Flanking Gestures: Gender and Emotion in Fieldwork

by Terressa Benz
University of Idaho

Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 15

Received: 1 Apr 2013     Accepted: 3 Apr 2014    Published: 31 May 2014


Fieldwork is wrought with challenges and emotional obstacles. Techniques of dealing with these logistical challenges are well discussed in the literature; however, rarely are the emotions involved in fieldwork explored, nor are the specific techniques for dealing with this emotional fallout. In this paper, I explore not only the emotions of fieldwork, specifically as a woman in a male dominated research setting, but actual tactics for dealing with these feelings - tactics I call 'flanking gestures.' Flanking gestures are techniques that allow the researcher to blur and stretch their gender, which I suggest provides a certain amount of emotional relief in the field.

Keywords: Fieldwork, Gender, Emotion, Rapport, Access


1.1 It was the fourth of July and I stood on the roof watching the fireworks with a handful of my new neighbors. This was my first social encounter with my study population and I knew I needed to manage my behavior carefully to facilitate gaining access and building rapport. The group was very diverse, ranging in age from under a year to late sixties and with considerable variety in terms of ethnic backgrounds. The ratio of men to women was an even split, although the hierarchy within the group was clear: the women and children sat back from the group, only chiming in occasionally. The men, the oldest of whom sat in the only chair, directed the group's conversation and doled out beer as they saw fit. As a group, they were very welcoming to me and my friend Mark, and expressed curiosity over my newcomer status. I took my cue from the other women that as a female—and an unfamiliar one at that—I needed to limit my part in their conversation. However, I also knew as an experienced researcher that I could push the boundaries of this gendered script by playing dumb or what Lofland (2006) calls the 'incompetent observer.' I embraced this role through asking simple questions about the area and the building, many of which I already had answers to.

1.2 Our ascribed statuses, such as age, race, and gender acquire different levels of importance depending on the setting and the people involved. In this case my age (late twenties) and my ethnicity (white)[1] mattered less than my status as a female. For this particular group and setting, gender was a trait that had more rules and expectations regarding appropriate behavior than my age or racial make-up. By taking the time to observe how the other women of the group behaved, I was able to better gauge how appropriate female behavior was defined by this particular group. In addition, I knew from experience that my status as a new resident allowed me some leeway regarding these expectations. I could essentially play dumb for a while, as long as I presented myself as willing to learn. As this example shows, differences between the researcher and the study population can be compensated for through strategic evaluation of the situation followed by careful action: difference need not determine access.

1.3 Much of the literature on conducting ethnographic research focuses on choosing the right field setting based upon the researcher's status congruence or incongruence with the study population. However, it is my experience that research interests and settings in large part choose you, not the other way around. For this reason, I suggest a shift in focus away from choosing the right setting, to anticipating and preparing for the challenges a research site and population may present.

1.4 While there is a long tradition in anthropology of studying groups in which one is an outsider, sociologists have been somewhat more reticent to do so. There are, however, exceptions. For example, Elliot Liebow (1993) did a close study of homeless women, despite being male, white, and Jewish. Mitch Duneier (1992; 2001) has on several occasions penetrated the world of the black working man while being white and Jewish himself. And John Gilliom (2001) was able to bring us into the everyday lives of Appalachian women on welfare even though he was a middle-class male. In each of these projects, the status differences between the researcher and the population being studied was clear from the beginning; and in each project, the researcher remained cognizant of those differences and was better able to anticipate and meet related challenges.

1.5 One of the most discussed status misalignments by scholars is when a researcher decides to study a population composed primarily or entirely of members of the opposite sex. Although much has been written on the role of gender in the field, very little has been said about the various tactics a female researcher can use to embrace, reject, compensate for, and/or blur the gender scripts – or behavioral expectations – she finds in a particular setting. Some of the literature on the role played by status group membership in the field suggests that gender congruence or incongruence with informants can have a strong influence on the researcher's ability to establish access and rapport, but this literature is largely silent about the ways the researcher can bridge this gap (Gurney 1985; Adams 1999; Lofland 2006). Recently, we have seen more scholarship that treats the researcher as an active participant in this process of overcoming the challenges associated with status incongruence, especially when the researcher focuses on her intersectionality (Warren 2001; Adams 1999). But very little of the existing literature examines the actual process by which a researcher recognizes the status scripts of a particular setting and the techniques she employs to embrace or reject those scripts to maximize access and establish rapport in ethical ways (see Mazzei & O'Brien 2009). Further, there does not seem to be a discussion of techniques the researcher can use in the field to protect against the emotional turmoil such gender role-play can trigger.

1.6 Mazzei and O'Brien (2009) argue that gaining access and cultivating rapport in the field is largely dependent upon the skill of the researcher in, first, identifying the various status group assignments she will be subjected to in a particular field setting based on her physical and social characteristics, and second, how she can strategically work within those scripts through an active process of 'deploying gender.' In other words, the scripts or roles assigned to a researcher in the field are largely dependent upon the study setting, but the researcher becomes her own agent when she chooses to deploy her gender to meet one or more of these status scripts. While Mazzei and O'Brian make a good point, they understate the emotional toll that deploying gender may have on the researcher. Further, they fail to provide any concrete strategies that can be used to alleviate some of this emotional burden, strategies which are specifically designed to stretch gendered assumptions.

1.7 In the following pages I first provide some background on my research setting and methods. Next, I explore some of the existing literature on emotions and fieldwork. In this section I also examine the limited scholarly attention that has been given to specific techniques that can be used to deal with the emotional burden that ethnographic research frequently produces for the investigator. Next, I use specific examples from my research on a single-room occupancy hotel in Los Angeles, which support the idea of the researcher being an active participant in the strategic use of her various statuses in the field. In this section, I present evidence from my work that shows how blurring gender through specific 'flanking gestures' can be strategically utilized to the researcher's advantage, especially with regard to alleviating some of the emotional toll of fieldwork.

The Study and Site

2.1 The issues discussed in this article are drawn from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in a single-room occupancy hotel located in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to Skid Row. As a known researcher I resided in the Esmeralda Hotel[2] for fourteen months (2008-2009) during which time I collected field notes on the daily lives of the hotel residents. I was very open with the residents about my status as a researcher and was able to gain verbal consent from all residents I made contact with. There were over four hundred units at the Esmeralda Hotel, the vast majority of which housed single, middle-to-late aged males. During my stay I was able to establish relationships with a handful of the female residents, however most of my data collection focused on the larger male population. This population tended to hold very traditional beliefs on how females should behave. So while I was not always deploying these more traditional gender scripts, it was these roles that caused me the most emotional distress as I often felt a sense of guilt over perpetuating demeaning and disempowering gender stereotypes. While the totality of my experiences in the field are very diverse, all the examples discussed in this paper occur between me and males with a traditional understanding of femininity.

2.2 Single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) are often referred to as "residential hotels" or "skid-row hotels.' California statute defines a "residential hotel" as any building containing six or more guestrooms, which are intended for sleeping and are considered the primary residence of those guests.[3] Units in these establishments have very limited amenities and often include communal bathrooms. The advantage of this type of 'last-resort' housing is that an individual can rent a cubicle-sized room somewhat anonymously and cheaply. Further, in most for-profit residential hotels, no deposit, lease agreement, credit review, or background check is required for move-in. Despite the 'transient' underpinnings of a residential hotel in which a resident could pay by the day, week, or month, most residents make these establishments their homes. At the Esmeralda the longest stay I encountered was twenty-five years which was somewhat unusual. However most residents had been living at the Esmeralda for over three years, many more for ten or fifteen. In fact, I did not encounter a single resident who had lived there for less than six months. In the end, SROs are typically run-down and roach-infested. They tend to be commercial, for-profit enterprises. However, over the past two decades in the United States there has been an increase in the number of residential hotels being bought, renovated, and run as SROs by non-profit organizations.

Emotions and Fieldwork

3.1 Ascriptive characteristics of the researcher pose specific challenges in the field. All social groups and settings assign meanings and behavioral expectations, or status scripts, to individuals based on various fixed traits. The implications of status congruence or incongruence with the study population have been widely discussed in the literature on qualitative methods. Feminist scholarship has paid particular attention to the challenges involved in status incongruence in the field and the role that can be played by the intersection or layering of status scripts. The general consensus is that gender alignment or misalignment with a study population does not determine access and that the researcher is an active participant in maneuvering herself in terms of the adoption, rejection, promotion, and demotion of certain personal traits (see, for example; Blee 2002; Horowitz 1983; Adams 1999; Baca Zinn 2001). What is less talked about in the literature is the potential emotional burden this type of role manoeuvring can have on the investigator and ways to deal with those feelings.

3.2 The strategies involved in gaining access and establishing rapport all involve a level of compromise on the part of the researcher, which can, and in many cases does, have emotional repercussions. Often when studying in an incompatible setting the researcher must utilize techniques of 'impression management faces' to get by (Daniels 1983; Schacht 1997), which can lead to feelings of betraying one's own values or deceiving informants. The process of impression management entails the careful monitoring of personal behavior in order to create a specific impression in the eyes of another. In other words, impression management is acting. Although many scholars acknowledge the existence of the emotional burdens produced by field settings (see Lofland 2006; Dunn 1991; Kleinman and Copp 1993; Holland 2007; Johnson and Clarke 2003; Sampson, Bloor, and Fincham 2008; Dickson-Swift et al. 2007, 2009), there's almost no discussion of techniques for dealing with these problems (for exception see Rager 2005). For example, Kathleen Blee (2002), in her study of women in the hate movement, talks about feeling guilty over the fact that she found meeting racist activists thrilling as well as horrifying (13). Yet she does not share with the reader how she dealt with this guilt.

3.3 Much of the research on emotions in fieldwork focuses on researching sensitive topics such as the experiences of cancer or AIDS patients. Dickson-Swift et al. (2007) find that health researchers engaging in one-to-one interviews often experience emotional distress relating to rapport development, researcher self-disclosure, feelings of guilt, and researcher exhaustion due in large part to the emotional volatility of the topics being explored in the interviews. Johnson and Clarke (2003) also find that researchers of sensitive health topics experience emotional strain regarding feelings of isolation, role conflict, cost to participants, and the desire for reciprocity. This body of research on the emotions involved in researching sensitive topics is important in that it serves to validate the emotions of researchers, but very little is said as to how to deal with these emotions.

3.4 While there is a growing body of research regarding the emotional toll of researching sensitive topics, there is limited literature addressing the emotional strain of researchers in more traditional field settings. Gurney (1985) examines some of the challenges to gaining access and building rapport which are most often faced by female researchers when studying in a male-dominated setting, such as sexual hustling and assignment to traditional female roles. She explores various techniques for dealing with problems like access based upon her own experiences as well as those of other female fieldworkers, but only touches on the emotional strain that can occur. In another instance, Adams (1999) explores emotion in the field when she examines the effects of assuming a mascot researcher role during her work in Uzbekistan. Being a mascot researcher means that she was adopted as a representative of another culture which came with the expectations of being able to amuse her subjects. She argues that the mascot role can often lead to the researcher feeling out of control of their work and unsure of their identities.

3.5 Warren and Rasmussen (1977) outline the effects of researcher characteristics, placing particular emphasis on gender and sex, on gaining access and building rapport in the field. In the setting of a bathhouse, Rasmussen spread a rumor that he was gay in order to gain deeper access; however there is no discussion as to how this deception made him feel and how he coped with those emotions. Another common role for female researchers is that of the 'traditional female' or the weak, harmless, helpless, woman in need of protection. Warren chose to play this role out instead of resisting it with interesting results. She writes 'the emotional strain of having to continue playing the traditional female role was often great' (362), but she does not discuss how she dealt with this strain in or outside of the field setting.

3.6 Steven Schacht (1997) explores some of the challenges associated with incompatible research settings in his work as a feminist researcher studying the misogynist culture of male rugby players. He finds that in order to maintain a certain level of sanity and emotional balance in a setting consisting of beliefs, values, and practices largely in opposition to his own, he opted to take on the role of the 'sylph'—an entity without a soul. Schacht argues that by adopting the role of the sylph he was able to begin to control, not ignore, his emotions, which allowed him to conduct valuable research. What Schacht fails to address in detail is the emotional strain he felt as a researcher in such an incompatible setting, suggesting the role of the sylph as more of a tool for getting by in incongruent settings rather than a technique for dealing with the emotional strain of such research.

Dealing with emotions

3.7 There are a handful of scholars who go beyond simple recognition of emotions in fieldwork and provide concrete strategies for dealing with these emotions. Daniels (1983) discusses some of the challenges that arise in trying to protect oneself emotionally in the field, while also treating the people one studies ethically. She argues that self-deception is often involved in fieldwork, especially in unfamiliar field settings. Daniels finds that while absorbed in a project she must convince herself that the setting and the informants in it are exciting and interesting. An approach that often is problematic emotionally, especially when the study is nearing completion, as the eventual withdrawal from the field largely removes the strongest connection one has formed with informants. This abrupt break in friendships with informants often leads to a feeling of guilt.

3.8 Daniels (1983) provides a couple of strategies for alleviating this sense of guilt. One, that distancing through comic storytelling about informants to colleagues and friends, not in the field, allows her to begin to neutralize some of this sense of guilt over the manipulation of friendship with and the eventual abandonment of research subjects. My experience is that this type of mocking behavior is not especially useful, which illustrates that the emotional toll of fieldwork varies by researcher as do the methods of neutralizing and/or dealing with it. Second, Daniels refers to 'face-saving adjustments' which attempt to reduce this sense of guilt through 'the ritual expressions of friendship that give a sense of assurance that one is not only a good researcher, but a good person' (211). This entails things like occasional visits, phone calls, and sending cards to informants once data collection has ended. In the end, Daniels argues that in fieldwork we often have to deceive ourselves into thinking research subjects are people we would actually be friends with in our daily lives. This self-deception typically works well until we begin to remove ourselves from the field and realize the incongruities.

3.9 Rager (2005) provides a series of concrete "self-care strategies" for use in the field: journaling, peer debriefing, personal counseling, member checking, and maintaining balance. While there is general agreement that all of these strategies are excellent reflective tools that do in fact help relieve some of the emotional burden of fieldwork they all occur outside or away from the field setting. The literature on emotion and fieldwork provides little to no concrete strategies for dealing with emotions in the field. This article seeks to begin filling this gap in the literature by not only recognizing the emotional strain fieldwork can have on the researcher, but also by providing specific strategies for dealing with these feelings in the field.

Flanking Gestures

4.1 The SRO population in general tends to be male, non-white, middle to late age, with a working class background, as was the case at the Esmeralda Hotel. Gender expectations in this particular setting vary, but this population tends to subscribe to a traditional concept of femininity. By traditional, I mean a 'good' woman is thought to be fragile, demure, domestic, and compassionate. Women who are strong-willed or confident, and even those with visible tattoos, are considered 'trashy' and of questionable moral character. Race is also a status script of importance at the Esmeralda, as members of different ethnic groups tend to socialize according to race. Lastly, there is the issue of class. Longtime residents of the hotel paid pre-renovation rent, while newer residents like me paid a significantly higher rate – a topic of much discussion. The hotel setting, then, was heavily gendered, raced, and classed. The process of identifying particular scripts in a given setting required me to be attentive to the nuanced signs given off by members of the study population.

4.2 The process of deploying different status scripts can at times be exhausting and may cause the researcher some emotional turmoil, for the purpose of this article I focus exclusively on gender scripts. Some of the roles I adopted in the field, such as the naïve or vulnerable female, in many cases produced feelings of guilt over contributing to the perpetuation of demeaning and chauvinistic expectations of women. In order to help prevent and alleviate these feelings, I adopted some techniques of playing with and even blurring gender that helped me maintain a connection to myself while engaging with the gender scripts required by the research setting. By playing with gender I am referring to the subtle ways a researcher can intentionally stretch and blur certain gender scripts local to the research setting, while also embracing them. I refer to these techniques as 'flanking gestures.' To be clear, flanking gestures are not a method of deploying gender, rather they are a set of techniques for dealing with the emotional fallout that deploying gender may create. In developing the concept I borrow from military strategy in which the flanking manoeuvre, or coming at the enemy from the side—often secretly, when successful gives the attacker a psychological advantage over the opposition. While fieldwork is not a battlefield, the process of stretching the gender scripts assigned to the researcher by participants is a process that requires skill, subtlety, and strategy. The effects of such flanking gestures, however, are difficult to quantify or confirm due in large part to this subtlety, but I argue that these strategies prove most useful in terms of increasing the confidence and comfort of the researcher in the field while providing emotional relief.

4.3 It is generally assumed that the nature of participant observation lends itself to researcher discomfort as the investigator has, in most cases, entered an unfamiliar setting or taken on an unfamiliar role in that setting. Much of the literature accepts this aspect of doing research as simply fact, and less is said regarding the ways an investigator can mitigate this discomfort without threatening access or rapport. In the following section, I discuss some of the ways I was able to do this as related to gender specifically.

The 'Pep' Talk

4.4 During my residence at the Esmeralda, one of the primary settings for interactions with residents and other locals was a dive bar located on the ground floor of a nearby SRO hotel called the Queen Lizzy, an establishment the regulars referred to as the last real bar in Skid Row. The place was populated almost entirely by men. Based on my prior experiences with the SRO population in San Diego (citation concealed for review anonymity), I assumed that gaining access to this setting would require a male companion, and I was correct. Fortunately, I had developed a friendship with the hotel's elevator operator and longtime resident, Duran. With him at my side, I was able to navigate the bar scene without the stigma of being seen as a 'lone female.' Instead, I attended the bar with Duran, a well-known and generally well-liked guy.

4.5 By anticipating the potential gender scripts of the research setting, I was able to make an active choice of which gender role to adopt and promote in order to help mitigate the potentially negative scripts associated with my race, class, and gender. At the Queen Lizzy, a young white woman on her own would have been interpreted in one of a few ways: she was either lost, stupid, a working girl, or an arrogant 'loftie' from up the street. The term 'loftie' is the name used by the bar patrons and Esmeralda residents to describe the new residents of downtown living in expensive loft apartments. I anticipated that many patrons would assume that Duran and I were romantically involved. I did not try to counteract this notion. In fact, often I would pass money underneath the bar to Duran so that he appeared to be paying for all of our drinks, thus shoring up his public masculinity while also allowing myself to come off as taken, feminine, and dependent on a male. As mentioned earlier, I was functioning as a known researcher; however I did not flaunt that status. Typically I would have several encounters with a potential participant, in an attempt to establish rapport, before introducing myself as a researcher and asking for verbal consent. Duran knew that I was conducting research and was happy to assist me.

4.6 Despite my precautions, I was thrust into the lone woman script only once and very briefly. Duran and I had arranged to meet at the Lizzy for a drink but I arrived about ten minutes before he did. While waiting for my friend, two different men attempted to engage me in overt sexual flirting. In each case I, as gracefully as possible, thanked them for their compliments but denied their requests to sit with me by telling them I was waiting for a friend and that he would be arriving shortly. In this way I was able to avoid embarrassing the men by accepting their compliments, while also establishing that I was 'taken,' allowing the men to be rejected based on no fault of their own. Further, I was able to maintain the respect I had built on prior visits with several of the other patrons who were watching the exchanges closely. However, this interaction, which I found stressful, led me to change my behavior—from then on I waited for Duran in the hotel lobby. As this example illustrates, sometimes established scripts are unavoidable, and in these cases the researcher must deploy gender and use those scripts to his or her advantage.

4.7 I consider myself a strong and independent woman. Further, I actually enjoy going to bars alone, especially in a new city. I find it much easier to meet and interact with strangers from all walks of life when I am alone rather than when I'm with a group. My experience at the Queen Lizzy challenged this view of myself and produced the unfamiliar feeling of vulnerability. I dealt with these feeling in a couple of ways. First, I changed my behavior so that I would not have to have the experience again. From then on I did not enter the Lizzy without a male escort. Second, I gave myself a 'pep' talk. I reminded myself that I had set out to observe a world largely different than my own and that the rules governing female behavior at the Lizzy did not change me or make me weak. And that in order to gain and maintain proper access and rapport I needed to consider myself a bit of an actor or use what Daniels (1983) and Schacht (1997) refer to as impression management faces.

4.8 While the 'pep talk' does not serve to stretch or blur gender scripts it can still be considered a flanking gesture, although psychological in nature, for its role in introducing a playfulness into the research process. Fieldwork requires the researcher to act out different gender roles in order to achieve strategic advantage in the field. By reminding myself that I was in fact only acting out these demeaning gender roles, and doing it so well that it was believable, I was able to reframe my behavior as an empowering performance of gender. By treating the deployment of gender as play acting I was able to lighten the emotional burden I was experiencing. In addition, this sense of empowerment allowed me to feel less vulnerable in the new setting. The pep talk, then, because it helped me understand the deployment of gender as a playful process is one of the more subtle flanking gestures that I used in the field. In the remaining pages I introduce more concrete flanking gestures that can be used by researchers in the field to help relieve some of the emotional burden of fieldwork.

What's in a name?

4.9 My name, [Benz], tends to produce some anxiety in people over how to properly pronounce it. In my experience, when I have been unsure how to say someone's name I typically don't use it at all; this is an irrational response to an awkward situation, but a very human one all the same. To mitigate people's anxiety about my name in the research setting I adopted a nickname, one that was easier to say and remember. I became Benny. I chose Benny for a number of reasons, one of which was that I knew I would respond to it, as it had been part of my email address for years. More importantly, I wanted a name more commonly associated with men, although not exclusively male. So, even while I was fulfilling a variety of female gender scripts appropriate for the research setting, some of which being uncomfortable – like nurse, domestic, compassionate listener, strong, weak, or naïve – I was also stretching those scripts, or 'flanking' my gender, with a name most residents associated with male roles like Benny Hill or the song 'Benny and the Jets' by Elton John.

4.10 Whether or not my more masculine name had any tangible effects on my study population's opinion of me is difficult to say. It did, however, allow me a certain degree of confidence that I might otherwise not have had as the name Benny provided me with a degree of anonymity. People knew that it was a nickname which eliminated any ethical quandary I might have had. I never concealed my true name from anyone, but most did not know or care to remember my real name. As a result, this small bit of anonymity gave me enormous benefits in terms of actual safety.

4.11 The fact that most of my research participants had forgotten my real name meant that it was harder to track me down. While this may be less important in some research settings, the environment of SROs in downtown Los Angeles was risky. The area I was conducting research in was one of the few locations within Los Angeles where sex offenders and other violent offenders could live[4]. While I never had any issues with these populations, knowing that my real name was not well known reduced my sense of vulnerability in a simple and empowering way. Further, the name Benny provided me with a great icebreaker when first meeting someone, as nearly everyone would ask me, in one way or another, why I had a boy's name. And lastly, it introduced a bit of playfulness into my research - playfulness that allowed me to focus less on the discomfort I felt in the new setting and the required gender scripts and more on meeting new people. I believe that too often scholars are taught that research is supposed to be a serious enterprise, in which play is considered inappropriate and even detrimental to the final research project. I completely disagree with this concept. Introducing play into research can have enormously beneficial effects for the researcher, especially those fully immersed in their field setting.

The fun in playing dumb

4.12 In the opening sequence presented in this article I play the role of the incompetent observer. Playing dumb has long been a technique used by ethnographers to not only gather information but also to build rapport. I suggest here, that playing dumb can also serve as a tactic for dealing with the emotional challenges of fieldwork, especially for a female in a male dominated setting. As already mentioned, the SRO hotel tends to function according to very traditional gender norms in which women are assumed to be less knowledgeable than men. While I find it infuriating when people in my everyday life treat me as less intelligent than men, in my research settings I find that by doing some mental aerobics, or giving myself a small pep talk as discussed earlier, I am able to embrace this demeaning gendered assumption in a constructive way. Embracing the role of the less intelligent female in the field means that your research subjects are underestimating you, which is, in my opinion, a very good thing. When research subjects underestimate you they tend to share more information as they expect you are unlikely to fully understand or remember what they have said. They will also try to teach you different things which builds their confidence while also developing rapport. The mental aerobics that I suggest, entails constantly reminding yourself of the benefits of being underestimated. It is through these reminders that some of the emotional strain generated by playing the role of the unintelligent female can be relieved.

Slipping sides on the sidewalk

4.13 During my research at the Esmeralda Hotel I encountered on many occasions a rule of sidewalk behavior that was unfamiliar—at least to me—that when a woman and man walk down the street if she is street side then she is a prostitute, if she walks on the inside, or the side furthest from the street then she is a respectable lady. Three of my main informants told me time and again about this rule, a rule I claimed I had difficulty remembering. To begin with, once I was told about this rule I did try my best to follow it, however sometimes I would forget, but more often I played with it. It still makes me smile to think of the early days of my friendship with the Pirate, a local homeless man[5] who adopted the dress and persona of a pirate, and how we must have looked walking down the block together. His lanky frame and pirate hat bobbing back and forth as he tried to get on the street side of me.

4.14 I did try to remember and obey the rule when a research subject and I would walk through areas like Skid Row, where this rule was legible and in wide practice, or when I was being introduced to a friend of my informant. However, in other more gentrified settings I resisted this role by feigning forgetfulness. I would intentionally switch to street side and observe the reaction of my informant. This flanking gesture, which involved, feigned forgetfulness, allowed me to resist the gender role of the weak female in need of protection by stretching my gender in the minds of my research subjects. As evidence of this shift in perception all three of my informants who regularly practiced the sidewalk rule, for the most part stopped using it with me by the end of my stay. Again, this flanking gesture allowed me to turn, what I considered a demeaning gender script, into an opportunity for emotional relief through playfulness. Further, over time it allowed my informants to shift their primary focus from my gender to our relationship, which served to strengthen the quality of the data I was collecting.

Weapons for the 'Weak'

4.15 I also carried a variety of concealed weapons at all times during my stay at the Esmeralda Hotel, which included a knife, police issue pepper spray, and a weighted piece of leather similar to a blackjack[6]. I did not carry all these weapons at the same time, rather I always wore the knife concealed on the waist of my pants and would carry one of the others in my purse or bag. It is important to note that carrying a concealed weapon may be illegal in some locations. It is essential that the researcher find out about these regionally specific restrictions prior to making the choice to carry the weapon, so that she fully understands the risk she is taking. For example, the blackjack that I carried on occasion was in fact illegal for civilian possession in the state of California at the time, yet I found that the comfort it provided me far outweighed the potential risk of getting caught. Other researchers may feel differently.

4.16 My reasons for carrying concealed weapons were threefold. First, on a very practical level, downtown Los Angeles at the time of my research was still an under-populated, high-crime area, and in this setting I carried these weapons for my own protection. Second, I would use my knife frequently in front of my research population for mundane tasks like opening boxes. By the end of my research the vast majority of my participants knew I carried a knife as they would often mention it jokingly or ask to borrow it. It was in this way that I was able to stretch the gender script of the weak female, but in an unobtrusive way. Third, I wanted to have a tangible reminder while in the field that I was a strong woman with the will and gumption to stand up and fight for herself if necessary. In other words, these tangible weapons served as a reminder to myself that I was a strong and independent woman, despite the fact that my research setting frequently had me playing the gender scripts of a naïve, demure, and weak female. While some researchers may not feel comfortable carrying weapons, there are other ways to shore up your safety. For example arranging for regular check-ins with a friend or colleague can serve a similar function.


5.1 As the examples in this article illustrate, flanking gestures can be visible to the study population, such as changing my name to Benny and resisting the sidewalk rule, and they can also be concealed from informants and work for the researcher on a more private and personal level. Deploying these flanking gestures allowed me to blur and play with my gender slightly; I did not reject my femininity or the roles it entailed. I always let my contacts walk me to and from places if they offered. I also gratefully accepted their proposals to help me if I ever had a problem with someone. I also deferred to men if a conflict arose, which only occurred once. On that occasion, I was on the corner outside the hotel observing people when a homeless man approached me. He got very close to me and showed me what appeared to be the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette. He was muttering nonsensically and was agitated. Normally, I would have tried dealing with the man myself, but a handful of male residents were there watching me, so I chose to defer to the Esmeralda security guard. I simply walked inside the lobby and asked for help. The security guard tried to reason with the man but eventually he had to physically remove him from the building.

5.2 In the end, I never wanted to appear too tough or self-reliant and utilized male help when available and embraced gender scripts as they were presented. The flanking gestures I used to blur and play with gender: the pep talk, playing dumb, giving myself a male name, breaking the sidewalk rule, and carrying concealed weapons were done less to build rapport with informants and more to provide an emotional outlet and to bolster my confidence in an unfamiliar setting so that I could be a better researcher. Many of the flanking gestures I have discussed here entail the introduction of play into field research. By allowing myself to be playful I was able to avoid becoming overly obsessive regarding my research interactions and the process at large. Further, over time these flanking gestures allowed my informants to shift their primary focus from my gender to our relationship, which I argue served to strengthen the quality of the data I was collecting.

5.3 I have argued too that certain techniques, or flanking gestures, such as adopting a more masculine nickname, playing with behavioral rules regarding gender, and carrying some kind of concealed source of protection (a strategy that is more practical in dangerous settings), can be strategically utilized by the researcher to alleviate some of the discomfort that typically comes with ethnographic fieldwork in which the primary gender scripts of the setting are largely disparate from those in the researcher's everyday life. These flanking gestures involved a level of subtlety that allowed me to resist, on a personal level, some status scripts presented by my research without actually rejecting them. By doing so, I was able to maintain a strong connection to myself while avoiding some of the commonly cited challenges of ethnography, specifically resentment and anger over the treatment of woman and the guilt of being complicit in the perpetuation of demeaning gender stereotypes and scripts.


1It is important to note that my race, or being white, not being an obstacle in this particular instance is an example of white privilege. Had I been of another race or ethnicity I may have found that that status was more important than my status as female.

2The names of the hotel, all businesses, and informants have been changed in order to protect confidentiality.

3CA HLTH & S § 55001

4California laws restrict where registered sex offenders can live based upon proximity to things like schools and playgrounds. The area of the Historic Core and Skid Row do not have features that would restrict a sex offender's residence. The Esmeralda, during my stay, had between ten and seventeen registered sex offenders in residence. Further, traditional SROs do not conduct background checks on potential residents thus making them available to people with criminal records.

5The Pirate was eventually housed in a non-profit SRO and is no longer homeless.

6A blackjack is a short hand weapon used for knocking people in the head. The weapon is typically made of two leather straps sewn together containing a ball of heavy lead filings at one end.


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