Past Event

Sexual Harassment and the Construction of Ethnographic Knowledge

September 14, 2018
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
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509 Knox Hall

It is not uncommon for women researchers to experience sexualized interactions, sexual objectification, and harassment as they conduct fieldwork. Nevertheless, these experiences are often left out of ethnographers’ “tales from the field” and remain unaddressed within our discipline. In this article, we use women’s experiences with harassment in the field to interrogate the epistemological foundations of ethnographic methodology within the discipline of sociology. Based on more than 50 qualitative interviews, we examine three “fixations” of contemporary ethnography that inform women ethnographers’ understandings of and reactions to harassment in the field. These fixations are solitude, danger, and intimacy. Our data show that these fixations not only put researchers in danger but also have implications for the construction of ethnographic knowledge. They contribute to silence surrounding sexual harassment, and are motivated by and reproduce androcentric norms that valorize certain types of fieldwork. We argue that acknowledging and analyzing experiences with harassment and other unwanted sexual attention in the field is part of a more fully developed understanding of ethnographic research itself.

Michelle was conducting preliminary research in another country when she met a friendly expatriate who offered to help her gain contacts in the town where she was
hoping to launch her research. Even though she felt uneasy about his overtures, she accepted his offer and met with him to discuss how to proceed. Over the course of their
interaction, this man was sexually aggressive, both verbally and physically. When Michelle asked him to stop, he ignored her. When she then attempted to take leave of
him, he assaulted her. Michelle was able to fight him off and escape. Afterward, she hid in her room for two days, worried that he would find her if she went out. Michelle
spent these days agonizing over whether to call her adviser but finally did, reasoning that if she disappeared, “no one would ever know.” Her adviser responded
with great concern for her safety and emphatically told her to leave the town immediately. Yet, in the days she spent locked in her hotel room, she had worried that he
would respond by saying, “Suck it up” or “You’re being a wuss. Just go out there and do it.” Because potentially dangerous situations related to sexual violence “had never
been discussed openly in any situation,” Michelle later reflected, “I had a limited basis for knowing at all how anyone would react.”

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