“You’re a white chick, what are you researching?” Comments on the phenomenon of researcher fatigue
I had been in Mumbai on my fieldwork for about four months when I attended an LGBT event called Dirty Talk. The eighth instalment of the event, it was billed as “the hottest LGBT event in town” and “a torchbearer of inclusivity”; I was expecting an exciting evening of songs and skits. I had made my own way and was meeting a few friends at the event. As my research is focused on the everyday lives of women with non-normative sexualities and genders, I had a fairly solid group of contacts by this point, and was expecting to know a fair number of people. I was also excited because events like this, which were normally overwhelmingly gay and queer males, were one of the few times a substantial portion of the female LBTQI (Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex) community came together. As I was waiting for my friends, I ordered a drink and was settled in to watch the festivities when a woman approached me and said: “You’re a white chick, what are you researching?”
I was so taken aback by the question at the time that I’m sure I stumbled through an answer about my PhD and what I hoped to accomplish, before she introduced herself as a friend of a friend; we then eased into comfortable conversation. However, her question stuck with me and came to exemplify many of the conversations and experiences I had while in India. Here, I’d like to briefly discuss the implications of her question as it reflects on the experiences of a highly researched community that, paradoxically, feels invisible.
I was in contact with two prominent and long standing queer women’s groups in both Mumbai and Bangalore for nine months over my fieldwork trip to India this past year. I got in contact with the groups through email correspondence and mutual friends. After being with both groups for some time, the founders told me that they receive an overwhelming number of requests from potential researchers asking for access to the group members for various projects. These individuals end up acting as gatekeepers in order to protect the identities and well-being of the group members, and then have to negotiate between the exertion of answering every inquiry, or ignoring them and coming off as a closed or “uncooperative” group. Further, many of the group members become fatigued as the same individuals answer “the call” each time a new research project is embarked on. As Tom Clark notes, “(r)esearch encounters are not just negotiated and managed by researchers, but are also actively negotiated, managed, and experienced by those who agree to be involved and who have their own perceptions of engagement” (Tom Clark, “‘We’re Over-Researched Here!’ Exploring Accounts of Research Fatigue within Qualitative Research Engagements”. In Sociology, October 2008, 42:5, p. 955).
Many of the group members also told me that they became weary each time they hear about a new research project, as they feel like they’ve “seen it all before”. They get asked the same questions, researchers come in with “the same” assumptions about their lives and experiences, and, after they’ve taken the time to answer questions and take part in these projects, they don’t feel that they get much out of it. Some individuals I talked to also experience trepidation and even anger: they feel that Western researchers come in trying to “discover” some sort of traditional, authentic Indian sexuality without taking the time to understand the complicated and, at times, messy contextual layers which make up any one individual’s personal experience. I should note here that I fully agree with this critique and believe it is my job, as a feminist researcher and a friend to many of my participants, to do justice to their experiences without resorting to clichés or worn tropes.
Yet, despite the participants clearly feeling over-researched, I was also told how invisible they felt, not only within Indian society but within the queer community at large. I was told over and over how they were “so glad someone is doing this research” or “lesbians in India need to be researched more!” These participants felt their particular experiences weren’t being told or heard, despite the research that is being done into the Indian LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex community. This echoes research done by feminist scholars and geographers that highlights the invisibility of lesbians in both public space and academic research, especially as contrasted with their gay male counterparts. Of the participants I worked with, many noted other identity categories, like their gender expression or caste, as their main experience of marginality as opposed to their sexual identity. This is partly due to the fact that many queer women are not fully “out” in their lives, choosing to remain “closeted” at work, in certain friend groups, or to their family. This is also partly due to the gendered differences in access to, and experience of, public space in India: (heteronormative) men have a greater ease of access to, and experience of, public space than women of any sexual identity. (For an excellent commentary on gender and space, see Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade, Why loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2011.)
Therefore, it is extremely important to read these experiences as intersectional and to understand the multiple identities these individuals negotiate and experience at any given time, in any given space. Intersectionality aims to understand not how oppressions are layered or added up but, instead, how identities are mutually constitutive. In other words, understanding the interrelatedness of individual experiences based on things like caste, class, gender, religion, sexuality, locations, etc. is extremely important for an understanding of how power and privilege work.
This is not to argue for an essentialist positionality that these participants exist within; yet, I do agree that knowledge from the margins can be used to problematize and question dominant norms, and that a feminist anthropology and ethnography is the best way to focus on that knowledge. As Chandra Mohanty argues, starting with a view from the margins “makes the politics of knowledge and the power investments that go along with it visible so that we can then engage in work to transform the use and abuse of power” (Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles”. In Signs, Winter 2003, 28:2, p. 511). Further, engaging in this type of work challenges us to see how “differences allow us to explain the connections and border crossings better and more accurately, how specifying difference allows us to theorize universal concerns more fully” (p. 505). This “view from the margins” does not rest on a utopian vision of oppressed or subordinate individuals but asks, instead, how a different view can problematize hegemonic knowledge structures and point to new, creative ways of imagining the world.
Reflexive Photography Project and alternative methods
As a queer theorist and feminist scholar, this research project is as much about questioning hegemonic methods of knowledge production as it is about the investigation of my research questions. The methods I have chosen question the existing structures and hierarchies that inform which information and experiences count as “knowledge” and which do not. A main issue in feminist qualitative research is how to continue to represent the participant and their experiences through all aspects of the research. With this in mind, I asked my research participants to engage in a reflexive photography project, aimed at providing a different experience of the research process itself, which proved highly successful in my research context. (See also Katherine Johnson’s work with the MindOut project in Brighton, which was an inspiration for my own work). The project itself was presented as a reflexive photography project for queer women to get a better understanding of their lives through quotidian experiences. The participants were asked to think about their gender and sexuality in their everyday lives, and to take photos of things or situations that they thought exemplified their experiences with the two. After two weeks, the participants were asked to email or text the photos and then engage with me in an exit interview. The participant would then choose three of their favourite photos which would be used in a series of exhibitions in London, Mumbai, and Bangaluru. The photos would be paired with quotes from the interviews, chosen by me. All of the photos in this blogpost are part of the project, taken by participants.
Here, I’ve tried to highlight a few issues surrounding researcher fatigue and how I managed to conduct a successful research project in a highly researched community. The reflexive photography project specifically focused on women’s subjectivity and individual lived realities, to point to the ways in which gender, sexuality and many other identity categories are contextually linked, and how their negotiation necessarily challenges heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy. The project was not only an innovative research method, but also proved to be a much needed change for the research participants themselves. I was continuously told that the only reason I was getting any response from specific participants was because I was willing to do my research differently, and that I was committed to engaging with the women in novel ways. By asking the participants to visually show their lives through photographs that they took, it allowed the participants to claim: “we do exist here and our voices are important”.
Jacquelyn P. Strey
Centre for Gender Studies
SOAS, University of London
Image: Photograph of sex toys being boiled in a pot right next to a cutting board with bread on it. “I liked this scene of cleaning my toys and making lunch right out in the open in my kitchen…I’m sure my maid knows something but she never says anything.”- Taken by Tannu
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