Navigating the Field: Doing Fieldwork as a Woman

Meenakshi Nair Ambujam
6 min readJul 7, 2019
Image: Meenakshi Nair Ambujam, 2018

On Wednesday, at 8:15 pm, my phone rang. It was the second time in 5 minutes that he had called me. I answered the phone and said, “Sir, I am sorry I missed your call. I was busy. Is there anything important?”

Slightly slurring, he said, “Naana*, have you had your dinner? You are my friend. That’s why I called you.”

Feeling incredibly uncomfortable at this juncture, I told him that I was busy writing my field notes and had to get back to it urgently. On his part, he asked me to call him the next day.

Confused and frustrated, I wondered what I had to do to let this officer know that his casual calls were bothering me. This officer held a position of relevance in the organisation** I was studying and observing as a researcher. One entire half of my thesis depends on the access I have to this organisation, the ability to witness mediations between those who work there and the beneficiaries of the schemes this organisation implements, and the access I have been granted to participate in important meetings as an observer. This officer, I knew, had the power and the potential to cut off my access. And that was too big a risk for me — my PhD depends on the data I collect from here. I thought of the networks I had built so far, the information I had collected and all that was left for me to do. The more I thought, the more I realised that to complete my fieldwork successfully, I had to let this go.

Calls from this officer were incessant. To this day, he calls me no less than twice a day, uses terms of endearment I am not comfortable with and asks me to call him whenever I am free. On four occasions, I let him know that I was uncomfortable with terms of endearment — I emphasised that my presence in the organisation was strictly professional. Yet, he would call me, stress on how I was his good friend and therefore, we had to spend more time talking in the evening. I told him that I appreciated his gesture of helping me foster contacts with his colleagues. I told him, as diplomatically as possible, that I would prefer if we had a professional relationship. I knew I could not afford to ignore his phone calls, nor could I afford to bruise his ego. I knew I had to be careful, strategic and smart.

The discomfort I feel as I go back to this organisation day after day is not slight. As I write this down, I can imagine most people wondering why would this be a problem. The officer never physically did anything. All he does is call and ask a bunch of personal questions. By the end of every call, I am left feeling unsettled. The fact that I do not know what to call this complicates things further. All I know is that it is constant and consistent unwanted attention coming my way. In any other circumstance, I would call this harassment. But here, I was confused. It is part of my fieldwork to talk to people I do not know. It is in the nature of my work to put myself in positions I wouldn’t otherwise. As this officer kept making me uncomfortable, the only thought I had in my head was would I lose my access to my field site if I were to talk about this to his superiors? I wondered if talking about this would be reflexive of my inadequacies as a researcher and a fieldworker.

What this exposed to me was how gendered and layered ethnography tends to be; graduate school does not prepare you for this. Sure, doing fieldwork as a lone woman comes with challenges. Before commencing my fieldwork in September 2018, I had read and crafted strategies to minimise risks in the event of danger. I assessed the various threats I could encounter and ensured I had a support system in place — my plans were fairly detailed. Nevertheless, when I encountered sexualised harassment in my field***, I had difficulties handling them. As a woman doing field work, the past 10 months have been peppered with instances where I have had to let things be because my thesis seemed more important than anything else. For example, more recently, while I was waiting for one of my interlocutors to come so that I could interview them, a different officer from the same organisation came and sat next to me. He and I began to talk about my research, my university and future prospects. Shortly thereafter, he said that he was alone and felt lonely. He told me that his wife, daughter and son were living elsewhere and that he was all alone. He said, “my heart is crying”. I sat there, not knowing how to respond, thinking of the right words to say. Before I could, he invited me over to his place — that way, he would not be lonely, he remarked. I was flummoxed. Thankfully, I spotted my interlocutor at that juncture, excused myself and briskly walked away.

Image: Meenakshi Nair Ambujam, 2019

That day, when I came back home, I wondered if I would ever document this into my fieldwork journal. Eventually, I did. I was curious to know if other female anthropologists faced such difficulties during fieldwork — issues that never make it to the texts and materials we produce. And, there were (Johansson 2015, Kloß 2016, Pollard 2009, Steffan 2017). Sexualised and sexual harassment are acknowledged to be commonly experienced by female anthropologists. However, it is also brushed under the carpet because it is crucial to demonstrate that the fieldwork that was conducted was good and that the fieldworker has mastered the skill of doing fieldwork right. Therefore, as Kloß writes,

With the trope of fieldwork as an adventure that only a few are able to master (Hovland, 2009), a rite of passage that one has to endure without addressing difficulties unless they may result in higher anthropological credibility (Gearing, 1995; Isidoros, 2015), the anthropological silence regarding harassment and rape consolidates tropes of ‘good’ fieldwork and recreates male fieldwork experience as normative. (Kloß 2016:3)

While anthropology talks about positionality, the power relations that manifest and operate between the researcher and the researched and the need to be attentive to these, there is also an imminent need to have a conversation about sexualised and sexual harassment during fieldwork — a conversation which is conspicuous in its inconspicuousness.

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Notes:

  1. * A term of endearment used in my fieldsite in India (in the regional language)
  2. **I do not reveal the name of the organisation and the names or designations of my interlocutors to be in compliance of research ethics
  3. ***I have not revealed the region of my fieldwork to ensure that I will be able to conduct the remainder of my fieldwork smoothly

References:

Johansson, Leanne. 2015. ‘Dangerous Liasions: Risk, Positionality and Power in Women’s Anthropological Fieldwork’. Journal of Anthropological Society of Oxford 7 (1): 55–63.

Kloß, Sinah Theres. 2016. ‘Sexual(ized) Harassment and Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Silenced Aspect of Social Research’. Ethnography 0 (00): 1–19.

Pollard, Amy. 2009. ‘Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork’. Anthropology Matters 11 (2): 1–24. https://www.anthropologymatters.com/index.php/anth_matters/article/view/10/10.

Steffen, Megan. 2017. ‘Doing Fieldwork After Henrietta Schmerler: On Sexual Violence and Blame in Anthropology’. American Ethnological Society (blog). 13 November 2017. https://americanethnologist.org/features/reflections/doing-fieldwork-after-henrietta-schmerler.

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Meenakshi Nair Ambujam

Anthropologist | Research Fellow@ Oriental Institute, CAS- Prague