Risk in fieldwork as a young, female academic interviewing men

Scott Jones Gipton 15.9.15My academic thinking is often prompted by very simple questions, from friends, family or colleagues. Last week, when I was talking about the fieldwork I have just started, involving going to men’s homes to interview them about their care responsibilities, my sister asked me; is it safe for you to go to men’s houses on your own?

In asking this question my sister expresses a simple concern for my safety but also highlights my potential vulnerability as a young woman. It is a sensible question and it is also an ethical question that has followed me from the very beginning of my career researching men and masculinities. It is something I have also discussed with other female academics that I have worked with, who have also raised their concerns about the same issue. For me, the dilemma is also intensified, not least because the philosophy underpinning my research is feminist and my approach is framed by a desire to challenge negative stereotypes about people based purely on their gender, or indeed, other social identities such as their age and class. The very focus of my research has been about the characteristics of men’s care responsibilities; the contexts that lead them to them to provide care; their care practices and the meanings men attach to their experiences of care. Care is typically associated with women but is something that many men also do. Implicitly, the question about my safety highlights the inherent inequalities between me and my male interviews, but it also carries implicit assumptions that men are more likely to be violent or put me at greater risk. I haven’t been asked the same question when researching female participants.

The dilemma raised by entering men’s homes has been discussed in the academic literature about feminist methodology and reflexivity. Lee (1997, p. 563) for example, emphasises the issue of researcher/researched vulnerabilities and the importance of choosing where to interview:

an emphasis on interviewer vulnerability sits very uneasily alongside the feminist interviewer’s ethical responsibilities to interviewees. For while interviewing a man in his own home … may place women interviewers in potentially dangerous situations, conducting interviews in public places raises difficulties for male interviewees who may not want their experiences to be overheard.

My methodological preference has always been too interview men in their own homes. I am a social geographer by background, so I am interested in socio-spatial relations and the performance of identities in particular spaces. I also interview men about sensitive and personal topics; about family life, family troubles, relationships and so on and I think that interviewing in a familiar environment, associated with these topics, is more appropriate. I have interviewed in work offices and cafes before but have felt more constrained and less comfortable about asking the kinds of questions that I think that I need to ask to hear men’s narratives and to disrupt them. I have also recently published a paper about the importance of interviewing in people’s homes in order to access deeper layers of meaning about family and family politics (Tarrant, 2015). People’s homes are full of artefacts that are useful methodological tools for prompting depth discussions. I am also uncomfortable with the assumption that men are always a risk. Regardless of gender, working with people always has the potential of risk and while it is important to attend to social differences and their very real potential consequences, it is also important not to make assumptions too readily about male participants.

Despite working through this dilemma, my own safety, including the safety of my participants, is of course paramount. I have always put strict ethical procedures into place in order to justify going to people’s homes alone, be they male or female. They don’t guarantee my safety but they allow me to conduct research on my own terms and to treat my male participants as I would any treat any participant, regardless of their gender. I let my colleagues know that I will doing an interview and text them both before and after the interview to confirm my safety. I leave addresses in concealed envelopes with colleagues (to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of my participants unless it absolutely needs to be revealed) and even text my husband to let him know I am safe. In my latest project I have set up a Twitter account, another way of publicly revealing what I am doing and when. These things of course don’t protect me from possible violence or wrong doing but they are necessary for any kind of protection to researchers in these situations – I wonder if male researchers do the same? I also try to make sure that I have approached my participants first and that their contact details have come from a trusted source, such as a project gatekeeper. This is important to me because it makes me feel like my decisions are on made on my terms.

I am interested to know how other researchers have reflected on this dilemma in their own research? Do leave a comment or get in touch with your views.

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