Harassed: A Crucial Book on Embodiment, Ethnography & Gendered Violence

I was supremely lucky in graduate school. I used ethnographic methods to examine questions related to the sociology of gender, and as I did so, I was surrounded by like-minded graduate students also working on their dissertations and supported by advisors who saw qualitative methods as crucial for developing sociological knowledge and gender as critical for understanding the organization of the social world. As a result, I  found it second-nature to think about positionality and embodiment as part of the data collection process; I never doubted that different people inhabit sociology differently as well as their fieldsites differently–and that these differences are key points of departure for developing “objective” (at least, “objective” a la Donna Haraway) knowledge.

At the same time, it was difficult–at least for me, as I applied it to my own ethnographer-self–to resist all of the predominant thinking then (and now) on what constitutes “good” ethnography, in particular: for example, that acceptable costs of data collection include playing with danger and withstanding isolation in the field; that certain experiences (such as sexual harassment) not only do not count as data but are best not spoken of lest you discredit yourself as a researcher; that “sucking it up” is often the only response to difficult, frustrating, awkward, degrading, debasing, or debilitating experiences in the field. 

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Harassed by Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards is a vital intervention into this narrow thinking. The book names and argues against the predominant “ethnographic fixations” dictating that good ethnographers must be willing to accept dangerous situations in the field, isolate themselves for the sake of data integrity, and pursue intimacy with research subjects at all costs in order to obtain “rich” data. These fixations, they argue, do not just represent a hamstrung approach to ethnographic. They also ramp up the likelihood that researchers will experience gendered violence in the field, experiences that are harmful both personally and professionally.

Rather than separating out the fieldsite from the worksite, Hanson and Richards weave them together, showing how forms of gendered violence and a code of silence around them within academia reinforce and exacerbate gendered violence in fieldsites. As a consequence, graduate students are often unprepared for confronting gendered violence in the field, as such topics are usually relegated to the sidelines in methods training, and when they return from the field, they aren’t prepared to process their fieldwork experiences because there is often no space to recognize such experiences as inherent parts of the data collection process and as data as well. In turn, the scholarship produced from fieldwork becomes less rich and more partial because pivotal elements–not least, the embodied dimensions of fieldwork–may be excised as part of the data analysis process.

The book starts a conversation, no doubt; it does not finish it. For that reason, readers might reach its final pages wanting more: more on the costs of gendered violence within academia (especially for researchers at the intersection of multiple lines of marginalization); more on pragmatic suggestions for addressing the urgent issues laid out in the book; more on the ways in which research methods intersect with research questions to make conversations about gendered violence more or less salient. That this book opens up this space, I think, is one of its key contributions.

For me, I dearly wish I would have had this book on my bookshelf in graduate school. I’m not sure I would have changed my research question or my methods; I doubt I would have changed much about how I engaged in my fieldsite or the way I wrote about my research later. But I know that if I would have had this book, I would have done a lot less second-guessing of myself as a researcher. I would have been more likely to see fieldwork frustrations less as a personal referendum and more as a window into the politics of embodiment in the field. I would have, in short, been more able to trade my personal troubles for a sociological imagination.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend Harassed to each and every graduate student embarking on fieldwork for the first time, to mentors advising graduate students on their engagement in fieldwork, and to anyone who feels–who knows–that for too long our narrow thinking on ethnography has not just harmed individual researchers but also our collective capacity for producing sociological knowledge.

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