Embodying Gender, Age, Ethnicity and Power in 'the Field': Reflections on Dress and the Presentation of the Self in Research with Older Pakistani Muslims

by Maria Zubair, Wendy Martin and Christina Victor
University of Manchester; Brunel University; Brunel University

Sociological Research Online, 17 (3) 21

Received: 17 Aug 2011     Accepted: 26 Apr 2012    Published: 31 Aug 2012


In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in researching people growing older in the South Asian ethnic minority communities in the UK. However, these populations have received comparatively little attention in wide-ranging discussions on culturally and socially appropriate research methodologies. In this paper, we draw on the experiences of a young female Pakistani Muslim researcher researching older Pakistani Muslim women and men, to explore the significance of gender, age and ethnicity to fieldwork processes and 'field' relationships. In particular, we highlight the significance of dress and specific presentations of the embodied self within the research process. We do so by focusing upon three key issues: (1) Insider/Outsider boundaries and how these boundaries are continuously and actively negotiated in the field through the use of dress and specific presentations of the embodied 'self'; (2) The links between gender, age and space - more specifically, how the researcher's use of traditional Pakistani dress, and her differing research relationships, are influenced by the older Pakistani Muslim participants' gendered use of public and private space; and (3) The opportunities and vulnerabilities experienced by the researcher in the field, reinforced by her use (or otherwise) of the traditional and feminine Pakistani Muslim dress. Our research therefore highlights the role of different presentations of the embodied 'self' to fieldwork processes and relationships, and illustrates how age, gender and status intersect to produce fluctuating insider/outsider boundaries as well as different opportunities and experiences of power and vulnerability within research relationships.

Keywords: Age; Ethnicity; Gender; Power; Body; Dress; Fieldwork; Identity; Researcher; Reflexivity


1.1 The significance of the researcher's identities, positionalities and subjectivities for fieldwork processes, research relationships and research findings is a topic of much interest within qualitative research methods literature. Feminist scholars and those researching marginalised social and cultural groups have pointed to the potential benefits of having researchers who are similar to their participants in terms of important characteristics such as gender, 'race', ethnicity, socio-economic status and sexuality (see e.g. Finch 1993; Mies 1993; Platzer and James 1997; Coffey 1999; Bhopal 2001; Kong et al. 2002; Hesse-Biber 2007; Lee 2008). These authors propose that social and cultural differences between researchers and participants may result in difficulties in gaining access to participants, establishing trust and rapport, and developing non-hierarchical/non-oppressive relationships that allow diverse perspectives and voices to be heard.

1.2 Whilst there are potential benefits that may be gained from the researcher's 'insider' status vis-à-vis their research participants, we recognise the fieldwork situation as more complex and diverse (see also Song and Parker 1995; Twine 2000; Archer 2002; Yip 2008; Wray and Bartholomew 2010) than that suggested by the often assumed simplistic insider/outsider binaries. The fluid, multiple, intersectional and context-dependant nature of identities, for example, means that in reality a researcher may hold multiple and shifting identities and positionalities in the field, as opposed to being a total 'insider' or a complete 'outsider' (see Yip 2008). Since such multiple researcher identities may not mesh completely with all aspects of the identities of the participants, the researcher is likely to be simultaneously an 'insider' in relation to some aspects of their identity and an 'outsider' with regards to others.

1.3 Given the complex nature of insider/outsider boundaries, more recent literature has advocated the adoption of reflexive methodological approaches which pay careful attention to how differences and similarities between the researchers and their participants shape the research process and the knowledge produced (see e.g. Edwards 1990; Bhavnani 1991; Alexander 1996; Skeggs 1997; Ramji 2008). An important development in this regard has been the recent emphasis on the need for inclusion of researchers' bodies as 'an integral part of researchers' reflexivity' (Ellingson 2006: 307). It is argued that research may be conceptualised as an embodied practice since researchers' bodies have an important influence on all aspects of the research process (Coffey 1999; Ellingson 1998 and 2006). Researchers' bodily appearances and bodily actions, adaptations and interactions which are integral to their identities in the field, and to research processes more generally, therefore need to be included in written accounts of research and its methodology (see Okely cited in Shilling 2007; see also Okely 2008 and Retsikas 2008). This is particularly important because by becoming (or being used as) important markers of their identity in the field, their bodies often form an important part of the basis on which participants may perceive and judge them either positively or negatively and/or as 'insiders' or 'outsiders' (Ellingson 2006; Okely 2007).

1.4 In this paper, we explore the significance of gender, age and ethnicity to fieldwork processes and field relationships and highlight the important role of researcher's dress within the research process. Using illustrations from our fieldwork, we focus specifically on our reflections of a young female Pakistani Muslim researcher's use of dress and her particular presentations of the embodied self in the field while researching older Pakistani Muslim women and men. In particular, we reflect on how this Pakistani researcher's dress becomes a central aspect of her female Pakistani Muslim identity within the field – providing her with opportunities for the negotiation of an insider/outsider status within the Pakistani community and allowing her easier access to gendered public and private community spaces whilst also presenting vulnerabilities in the field.

1.5 We begin the paper with a brief description of our research team, our project and the Pakistani community where we conducted our research. Our project team comprised of four members – a principal investigator and a co-investigator who were both White British women and two female research fellows of South Asian descent. One of these research fellows, who is referred to in the rest of this paper as MZ (also an author of this paper), was a Pakistani and conducted fieldwork with the Pakistani community. It is her embodied identity and embodied interactions in the field that is the focus of the discussion in this paper. We describe below the beginnings of our fieldwork and present some of the important details about MZ's background and an account of her initial embodied entry into the Pakistani community – dressed in the traditional Pakistani Muslim attire for women. We argue that this initial embodied interaction of MZ with the local Pakistani community was crucial in the type of identity that emerged for her in the field. In the remaining part of the paper, focusing our discussion around the issues of insider/outsider boundaries, the use of gendered community spaces, and the opportunities and vulnerabilities experienced within the research relationship, we illustrate how MZ's embodied identity as expressed through her dress had important implications for the research process and research relationships.

Background: the Research, the Researched and the Researcher

The Research Project and the Local Pakistani Community

2.1 This paper is based on the experiences of fieldwork for the ESRC New Dynamics of Ageing project: Families and Caring in South Asian Communities. The project explored the social identities, daily lives, social networks and family lives of older people from South Asian communities living in the UK and their own meanings and experiences of 'care' and 'support'. The data collection methods for this project included semi-structured, in-depth, interviewing and social network mapping with a diverse sample of 110 women and men aged 50 years and older who belonged to the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Palmerstone1. In this paper, we focus specifically on our fieldwork with the local Pakistani community. This medium sized community[2] is concentrated mainly in two parts of the town – the East and the West (see Figure [1]). Coincidentally, MZ who was to conduct a total of 54 interviews with our Pakistani participants, was herself resident in East Palmerstone right from the beginning of the fieldwork and moved to South Palmerstone a year later when the fieldwork was near completion. Hence, for a very large part of the fieldwork, MZ shared community and public spaces in her own neighbourhood with members of the local Pakistani community who she was researching. Furthermore, as she was living in East Palmerstone herself, the fieldwork largely involved her travelling between East and West Palmerstone on the same bus route as many of her older Pakistani contacts and participants from the research project. As we discuss later in the paper, MZ's residence in the same neighbourhood as our participants, even though coincidental, had important implications for her embodied visibility and perceived status as an 'insider' in the community[3]

Figure 1. A map depicting East and West Palmerstone. Both of these areas had high concentrations of Pakistanis and a wide range of local Pakistani businesses and shops which catered to the needs of the Pakistani community. For a very large part of the fieldwork, MZ was herself resident in a fairly busy part of East Palmerstone and had local Pakistani businesses, shops and the Pakistani community centre at walking distance from her house. The fieldwork involved her travelling regularly between East and West Palmerstone on a direct bus route which was also used by many of our older Pakistani participants.

2.2 The Pakistani community, while concentrated in two different parts of Palmerstone, was fairly close-knit both socially and geographically with a strong presence of local community networks and groups. These strong ethnicity-specific local Pakistani networks manifested themselves in the form of four different Pakistani mosques in Palmerstone; a well-attended Pakistani community centre; and a wide array of local Pakistani businesses – for example, Pakistani grocers, halaal meat shops and restaurants, and women's clothes shops, catering for the needs of the local Pakistani community. At the same time, this community was also fairly diverse in terms of its members' social class backgrounds, their occupations, levels of education, migration histories, origins in Pakistan, and years of residence in the UK. This was particularly the case since, being located within a predominately non-manufacturing and non-metropolitan area of the UK, this Pakistani community had grown in size gradually through internal migration within the UK rather than large inflows of socially and culturally similar Pakistani migrants at any given point of time. The community's relatively small size, and its location in a non-manufacturing and non-metropolitan area of the UK, made it a novel location for research given the contrast with the existing body of research on ethnic minority populations based in the metropolitan and manufacturing areas of the UK (see e.g. Carey and Shukur 1985; Qureshi 1998; Bowes and Dar 2000; Burholt 2004; Gardener 2006).

Fieldwork: The Beginnings and MZ's Embodied Identity in 'The Field'

2.3 The initial phases of our fieldwork required us to invest considerable time in building up trust and rapport with our participants. This was because, as common with other minority communities or socially and culturally marginalized groups with little prior experience of academic research, our participants had little familiarity with the research process and many expressed concerns in relation to confidentiality and the use of the findings. Some of the participants and contacts from the community enquired, for example, whether the interviews were going to be published in newspapers or handed over to some form of government agency. In addition to addressing these concerns, MZ needed to build a rapport with the community in order for her to be accepted by community members within their community spaces and for potential participants to be confident and willing to participate in the research (also see Zubair et al. 2010a). MZ's shared ethnicity with our participants as a Pakistani Muslim was helpful in this regard. However, we need to also take into account other aspects of her identity. MZ was a young (aged 29) Pakistani Muslim woman and first-generation immigrant from Pakistan with an urban middle-class background who had been living in the UK independently for several years at the time of the fieldwork. As it is often the case in research, there were both commonalities and differences in the backgrounds and identities of MZ and those she researched (see Song and Parker 1995; Twine 2000; Archer 2002; Yip 2008; Wray and Bartholomew 2010). While she shared broadly the same ethnicity with the participants, she was different in terms of her social class background by being middle-class whilst our potential participants were predominantly from working class backgrounds and rural origins in Pakistan. She was also much younger than the participants whose ages ranged from forty eight to eighty years. Moreover, there were gender differences between MZ and the male participants. Her corresponding cultural differences and similarities from the participants were often revealed through the way she dressed (see figures 2 and 3 which depict the dressing styles most commonly used by MZ in her own everyday life in Pakistan and the UK respectively). However, as we demonstrate, the special circumstances of MZ's embodied entry into the field during the month of Ramadan, dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes, meant that these differences became less prominent to the participants in comparison with the more apparent embodied identity of MZ as a Pakistani Muslim woman.

Figure 2. This picture presents the more urban Pakistani style of dressing. MZ generally used this style of dressing when visiting contacts/participants that she had already met before and knew that they either came from urban areas in Pakistan or seemed to think of this as an acceptable way of dressing. MZ would dress like this, particularly if the contacts/participants she was visiting had daughters who dressed like this, so as to be able to mix in easily and to avoid being seen as too religious or 'conservative' for her age.

Figure 3. MZ also used the Western dress – jeans and jumper or tops – with a few participants who seemed to appear to have quite negative views of those Pakistanis who continued to wear the Pakistani dress in Britain.

2.4 The start of MZ's fieldwork with the Pakistani community coincided with the start of the month of Ramadan (August – September, 2008) which is an Islamic month of fasting and praying. During this month, most Muslim people's activities become more centred on the religion and the family, and emphasis is placed on spending more time either in the house in private worship or at the mosque. In addition to the fasting and praying, there is also an increased emphasis placed on women appearing 'modest' in terms of dress accompanied with an increased gendered division of space.

2.5 The religious commitments of the older members of the Pakistani community during the month, and the increased gendered division of space, made MZ's initial access to these older people difficult. However, because of the constraints of the research timetable, she felt compelled to start on her fieldwork[4]. Even though she could not conduct many interviews during this month, she used this time to familiarise herself with the community and build up contacts. Given the absence of any other community activities or events taking place during this month, and the cessation of the older women's and men's weekly lunch clubs that were run at the Pakistani community centre, MZ gained initial access to participants mainly through the special night prayers and the Friday prayers which were organised in separate rooms for women and men and were quite well-attended.

2.6 Gaining access to the Pakistani community in this way had important implications for MZ's dress and the presentation of her embodied 'self' in the field. Attending these special prayers every night involved active participation alongside the older and younger women of the community. Such participation was important for building trust and rapport with the community (see Zubair et al. 2010a), since sitting back and not joining in would have signalled social distance from community members and would have been perceived as a sign of disrespect, especially as MZ was herself also a Pakistani Muslim.

2.7 It is important to note here that the Muslim prayer is a very gendered and embodied activity which involved all female participants, including MZ, wearing the full Pakistani Muslim dress with their heads, shoulders and the upper parts of their bodies fully covered with the traditional Pakistani scarf, known as the dupatta (see Figure 4). It required the women to stand very close together – shoulder to shoulder, and perform repeated, identical and rhythmic body movements – first, standing up with both hands on chest and facing in the same direction of Kaaba (a building in Mecca which is considered by Muslims as their most sacred site); then bending down with both hands on knees; standing straight up again; bowing down on the ground with both hands, the forehead and the knees and the legs on the prayer-mats on the ground; then sitting on the ground on the prayer-mats still facing in the same direction of the Kaaba. This was at the same time as they repeatedly recited in unison the same identical verses from the Quran. Hence MZ was sharing a very embodied and sensate communal space and time with her potential participants, the older female members of the community.

Figure 4. MZ dressed for prayers. This is how MZ wore her scarf on her head for the majority of the time during the month of Ramadan as it was culturally expected and also because she had to often engage in prayers even during her visits to our Pakistani contacts' and participants' homes during this month. MZ also used it after Ramadan when she visited and interviewed the more religious contacts and participants, especially those who were linked with the local mosques or those who had already commented on her dress and had asked her to wear the scarf on her head.

2.8 As the Muslim prayer played heavily on many of its participants' common bodily senses, it also appeared to enforce communal feelings of connection, sameness and belonging among those who participated. While separated from the men during the prayers – spatially as well as in the type of dress worn and the bodily movements observed, all of the women were dressed in a similar fashion and followed the same rhythmic bodily movements and actions. Any bodily transgressions or bodily difference in dress and movements became very noticeable, was commented upon, and brought in line with that of the rest of the female prayer group. Women's separate identities as individuals and any social and cultural differences between them were perceived and treated as being unimportant in this context. Within this setting, MZ's use of the traditional Pakistani Muslim dress for women instantly made her part of this embodied environment where she no longer stood out as somebody different or unusual. Although MZ had initially adopted this form of dress because of its appropriateness for prayers, it became an important marker of her identity in the field on the basis of which most members of the community related to her (see Ellingson 2006). Hence, as a result of her use of the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress for women, a gendered female Pakistani Muslim identity had emerged for her in the field from the very beginning of the fieldwork. MZ thus faced the same type of expectations of cultural conformity to traditional femininity from the community as is seen appropriate within the community for any young Pakistani Muslim woman. As the fieldwork progressed, the significance of MZ's gender, age and ethnicity, and of her particular use of dress, to fieldwork processes and field relationships became increasingly evident. As we shall now discuss further in the next section of the paper, MZ's use of dress, in particular, became an important resource to her maintaining and developing an 'insider' relationship within the community and it was both influenced by and itself influenced our fieldwork processes.

Dress and the Presentation of the Embodied Self in 'The Field'

Embodied Identity and the Insider/Outsider Boundaries

3.1 Wray and Bartholomew (2010) have challenged the usefulness of 'matching' researchers to participants (see also Archer 2002) by pointing to the various commonalities and differences that may simultaneously exist between researchers and their participants. MZ's experience of researching these older Pakistani women and men further challenges the taken-for-granted assumption about an ethnic minority researcher experiencing an 'insider' position when researching those with whom they share the same ethnicity. MZ, for example, experienced various multi-layered and complex insider/outsider boundaries in her capacity as an educated and young Pakistani Muslim woman who was living independently. Although sharing a common ethnicity with the participants, she did not conform to the prescribed, traditional, cultural norms of the community as she lived independently. During the fieldwork, participants and contacts therefore often commented on how she managed to live alone without her family; asked why she did not go back to live with her parents in Pakistan or joined her husband working in another European country; and offered to find her accommodation in a Pakistani family's home. Such participant concerns and queries about MZ's living arrangements revealed the precarious nature of MZ's perceived 'insider' status within the community given her various cultural differences from them. These fieldwork experiences suggest that an 'insider' relationship needs to be continuously and actively negotiated in the field through particular presentations of the self. For MZ, the use of the traditional Pakistani dress became an important resource for the expression of a shared ethnicity with participants and a means of downplaying any socio-cultural differences with them. Its use powerfully endorsed her similarity and solidarity with participants, making her ethnicity more embodied and visible along with her specific physical characteristics – such as dark hair and skin.

3.2 Ellingson (2006) and Okely (2007) have stressed the important role the researcher's body and its signifiers may play in developing (or hindering the development of) trust and rapport with participants. Ellingson (2006), for example, has described how her embodied identity as a cancer survivor, which partially revealed itself through her knee brace and her pronounced limp when she walked, made her participants who were themselves oncology patients feel she could relate to them. In a similar way, the significance of the researcher's body and bodily participation to fieldwork processes and researcher-participant relationships lies in the performative nature of social identities more generally – including gender, age, social class, racial, ethnic and religious identities, whereby the expression of belongingness within one social group or differentiation from another involves a display of the identity in question through performative acts (see Butler 1990 and 1993; Entwistle 2000; Fortier 2000; Mani 2003; Raghuram 2003; Alexander 2004; Abdullah 2009; Twigg 2009; Zubair 2010). Hence, as illustrated by Okely (2007: 71), researchers often have to learn to adapt their bodily performances and actions – including the way they dress, and the way they walk and move – in order to fit in with, and be accepted among, those they are researching. Okely explains that such bodily adaptations take place during fieldwork when a researcher

may find herself closely scrutinised and instructed. S/he may risk causing offence by transgressing the boundaries of what was believed to be 'natural'. Attempts to change, however clumsy, are usefully interpreted as signs of respect.

3.3 While we sought to minimise the perceived cultural differences between ourselves and those we studied, and to adapt to our older participants' social and cultural norms during our fieldwork (see Zubair et al. 2010a), our older Pakistani participants too encouraged MZ to behave in culturally acceptable ways. Some of our community contacts, for example, seeing her as a younger woman from the Pakistani community commented on how she should wear a scarf on her head even when she is not praying and also clothes that are loose. Others offered to provide her with a hijaab (the Islamic headscarf) and a jilbaab (an Islamic gown worn on top of clothes with the purpose of hiding body shape) as gifts. These examples clearly reveal how dress was an important part of our older Pakistani contacts' and participants' social and cultural environment, and the significance that these older Pakistanis attached also to MZ's use of particular forms of dress and to her embodied performance of her ethnic and religious identity. Their explicit encouragement for MZ's 'appropriate' use of dress were suggestive of their acceptance of her in their embodied community spaces as long as she was seen to behave appropriately and adjust her own bodily appearance.

3.4 Even though MZ was successful in negotiating an 'insider' status vis-à-vis our participants on the basis of a shared ethnicity, this 'insider' position required constant affirmation and negotiation through the use of culturally appropriate dress and bodily participation. On one occasion, for example, when she visited the Pakistani community centre for an interview appointment which was around the time of the Friday communal prayers, a couple of the older women from the community expressing their disapproval at the sight of MZ's uncovered head suggested that she should wear a scarf on her head even when she does not intend to pray. On other occasions during the fieldwork and while conducting interviews, MZ often had to participate in prayers with our participants and contacts who often expected that being a Muslim herself she would also want to pray at prayer times. Although the frequency with which MZ had to perform prayers during the fieldwork put extra pressures on her limited time resources, declining an offer of a prayer could on many occasions attract the criticism and negative judgements of older members of the community. Furthermore, the cultural expectations within the community from younger Pakistani women including MZ had implications not merely for her dress and social behaviour during the field work, but her identity – both ascribed by the community as well as asserted – as a Pakistani woman meant that these 'insider' boundaries had to be continuously negotiated and maintained through her use of culturally appropriate dress and social behaviour even outside the field, in local public spaces which she shared with the community[5].

Embodied Participation in Gendered Community Spaces

3.5 Scholars researching first-generation Pakistanis and other South Asians (see e.g. Saifullah-Khan 1976, 1977, 1979; Wilson 1981) have noted the very distinct gendered division of space that exists within these South Asian minority communities with women being confined largely to the domestic domain. This was the case for our female participants who stayed in touch with friends and acquaintances mainly through home visits. The older women's and men's use of space and their participation in activities within the local community also was highly gendered. In our local Pakistani mosques and community centres, the use of space was defined by strict considerations of purdah (i.e. division of male and female space with the purpose of maintaining segregation between the sexes). Women and men used separate rooms and often participated in different types of activities. The men generally took up more active roles and leadership positions within the community and were more involved in interactions and communications with the wider British society.

3.6 This gendered division of private and public spaces and the differential participation of the women and the men in activities outside of the home and the ethnic community had implications for these older Pakistani Muslim women's dress as they experienced less of a need to accommodate their dress to fit in to the wider British public contexts (see Figure 5). The gendered division of spaces in the community was not limited to religious activities or to the month of Ramadan, but was more pervasive – existing to some extent even within the domestic domain, and influencing to a significant extent the women's and the men's roles, and their intra- and inter-gender relationships and interactions with each other. To be accepted within these gendered spaces, and to be able to build a rapport with the older female participants, MZ embraced a gendered female Pakistani identity expressed through her use of the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress. This helped in (re)defining her identity for the participants (see Okely 2007) in terms of a feminine Pakistani ethnic identity and not as a more distant professional woman or researcher who lived independently of her family.

Figure 5. An illustration of the type of traditional dress/dressing style used by most of our older Pakistani participants.

3.7 A number of theorists within dress studies (e.g. Davis 1992; Craik 1993; Entwistle 2000) have pointed to the important link between dress and identity whereby dress serves as a 'visual metaphor for identity' (Davis 1992: 25) and as an 'insignia by which we are read and come to read others' (Entwistle 2000: 35). Emphasising the representational aspect of dress, Entwistle (2000: 7) observes how the seemingly

individual and very personal act of getting dressed is an act of preparing the body for the social world, making it appropriate, acceptable, indeed respectable and possibly even desirable also.

3.8 In this respect, as Entwistle (2000) notes, dress is a situated bodily practice which is influenced by the cultural norms and expectations of the body within a given time and space. Others have also pointed to how particular forms of dress and adornment of the body can be used as a means of negotiating inclusion into particular social spaces and social groups (see e.g. Gole 2000; Raghuram 2003; Zubair 2006, 2008 and 2010) through the performance of the relevant identities. The use of the traditional Pakistani dress by MZ facilitated easy access and acceptance within all-female spaces and meant that she not merely merged into the visual social and cultural milieu of the participants but was also deemed by onlookers to share the same cultural values, beliefs and identities as our participants. This reduced the social distance between her and our female participants. At the same time, however, the gendered ethnic identity that this dress expressed also enforced for MZ culturally-specific, gendered, ways of behaving. The performance of the traditional female Pakistani identity led to a certain amount of subtle socio-spatial distancing from all men in public spaces more generally and from men from the Pakistani community in particular. It was not appropriate to shake hands with men, to sit or stand next to them, or to talk to men unnecessarily[6]. Interactions with the women, on the other hand, often required shaking hands at the minimal and much greater verbal exchange and eye contact. These gender-differential embodied interactions impinged on MZ as she enacted and performed her gendered Pakistani identity within the gendered community spaces, responding appropriately to the perceived cultural expectations of the participants from her. This gendered embodied encounter, nevertheless, did not seem to affect the gender balance within our recruited sample. Recruitment of men, on the contrary, appeared to remain easier (see Zubair et al. 2012) while that of the women became relatively less difficult as a result of the less threatening female Pakistani identity of MZ.

3.9 It is important to recognise here also the complexity of the social and cultural norms of our participants in relation to representations of the body, use of space, expressions of social distance and closeness, and how these interlinked within the field in different ways. These become particularly evident in the context of the divergent age and social class, as well as gender, identities of the participants and MZ. MZ's gender, age, social class and ethnic identities intersected to create for her very specific socio-cultural experiences of the local Pakistani community in relation to her embodied interactions with the older members and presentations of her own embodied 'self'[7]. Given her age and social class differences from the majority of the female participants, her use of the traditional Pakistani dress was often not identical to how it was used by these older women in the community (see figures 5, 6 and 2 for comparison). Moreover, whilst her use of this dress heightened gender-specific behavior and relationships for her in the field, given her age differentials from both the male and female participants, these were less powerfully enforced on her in comparison with the older women thus allowing her some access to the older men's spaces. The use of the traditional dress had to be accompanied by the use of the Urdu language even in cases where the participants could communicate in English[8]. Moreover, this dress made it important for MZ to also use particular forms of addressing the participants – such as calling them 'aunty/baji (elder sister)' and 'uncle', instead of the Urdu version of Mr/Mrs/Ms, as this was more culturally appropriate. The use of 'uncle', for example, allowed for a more comfortable relationship with the older male participants, especially within the male spaces in the community. This was because it suggested social closeness in terms of ethnicity at the same time as it helped to retain some social distance from the male participants on the basis of age even if not purely gender. In addition to the issue of retaining a gender based social distance in the field, the age differentials between the participants and MZ which were also bodily visible meant that it was more culturally polite and respectful to address them as 'aunty' and 'uncle'. The use of Mr/Mrs/Ms or just their names, on the other hand, would have suggested social distance as well as disrespect and would have been particularly problematic given MZ's embodied identity as an insider in the community.

3.10 As we have discussed above, the spatial and gendered dynamics of MZ's research encounters with our participants as she performed an embodied gendered Pakistani identity posed specific challenges for her with respect to developing and maintaining appropriate research relationships with our participants. Our reflexivity in relation to these embodied research encounters within varied gendered spatial contexts of the community has been crucial in informing our understanding of our data. These encounters have, for example, allowed us a more sensitised understanding of the specific nature of the gender dynamics within the community and how these influence the experiences of ageing (see Zubair et al. 2010b), daily life (see Zubair et al. 2011), the family, social networks, community, health and illness, and care and support (see Victor et al. 2012) differently for our female and male participants. Moreover, the complexity and diversity of experiences within the community based on intersections of social class, age, family and gender identities has been particularly reinforced for us also through MZ's experience of the variable and fluctuating character of the boundaries of gendered space use and of performance of the various social identities within the community.

Figure 6. This is the dress-style which was most commonly used by MZ as it was more appropriate to use because it neither appeared overly Islamic nor too Western. MZ used it most of the time in the field and especially when she would meet any new contacts and potential participants for the first time. In some cases, she had to change her style of dressing in the second and subsequent meetings in order to accommodate to the perceived styles and cultural expectations of the participants. Some of the participants, for example, commented on MZ's dress and her use of the scarf and explicitly advised her to wear her scarf properly on her head.

Dress and Embodied Constraints and Vulnerabilities

3.11 MZ's use of the traditional Pakistani dress in the field became symbolic of her female Pakistani identity but served to undermine her professional identity as a researcher. The embodiment of the female Pakistani ethnicity opened up opportunities for MZ to gain an easy access to the private domain of the participants' homes, both female and male, since it made her appear less threatening and more trustworthy to our older participants (see Okely 2007) and stripped off some of the institutional baggage that we carried as a research team belonging to a predominantly White and middle-class university. Simultaneously, this embodied identity also often placed her in a particularly vulnerable position vis-à-vis some of the participants, specially the men in the community. While female researchers have often found themselves in a vulnerable position when researching men (see Green et al. 1993; Arendell 1997; Gill and Maclean 2002; Sharp and Kremer 2006), the gender differentials in power between MZ and our male participants and her vulnerability in the field became particularly pronounced as a result of the gendered division of male and female space within the community. This was because, as Puwar (2004: 8; see also Entwistle 2000) describes, social spaces (as well as bodies) are not neutral, but imbued with gendered and racialised or ethnicity-specific meanings:

While all can, in theory, enter, it is certain types of bodies that are tacitly designated as being the 'natural' occupants ----- Some bodies are deemed as having the right to belong, while others are marked out as trespassers, who are, in accordance with how both spaces and bodies are imagined (politically, historically and conceptually), circumscribed as being 'out of place'. Not being the somatic norm, they are space invaders.

3.12 In the case of MZ too, the more explicit gendered division of space within the community meant that a young Pakistani woman entering male spaces within the community, interacting with men independently of her family and approaching men for interviews directly herself without a male chaperon was not following the cultural norms with respect to the use of space within the community. Not only did she stand out as an unusual entity in this regard, but also appeared alone and vulnerable. In such male spaces, while the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress emphasised her shared Pakistani ethnicity with the male participants, it embodied and signified mainly a female Pakistani identity at the expense of her professional identity as a researcher. This was particularly the case since the traditional Pakistani Muslim dress for women, being itself based on strong ideologies of purdah (defined as the symbolic division of male and female space through the use of dress), enforces separate gendered spaces and roles for women and men; the use of this dress has, therefore, traditionally enforced domesticated Pakistani femininity (see Mernissi 1987; Ali 1993).

3.13 Entwistle (2000) has noted how gendered dress codes may act as modes of restraint and how these are linked with the management of gendered bodies in space. MZ's use of the female Pakistani dress also imposed certain physical constraints on her bodily movements. The loose clothes which included a long shirt and very long scarf draped around her body (see Figure 6) meant that, among many other things, she was unable to ride her bicycle during the course of the fieldwork both because of the practical difficulties introduced by the dress and the cultural expectations of traditional Pakistani femininity that the dress raised among bystanders. MZ who could not drive and lived in the same local area as many of our participants and contacts, therefore, had to make use of the local bus service during her entire fieldwork which involved sharing the same bus route as many of our older participants (see Figure 1). This increased her contact with the community whose members then invariably saw her dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes as she went about conducting the fieldwork. The increased visibility of MZ in the local area on a daily basis, as a result of her use of public transport, not merely made her Pakistani identity much more prominent than her identity as a professional researcher; this persistent visibility in the local community spaces over time also meant that she was progressively being perceived and treated by community members as part of their community.

3.14 MZ's identity as a younger female member of the community that had gradually emerged during the fieldwork, posed particular challenges for her in the field. Pointing to the conventional constructions of femininity within the South Asian minority communities in Britain, a number of scholars (see e.g. Drury 1991; Husband 1986 cited in Samad 1998; Hennink et al. 1999; Ahmad et al. 2002) have noted how within these communities the women's moral identities are perceived as much more easily damaged and less easily repaired compared with those of the men. This has often resulted in a considerable amount of social control being exerted over the young women within these communities and a greater policing of these young women's movements and social behaviours, not merely by their families but community members as well (see Dwyer 2000; Archer 2001; Zubair 2008). MZ's embodied female Pakistani ethnicity, as expressed through her use of the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress, also meant that her social behaviour was judged by community members using the standards of conventional Pakistani femininity. For example, seeing her as a young Pakistani woman entering all-male community public spaces un-chaperoned, many of the male contacts and participants questioned her about who her father and husband were; where they lived; what they did; and also whether she had any family living locally. Many of the older women would also enquire from her during the earlier days of the fieldwork: 'Whose daughter are you?' and the question that would then follow was 'Are you here (in the UK) with your husband?' Male participants and contacts and their wives advised MZ against interviewing men unless there were other people around and some male contacts and participants asked her questions which were felt personal including how much her husband earned and whether she had dependants that she needed to support through work. Such questions by our participants and contacts were often quite uncomfortable for MZ and made her feel 'out of place', somewhat barred (see Puwar 2004) and vulnerable within the male public spaces within the community. Hence, as Russell (1999) argues, research participants including older interviewees are not necessarily a vulnerable and passive group vis-à-vis the researcher but can be active agents who exercise considerable power over the research process and research relationships, irrespective of whether the researcher has employed a neutral face based on an 'ethic of detachment' or invested their own identity within the research process (see Oakley 1981). While MZ's experiences with the male participants bring into question the usefulness of building rapport and trust through an emphasis on one's self-identity, it is important to also take into account that MZ's gender and ethnic identities were not merely performed. As Twigg (2009) observes in the case of age identities, these identities were also bodily visible through her physical characteristics and hence not always easily changeable merely through the use of a different type of dress.

3.15 With regards to the balance of opportunities and vulnerabilities and the types of research relationships formed in the field, it is important to note here that these varied in accordance with not only the gender of the participants, but also the status and power dynamics between MZ and our older Pakistani participants more generally. Addressing the men by calling them 'uncle' often formed a more culturally comfortable relationship between our older male contacts/participants and MZ, especially when she entered the male spaces within the community using the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress. However, not all participants could be addressed in this way, particularly those who were community leaders or otherwise of a high status within the community and liked to somewhat differentiate themselves from the rest of the Pakistani community. Interactions with such male participants, while embodying the female Pakistani ethnicity, presented far greater challenges as these put MZ in a particularly vulnerable position within the research relationship. Even though in such contexts, an emphasis on her professional identity as a researcher may have been useful in minimising to some extent these gendered power differentials, as suggested by Ellingson (2006) and Okely (2007), bodily markers of identity – whether voluntary or involuntary – are often quite significant in forming participants' perceptions of their researcher and these may also sometimes be difficult to overcome. Ellingson (2006), for example, notes the difficulty in escaping her ascribed identity as a patient which resulted from her leg brace and limp. She describes how, even when she had wanted to be perceived as a researcher, it was her impaired body rather than her status as a researcher that actually influenced the way people understood and responded to her. In the case of MZ too, given her increased visibility in community spaces from the very early phases of the fieldwork dressed in the traditional and feminine Pakistani clothes, it was much more difficult to counter the strong culture-specific gendered ascriptions imposed on her identity by community members.

Embodied Negotiations of Cultural Diversity: Access and Data Implications

4.1 Our older Pakistani participants were, however, not a culturally homogeneous group. Despite the majority of the older people within our local Pakistani community who seemed to uphold traditional cultural views, there were nevertheless variations in cultural norms, practices and values within the community. This meant that, for building a better rapport with the participants and to build comfortable and trusting research relationships, it was important that MZ was attentive towards these subtle internal cultural variations within the community. These cultural variations often required MZ to accommodate her dress accordingly (see Figures 2, 3, 4 and 6).

4.2 The adaptations made by MZ in her dress and the accompanied bodily stances and bodily participation that these supported seemed to be important in the research process. These influenced not merely the willingness of our participants to participate in our research, but were also crucial in MZ's interactions with them, the sort of research relationships that emerged during the fieldwork, the data that was produced and our understandings of the data. Our participants' varied reactions to MZ's dress and her embodied identity were obvious many times during the fieldwork not only from these participants' more explicit comments about her use of dress, but also sometimes implicitly through their subtle expressions of either trust or mistrust and social distance or similarity. For example, one of our female participants who herself always dressed in Western clothes refused for her interview to be recorded and also appeared very cautious in most of her responses when MZ arrived at her house dressed in the traditional Pakistani clothes. MZ wore the traditional Pakistani clothes because she had just come from another interview appointment where a male participant had asked her to wear her scarf on her head, and she had not had the opportunity to change her dress while travelling on the bus. For this female participant, the use of the traditional dress by MZ, nevertheless, seemed to suggest the latter's cultural similarity to the local Pakistani community with whom the participant did not like to mix. This perceived cultural difference from MZ thus influenced this female participant's interaction with her during the interview. MZ, however, got a very different response from her husband and this female participant herself during her second visit to their house when she was dressed in Western clothes. The husband not only happily agreed to have his interview recorded, but also gave MZ much more time and appeared much more relaxed and open in his answers.

4.3 There was also an obvious difference in the types of narratives and discourses that were produced in some of the interviews, which seemed to result from how MZ was perceived by our different participants on the basis of her dress and her embodied identity. For instance, in the case of the husband and the wife discussed above, although MZ had not expressed any sort of personal opinions and views herself, just by seeing her dressed in Western clothes, the husband assumed that she would share the same sort of cultural values and beliefs as him and his wife. Hence the wife's narrative on her relationship with the local Pakistani community (which was produced as MZ interviewed her dressed in the traditional Pakistani clothes) emphasised how they perceived her to be less of a Muslim only because she wore Western clothes and had English friends, and it moved on to justify the authenticity of her Muslim identity with the assertion, 'just because I wear Western clothes or have English friends, does not mean that I am less of a Muslim or that I would eat pork'. This participant, who was in full-time paid employment, also negotiated her gendered Pakistani family identity in the interview by emphasising that her children held priority in her life and were more important to her than her job. Moreover, she described how even when not mixing with the local Pakistani community socially, she nevertheless made her own contribution towards the welfare of the community by providing community members with advice and support in relation to their children's schooling and helping them fill out official forms when needed. The husband's narrative on the other hand, which was produced as MZ interviewed him dressed in Western clothes, was very different. Rather than justifying his own religious or cultural authenticity against potential criticisms from community members or his lack of engagement with the local Pakistani community, he emphasised his own social distance from the local Pakistani community which he suggested he liked to maintain because he found them 'irritating' and 'not well-informed'. In a similar way to this male participant and his wife, MZ's position as an insider/outsider with respect to the local community as perceived by participants and based on her embodied identity and interactions are likely to have been important in the discourses produced about the family and community for many other participants as well.

Concluding comments

5.1 The issues relating to gaining access to participants and securing recruitment (see Barata et al. 2006; Feldman et al. 2008; Lloyd et al. 2008; McLean and Campbell 2003; Sheikh et al. 2009), as well as the establishment of trust and rapport and a non-oppressive relationship between researchers and participants (see Oakley 1981; Lather 1988; Edwards 1990; Platzer and James 1997; Bhopal 2001), have been at the forefront of much discussion and debate surrounding the use of appropriate research methodologies when researching marginalised or vulnerable social and cultural groups. While some scholars have considered the usefulness and appropriateness of 'matching' researchers to participants in terms of important background characteristics, others have emphasised the need for greater reflexivity in relation to how the researcher's background characteristics and the research procedures they employ affect their relationship with their participants and their data. However, the important role that the researchers' bodies and their embodied identities occupy within the research process, have received comparatively far little attention within the methodological literature until very recently.

5.2 In this paper, we have attempted to explore some of the opportunities and challenges in relation to doing fieldwork with older Pakistani Muslims in the UK, focussing specifically on the significance of MZ's gender, age and ethnic identities – as represented in the field through her dress and embodied 'self'. Using examples from our fieldwork experiences, we have highlighted three key issues that relate to MZ's use of dress and her embodied identity in the field. First, we have reflected on the multi-layered and complex nature of the insider/outsider boundaries which meant that an 'insider' relationship had to be continuously and actively negotiated by MZ in the field through her use of dress and specific presentations of the embodied 'self' (see also Zubair et al. 2012). Second, we have discussed how the gendered division of space within our local Pakistani community required MZ to conform to the traditional Pakistani dress for women which in turn signified MZ's possession of a traditional female Pakistani identity to members of the community. While this was problematic in terms of gaining access to male spaces within the community, as Cohen (2000) argues, there is often a need for researchers to embrace a defined social identity within the field since the assumption of neutrality (or in our case a non-gendered and/or non-ethnicity specific identity) on the part of the researcher is an illusion and can create a problem in itself. In our research, MZ's embodied participation in the women's spaces through her use of dress as well as bodily participation in their cultural activities allowed her to both visibly and socially merge into the gendered cultural milieu of our participants. Third, we have illustrated how the expression of cultural similarity and/or an emphasis on a shared ethnicity with the participants may introduce certain cultural constraints and vulnerabilities in the field as well as opportunities. These constraints and vulnerabilities became particularly pronounced and visible for MZ through the visibility of her embodied female Pakistani identity as she wore the traditional and feminine Pakistani dress in the field.

5.3 In the final section of the paper, we have also reflected upon the cultural heterogeneity within our local Pakistani community and pointed to the important implications that the researcher's embodied identity can have beyond the issues of access and recruitment, influencing to some extent also the nature of the knowledge that is produced in the research. In our case, for example, the adaptations in MZ's presentations of the embodied self enabled us to more easily capture both within our study sample and data, the cultural heterogeneity and the diversity of experiences that existed within the community. At the same time, however, her embodied identity also appeared to impact upon the participants' own presentations of 'the self' during interviews, thus producing in some of the cases specific discourses and narratives surrounding family and community roles and relationships.

5.4 Our fieldwork experiences, therefore, clearly reveal the significance of different presentations of the researcher's embodied 'self' to the types of research relationships that emerge in the field, the specific fieldwork processes employed, and the nature of the knowledge produced through the research. These experiences suggest a greater need for researchers to engage in reflexivity with regards to their own embodied identities and interactions during fieldwork and how these specific identities and interactions may influence every stage of the research process – from gaining initial access to potential participants and building comfortable research relationships to knowledge production. In addition, as we have illustrated throughout the paper, this reflexivity is particularly important in relation to research relationships since a simple 'matching' of some of the researcher and participant background characteristics does not of itself produce good researcher-participant relationships nor necessarily enhances the fieldwork. Our fieldwork experiences show that, rather than assuming rapport and cultural understanding on the basis of perceived shared background characteristics with participants, it is important that researchers and research teams recognise and respond appropriately to the cultural diversity and internal social differentiation that exists within any social group when they plan and undertake their fieldwork. In particular, researchers need to pay careful attention to their own social and cultural differences from their participants – both embodied and visible as well as other – along with the perceived similarities, and endeavour to actively, continuously and visibly build rapport and cultural understanding with their participants across these social and cultural differentiations and similarities.


1 Palmerstone is a fictitious name we use in this paper to refer to the town in the South East of England where we conducted our fieldwork.

2 In the 2001 Census, Pakistanis made up 2.7% of a total Palmerstone population of 143,100.

3 It is important to note that our study was not an ethnography. However, the significance of the study community's culture for the researcher's body, their embodied use of space and time, and their presentation of the embodied 'self' to other social actors in the field, has led us to engage in a more ethnographically informed analysis of MZ's fieldwork experiences.

4 This shows how there are often tensions between the schedule and requirements of funded research and the everyday lives and time-scales of the participants from religious and ethnic minority communities. We discuss these tensions between the formalized procedures of funded research and the everyday lives of our older ethnic minority participants in another paper (see Zubair et al. 2009).

5 We discuss the fieldwork issues relating to our older Pakistani participants' use of their time, and how it put pressures on our own time resources, in another paper (see Zubair et al. 2009).

6 We discuss in detail in another paper (see Zubair et al. 2009) how gender issues – including our participants' gendered research relationships with our researcher and their gendered use of space – presented specific challenges to our fieldwork and recruitment processes.

7 We explore issues of intersectionality in relation to MZ's identities and experiences in the field in greater detail in another paper (see Zubair et al. 2012).

8 Despite the diversity among our participants in terms of their origins in Pakistan and stronger affiliations with particular local Pakistani dialects, the use of Urdu which is the national language of Pakistan (and a lingua franca spoken and understood by the majority of our participants) nevertheless reinforced greater cultural similarity and understanding between MZ and our participants.


This study is funded by grant reference RES-352-25-0009-A as part of the ESRC New Dynamics of Ageing Programme directed by Professor Alan Walker.

We wish to formally acknowledge the work of Dr Subrata Saha on the project between October 2007 and February 2010, and we are grateful for the support and participation of the local communities and to all those who participated in the study.

We also wish to express our thanks and appreciation to Professor Julia Twigg (University of Kent) for her helpful comments on an initial draft of the paper. We are grateful for her support, help and continued encouragement during the development of this paper.


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