Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Epistemological Reflections on Sex and Fieldwork

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Epistemological Reflections on Sex and Fieldwork

Article excerpt


This article is part of a collaborative endeavour by Pauline Greenhill and Madeleine Pastinelli. Madeleine's first language is French and Pauline's is English, but we remain committed to bilingual dialogue. Madeleine is a relatively new faculty member who completed her Ph.D. in ethnology at Laval University in 2005 and now teaches there in the Sociology department. Pauline completed her Ph.D. in folklore and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin twenty years earlier, in 1985, and has since taught Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Nevertheless, our intellectual formation and graduate school training were similar, since the overlaps between ethnology, folklore, and sociocultural anthropology remain extensive. As professors, both of us regularly supervise students conducting fieldwork.

We immediately noticed that in the twenty or more years that have elapsed between our training periods, some published reflections have appeared on sex and fieldwork (e.g., Kulick and Willson, 1995), and on feminist understandings of research (e.g., Cullum and Tye, 2000). And yet remarkably little has changed in graduate student education and in the disciplines' reflections and debates on methodology, methods, and techniques of anthropological and ethnological research with respect to sex. By furthering an understanding of fieldwork as a sexed and sexualized experience, we seek to address a lacuna that we feel is tremendously problematic.

We wrote our sections of the paper in response to each other's work. Beginning with Madeleine's opening comment presented at the meetings of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada in Winnipeg, May 2004, we sent each other, in turn, a new version of our commentaries until we were satisfied with the final result (a total of about five exchanges). In April 2006, we presented these papers together at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology's Conference on Sexuality and Gender in Performance, Fieldwork and Representation, University College Winchester, Hampshire, United Kingdom.

We intended that each section - the French and the English - can be read on its own as a freestanding piece, recognizing that some readers may not be equally proficient in both languages. However, we have constructed the opening section, "Theme," as a contrapuntal dialogue, raising and reflecting upon similar issues, encountering the same problems but often from different positions. The "Theme" section particularly will be more nuanced if the linked paragraphs are read together.

The two sections then diverge into "Variations," reflections upon some other problems from more individual perspectives. Madeleine's two cautionary tales relate the dangers in fieldwork's necessity of improvisation and the role of fear for women fieldworkers. Pauline's six theses consider sex as a metaphor for fieldwork. Both remain concerned, however, with the perception as well as with the epistemology and practice of fieldwork for women.


Constructing sociocultural anthropological, folkloristic, and ethnological research (henceforth "folklore") as sport is telling. It deflects American folklorist Richard Dorson's life long project - for the most part, successful - of reconstructing our disciplines not only as work, but as professional work (see Dorson, 1959, pp. 1-6). Because anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnologists spend so much time studying what is for others leisure, the seriousness of our academic preoccupation seems suspect. Euro-North American culture defines work as the opposite of fun and fun as work's converse. When Nigel Barley's insurers were comparing anthropology to dangerous sports, they were envisioning physically, not psychologically, perilous ones. But despite the physical as well as psychological dangers we'll consider in this collaborative paper, our disciplines are not sports like football, they're sports like card games (both broadcast on sports channels). …

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