Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Of "Loose" Women and "Guides," or, Relationships in the Field (*)

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Of "Loose" Women and "Guides," or, Relationships in the Field (*)

Article excerpt


Critiques emanating from postmodernism, postcolonialism, and poststructuralism challenge objectivity in the social sciences and lay the groundwork for theories that rest on a complex of discourses, ideologies, social constructions, and power relations. Emerging from these critiques are provocative questions about how knowledge is constituted, with considerable attention devoted to the decisive role of a researcher's identity in field research (Crapanzano 1977; Smith 1988; Sidaway 1992; Herod 1993; England 1994; Enslin 1994). Less attention is accorded interpreter-assistants and to the relationship between a researcher and a research assistant. (1)

Yet research assistants mediate research, particularly for those who do fieldwork in foreign settings. How a researcher is perceived by informants, the particular guise by which one enters a community, and the relationships formed with informants are all central to the process by which knowledge is generated (Bogdan and Biklen 1982). Research assistants influence these relationships, especially in their role of establishing contact with informants.

This essay discusses the ways in which our relationship as researcher/interpreter-assistant and as wife/husband informed field research in Kerala, India (Figure 1). We draw on recent theories of the body and performance (Butler 1990), and on disciplinary interest in what has come to be known as researcher positionality, to discuss our relationship as it was mediated by local contingencies: We encountered a number of issues connected to our identities/bodies and our relationship that influenced the research we conducted, and together we both formed and adapted to others' constructions of ourselves to navigate "the field."

Geographical research is not an innocent, objective process. Rather, it is constantly mediated by gender, class, ethnicity, identity, and relations of power--each and all inscribed on the bodies of researchers and research subjects. The identities they etch on our bodies and our own counterconstructions heavily influence how we relate to our research subjects, which then influences the generation of knowledge. In this essay we share some of our experiences conducting research together as a Western, white, female researcher and an Indian, male, research assistant, and speak to how our marriage midway through the research period modified perceptions yet again.

Contained in this dynamic are at least two separate, if related, issues: How our relationship affected and was affected by the field--our movements to and from different research sites and those associated with general daily activities and errands--and the role our relationship played in research and interview events. Unlike most village-based fieldwork, during which a researcher lives and participates in the daily activities of one particular setting that constitutes her/his "field," we lived in the state capital and commuted to several places around the district that constituted field-research sites. For us the field comprised both the particular sites in which we conducted research (harbors, beaches, fish markets, fishing villages) and sites connected to our other daily life experiences (city streets, shops, residences). The particular issues that arose and the strategies we adopted in each of these two field settings differed in key ways.

Devan, in particular, adopted strategies that stretched the boundaries of his identity, creating ambiguity about his positionality. He manipulated his position as insider/outsider in complex ways that were mandated by who we were and by local social contexts. This then facilitated the relationships that Holly developed with informants. By "manipulated" we do not mean a deliberate deception or misrepresentation of self. Rather, we draw on Erving Goffman's notion that different social contexts create distinct roles and selves. People, then, constantly select how to present themselves in their interactions (Goffman 1959; also Berreman 1972). …

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