Starfished: gender and space in fieldwork in India

In many meetings* with men during fieldwork, I was starfished. This is what I mean – the men I interviewed progressively expanded to fill up more and more of the common space. It started usually with the interviewee leaning back into his seat, which naturally results in the base and legs moving forward. At this juncture, some men would open their legs wide. In a few minutes, many folded their hands behind their head. Assuming this position, which I can only call The Starfish, these interviewees held forth on the questions I asked, and sometimes on the questions I didn’t ask, including my personal life.

As these starfishes unraveled, I found myself shrinking. I occupied as little space as I could. I moved back into my seat, fiddled with my dupatta, sometimes placed my notebook more prominently, possibly to create a boundary. I often was reminded of this beautiful spoken word work by Lily Myers. I waned as they waxed; my questioning, my curiosity waning in tandem.

Given that I’m now an eager academic (and also annoyed that my interviews were affected), I thought I should be a bit analytical about it. I asked myself when the Starfish came about in meetings and analysed its immediate effects on me. In the 6 interviews I reflected on, I found that in all, the starfish appeared when I began asking ‘difficult’ questions. Almost immediately as soon as a difficult question popped up, the starfishes tried to steer interviews to other topics, including, in some cases my marriage and why I don’t have children yet, and whether I was “a modern woman”.

I am sure many scholars can theorise the gender differences in occupying space more appropriately, and their effects on women’s self-perception. Perhaps there is literature from many domains that already does that. I reflect, briefly, therefore, only on the methodological implications of this. Findings from heavily interview-dependent fieldwork are intimately affected by the process by which information is gathered. I could not bring myself to complete a potentially useful interview where a fully unraveled starfish suggested that he could “complete the interview” at my home.

What can one do? I don’t think there’s any response to this or any universally applicable strategies. I found it helpful just to think about managing my personal space. I thought of firm answers to personal questions. I wore sarees to make me look older and bigger. To be sure, it is ridiculous to even have to do this. But in the delicate balance that is fieldwork, in seeking information which no one is obliged to give, I wondered if there is a painful trade-off – I make myself more information-worthy.

Huge thanks to @MumbaiCentral and @Anusual for the many (usually punctuated with much hilarity and perspective) discussions on the starfish.

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* I must assert that this did not happen in all meetings. It was only in a few. During fieldwork, I have encountered several wonderful, kind and encouraging individuals to whom I only bear gratitude.

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