By Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards, authors of Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research
- A graduate student was stalked by another student in her program.
- A young professor received threatening phone calls from a senior professor she met at an academic conference when she rejected his advances.
- Another graduate student was hit on by more than one of her professors, but learned over time to “laugh it off.”
In our book, Harassed, we argue that these interactions, along with other more seemingly innocuous experiences, are normalized forms of violence within academia. Assumptions that academia is a progressive safe haven—that violence is something that happens “out there,” outside of the “civilized” spaces of academia—evidence the ongoing influence of colonialism within departments and disciplines.
And, it is only by accepting that our disciplines remain indebted to sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist histories that we can begin to address these issues when qualitative researchers face them in the field. Though the places where we conduct fieldwork may be thousands of miles away from our universities, our academic workplaces structure what qualitative researchers expect when they enter the field, how they react in their field sites, and what they are willing to talk about when they return.
Women, as well as academics of color and queer scholars, often learn that it is best to “suck it up” and keep going when they experience harassment and discrimination within academic spaces, and they apply this practice to their field sites as well. Sexual harassment and gendered violence in the field are relegated to private conversations, if they are talked about at all.
It is no accident that a heavy silence hangs around experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the field. Such silence is actively produced in the way we train students and evaluate our peers’ work. In some cases, mentors and peers inadvertently promote disembodied narratives as the standard for ethnographic writing, communicating to those around them that the body—and thus experiences of harassment and sexual violence—have no place in academic writing. In other cases, researchers are actively warned that talking about these interactions could put their work in question and their careers in danger.
Of course, there is tremendous variation in qualitative training. Yet, despite this variation, almost none of the women we interviewed for this project had discussions with their mentors before going into the field about how to navigate sexism or racism when they were there. Nor were they asked to think about how their identities and bodies would shape and be affected by fieldwork. Ethnographic fixations reproduced in disciplines from sociology to anthropology to ethnomusicology restrict qualitative researchers from openly discussing not only experiences with sexual harassment and gendered violence in the field, but how researchers’ bodies constitute the data we collect and the knowledge that we produce from our fieldwork.
Some may argue that this is just one more example of navel-gazing in ethnographic work, that qualitative research should not focus on the researcher. But this perspective ignores how a researcher’s embodied experiences—including harassment and violence—are constitutive of the data collection process. As we argue in our book, ignoring this fact not only restricts how we think about fieldwork but can harm researchers as well.