In this blog post, ASA Body & Embodiment Section council member Kelly Underman interviews Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards about their new book, Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research (University of California Press, 2019).
Congratulations on such a provocative and much-needed book. One aspect of it that makes it so compelling is that it is all at once an in-depth study of sexual harassment and responses to it in the field, a feminist theorization of epistemology and the body, and a practical how-to guide for researchers and their mentors. In chapters analyzing researchers’ experiences of sexual harassment in the field, you weave in both rich theory on embodiment and boxed questions for reflection. How did the book come to have this kind of structure? You discuss how the research came to be in the introduction, but how did the book itself develop in this way? Why was incorporating how-to advice so important?
It was really important for us to foreground the experiences of the researchers we interviewed, and we can’t emphasize enough how the stories that women told us informed both the structure and the narrative of the book. After listening to women’s critical reflections on what they had experienced and what they wished they had known before going into the field, much of the book flowed rather seamlessly from their analyses and understanding of problems within academia and how that translated into fieldwork practices.
Writing the boxed-off questions was probably one of the more difficult parts of the book, however, partly because we never thought of the book as a how-to guide or a “here is how to do fieldwork” kind of project. This is because for much of the writing process we were focused on identifying the problem and theorizing how it came to be. Also, we were hesitant to provide solutions or recommendations, because we felt that coming up with rules and regulations for how to do field work would have been artificial, and because we didn’t really feel that the kind of tips that are usually provided work well in the field. The questions for reflection were an idea that came out of discussions with the first editor we worked with at the University of California Press, so we have him to thank for encouraging us to think about how readers of the book could concretely apply what we write about to their own fieldwork experiences as well as when evaluating others’ ethnographic tales.
The questions eventually became our way of getting readers to think about these issues without necessarily telling them what to do about them. We hope that considering the encounters and interactions we discuss in the book—from flirtation to sexual attraction to assault—before going into the field will better prepare students for fieldwork, and perhaps open up space for researchers to have more open discussions about these issues before, during, and after fieldwork. Turning this into a more public discussion within academia is key for us, precisely because, despite the fact that these experiences are quite common, they are also incredibly individualized. So many of the women we talked to, and we include ourselves here, described the interview process as cathartic, or as the first time they had been able to talk openly about what they had experienced. And this really reflects how powerful the institutional silence is around these issues, and how it leads many women to think these experiences are their own fault, that they are unlucky or, worse, unfit for fieldwork.
Your discussion of ethnographic fixations highlights how the “ideal worker” of ethnography is a straight white cisgender man. You demonstrate how academia as a profession constructs “good” ethnography as being done alone, as involving danger, and as requiring intimacy with participants. In what ways is harassment in the field a problem of the structure of the academy? How do masculine accounts of danger in the field make some ethnographic research “sexy” and more valorized than other, more feminized accounts of vulnerability or harm in the field?
In the book we analyze how the androcentric, racialized, and colonialist history of qualitative methods developed within the academy has made discussions of the body taboo in ethnographic narratives, and how this influenced the ways in which the women talked about their bodies in the field. As researchers, what we feel comfortable writing about and what we think count as “data” has everything to do with taken for granted assumptions about knowledge production that have been handed down to us by these histories. So, as we talk about in the book, one of the central ways that harassment in the field is actually a problem of the structure of the academy is that the academy does not valorize and, in fact, actively discourages public and methodological discussions of harassment. Because of these traditions and the way they have shaped fieldwork expectations, we have a whole host of other issues that need to be changed as well, including research design, evaluation, and funding.
As we mention in the book, there is already scholarship out there that deals with sexual harassment and how we can try to protect ourselves, which we think is undoubtedly important for researchers to consider. But we felt that this focus on power dynamics in the field overlooked how intertwined fieldwork is with socialization processes within academia and the pressures and expectations that we face as we try to publish, get jobs, and establish ourselves as experts.
Because discussions about these encounters don’t happen often in classes or even in private conversations with mentors, it isn’t clear to researchers how to proceed, or who to ask for guidance (if anyone at all) when they do happen. Indeed, what is left out of socialization processes within academia is just as important to consider as what is “included.” Michelle’s story, which we tell in the book, illustrates the problem so well. She experienced numerous forms of harassment and violence in the field but wasn’t sure what to do when, for example, she was assaulted by a potential gatekeeper. When she decided to talk to her advisor days after the assault occurred, he was supportive and told her to leave her field site, to prioritize her safety. But she agonized over reaching out to him, worrying that he would tell her she had done something wrong. It says so much about the lack of guidance around these topics that she anxiously debated whether to talk to her advisor at all.
An important part of this socialization process for some of the women we talked to was dealing with harassment and sexualization in their academic departments, The simple fact that women report that they have had to ignore, laugh off, or suffer through sexual and racial harassment, violence, and sexualization while in graduate school and continue to do so as they move into adjunct or tenure track positions tells us a lot about why women would feel unable to discuss similar experiences that happen to them in the field. If they feel unable to discuss or report this behavior in a more “traditional” workplace, where there are offices and regulations set up with the explicit goal of facilitating reporting, but where harassment is nonetheless brushed off and minimized, it seems unlikely that they would be willing to discuss experiences that happened outside of the university, where such mechanisms do not exist (and where they are told that good researchers face danger with gusto and seek out ethnographic intimacy).
Certain masculine accounts of danger in the field capture perfectly the trio of fixations that we talk about in the book: they tend to be stories about a man braving all sorts of challenges alone and ending up with this really “good” (close up, intimate, real) data. However, it is important to note that there are forms of violence and danger that men also may face in the field that, because they fall short of hegemonic masculine expectations (which we like to think have less of a hold on academics), they do not include in their stories of fieldwork. It is also important to note that women feel pressure to adhere to these masculine narratives, as Kimberly Theidon has written so brilliantly about.
In contrast, it is hard to think of many accounts that women authors have included in vignettes or methods sections that address having to confront sexual assault in the field or navigating sexual harassment. And this is for good reason. In 2016 Mingwei Huang published an insightful piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how accounts of vulnerability and violence that are associated with women’s bodies are perceived differently from the “hardy masculine” narrative. She writes about how as ethnographers we are pushed to take risks, but only certain outcomes of risky behavior are valorized. In her case, when she was raped while in the field she felt that she would be stigmatized if she talked about the experience. She was also accused of “careerism” by some men academics when she did talk about it. There is no scenario in which discussing this kind of violence leads to academic capital. In other words, not only does the violence that is associated with women’s bodies not accrue the same capital, it accomplishes the exact opposite effect that we see with white men’s stories that stick to hegemonic narratives.
We think it is very important to note here that this isn’t just about masculine accounts, but racialized ones. In other words, not all men receive the same respect for facing what are considered to be dangerous situations. As Randol Contreras and others have noted, their work with men of color has been questioned because they are men of color—the researcher as well as the research are delegitimized here. So, it is important to recognize that the distribution of academic capital must be understood from an intersectional perspective.
As I was reading your book, I was struck by how the ethnographic fixations that you describe require us as women to shut down the observational strategies that we use in our everyday lives to navigate gendered violence. You recount many women’s experiences of ignoring “red flags” from the men they’re interacting with in the field in order to preserve access or gather better data. The consequences for researchers of doing this are both physical vulnerability and emotional costs. What are the consequences as well for knowledge production? How do these ideal worker norms have consequences both for individual researchers and for the discipline?
Yes, many of the women we interviewed referred to how fieldwork required them to behave in ways that contradicted how they had been socialized and taught to protect themselves in their daily lives. Some of the women talked about being chastised by peers and mentors when they did heed “red flags.” They were told that they probably missed out on a really great data opportunity. The idea that researchers need to put themselves out there all of the time, that good ethnography somehow means ignoring indicators of danger or threat, came up time and again in the interviews.
As far as knowledge production goes, ignoring these red flags and “sucking it up” to get the data means that when researchers talk about the data they collected in these moments, they are likely to leave this important contextual information out, presenting the data in a disembodied way. This could be for a few reasons. One is that, as some of the women talked about, researchers may unconsciously “shut off” the part of themselves that alerts them to danger, or ignore it without really thinking about it. If they eventually did realize what they were doing in that moment, it was after the fact and not thought to be an important consideration in data collection. Other researchers may leave these details out if they ignored red flags and then were harassed or assaulted, feeling that they may be blamed for what happened to them since “they should have known better.” So, there are a few different ways that how researchers collect data may be left out of vignettes and analysis, and this silence reproduces the homogeneous narratives of fieldwork that we critique in the book. In a way, this is another form of denial of the body in the workplace—here the field site—that is demanded by the forms of knowledge production that have been erected on the foundation of the “neutral” body.
One of the most important things this indicates is how white and androcentric assumptions dominate what fieldwork should be like. And because these differential vulnerabilities end up totally written out of our research, the different kinds of risks faced by researchers are completely invisible and unexamined as constitutive of our fields of study. What we know and how we analyze it would likely shift if these experiences were made front and center as a part of the knowledge we collect, because these experiences reveal something about the gendered and raced realities of the contexts we study.
One of the provocative claims you make in the book is that much of especially feminist oriented literature on embodiment, reflexivity, and methodology presumes that the researcher will always hold more power in the encounter--and, moreover, that identities are singular and stable. How does accounting for the body in the ways that your book does help nuance intersectional reflexivity?
It’s important to consider the colonialist history of ethnography in answering this question. Critiques of that history led post-colonial and feminist scholars alike to criticize the role of power in research. This work has been important, but it also can have the effect of flattening power dynamics in the field. More recently there have been some incredible methodological contributions from women of color and queer researchers that have unsettled the assumption that the researcher always holds more power. Yet, as we mention in the book, these contributions haven’t really been able to alter hegemonic assumptions about how power operates in the field. Thus, we think it is essential to emphasize the continued influence of colonial thought in our methodology. There is still a lot of genealogical digging that could be done to further uncover how colonial logics can perpetuate power inequalities in the field but also how post-colonial responses can make it difficult for researchers to talk about the power their research participants may have and how this might put them at a disadvantage.
In the book we encourage researchers to consider that we enter different field sites and situations with varying degrees of power, and much of this has to do with our bodies and how they are interpreted in those places. Considering why this is the case, and why there is still a very prevalent belief that there is always an imbalance in power that tilts towards the researcher, is an act of intersectional reflexivity in and of itself. (This is complicated of course by the assumption—colonialist in itself—that we have the “right” to be in the field in the first place.)
As researchers, we don’t always hold power in a given situation, and field research can be really disempowering depending on the context and our particular embodiment—this is about not just gender but also race, ability, perceived religious affiliation, and other factors as well. Recognizing that research can actually be quite disempowering and unsettling for researchers is something that a more intersectional approach to methods training could offer. It is somewhat ironic that many of us spend a lot of time thinking about power relations and how to produce more nuanced theories about them, but when it comes to fieldwork we tend to think about power between the researcher and the researched in such a static and fixed manner, as if those power relations are categorically different from all the other ones in which we are embedded in our day to day lives.
We think concretely considering how one’s body may be perceived and interpreted in different contexts will push researchers to think about how aspects of their identities may be “activated” in some interactions, while in others not as much. In turn, this unsettles the notion that our identities are stable and singular which is, in our opinion, an insight from intersectional theory that has not been carried over into methods.
But the book is perhaps more about advocating for an intersectional approach to training, which we believe is still quite rare, as opposed to providing a more nuanced approach to intersectional reflexivity. Before asking about nuance, we need even a basic understanding among qualitative researchers that the body is an important methodological consideration. What we have tried to do is get people to think very concretely about this and what it means for their relationships in the field. By pushing researchers to do this, we hope that those who feel that an intersectional perspective does not “apply” to them will start to think about their bodies and power relationships in a more aware and reflexive way.
Finally, we strongly encourage people to read the article written by a feminist collective formed by (now former) graduate students in anthropology at UT Austin, called “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” The article compellingly shows how embodied experiences can unsettling methodological epistemology and training.
Given the rise of carnal and sensory ethnographic methods, how does your call for ethnographers to write their embodied experiences of harassment into their field notes extend or challenge these?
What our perspective shares with carnal and sensory methods is a critique of a dualist ontology of knowledge, that knowledge is the production of the mind—a rational, objective process of analysis and conscious thought—that is separate from the body. We agree that as researchers what we feel and experience while in the field can provide essential insights into the social worlds we study.
Where we differ is that, rather than focusing only on the body of the researcher as a vessel or instrument to experience the world in the way our research participants do, we consider the embodied nature of fieldwork itself. So, for us, the experiences we have while engaging in activities alongside our participants are not the only ones that “count” as data that an awareness of embodiment provides.
Secondly, we challenge and critique the call put forward by Wacquant to persist despite all obstacles, that somehow stepping back from a project and modifying it suggests that you do not have what it takes to be a good qualitative researcher. Behind this call is the belief that the best research comes from those who withstand all challenges and dangers, i.e. the fixations we critique in the book. Indeed, taking embodied ethnography seriously means recognizing that some researchers may not be allowed to partake in certain experiences. And that is ok. This doesn’t make their work less-than, it tells us about boundaries and power dynamics in our field sites. So, being prohibited from an experience or even opting out of an “opportunity” for one’s security is also embodied data. The way that carnal ethnography is sometimes written about suggests that not being able to force your way into an experience, to engage in certain practices or activities, is some sort of failure on the part of the ethnographer. We think there are good reasons—both epistemologically and methodologically—to say no in certain instances. At the very least, saying no should be an option that is presented to researchers in a way that doesn’t make them feel guilty about making this choice.
In a similar vein, we question the assumption behind some of these methods that says researchers must get as close as possible to their research participants to really understand them, to document what it means to experience their social worlds as they experience them. As we discuss in the book, we think there are plenty of examples where establishing boundaries and creating a degree of distance with research participants can actually lead to better data, without the researcher having to take on emotional and physical costs.
Rebecca Hanson is Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, with a joint appointment in the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law and the Center for Latin American studies. Her current book manuscript explores how violence and policing were shaped by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
Patricia Richards is Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at the University of Georgia. She is also the author of Pobladoras, Indígenas, and the State: Conflicts over Women’s Rights in Chile (Rutgers, 2004) and Race and the Chilean Miracle: Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Indigenous Rights (Pittsburgh, 2013).
About the interviewer
Kelly Underman received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine prior to joining the faculty at Drexel. She is a qualitative researcher whose interests include medical education, the social construction of bodies and emotions, and the politics of scientific knowledge production. Her work has been published in Social Science & Medicine, Gender & Society and Sociological Forum. Her awards include the Simmons Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Sociological Association Medical Sociology Section.