Conducting Fieldwork While Female, or “Is Crit Always Legit?”

Sandra M. Bucerius and Marta Urbanik, When Crime is a “Young Man’s Game” and the Ethnographer is a Woman: Gendered Researcher Experiences in Two Different Contexts, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 2019, Vol 48(4) 451-481, DOI: 10.1177/0891241618785225

Of all of the articles I have chosen to read during the early days of this experience, this one was far and away my favorite. Perhaps I missed my true calling as an ethnographer!

The authors are female ethonographers who conducted separate research projects that involved studying the behavior and experiences of certain types of men. The participants in Bucerius’s study were young, immigrant, “second-generation Muslim” men who were involved in selling drugs and other criminal activity in the German city of Frankfurt. Urbanik’s research project involved studying young men residing in a public housing project in Toronto, almost all of whom were racial minorities and who lived a “hip-hop” or “gangsta” lifestyle.

These two researchers collaborated on this article to explore the many ways in which the fieldwork required for this type of research can be difficult or dangerous for women. Looking through a gender-specific lens, the authors observed that the men who participated in this study, who were in certain ways socially disadvantaged, felt compelled to engage in “boundary work,” which means that they “increase their self-perceptions by relegating women into even more subordinate positions than they themselves occupy.”

The gender performance that the participants engaged in, as a means of doing this “boundary work,” had multiple effects. The men tended to sexualize the female researchers, at times even subjecting them to threats of gender-based violence. The men also expected the female researchers to perform what they believed to be “women’s work,” such as serving and cleaning. These behaviors perpetuated gender roles that had been established in their respective cultures: “quasi-Muslim” in the German example, and “hip-hop” culture in the Canadian example. The norms of both of these cultures, as Bucerius and Urbanik observed, tend to include male hypersexuality and female objectification.

However, both researchers observed an additional interesting phenomenon. The researchers did not respond to gender-specific provocations in the way in which the participants expected: they did not clean up after the men, for example, nor did they engage with the men sexually. In addition, the women did not behave in ways that the participants expected white women to act (Bucerius did not act like a “robotic German woman,” and Urbanik’s behavior was not that of a “rich snobby white girl”). Since the researchers’ responses to the gender performance of these men did not fit any of their known cultural female stereotypes, the men in both studies created, effectively, a new classification for these women. The researchers became “ladies” who were worthy of respect and who were not really like any other women that they knew.

Both researchers, who identify as “feminists,” had mixed reactions to this development. They appreciated that it allowed the participants in the study to perform their masculinity in an acceptable way, which ended up including the men feeling safe to share their personal thoughts and feelings on a number of sensitive topics (death, family breakdowns, emotional crises) with the researchers. The requirements of hypermasculinity that predominated their cultural paradigm made this very difficult for these men to do otherwise. However, both researchers were also troubled by the fact that they were, effectively, allowing themselves to be viewed as “superior” women, “especially when the gendered assumptions (the) participants held opposed gender equality.”

Overall, as with every article that I have read so far, the authors made specific and targeted calls for more to be done. In this case, Bucerius and Urbanik were critical of the fact that “graduate training often neglects difference in gender expectations of local research populations.” In the end, however, they also accepted that the nature of the beast for female ethnographers is such that they “have to come to terms with an underacknowledged reality of fieldwork: while academics are accustomed to resist oppression and demeaning behavior in their circles, these critical stances are unfortunately, problematic (and potentially, detrimental) in fieldwork settings.”

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