Robson in the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) where he is located. Graeme is an urban and cultural geographer with interests at the interface of digital and queer geographies, particularly the impacts of new technologies on identity and the formation, sustenance and failure of different (sub-)cultures. He follows feminist and queer methodologies closely and keeps up-to-date with an ever expanding range of computational tools, techniques and approaches which can now be used to undertake research in geography and cognate disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. 

Research

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 reappropriated 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: that is, information made public online – sometimes unwittingly – via mobile technologies such as the smartphone. 

Following a successful contribution to the ESRC proposal 'Social Media Analysis for Social Geography' (SoMAG), I have been working 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 has involved using the cloud-based 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 have worked particularly closely with Dr. Rebecca Simmonds who developed the Antares analytics tool as part of her PhD before moving to industry. This relationship has 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) has also been helping 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 we 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' more exhaustively 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 the dates and '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. 


Publications