Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research

Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research

by Rebecca Hanson, Patricia Richards

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Researchers frequently experience sexualized interactions, sexual objectification, and harassment as they conduct fieldwork. These experiences are often left out of ethnographers’ “tales from the field” and remain unaddressed within qualitative literature. Harassed argues that the androcentric, racist, and colonialist epistemological foundations of ethnographic methodology contribute to the silence surrounding sexual harassment and other forms of violence. Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards challenge readers to recognize how these attitudes put researchers at risk, further the solitude experienced by researchers, lead others to question the validity of their work, and, in turn, negatively impact the construction of ethnographic knowledge. To improve methodological training, data collection, and knowledge produced by all researchers, Harassed advocates for an embodied approach to ethnography that reflexively engages with the ways in which researchers’ bodies shape the knowledge they produce. By challenging these assumptions, the authors offer an opportunity for researchers, advisors, and educators to consider the multiple ways in which good ethnographic research can be conducted. Beyond challenging current methodological training and mentorship, Harassed opens discussions about sexual harassment and violence in the social sciences in general.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520299047
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/29/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 349,847
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Hanson is Assistant Professor in the Center of Latin American Studies and the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the University of Florida. 

Patricia Richards is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Pobladoras, Indígenas, and the State: Conflicts over Women’s Rights in Chile and Race and the Chilean Miracle: Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Indigenous Rights.

Read an Excerpt


Ethnographic Fixations

IN THIS CHAPTER WE USE WOMEN'S EXPERIENCES WITH harassment in the field to interrogate the epistemological foundations of ethnographic methodology, examining the standards of contemporary ethnography that inform ethnographers' reactions to interactions in the field. Although we recognize that social norms and cultural codes in the social worlds we study inform experiences of harassment, our analysis situates the problem not in those worlds but rather in the academic community itself. Our findings show that women who have experienced sexual harassment while conducting fieldwork call upon particular standards of ethnographic research to explain why they find it difficult to confront these experiences both in the field and in their disciplines, believing that doing so could be detrimental to their careers.

We develop the concept "ethnographic fixations" as a way to theorize why sex, gender, and the body are often left out of tales of the field. We use women ethnographers' understandings of and reactions to harassment in the field to identify three intersecting standards — solitude, danger, and intimacy — that our participants made recourse to when talking about disciplinary expectations for the "best" ethnographic research. We analyze these standards as "ideological forms," a term coined by Dorothy Smith, and argue that they should be understood as "fixations" because of the importance placed on them by the women we interviewed and their perception that they are fundamental in the larger sociological community.

We propose that the ongoing dominance of positivist, racist, and androcentric perspectives in academia has a silencing effect on women researchers, who worry that the validity of their work will be called into question if they discuss gendered and sexualized experiences. The internalization of norms predicated on homogenized field narratives might explain why, despite evidence that sexual harassment of women researchers is common, there is little discussion of the topic in the profession outside of feminist circles.


It is somewhat ironic that in what might be described as the heyday of thinking about the body in ethnography, many women feel, for good reason, that what happens to their bodies and how they are perceived in the field are not appropriate topics to include in their ethnographies. This project has led us to question why — despite the diversification of ethnographic methods, the introduction of feminist ethnography, and multiple critiques of the historical roots of ethnography — discussions of gender, sexuality, and sexualization remain at the margins of ethnography. Why, despite the embracing of embodiment, are women reticent to discuss what happens to their own bodies while conducting research? We argue that the fixations we describe in this chapter remain dominant within ethnography, reproducing androcentric expectations about how fieldwork should be conducted, presented, and represented.

The standards used to evaluate ethnographic knowledge (and how that knowledge is created) are not natural or objective; they were constructed by groups with particular interests, positionalities, and experiences. Though formed by political, material, and symbolic interests and subjective experiences, once accepted as standards, they become "disinterested," "objective," and universally applied. And once taken as universal standards for knowledge production, they provide unitary and unifying narratives, covering over the diverse and multifaceted experiences of groups within academia.

Dorothy Smith used the term "ideological forms" to refer to the process by which the subjective experiences of a dominant group become the standard by which members of less powerful social groups navigate and evaluate their experiences and knowledge. Smith draws from the Marxian concept of ideology to argue that ideas and images are imposed on and adopted by others whose perspectives, interests, and experiences are not represented by those ideas and images. According to Smith, ideological forms within academia are produced by educated middle- and upper-class men who occupy positions that allow them to construct and control ideas, images, and representations. Similar to Gramsci's concept of hegemony, Smith argues that these forms operate as a normative commonsensical guide, becoming taken-for-granted assumptions about how knowledge ought to be constructed, and by whom. The concept of ideological forms is useful for analyzing the three fixations we present throughout the book; indeed, these fixations can be understood as ideological forms that structure ethnographic methodology. These fixations emerged from white men's experiences of conducting ethnography — men who originally came and often still come from colonizing countries to study colonized places — and leave out alternative standards and forms of evaluation that do not make sense within these academic norms.

As in other communities, disciplinary norms and standards (i.e., ideological forms) shape individuals' behavior and understanding of their experiences. However, it need not be the case that researchers are explicitly told in methods classes and articles to leave sexuality and gender out of their fieldwork narratives. In other words, norms and standards do not have to be explicitly stated to influence behavior and understandings; one could argue that the most effective norms and standards are those that no longer need to be stated and explained. The fact that gender and sexuality are frequently left out of methods courses and ethnographies can also communicate that they do not belong in our tales of the field. Such silences may guide behavior without any direct signs from mentors or colleagues. The lack of discussion about how gendered bodies shape research relationships, data collection, and fieldwork experiences reproduces the idea that these topics need not be discussed. This "vocal silence" can help us understand how experiences that appear so obvious are easily elided as we prepare for the field.

Understanding fixations as ideological forms also helps us explain why gender, sex(uality), and the body continue to be largely ignored despite the fact that ethnographic methods have diversified and the number of women in the social sciences has increased dramatically since Dorothy Smith's time. Our data show that despite the development of feminist methodologies, women's experiences of harassment and sexualization in the field are shoved aside, marked as unimportant and irrelevant to the construction of knowledge. Scholars including Kimberly Kay Hoang, Mignon Moore, Aldon Morris, and Victor Rios have similarly shown how the fieldwork experiences of men and women of color are trivialized, ignored, and interrogated to a greater extent than those of white researchers and subordinated to the ingrained racism of hegemonic sociology. As we show throughout this book, harassment faced by women of color in the field is shaped by the intersections of race and gender expectations and stereotypes. And LGTBQIA+ researchers are likely to face forms of discrimination and marginalization related to gender as well as trans?/?homophobia and other structures of inequality. While feminist, critical race, and intersectional methodologies exist, we should not assume that these have the same power within academia as traditional methodologies. As Smith has written, "Authority is a form of power which is a distinctive capacity to get things done in words. What is said or written merely means what the words mean until and unless it is given force by the authority attributed to the author. When we speak of authority we are speaking of what makes what one person says count." While there may be more room in academia now for voices from marginalized groups, this does not necessarily mean that what members of these groups say "counts." This is especially true when their voices critique knowledge and knowledge production based on the androcentric, racist, and heteronormative norms that have long structured the university. Furthermore, inequalities do not simply disappear with increased access to the academic workplace. To say that standards are taken for granted is to say that many practitioners consent to these standards and recognize them as important. In other words, women participate in the reproduction of and reverence for ideological forms and fixations.


The multiplication of ethnographic methodologies has allowed for diversification of standards to evaluate good data and trustworthy fieldwork. Nevertheless, in explaining their experiences in the field and how they dealt with them, participants consistently returned, explicitly or implicitly, to three ideological forms that they understood as widely held by the larger ethnographic community. Although contested, these ethnographic fixations are deeply woven into the history of ethnographic methods. In this section, we examine these fixations — solitude, danger, and intimacy — arguing that they obscure the embodied character of fieldwork and take on particular importance as women ethnographers think about how their work will be evaluated by others.

Solitary Research

According to Lisa Wedeen, ethnography has historically been considered a practice of suffering, as the ethnographer weathers the hardships of another culture to exist as the "expert in situ." Although we agree with Wedeen, we would add that there is another key assumption regarding this suffering — that the ethnographer will endure it alone. Many of our participants conceptualized ethnography as an individual endeavor, sometimes making reference to the ideal researcher as "a brave and solitary adventurer conjured up by Malinowski's descriptions of his fieldwork," reflecting a belief that to be a good ethnographer one must enter the field alone and cope with the dangers and emotional difficulties that may arise. Elena, a Latina who is now an associate professor, described an occasion when, as a young graduate student carrying out fieldwork in Mexico, she turned down an invitation to dance at a party in the small community where she was working. Later that night, the man, accompanied by some others, came to the house where she lived alone. He attempted to enter, presumably intending to assault her. She managed to open a window and scream, and her neighbors came to help. Elena never told anyone except her husband about this experience. She reflected, "I think the idea at that time with anthropologists is that you have to be on your own, basically. And I felt that I needed to deal with it." This feeling was most likely informed by what Elena referred to as an assumption on her committee's part that because of her ethnicity she could deal with any problem that arose. Though she is not Mexican, Elena felt they assumed, "You are Latina, you should be fine in any other Latin context."

Elena's belief that she "needed to deal with it" suggests an understanding of ethnography as a process of "trial by fire" or a "Malinowskian ... test of competence," as if withstanding the difficulties of conducting ethnographic research alone is what makes one a good qualitative scholar. Others agreed. This position has consequences, however, for what kind of support ethnographers are able to seek. Brittany, a white woman conducting research on historical reenactments, saw reaching out to mentors while in the field as "weakness." While discussing challenges she faced following feminist methodology while in the field, she said, "That was the, that was just a, a very difficult thing for me. ... Maybe when you're, especially at the student level, ... these are things that you don't want to bring up with your mentors because you don't want to show that weakness. ... So I think there's a little bit of loneliness out there when you're doing your ethnography." Rosie, a white PhD student studying gender expression at music festivals in the United States did seek support (though not from her adviser) when she was threatened. At the beginning of her research she would pitch her tent and stay alone at campgrounds. One night, she asked the men in a neighboring tent to quiet down so she could fall asleep. They verbally threatened her, and she relocated to her locked car for the night. After this interaction, she brought men friends along when she went into the field. However, Rosie was uneasy about this decision. She felt she was cheating. She explained, "I feel as if somehow I am creating this methodological flaw. ... It feels as if I am tampering with the data or tampering with some sort of methodological process [by] having some other people around." Here we see how the fixation of solitude operates as an ideological form, a taken for granted assumption that informs Rosie's understanding of how to conduct good research but does not reflect her embodied experience of fieldwork.

As Maritza, a Latina urban ethnographer pointed out, the isolation of fieldwork can compound problems related to sex and gender in the field because there is almost no way of knowing if others are experiencing similar problems. Sofía, a Latina professor studying sexuality in Latin America, talked about the importance of not isolating yourself in the field, even though she recognized a tendency to do so. She explained:

I think that, because I was so far, and this happens to some of our students as well, you tend to isolate yourself. And that's a big no-no. You need to talk to people, you need to process, you need to, you know? Because if you go to the field and then you're doing your work the problem is that you think that you're supposed to know what to do. And then you're so embarrassed to come and talk to someone who may not even have the answer. I mean, not even your mentors may know. They may even be in a state of shock when you tell them what's happening to you. I think that in retrospect I would definitely talk more to people. I would not isolate myself.

Sofía's reflection illuminates the cycle of isolation in which researchers can become trapped. When methods courses do not cover issues of gender, sex(uality), and embodiment, researchers will encounter things in the field for which they are unprepared. However, because many believe "you should know what to do anyway," as Sofía put it, they worry about reaching out to others, thinking they should know how to deal with the hand the field has dealt them. However, Sofía's and Maritza's reflections highlight the importance of talking to others, even if they cannot provide solutions to problems. By talking to others, ethnographers can fight back against the isolation that, as Maritza observed, individualizes challenges faced in the field.

Feminist researchers have advocated for collaborative research, and group ethnographies are now more common. However, our findings suggest that the image of the "intrepid ethnographer" — who enters his site alone to fully immerse himself in his surroundings, contaminating them as little as possible — remains indelibly imprinted on the ethnographic imaginary. This myth remains influential despite the fact that early ethnographers, most of whom were men, are known to have been assisted in the field by their wives or "native" research assistants, both of which seem to have been understood as appendages of the ethnographer self (thus reinforcing the idea that the ethnographers did it alone).

The valorization of solitary fieldwork does not exist only in the minds of the researchers we interviewed. It was reinforced in their coursework and by the ethnographies commonly held up as exemplars in their disciplines. The doling out of material support for research and academic rewards and accolades also structures research this way. As Helen Sampson and Michelle Thomas have written, in many cases "the proliferation of contract research and current mechanisms for research funding militate against" the researcher's ability to remain connected to the outside world while in the field. In the case of graduate students, most grants, fellowships, and stipends seek to fund an individual researcher, making collaborative research virtually impossible. And when students are encouraged to make contact with others working in the same location, an underlying apprehension about being scooped often informs those interactions.

The few participants who engaged in collaborative research (usually as part of an adviser's project) spoke about how this strategy could preemptively close down uncomfortable flirtation and harassment. Yet, although students may be assigned group projects in methods classes, collaborative research is not an option for dissertations, and students can rarely afford to hire research assistants. Cathy, a white researcher who conducted fieldwork for her dissertation in Mexico, reflected that having a research assistant would have made her work easier. However, she followed this thought with the real-life constraints she faced: she did not know how to find assistants, much less pay them. Perhaps more important, several participants voiced concern that there is something inauthentic, discrediting, or disingenuous about not conducting ethnographic research in isolation. This notion is reinforced when the participation of research assistants in the field is not mentioned in the final written product.


Excerpted from "Harassed"
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Copyright © 2019 Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1 Ethnographic Fixations,
2 Gendered Bodies and Field Research,
3 Sexual Harassment in the Field,
4 The Costs,
5 Constructing Knowledge,
6 Moving Forward,

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