by Milena I. Kremakova
Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 12
Received: 11 May 2013 | Accepted: 26 Aug 2014 | Published: 30 Nov 2014
The article argues that social researchers need a critical, locally situated and historically informed understanding of the categories of 'public' and 'private', in particular when carrying out research in post-socialist Eastern Europe. Drawing on an ethnographic study of the working lives of Bulgarian maritime workers, the article discusses a range of ethical fieldwork dilemmas encountered while negotiating field access, maintaining relations with gatekeepers, recruiting participants, establishing rapport, interviewing, gaining access to documentary evidence and exiting the field. The analysis focuses on the conceptual and practical boundaries between the 'public' and the 'private' and highlights the entanglement of the public and private spheres. The notion of 'returning insider' is developed and the implications of the returning insider's positionality are discussed in Bulgarian post-socialist context.
1.1 Simple concepts can be the hardest to translate. Translation requires a 'shared temporality for shared knowledge' (Fabian 1983) and its difficulties expose fundamental differences in taken-for-granted conceptual frameworks. Our tacit awareness of boundaries between things considered intimate, or private, and things open to others, or public, is an important example. Weintraub & Kumar (1997: 5) demarcate these 'protean' notions along 'visibility' and 'collectivity':
'1. What is hidden or withdrawn versus what is opened, revealed, or accessible; 2. What is individual, or pertains only to an individual, versus what is collective, or affects the interests of a collectivity of individuals.'
1.2 The public-private dichotomy is 'one of the grand dichotomies of western thought' (Bobbio 1989: 1-2) and one of the key symbolic demarcations of the interactional spaces which, in turn, constitute social reality (Goffman 1975). But it has also been criticised for being a contingent outcome of the conjoint historical development of capitalism and liberal democracy in Western Europe. Falk (2003) warns against its uncritical application which brings short-sighted, Eurocentric knowledge-production practices. This article seeks to rehabilitate the public-private dichotomy as a useful notion for understanding the post-socialist context, by situating it between locally-specific factors and a broader European cultural space as a small step towards integrating post-socialist studies into a global sociology and history (e.g. Bhambra 2013). I argue that the ways in which researchers 'navigate' public and private spaces affect fieldwork and analysis; and that, however fuzzy, negotiable and locally-specific the public-private dichotomy may be, it remains an important factor in ethnographic, anthropological, micro-sociological and other qualitative research – at least in the 'west' and places such as Eastern Europe where the 'west' is an important reference point. Researchers writing in English, for western-influenced readerships, must be sensitive to the transmutations of the public-private boundary across cultures and subcultures. For both insider- and outsider-researchers, awareness of the historically-constructed and locally-specific nature of the private-public distinction is an important element of the situated knowledge required for research and inextricably linked with reflexivity (e.g. Hertz 1997; Davies 1999) and positionality (e.g. Rose 1997).
1.3 The next section examines the public-private dichotomy in state-socialist and post-socialist context. The concept of 'returning insider' is introduced and linked to local specificities of the public-private dichotomy. Fieldwork examples highlight the problematic conceptual and practical boundaries, entanglements and intersections between the public and private spheres, and their effect on field access and rapport.
2.1 Before examining how post-socialist transformations affected the public and private spheres, we must first ascertain how applicable the public-private dichotomy is to an Eastern European context.
2.2 In her novel-memoir about, Russian émigrée to the USA Elena Gorokhova recalls being baffled by the English word 'privacy' which clashed with her everyday life as a child growing up behind the Iron Curtain:
'. . . we don't have the word "privacy" in Russian. "It simply doesn't exist", [my teacher] proclaims. "We do have seclusion, though, as well as isolation" [. . .] How strange, I think, that an English word has no translation. Does that mean that the English people know something we don't? Is this mysterious "privacy" an invention of the capitalist West, something that we, the only people destined to inherit a bright future, lack?' (Gorokhova 2008: 91).
2.3 But does 'privacy' really not exist in the Russian (or Eastern European) context? Different authors' views range a more or less critical application or refinement of the concepts to their rejection. Humphrey (2002: 212) refines the dichotomy by pointing out the uneasy connection between its halves: 'there was no mediating space in Soviet Russia between the public and the private, no space of conventional socialisation; you were either in the space of official decorum or in the nooks of domesticity'. Similarly, Verdery argues that the more important feature of Soviet society was the harsh split between 'us' and 'them' (1996: 94). Khlinovskaya Rockhill (2010: 14) employs the western notions of 'public' and 'private' to describe Soviet society in which the main division was between
'the "social", consisting of transparent "public" and "personal" lives and an unseen, unrecognised private, not going beyond the most intimate. [. . .] Soviet society formed a "social" sphere, a hybrid between public and private, where private had retreated into the intimate, but private life had not shrunk to intimacy in the sense of a legitimate and protected sphere of privacy.'
2.4 Kharkhordin (1999) argues even more radically that the private-public dichotomy does not apply to post-1917 Russia because the October Revolution practically erased all old distinctions. Instead, he defines lichnaya (personal) and chastnaya (private) zhizn' (life) which together constitute the western 'private'. In his reflections on Moscow ten years after 1917, Walter Benjamin similarly observed:
'Bolshevism has abolished private life. The bureaucracy, political activity, the press are so powerful that no time remains for the interests that do not converge with them. Nor any space.[…] Every step away from the preordained path meets with an immeasurable bureaucratic apparatus and with impossible costs' (Benjamin 1999:30).
2.5 Gal & Kligman (2000) reject the public-private dichotomy as an ideological notion grounded in Western European bourgeois modernity, entangled with gender and inapplicable to Soviet reality: 'these distinctions hid a profound irony'. There was a gap between ideology and everyday practices but socialist citizens had something akin to a false consciousness and assumed that a separation existed between a 'trustworthy, private, familial "we"' and the 'untrustworthy, public "they" who were in charge for the state' (ibid.: 51). Instead of a clear-cut division between us and them, private and public, Gal & Kligman see a 'ubiquitous self-embedding or interweaving of these categories'. The 'social' comprised two uneasily divided parts: the quasi-public world of work, open to the public gaze of state institutions; and the guarded quasi-private world of family, friends and intimate life. Everyone was complicit in 'the systems of patronage, lying, theft, hedging and duplicity through which the system operated'; everyone implicitly knew that 'the "we" of the private and the "they" of the public were often the very same individuals', enmeshed in 'nested interdependencies of work, time and materials' (ibid.: 51).
2.6 We can add to that that the socialist state presented itself as a quasi-family (for example, the 'father-figures' of Iosif Stalin in the USSR, Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria or Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania). But we would not be right to argue that view no private sphere existed before 1989: rather, the argument here is that our construction of the terms 'public' and 'private' is so strongly rooted in the European Enlightenment and western socio-political history that we must reconstruct these terms using grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967) for each particular local context. We must redraw, and not erase, the distinction. As Chakrabarti writes:
'[c]oncepts such as citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, the individual, distinctions between public and private, the idea of the subject, democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice, scienti?c rationality, and so on all bear the burden of European thought and history. One simply cannot think of political modernity without these and other related concepts that found a climactic form in the course of the European Enlightenment and the nineteenth century.' (Chakrabarty 2000: 4)
2.7 What about the public-private dichotomy after 1989? Most discussions so far have been limited to the social geography of rural, urban and domestic spaces (cf. Crowley and Reid 2002, especially Gerasimova's chapter on Russia and Bren's chapter on Czechoslovakia; Utekhin et al. 2006, 2008 on communal apartments in Russia). But it could – and should – also be linked to other aspects of post-socialist change. The fall of state socialism shattered the certainties of everyday life: in Yurchak's pithy expression, everything had been 'forever, until it was no more' (2005). The predictability and rigidity of the old regime gave way to constant systemic change: not a mere rearrangement of social hierarchies, but a 'dynamization of the very principles, mechanisms, factors and resources for social positioning' (Blagoev 1999 on Bulgaria, my translation). Post-1989 Bulgaria has been described as a society in anomie, disintegrated into atomised entities, chronically lacking a sense of 'public good', where many of the changes are perceived as unjust by its citizens (Chalakov et al. 2008) and a sense of cultural (Creed 1997, 2011) and moral (Hann 2011) dispossession prevails. Resilient economic networks survived 1989 and flourished in the new 'hidden fields' and 'webs' of power (Chalakov et al. 2008). Deema Kaneff's (2002) anthropological analysis of the shame and embarrassment demonstrates how the ongoing renegotiation of the conventions of proper and acceptable behaviour in public spaces such as markets make them 'morally charged places' (Shreeves' findings, in Kaneff 2002, on privatisation and the public and private spheres in Kazakhstan, are similar).
2.8 Elsewhere I argued that the 'new spirit of post-socialist capitalism' (Kremakova 2011) is characterised by a 'market logic' (Boltanski & Thevenot 2006). This market logic can be said to centre around the individual's rediscovered publicity. After 1989, concepts and behaviours linked with the 'public' became linked more closely with self-promotion in a way that had been neither legitimate, nor common, under state socialism. Calculative, short-term, advantage-seeking individualist behaviour not only became a necessary component of success strategies, but acquired public legitimacy. The boundaries between the public and the private shifted. The new post-1989 world revived pre-socialist market rules, updated with post-industrial, neoliberal market conventions: 're-publicisation of what had been pushed into the zone of the private, in not just an effort to recover authentic politics, but also to recapture subjectivity' (Falk 2003:325, see also Mische 1993).
2.9 It is essential to eschew the common representations of Eastern Europe as one imagined entity based on physical geography and recognise the diverse historical, political and economic pathways of individual countries or regions. To western authors, Russia (the USSR) commonly appears as the centre of a seemingly homogeneous (post-) socialist world. As the brief review earlier in this section shows, most literature on the public and private focuses on Russia and the (former) Soviet Union. Research on (post)-socialist Russia is undoubtedly important for understanding post-socialism ; but it cannot be a proxy for other Eastern European countries, with their different local histories and 'flavours' of state socialism. Despite the unifying framework of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), legal restrictions on the free movement of people and goods were in place and fewer cross-border socio-economic and cultural links were maintained between regions, compared to similarly adjacent regions in Western Europe (cf. Andorka 1999 on Hungary). After 1989 further divergences occurred, as countries tackled the daunting task of reconciling democracy, free market and social justice.
2.10 Similarly, Eastern European countries are more than their recent state-socialist past. Continuities and older historical legacies are important – in particular, for the public-private dichotomy. A growing recent literature argues that the effects of Bulgarian state socialism (1944 - 1989) have been over analysed and that a longer-term frame is needed (Dimitrova-Grajzl 2007). For example, it is often forgotten that while the industrialisation effort of the Bulgarian socialist state was huge, it was the third industrialisation which built upon two older 'modernisation' waves: the first following the 1878 Liberation from Ottoman Rule, and the second after World War I (Dimitrov 1995). Unlike pre-1917 Russia, pre-1944 Bulgaria had no aristocracy, but a nascent bourgeoisie had developed. This arguably made the emerging modern public-private distinctions (both in the Habermasian sense of civic private and public spheres and in the economic sense of private and state ownership) more similar to Europe than to Russia (for an insightful analysis of emerging Bulgarian bourgeoisie between 1878 and World War II, see Hadzhiyski 2002).
3.1 So far it has been argued that the public-private dichotomy is a relevant, if locally-specific and complex, category of post-socialist social life; but how does it affect empirical research? Qualitative studies transgress the fuzzy boundary between public and private by their very nature. The ethnographer 'enacts hybridity' (Narayan 1997: 30) and remains 'in between', never fully in or out (Corbin, Dwyer & Buckle 2009). But this is not some clear-cut ontological 'no (wo)man's land': the researcher is a much-less-than-objective participant in social reality and constantly negotiates his or her relationship with the society he or she studies. Ethnography's knowledge production is specific: ethnographers cannot claim expert knowledge, yet their findings are accessible to an outside public/audience. As Strathern (cited in Sturge 2007: 87) notes, anthropology's special 'genre of knowing' means that the accounts it produces are always disparate with the originating context; differences pertaining to personal biography can immensely influence the outcome. Systemic issues arising from class, gender, age, generation, occupation, can shape verbal communication and all other aspects of the ethnographer's relationship with research participants. Ethnographers depend heavily on trust and rapport: it is hard to disagree with Brewer's statement that '[e]thnographers need to trust the people they are working with and vice versa' (2002: 85). To complicate this further, the concept of trust itself, as well as ethnography as a scientific practice, are linked to European modernity, market and civil society (Seligman 1997). And since institutional and personal trust are determined by locally accepted notions and practices of what may be revealed to outsiders, and what only to oneself or a close circle, ethnographic interviews are a paradoxical experience for all involved, precisely because they blur the public-private dichotomy. The ethnographic interview harbours promises of fame – publicity – for the interviewee; but public exposure of the individual as a 'research subject' or 'informant' can be threatening or dangerous. Ethnography's intrusion into personal spaces by crossing the private-public boundary raises ethical questions both in the field, and when publicising – making public – research.
3.2 Having established the relevance of the public-private dichotomy in post-socialist context, the importance of historical and contextual knowledge in navigating this fuzzy divide and its relevance to ethnography, let us introduce the 'returning insider' as a specific type of researcher positionality.
3.3 A 'returning insider' (RI) is a researcher who was once a full insider to a group, but has become an outsider by virtue of personal and/or institutional biography. RIs are analogous to the 'marginal native – once an insider, now an outsider', as Koskinen (2008: 37) calls herself in her ethnography of EU translation; Abu-Lughod's (1991) 'halfie anthropologist'; or the nominal insider who shares little with the social group he or she studies due to boundaries of class or upbringing (Ganesh, in Bell 1993). There are many unnamed examples of RIs: Vieda Skultans (1998) who studied Latvian narrative and memory; Deema Kaneff, Australian anthropologist of Bulgaria, her parents' homeland (2002); Anton Popov, UK-based ethnographer who studied his native Krasnodar region (2009); Louise Ryan as an assumed 'insider' in her study of Irish migrants (2007) and an assumed outsider in a study of Muslim Londoners (Ryan & Aaron 2011). RI research is a common 'springboard' for young researchers who cannot cope with the financial, organisational and temporal limitations of an individual project in a new country – increasingly so, with the ongoing neoliberalisation of academia (Gill 2009). Yet, little analysis exists of the methodological and ethical aspects of RI positionality. This section attempts to fill the gap.
3.4 The RI disrupts the neat boundary between 'in' and 'out'. He or she inhabits the 'liminal, self-conscious world between cultures' (Rabinow 2007: 39), both in a personal and professional capacity. Like 'third-culture kids' (Pollock & Van Reken 2001), RIs belong to two or more cultures, in which the conventions and implicit understandings of 'public' and 'private' never entirely overlap.
3.5 The insider who returns to a linguistically, culturally and personally familiar milieu for research faces ethical dilemmas in all traditional areas of research ethics (informed consent, doing no harm to participants and researchers, privacy, anonymity, avoiding deceit). He or she must be constantly aware of his or her own 'responses, values, beliefs and prejudices' (Morley in Blaxter et al. 1996: 82). As insider-researchers know, even 'being from the country you are studying does not resolve issues of 'positionality"' because 'it creates false identifications and obscures the issues of power in the research process that attention to positionality addresses' (Pilkington 2010).
3.6 Not only the researcher's own perceptions of the study, but also those of their respondents are shaped by the researcher's projected positionality. Compared to outsider-researchers, or to other insiders, RIs face an additional ethical challenge: how to remain 'true' to two native languages and cultures while translating (and trans-relating) between them. Rendering oral speech in ethnographic writing raises issues very similar to interlingual translation. Linguistic Translation Studies can provide a useful analogy to ethnographers' attempts to 'translate' one social reality into another adequately, attentively and respectfully. Ethnographers – often intuitively – use an array of coping strategies similar to professional translators. One extreme is overemphasising commonality to enable 'communication and solidarity' (Sturge 2007: 34) – taking the risk to minimise the power differentials between observer and observed, appropriating and absorbing them into the translator's world (ibid: 87). Conversely, emphasising foreignness fosters exoticisation and reification. Like native-speaker translators, insider-ethnographers are simultaneously enabled and challenged: they cannot avoid, yet must constantly remember, the dangers of 'going native', because they are native. Even though insiders can detect and decode key references to cultural symbols, figures of speech (irony, ellipses, understatements, metaphors) and 'faux-pas', they still struggle to convey local meanings and logics of the social reality (respectively, text) to an outside audience. Outsiders, conversely, face challenges in understanding internal logic of events and arguments and in gaining access and rapport. The RI can, potentially, combine both. I argue that the advantages of the RI or other varieties of semi-insider, semi-outsider positionalities, can be harnessed and turned into advantages in resolving ethical fieldwork dilemmas.
4.1 The post-1989 marketisation and internationalisation of cargo shipping were truly dramatic. Shipping used to be an important local industry for Bulgaria and other seaside (ex-)socialist countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, Romania and the Baltic states – but, unlike in the rest of the world where it is an extremely liberalised industry, socialist merchant fleets were owned and managed by the state. The study examined the changing meanings and vocabularies of work and compared the life-courses and career trajectories of seafarers and port-workers of different generations on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. It employed ethnography, participant and non-participant observation, legal documents, media reports, books and film documentaries. I conducted over fifty formal face-to-face interviews with maritime workers aged between 24 and 82 years, currently or formerly employed in various professions (merchant seafarers of all ranks, port-workers, entrepreneurs, administrators, managers, maritime educators and NGO-workers). Two-thirds were in-depth, narrative and life-course interviews lasting several hours. The rest (mainly with managers) were semi-structured and focused less on biography and more on current maritime developments. During the study, I lived with my family in Bulgaria for ten months over several prolonged trips. My father, a sea captain, was not only my inspiration, but also my first and most keen 'gatekeeper'.
4.2 An analysis of my positionality with respect to the public-private boundary reveals a number of important factors beyond my control. Respondents saw me now just in my professional role of researcher and university student, but also as a young girl or woman, a seaside local, a native speaker of Bulgarian, and a seafarer's child. As an insider, I was not just 'a member of the public': I could more easily relate to seafarers and ask relevant questions thanks to being familiar with the terminology and specifics of maritime work. I could partly be my own gatekeeper and be in charge with fieldwork progress, instead of being fully dependent on a mysterious benevolent insider-gatekeeper. But family and friends did not perceive me as a researcher at work and instead demanded personal, informal attention and time. The line between work and leisure, and between honest chats 'off the record' and 'work' was often thin.
4.3 But there was one more thing: my family's surname is unusually-sounding and almost unique. Printed on the official university letter presented to interviewees on request, it followed me everywhere as a benign shadow-gatekeeper and instantly betrayed my family links. My name was my passport into the seafaring world, but it created ethical conundrums: I could anonymise most of my respondents, but my own and my gatekeeper-father's surnames made our anonymity, or that of our friends and relatives, impossible. While one could remain relatively anonymous with a popular Bulgarian surname (such as Dimitrov), thanks to Bulgarian patriarchal naming traditions, I was instantly identified as the daughter of a merchant captain. In tight professional communities noticeable surnames serve as instant, inescapable identification. When I introduced myself with my first name, the surname was eventually asked for and had to be mentioned. Even interviewees recruited through other channels often asked me whether so-and-so's happened to be my father. On one occasion, an 89-year old interviewee asked whether so-and-so had been my grandfather (that had, indeed, been the case).
4.4 I was usually trusted, regardless of whether I introduced myself directly, found contacts through my father, or other acquaintances who acted as gatekeepers:
Interviewer: Dad, do you know where I'm thinking of going for interviews? The Marine Qualification Centre.
Respondent: Yes! Go there. They know me. The director knows my names. His surname is [name].
I: Will they recognise my names, too, then?
R: Yes, of course. And you will send them my best regards.
(conversation with my father, 58, captain).
4.5 Fortunately, being related to a respected captain enhanced rapport with seafarers of all ranks (older ones invariably recognised the surname and often the person; younger ones respected my being related to a captain, a high hierarchical position in the professional community), as well as lower-rank or older shore workers and administrators. I cannot speculate about the possible outcome of fieldwork if my father had been a less well respected captain, or had a different profession.
4.6 The RI, even bearing a recognisable name, is not a regular insider. Having returned after a long absence, I was also an outsider: a young emigrant who had left the town and country as a child and returned a decade later as an adult; a researcher from a western university returning to her childhood's industrial hometown. This exacerbated other previously existing differences, such as my dual national heritage (Russian-Bulgarian bilingual) and higher-than-average educational status. My Bulgarian was occasionally jeopardized by having lived in the capital, by having Russian as second native tongue, by not knowing the latest slang and by having to think about my research in English.
4.7 All of this made my hierarchical position unclear: I was perceived simultaneously as someone to be applauded and assisted for researching important local issues, but also to be envied and distrusted as an almost-foreigner; 'one of our kids', but also a skilled emigrant affiliated to a western institution asking personal questions with a public purpose. As 'an insider who had returned', I had only one choice: to construct an ad hoc 'mediator' identity which would balance the personae of an insider and outsider faced with numerous ethical questions: Was my access to the field legitimate, or was it inadvertent exploitation of the personal trust of acquaintances for the purpose of publication? Did some interviewees trust me with their biographies (often sharing very personal details) because of who I was, ignoring or underestimating the 'official' – institutional, public – nature of my research? Did others refuse to be interviewed, or feel uneasy during the interview, for the same reason? Had I done everything possible to protect anonymity and avoid harm to participants? Did the benefit of getting access to a closed field thanks to being an insider outweigh the problems of increased subjectivity? How can the RI be a good researcher, when he or she inevitably carries vested interests and deeply rooted prejudices to events and people in his or her first home?
4.8 The public-private boundary maintained its solid, inescapable presence at all stages of the research: when negotiating field access, soliciting support from gatekeepers, recruiting participants, interviewing, establishing rapport, gaining access to documentary evidence and exiting the field. I constantly felt as if stumbling over this invisible but obvious boundary, while everybody else had their rightful places; I was both one of 'us' and one of 'them', both 'under' and 'above'; a private person in a public role. I responded to these challenges half-consciously, half-reflexively, by striving to manage my identity to accentuate my insider status and the impression of being 'one of us', whether by reading up on local affairs in advance, managing my attire, or tweaking my accent to sound local. It was these unanticipated difficulties that suggested the notion of a RI, following the spirit, if not the exact terms, of Alfred Schütz's concept of 'the stranger' (1944). Geographically, I had returned to my home-city, following the usual pattern of young people who study in the capital or abroad; biographically, I had 'returned to my roots' by exploring life-stories of locals, similar to those of my parents and teachers, but not to my own; linguistically and analytically, I had access to an external viewpoint, informed by sociological theory and conceptualised in a foreign language. I was, in effect, more aware than a full insider of the constant tacit pressure to sustain an adequate social 'performance' and the various expectations held by my respondents (based on my gender, age and normatively assumed heterosexuality). By the act of naming this positionality, I could finally hope to tame it.
4.9 As semi-insider, I found ways to be accepted and trusted by some – those approached on a private level – but not others. My insiderness gained me access to a distinct and encapsulated local professional community (workers, local officials, entrepreneurs), but gave no advantage in communication with central state authorities, city administration or large businesses. This is where a specific advantage of being a returning insider (as opposed to either a full insider or outsider) became helpful. Having been away to study meant that I had acquired additional, outsider expertise; in different situations, it was possible to draw selectively on my insider or outsider status. Combined with the fact that I had come back to my home-town, to research locally important social issues, this (perceived) expertise appeared to lend additional legitimacy to my work in the eyes of many respondents, as these two quotes illustrate:
You lot grew up in the worst years of the Transition, a confused generation. There are many young people like you, but still a minority compared to the rest who are, well, lost. Out of 1000 people, 100-200 know what, why and how they are doing and are making effort. (male manager of formerly state-owned ro-ro shipping company, 56)
I'm sure you know all this, you've probably talked to tens of people already. . . Not sure I can add much, but since you're asking! (male port inspector, 35)
5.1 Choosing an appropriate degree of formality in an interview affects the outcome of fieldwork. On many occasions the address chosen for the first verbal exchange has repercussions on subsequent communication and the outcome of an interview. The choice of pronoun with which to address a new (potential) acquaintance, presents outsiders and incomplete insiders with a riddle. The seeming ease with which locals make this choice conceals important positioning groundwork between conversation partners. It betrays tacit awareness of micro-social politics – in other words, an awareness of where the public-private divide lies.
5.2 I encountered a particular variety of this boundary-setting common to Slavic and other languages which distinguish between different levels of formality in the forms of address. Unlike English, but similarly to German, French, Spanish or Russian, in Bulgarian the formal and informal addresses are rigidly defined. Once the informal form has been used, reverting back to formality is unacceptable and implies a degree of hostility or insult. The respectful formal ('Vie') is normally used for superiors, strangers, or people older than the speaker, but can also be construed as lofty or distancing when used inappropriately. The informal ('ti') is usually used for friends, relatives, close acquaintances, people younger or lower in the hierarchy than oneself. 'Ti' can be perceived either as a friendly acknowledgement of community between speakers, or as rude and demeaning. When and how often Bulgarian speakers use the formal and informal form of address is an interesting and, sadly, still unexplored sociolinguistic question. There are many individual, educational, gender, regional and other variations in the use of pronouns and the patterns of their use constitute something akin to the class divide in British English. Unlike the neutral meaning of the English adjective 'familiar', both the Russian 'famil'yarnyi' and Bulgarian 'familiaren' (which share the same root) have negative undertones ('overly-familiar'). However, while there are many parallels with Russian in particular, Bulgarian-speakers use the informal 'ti' more readily and the transition from formal to informal is easier (native Russian speakers find Bulgarian manners of address informal, similarly to Brits in the USA). Linguistic differences between languages appear reflect subtly different, locally-specific understandings of 'public' and 'private'.
5.3 My unclear hierarchical position complicated communication with respondents, in particular the 'ti/Vie' choice. This was embarrassing, but useful: my 'somewhat outlandish', marginal status allowed a laxer margin of error than regular insiders. I could employ ad hoc communication strategies, such as starting with the formal address with senior or older respondents and waiting for their reaction; or guessing what level of formality to use by observing their relation to my gatekeepers. I had (or acted as if I had) more leeway in laying down the tacit 'rules' of communication and provoking rapport according to the situation, e.g. by switching to 'ti' in the middle of an interview with a friendly female librarian in her forties; by maintaining a polite 'Vie' with a retired entrepreneur and former official even though he addressed me informally; or by starting the interview with a brash 'ti' with younger respondents to set up an equal relationship.
6.1 Discussing money revealed another aspect of the post-socialist private-public boundary. Being a RI had specific advantages: as a captain's daughter born in 1981, I remembered enough to relate to older seafarers' recollections of socialism as well as to younger respondents who had been socialised in the post-socialist labour market.
6.2 While linguistic differences between 'Vie' and 'ti' exposed locally-specific definitions of 'public' and 'private', generational differences in attitudes to money exposed the temporal shift in meanings related to the fall of state socialism. Young seafarers – most of whom had experience only with private crew manning agents and had never worked for the old State Fleet – openly told me their wages without even being asked, minutes after beginning the interview. The 27-year-old sister of a 29-year old captain quoted her brother's wage in a brief conversation. In contrast, seafarers and port-workers aged over 45 tended to avoid the subject of salaries. It was discussed with unease and only among close friends. A lot of cunning and ingenuity was employed in procuring information about others' wages. When an older seafarer found out, for example, the wage offered by a certain firm to boatswains, he often disseminated the information even without being asked – but only among a small circle of friends. Older seafarers did not disclose their salaries in interviews or conversations. Even people I knew well managed to make 'How much do you earn?' sound like an impertinent question: I felt embarrassed asking my father's colleagues this question which, under normal circumstances I wouldn't. In contrast, private details about personal life, relationships, even experiences of petty smuggling were discussed much more readily. The most telling example was a group interview with two captains who were friends. They spent an hour discussing job conditions in various firms with me. When finally one of them broached the subject of wages, they lowered their voices and looked around.
6.3 Under state socialism, salaries differed little. The small differences were normally explained by different working conditions (crews on longer and/or harder voyages or cargoes received small financial bonuses). All maritime specialists worked in several state-owned firms and were part of the same community: 'byahme vse nashi hora' ('we were all insiders'). Salaries were publicly known: all payslips were displayed on a the last day of the month on the same wall in the local maritime administration building. Seafarers and their family members could see how much their colleagues earned and obvious differences were gossiped about (e.g. when a certain captain regularly bulked up his own overtime for additional payment at the expense of his crew). Today's wage divergence, the increasingly insecure employment situation of almost all maritime workers, and the increasingly dynamic job market competition may be what makes older seafarers so uneasy and protective about the level of their wage. This stark generational divide in seafarers' verbal relationship with money suggests that after 1989 the public-private boundary shifted and a new culture of money emerged, in which older seafarers did not feel 'at home'. It also reveals the on-going fragmentation of the formerly tight professional community and a redefinition of the conventions which define what is private or public. What one young interviewee (third mate, b. 1982) called 'earning some bucks to kick-start your own life', older respondents lamented as an 'increasing culture of materialism' (captain, b. 1954). As a RI, I had a better overview based on interviews, theoretical knowledge, and my personal adolescent experiences – as a seafarer's child in the 1980-1990s, and as an adult employed in Bulgaria and abroad.
7.1 After 1989, shipping was among the first industries discovered by international employers. It quickly became part of the global labour market and many local businesses emerged. Fragments of the old fleet survived in various formats: some remained in state ownership for various periods of time; others underwent mass privatisation; yet others vanished altogether, causing a wave of unemployment for tens of thousands of seafarers and shore-workers in the 1990s. New opportunities emerged for those young and well-qualified, but many older or less-adaptable workers became unemployed. The topic of post-socialist enterprise privatisation revealed yet another aspect of the shifting boundary between the public and private spheres: the question who controls resources and who takes care of the 'public good'.
7.2 Old and young seafarers talk differently about money, but their opinions of the post-1989 fate of the Fleets are similar. This suggests that perhaps maritime workers as a community found themselves 'on the wrong side' of post-socialist reform. Seafarers of all generations and political convictions lamented the unfair 'dismantling' of a large industry and infrastructure which had provided employment for local communities and a valuable service for the nation: the state fleet had been 'sold off for dimes', 'handed over to new owners under the table'. Most were convinced that the private sector was created through the destruction and devaluation of everything that had been 'public'. When asked about the meaning of 'public', some invoked the idea of 'public good': Seafarers did not oppose private ownership in theory or, indeed, in their own industry – provided that a fair notion of public good survived. The enormous topic of the post-socialist erosion of the notion of public good cannot be discussed here, but seafarers' opinions of privatisation testify of its importance.
7.3 Like with money conversations, being a RI was helpful in conversations about privatisation. I had insider knowledge both about 'how things work in Europe and the world', and in the Bulgarian maritime industry. This enabled the respondent to use a variety of points of reference and assume that I would understand them fairly, with the eyes of a local; but also objectively, with the eyes of a 'European':
I don't want to sound as an opponent of privatisation. Privatisation can be useful and necessary! But in Bulgaria we haven't had a single [instance of] normal privatisation – only liquidations fraught with corruption. . . You have lived in England, you know very well how things are in Europe – corruption exists everywhere, but it is not nearly as bad as it is here. Here privatisation is a dirty word. (1st mate, former naval officer, also freelance insurance consultant, 56)
7.4 The consequences for rapport and production of ethnographic knowledge are twofold. First, the RI possesses additional expertise (compared to a regular insider) and can be trusted as someone who would understand. But the RI can also appear intimidating, arrogant, or a naïve almost-foreigner insensitive to local problems. Sometimes my projected semi-western identity effected deliberately tempered answers (some respondents attempted to appear more pro-European, and use more politically correct speech, than they would outside the interview situation). This only transpired in longer or repeated interviews; or with people I previously knew. Another interviewee expressed similarly moderate views in a formal interview (in principle pro-privatisation, but against its Bulgarian variety) but was scathing in informal conversations.
7.5 RI and other ambiguous researcher positionalities can prompt the respondent to 'change register' and address the researcher's different perceived personae within the same interview. This is in fact crossing the linguistic public-private boundary back and forth. Having addressed me formally, as an adult, and assumed my knowledge of European affairs as a well-travelled professional, the same respondent later invoked family tropes. Unsurprisingly, in the second instance, his opinion of enterprise privatisation was more evocative, as a more honest informal conversation between adult and child:
Your Dad and I, we grew up in this company, so to speak, you know we've both worked here all our lives. We are thousands, seafarers like us. I see the way things are going now: they are not going well. This privatisation will destroy the company! It will be a catastrophe for the maritime industry, a catastrophe for seafarers, too. (1st mate, former naval officer, also freelance insurance consultant, 56).
7.6 These examples show that the RI should recognise the range of possible interpretations that respondents may apply to him or her, and to anticipate the possible influences of this complex dual positionality on research ethics because of the way in which it invites switching between private and public registers of rapport, potentially yielding different narratives, or revealing private information.
8.1 This last example concerns the (perceived) role of academic social research and its status within the post-socialist public-private dichotomy. Fieldwork presented many instances of suspicion towards social scientists. I was met with a variety of reactions: surprise, disbelief, enthusiasm, suspicion, cynicism or misunderstanding. I was occasionally suspected of being a government statistician, a police spy, a journalist seeking sensation or an economic spy planted by a rivalling firm:
R: I am not giving you an interview. This is not an interview. I have not been authorised to give interviews. (Male manager of a large shipping and manning company, 36, who then talked to me for half an hour despite his initial reticence).
8.2 I felt like an intruder into the unresearched maritime community, interrupter of the normal course of events at the office or in the port (for shore workers), or during holiday or job-hunting (for seafarers). It was never clear in advance whether this intrusion would be applauded, resented, ridiculed or ignored:
R: Are you a journalist?
I: No, I'm doing a sociological study. For my doctorate, at university.
R: But it won't be published, like, in the media, will it? You're not from some rival firm, are you (laugh)? That's OK, then. (male port inspector, recently laid-off, 37).
8.3 The reasons for this are complex. First, the public status of sociology in Bulgaria is rather low. Post-1989 sociology is often confused with election polling or government statistics and jokingly referred to as 'pie-chart science' and stakmistika (a made-up pun meaning 'misuse of statistics'). Qualitative sociology and social anthropology are even less widely known. More importantly state-socialist legacies amplify potential respondents' diffidence. Pre-1989 sociology, largely harnessed by the state and conflated with ideological propaganda, left a poor legacy; distrust of authority and deeply ingrained fears of surveillance are more prevalent in Eastern European states than in older democracies. The experience of state socialism and the chaotic 1990s further undermined institutional legitimacy. In part, this generalised distrust or misunderstanding resembles the 'typical working class response' to impractical, 'bourgeois' pursuits of useless knowledge (Willis 1977). Similarly to the British 'working class', state-socialist ideology heroicised manual labour; types of intellectual work not geared towards technological advancement were seen as less important. However, terms such as 'working class' and 'bourgeois' are misleading in post-socialist context. Suspicion towards researchers is better understood outside European or British notions of class, through the uneven relationship between researcher and researched: the former asks, the latter provides information; the former comes to take, the latter gives away.
8.4 One of my first interviews, much of which cannot be cited for confidentiality reasons, was with a middle-aged secretary in a manning agency, recruited 'through private channels' (my grandmother). The respondent's trust in me as her friend's grand-daughter made her share information much of which she later regretted and requested to withdraw. Her career began in the 1970s and at the time of the interview she worked as secretary in a private manning agency. Her narrative was a tapestry of personal and even intimate stories involving the workers and managers. She used the word 'publikuvam' which translates as both 'publish (in print)' and 'publicise (make public knowledge)'. It is unclear which meaning she used, possibly conflating both. The quote below illustrates the characteristic distrust of anything public or open and the mismatch between western and ex-socialist notions of public and private in relation to business and research:
R (unconvinced): Yes, you can record it, no problem…
I (reassuringly): No one else will hear the interview, I'll only transcribe some relevant bits. I can show them to you, if you want.
R: You'll sift through it for yourself, whatever I tell you. Just make sure no such data come out, you know. But you're only writing a dissertation, it won't be published/publicised and the like, will it? Because if you wanted to know anything special and if it would be published, I must call my firm. But you won't publish/publicise, will you?! (female manning agency secretary, over 50).
8.5 Following the interview, I realised that an ethical problem had occurred: I had failed to obtain informed consent and to explain the full implications of academic research. The assumed notions of private and public of western academic sociology in which I had been educated clashed with the respondent's understanding of the public-private dichotomy. She saw the interview as a harmless 'dry run' serving the sole purpose of my acquiring a university degree. Ignoring the voice recorder, she saw our conversation as a private, informal chat – in contrast to the harsh public world of investigative journalism and the unruly world of economic rivalry. This problem has no easy solution. Access to willing participants depends on their personal, private perception of the researcher as 'one of us' (or, as in my case with some respondents, 'one of our children' (nashe dete)). A full outsider would never get access to a suspicious community; but a full insider would simply know too much and would never publish. My respondent made this clear: she only agreed to be interviewed as a favour to my grandmother; she spoke openly, but later regretted, having reconsidered the dangers of jumping the thin fence between the private and the public.
8.6 A RI is less than a full insider, but sometimes less is more. A former 'child' can transcend the private sphere and transform some of his or her insider capital into ethnographic knowledge by doing RI research. An important challenge here is the unwitting inversion of the power relationship between adults and children, insiders and outsiders, professional workers and knowledge workers. Even when respondents have previously met other social researchers, understand the nature of research and does not mistake the researcher for either an investigative journalist or a spy (unlike Bulgarian seafarers, and like Holdaway's (1983) policemen), our presence remains the ephemeral visit of fleeting outsiders: we come, disrupt the normality of work, pry without getting into much depth and disappear for good – often without a trace.
9.1 This article argued that both foreign and returning researchers need better theoretical and grounded understanding of the public-private dichotomy in Eastern European post-socialist context, in order to conduct ethical and valid research. The practical and conceptual relationships between the insider-outsider dynamics of researcher positionality in relation to the public-private divide were explored. Importantly, it was not argued that there was no pre-1989 'private sphere'. Quite the contrary: even though the civil rights to individuality were not safeguarded to the same extent as in the west, the private sphere was undoubtedly a vital space – in fact, often the only such space – in which resistance, critique and free thought could flourish, enabled by informal networks of trust. The argument here is, rather, sociology's notions of 'private' and 'public' are so strongly influenced by the historical formation of these spheres in the European west, that they must be questioned and revised, in order to be applied to other contexts. Sociology should be simultaneously more global and more local. This can be achieved by deconstructing and enriching pre-constructed concepts when these prove unsuitable for a new research situation.
9.2 The notion of returning insider was introduced and the implications of this positionality were discussed through fieldwork examples. Being a Bulgarian merchant captain's daughter is not such a peculiar positionality for an English-speaking student of post-socialism as it may seem. It is just one example of a RI. My fieldwork made me aware that positionality must be constantly rediscovered and renegotiated in relation to locally-specific frames of reference. I argued that this complex positionality involves careful management of the communication in the field and poses ethical dilemmas, such as the impossibility to obtain fully informed consent due to the RI's unsettled status within the public-private dichotomy and local social hierarchies. Despite these complexities, RI positionality offers advantages: it can open doors into otherwise inaccessible research fields, enhance opportunities for rapport and invite respondents to relate to the researcher and as a well-placed spokesperson, mediator, or metaphoric 'translator' capable of interpreting the reality of their world and the researcher's other 'home'.
9.3 In conclusion, let us break the categories used so far by adding a temporal dimension. 'Insider' and 'outsider' are merely convenient snap-shot short-cuts for expressing the predominant positionality at any given moment. Positionalities such as insider, outsider, halfie anthropologist, semi-insider, RI, or any others, are not diagnoses prescribing a certain code of ethical action in the field, but related steps in the dialectic process of research – which, in turn, is 'the comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other' (Rabinow 2007). The outsider gradually loses his or her sho-shin (beginner's mind), gets accustomed to and begins to comprehend the logic of a new field and comes closer to being an insider. In contrast, the reflection and self-reflection involved in research drive the insider to become an outsider, different from other insiders who are not researchers. Researchers alter the world and world-view of gatekeepers and respondents by disturbing their 'usual patterns of experience' and prompting them to reflect on and objectify their own activities (Rabinow 2007: 38). The special thing about the RI is that, thanks to his or her biography, the RI instantly feels at home in the liminal world in-between the private and the public, unlike other researchers. RI can be a useful methodological category as an exaggerated positionality inhabiting the verge between the public and private spheres of more than one culture. Examining RI experiences highlights the incompleteness of both insider and outsider statuses, the shared ethical dilemmas encountered by all types of researchers and the importance of particularity and biographic detail for the outcomes of field research.
1 Indeed, the USSR itself and its successors are hardly socially homogeneous entities.
2 Russian examples are used also because in my own fieldwork I drew on parallels with the Russian language due to being a bilingual native speaker of Russian and Bulgarian.
3 Of course, terms such as 'insider' or 'outsider' are merely convenient and imperfect short-cuts, and the difference between 'inside' or 'outside' is ambiguous and open to interpretation.
5 Interviewees are anonymous and identified by their age and profession in brackets. In this case the quote is from an informal conversation.
6 In the first historical study to cast light on the underground sociological activity in pre-1989 Bulgaria, Koleva (2005) overturns the common assumption that little critical sociology took place under the authoritarian state's ideological control. The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) was, in fact, formed in the basement of the Institute of Sociology weeks after the fall of the regime, on 7 December 1989.
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