Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Fiona Gill and Catherine Maclean (2002) 'Knowing your Place: Gender and Reflexivity in two Ethnographies'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 2, <>

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Received: 21/3/2002      Accepted: 27/6/2002      Published: 31/8/2002


Female ethnographers often appear to be more aware of their sexual status and its impact on fieldwork and relationships than their male colleagues (Okely 1992: 19, Coffey 1999: 79). Similarly, the behaviour of female fieldworkers is often more closely scrutinised than that of male fieldworkers (Mascarenhas-Keyes 1987: 187), and many female ethnographers' accounts detail gender-specific issues and challenges that arose during their research (e.g. Moreno 1995: 220, Whitehead 1976, Middleton 1986). This paper draws on the authors' experiences in two different rural British communities, conducting research using a combination of methods including participant observation and tape-recorded interviews. Catherine Maclean's research examined migration and social change in 'Beulach', a remote rural parish in the north of Scotland, while Fiona Gill's research focused on issues of identity in 'Bordertown', a small town near the border between Scotland and England. In both cases, while gender was not initially a focus of the research, it became increasingly salient during the fieldwork period. The paper discusses the similarities and differences between the authors' research experiences, and the factors that account for these. The authors' research is set in the wider context of ethnographic community studies. The paper explores the emotional impact of the fieldwork on the authors, and the consequences of this for the research. It concludes that although female researchers have to consider and deal with gender-related research problems not faced by their male colleagues, this also has positive consequences as the experiences of female ethnographers encourage a reflexive and self-aware approach.

Ethnogaphy; Gender; Identity Of Researchers And Research Context; Reflexivity


Through violating cultural norms, I had discovered that the boundaries between men's space and women's space are strongly marked and that if I wanted to continue with my fieldwork I must do so in a culturally acceptable manner - I must keep in my place.
(Middleton 1986: 129)

This article draws on the authors' experiences in two different British communities, conducting ethnographic research using a combination of methods including participant observation and tape-recorded interviews. Fiona Gill's research focused on issues of identity within a women's rugby team, the Jesters, based in 'Bordertown', a small town near the Scottish/English border, while Catherine Maclean's research examined migration and social change in 'Beulach', a remote rural parish in the north of Scotland. In both cases, while gender was not initially a focus of the research, it became increasingly salient during the fieldwork period. The article begins with a look at literature which the authors found particularly useful, examines each piece of research in turn, and then discusses the impact these experiences had on the subsequent approach to the research process. Much of the literature drawn on discusses the emotional work involved in research, and how it actually feels to carry out fieldwork. A description of the mechanics of research is not the aim of this paper. Rather, we are interested in putting our own experiences into an academic and emotional context. This context included what it was like doing fieldwork without having a detailed knowledge of the vast body of literature covering the impact of gender on fieldwork, and this is reflected in the literature discussed in the paper.

As the title indicates, a female ethnographer has certain limitations placed on her in terms of behaviour which may affect her ability to carry out research successfully. A woman who engages in the public realm in such a way may be perceived as stepping out of line, and in many instances, though this is not always verbalised, the behaviour of those around her serves to make her aware of her uneasy social position.

The awareness of gender stems from the fact that, in doing ethnographic fieldwork, ethnographers use themselves as the primary tool of the research. Who the researcher is, ultimately, determines the sort of ethnography that will be produced. As such, fieldwork must be understood as a relational process, and a reflexive approach is not only desirable but also necessary. Part of this involves the recognition of our selves as impacting and being impacted upon by the fieldwork:
In recognizing that we are constructed, shaped and challenged by fieldwork, we can become more attuned to what is going on in the specific cultural setting...Fieldwork always starts from where we are. We do not come to a setting without an identity, constructed and shaped by complex social processes.
(Coffey 1999: 158)

Recognising that the self is intimately connected with the completion of fieldwork is also part of recognising that variables such as gender (and of course others including age, nationality, ethnicity, etc.) will influence the outcomes of the research. This article argues that an increased awareness of gender may increase the awareness of the limitations placed on the researcher, but that it also brings certain advantages to the analysis of social situations, introducing different issues and new ideas. This paper is not meant to be a sweeping statement about ethnography in general, nor about the relative merits of female or male researchers. Rather, we argue that a more self- aware and reflexive approach benefits all ethnographic research, whether gender is a primary consideration or not.

Gender was chosen as the main focus for this paper because we realised that, in our roles as researchers, we had both been conscious of transgressing various bounds of acceptable feminine behaviour. Many of the issues discussed centred around how we performed the roles of young women and professional researchers, and the sometimes contradictory demands of each. The way in which we performed our gender roles was as important as how we performed our roles as researchers. If gender "must be readable at a glance" (Halberstam 1998: 23), in the behaviour of individuals, then tensions may arise between the roles of 'researcher' and 'woman'. Although appearing to be women fitting conventional notions of 'femininity', we were also behaving in ways which contradicted this, which could be disconcerting for both ourselves and people in our fieldwork areas.

In both accounts, gender roles were tied up in notions of sexuality and sexual norms and behaviours. Although gender cannot simply be reduced to sexuality, it is clear that gender and sexuality were linked in many factors of our experiences. Judgements were made on the appearance of us both, which resulted in expectations about our sexuality and sexual availability which had to be dealt with. As a result, sexuality is discussed in the article, particularly in its role in controlling the behaviour of researchers.

Though at times difficult, we found our experiences to be rewarding and positive. We experienced the 'buzz' of living somewhere new, getting to know new people and forging enduring relationships with the people of Beulach and Bordertown. This article should not, therefore, be read as a 'warning-off' to potential researchers about the problems accompanying this type of research. Rather, our aim is to explore some of our own experiences, and to try to reflect on the ways they informed our research, in the hope that these reflections may be of interest and use to others doing similar research.

It has been argued that the behaviour of female fieldworkers is often more closely scrutinised than that of male fieldworkers (Mascarenhas-Keyes 1987: 187), and many female ethnographers' accounts detail gender-specific issues and challenges that arose during their research (e.g. Moreno 1995: 220, Whitehead 1976, Middleton 1986). Female ethnographers often appear to be more aware of their sexual status and its impact on fieldwork and relationships than are their white, heterosexual male colleagues (Okely 1992: 19, Coffey 1999: 79). This is not a recent development. As a more reflexive approach to anthropological and ethnographic work was developed, notably during the 1970s though there are some earlier examples (see Okely and Callaway 1992: 8 for a summary), it became apparent that the biography of the researcher had a profound impact on the fieldwork being carried out. This was particularly noticeable if the researcher was a woman, when her marital status, sexuality and general demeanour could determine the access granted to her. That this is true of men as well is obvious, but it seems that female researchers have been more aware of this issue, and so perhaps more likely to embrace a reflexive approach to research.

Bowen's (1954) Return to Laughter is an early example of a reflexive approach to ethnography and was an influential text for both of the current authors. It is significant not simply because it is an example of a woman carrying out fieldwork in a remote community, but also because it is written:
as a human being, and the truth I have tried to tell concerns the sea change in one's self that comes from immersion in another and alien world.
(Bowen 1954: Notes)

Though written as a 'fictional' account of fieldwork experiences, and published under a false name, it is nonetheless an extraordinarily personal and reflexive account of fieldwork. Though gender is not a major focus of the book, Bowen's accounts of her emotions and changes in perceptions highlight the intense relationship between the researcher and the researched. A dialogue of actions, words and meanings is established, leaving Bowen (1954: 59) with an altered perspective. She surrenders control of her own perception of self and of the direction of the research, and in so doing allows herself to become immersed and significantly altered by her experiences.

Bowen's influence has been far-reaching. Golde (1986) cites her as filling a gap in ethnographic accounts, and inspiring more reflexive and personal accounts of fieldwork. Women in the Field (Golde 1986) collects such accounts from women exploring the impact of gender on their experiences. They also start to examine the effects of this impact on themselves and the nature of the relationship between ethnographer, field and self. Gender becomes the variable that is used to explore the ways in which 'the characteristics of the ethnographer may indirectly and inadvertently affect the process of research.' (Golde 1986: 2). It is certainly one of the first books which attempts to examine in depth what Golde describes as the 'impact of subjectivity' (Golde 1986: viii) on the field. There was a dearth of material thereafter, until this lack was addressed at a conference, from which came the book Gendered Fields (Bell et al. 1993). Kulick and Willson (1995) also attempt to deal directly with issues of subjectivity in the field, looking particularly at erotic and sexual subjectivity and including the perspectives of male as well as female ethnographers, although they note that it was much harder to find men willing to contribute to the volume (1995: xiii). They argue that issues of sex, gender and the sexuality of ethnographers have largely been ignored or silenced in the public setting. This is done through the normalisation of the subjectivity of the white male heterosexual ethnographer, marginalising women and non-heterosexual people:
who risk their stake in mainstream anthropological debate, their 'respectability', and perhaps even their careers by discussing these problems too publicly.
(Kulick and Willson 1995: 4)

However, by ignoring the erotic in the daily interchanges of life, a large part of experience is omitted. The ethnographer ceases to be a 'complete' person, being portrayed as a machine for the recording and analysis of data.

We attempt, in the remainder of this paper, to re-examine our own fieldwork experiences in a more reflexive light. As two young, single women carrying out research in rural settings, we became more aware of ourselves as gendered beings early in the research, and were both aware that gender would be an important factor in how our research was carried out. Access to certain types of knowledge and to certain social settings was easier as a woman. But we also found that gender had unexpected impacts on us as individuals, both positive and negative.

Fieldwork in Bordertown

This section is based on Gill's fieldwork experiences whilst researching her MSc and PhD. Initially examining issues of identity in `Bordertown', a small town on the Scottish-English border, she concentrated on two different sports to see how ambiguous national and local identity were mediated within the town. Gill found herself having to adopt a more self-aware approach to the field and to her work because of the expectations placed on her as a young woman. This happened as a matter of some urgency, as she discovered that gender norms are somewhat different in Bordertown than in her native Australia.

Though aware intellectually that gender was an important factor to be considered during fieldwork, with hindsight Gill realised that relatively superficial attention had been paid to this issue, with the focus being on how her gender might impact on her access. Little or no thought was given to the impact of the research on Gill's own identity. By the end of the research, however, it was obvious that gender and Gill's identity as a woman had a substantial impact, not only on the field, but also on her own sense of self.

The research was carried out by Gill remaining based in Edinburgh and travelling to Bordertown on a regular basis. Participant observation was supplemented with 25 in-depth interviews over the course of three years. The research itself has been ongoing since 1999, with a break of twelve months in the middle between the MSc and PhD projects. Gill's MSc concentrated on the local football teams in and around Bordertown, and most of her time was spent with football players in various pubs and other social settings. The PhD examined the women's rugby team, the Jesters. In this instance, Gill joined the team as a player, training and traveling with the team over the course of two seasons whilst carrying out interviews and observation. At the outset, issues of local and national identity were the focus (as they were with the footballers), but gradually it became clear that the ways in which the players negotiated gender identity were equally important.

It became evident during the MSc that gender was an important issue and that it needed to be acknowledged. As a young, single woman, Gill represented something of an addition in terms of potential sexual partners for the men of Bordertown, and so was able to gain entry to the field relatively easily. However, it quickly became clear that there might be problems with this perception. In the first place, it was something of a shock to Gill. Moreno argues that:
A central aspect of academic life . . . is the denial of gender at work. . . we are expected to study, administer, write, and teach as if gender did not matter.
(Moreno 1995: 246)

This may ignore the emotional and social realities of fieldwork. Though the researcher may, as Gill did, consider herself to be basically a genderless entity whilst carrying out fieldwork, those people she is researching may not share this viewpoint. They may well see her instead as first and foremost a woman and treat her accordingly. The unexpected focus on Gill as a gendered and sexual being forced a rapid recalculation of how best to relate and behave in the field.

Interactions with the men ranged from mild flirting and sexual banter to explicit offers, the most memorable of which was an offer of a direct trade - an interview granted in return for sex. Gill decided that an interview with this informant was probably not crucial to the successful completion of fieldwork and declined. The experience did, however, open up new understandings of how Gill was being seen by her informants. Most men appeared to think that she was 'fair game' for sexual advances, due mainly to Gill's choice of research methods which neglected to take into account the sexual and gender norms of Bordertown. This profoundly affected her ability to carry out further research in that particular setting. Women in Bordertown do not spend a great deal of time in public with men, even men to whom they are related. In fact, the only women who do behave in such a way are those known to be sexually available and promiscuous. As a result, the women in Bordertown saw Gill as a sexual rival, due to Gill's novelty status, and therefore as a threat to their relationships. The split between Gill's initial perception of herself, as a `professional' academic and the men's perception of her as a potential partner caused great confusion and some emotional turbulence as she struggled to fulfill her role as researcher, while attempting to eliminate the roles of a 'tidy bird' and 'easy' (as perceived by the women in Bordertown). Sexuality had become an issue and there seemed to be no way of resolving it. It became clear towards the end of the MSc fieldwork that the situation and relationships with the women could potentially deteriorate further.

Consequently, for the PhD research, Gill chose to study the 'Jesters', the women's rugby team in Bordertown. She hoped that by joining the team as a regular member, the women would be given the opportunity to get to know her personally, thus avoiding the earlier problems. It also gave Gill a recognised role in Bordertown, as a female rugby player. Though gender was still expected to be an issue, it was hoped some of the difficulties experienced earlier might be diminished, and this was certainly true in terms of how she was perceived as a sexual being by members of the rugby club. One result of the move, not immediately considered, was that by joining an ambiguous group such as this one, Gill was problematising her own gender identity. Women who play rugby are attributed an ambiguous gendered and sexual identity. They are women operating in a male domain, playing a man's game. As such their identity as feminine and heterosexual women is pulled into an ambiguous context (Hargreaves 1994:261).

This became clear as Gill realised that her identity as a rugby player would hold even when off the pitch, at 'home' in Edinburgh. Almost every social occasion became an opportunity for data collection. Gill was not considered to be a 'real' woman, but rather a kind of man/woman, outside the normal male- female dichotomy of gender. Women who discovered that she played rugby shied away, as if afraid that Gill was going to start flirting with them or, simultaneously, act very 'hard'. Men stopped flirting and began treating her as 'one of the boys' whilst also telling her that women should not play rugby. This, though academically interesting, proved to be somewhat socially wearing.

In order to carry out this type of research, Gill had to fit in with the team and behave as a woman rugby player is expected to. The difficulty here is that women rugby players flout conventions of femininity, and so occupy a difficult social space in Bordertown and the rugby club. The men in Bordertown tend to be unsure of how to approach many of the women players. Access to members of the club at every level also had to be gained. This meant approaching men and speaking to them as equals, as a professional researcher, despite an already ambiguous social position.

Ultimately, some areas were closed to Gill as a woman. The end of season rugby club dinner was 'Men Only'. Participant-observation in the men's team was impossible. And Gill became aware that her gender was one of the first things that people noticed about her, particularly when discussing her participation in rugby. This enabled Gill to see and feel what it was like for women living in small towns who attempt to redefine their gender identities. She found that for those women who were known in other contexts within the town, some negotiation was possible, but that as an outsider, it was not readily available for Gill. This was compared to the relative freedom experienced by women, and Gill herself, in cities such as Edinburgh, to play sports like rugby and to renegotiate how they are seen.

Gill was also forced to reflect on how she felt about herself, her identity as a woman and her sexuality in ways which were simply not possible previously, as she found herself confronting contradictory rumours about her sexuality, caused by her flouting of gender norms. Simultaneously, the women's team suspected that she was lesbian, and the rest of the club assumed that she was heterosexual and promiscuous. The rumours were only brought to her attention after people had decided that she was neither threatening nor easy, that she was, in fact 'sound'.

The rumour of lesbianism was particularly problematic as it represented a direct challenge to Gill's own perception of her sexual identity as heterosexual as well as constituting a real threat to her continuing access to the team. For the Jesters, it was vitally important that the team be perceived as heterosexual, in a context where participation in a 'masculine' activity could lead to stigmatising assumptions about their sexuality (Cahn 1994: 164). For an outsider to be lesbian would have resulted in almost permanent ostracism, making fieldwork impossible. Gill felt vulnerable and angry that her participation in a gender-ambiguous activity meant that her sexuality was immediately redefined. A further irritant was that the main people doing the redefining were women who were also engaged in playing rugby!

For Gill, confronting other people's reactions to her activities and their perceptions of how women should behave also brought about a greater personal understanding of her identity as a woman. The rumour regarding her sexuality also involved her confrontation of her own insecurity regarding how other people perceived her as a woman, her sense of femininity and her sexuality. Because she was being confronted both by unfamiliar attitudes and also unexpected challenges to her own identity, she was able better to understand her team-mates who were undergoing similar challenges, and examine their motivations for behaving as they did. Reflecting on this experience undoubtedly benefited the research and data analysis.

Fieldwork in Beulach

By contrast to Gill, six years on from her fieldwork, Maclean reconsiders her experiences from a distance, although aiming to retain here some of the rawness and immediacy of reflections written at the time of her doctoral research. Overall, she empathises with Wilkins' reflection upon 'taking it personally' that 'it is hard to believe now, much less to convey, how anxious I felt as I conducted my research' (Wilkins 1993: 95). Maclean has found revisiting her material to be a revealing and at times disconcerting shift in focus and perspective. Certain issues which loomed large at the time now seem relatively trivial, while other issues which were not acknowledged or did not seem salient at the time now stand out clearly in the light cast by subsequent reflection, reading and discussion with Gill.

Maclean's doctoral research examined social change and migration in remote rural areas, through a case study of 'Beulach', a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. She lived in Beulach for over 14 months during 1995-96. The data collected consisted of fieldnotes and over 30 taped interviews, supplemented by other sources such as the Census Small Area Statistics, the Register of Sasines[1] and local health and employment statistics. Although Maclean was not from Beulach, her family had long-standing ties to the area through their status as 'summer visitors', and many of her elderly interviewees had known her grandfather. Knowing and being known was largely beneficial to the research, and Maclean in this respect felt that her gender was an advantage. Being a grandson rather than a granddaughter would have entailed some pressure to live up to her grandfather's reputation for fishing, drinking and being 'good crack'[2]. Being female, young, non-local and a student, it fitted appropriate roles to be in a deferential, listening and learning mode, a mode which came relatively easily to Maclean, and was mainly of benefit to the process of data collection, with some qualifications discussed later.

Maclean had been aware that her gender would be an issue before moving to Beulach, from her reading and, crucially, stemming from her status as young and single, from her experience of living and working in the parish for a summer season some years prior to her doctoral research. Hoping to pre-empt any difficulties, Maclean tried, like other female fieldworkers, to be seen as 'understanding, sympathetic, sexually unavailable...Modest appearance and posture was a key element in the strategy' (Vera-Sanso 1993: 162). Shortly after returning from her fieldwork, Maclean wrote 'with hindsight, I can see it was probably a mistake to live like Mother Teresa for a year - I had thought being a model of good behaviour would be the most low-key, neutral and uninteresting thing I could do, but in fact it seemed to make me more intriguing and mysterious' (1997: 49 cf. Kulick 1995: 9). This was compounded by the fact that Beulach people seldom ask directly about such things. It was occasionally clear that people were speculating about why Maclean apparently had no male partner, but she was seldom directly asked about whether she had a boyfriend (and then only by non-local women who knew her quite well). Celibacy 'in the field' is perhaps appropriate when needed to retain standing and respect, but in fact it can be a problem - a puzzle for local people as you are not living like a normal adult (Dubisch, 1995; Gearing, 1995: 200; Killick 1995: 98). Maclean often wished she had been accompanied by a husband during her fieldwork. However, she recognised that this would only be 'easier' providing neither partner embarked on an affair, and were also not 'weird', as a female academic accompanied by house-husband would be regarded.

Before commencing her fieldwork, Maclean had written:
my long association with the area means that I am aware to an extent of how the appropriate way to behave differs from the urban, academic society I usually live in, but presumably I will also fail to notice or understand some things until after they have influenced people's impressions of me. (1997: 48)

This proved correct, but what she had failed to anticipate was how it would feel.It also became clear that there were certain factors relating to how she was perceived that she could influence, but certain factors were out of her control. Moreover, she had assumed that learning the appropriate way for a woman in Beulach to behave, and then doing so, would be sufficient, and had not realised that she would be talked about regardless. She was told by different people 'it's just Beulach and you shouldn't take it to heart', but she found this advice hard to follow (although outwardly trying to make a good show of paying rumours no heed or laughing them off).

For example, Maclean had read that both Whitehead (1976) and Middleton (1986) had attempted to carry out fieldwork as a man would, for example going to pubs on their own. Maclean felt sure that even 20 years on from their research, this would not be wise in Beulach, even if it did not lead to such dramatic difficulties as those experienced by Whitehead and Middleton. However, although Maclean had thought that going to the pub in company would be acceptable, she realised that a great deal of attention was paid to who she was talking with. Eventually, she ended up going to the pub fairly infrequently, and even this was not unproblematic, since one rumour about her having an affair seemed to have stemmed from being seen having a drink with the man in question in a small group where the other members were not known in the village.

Maclean tried not to appear to be flirting with men (successful to the extent that one of the first rumours she heard about herself was that she was a lesbian), and not to be alone with them in their houses or other places away from the public sphere. However, she wrongly assumed that it would be innocuous to talk to a man in a public place (until she discovered this had been held up as 'evidence' that she was having an affair with a particular man). Another person told her that what was causing difficulties was that she 'was interested in everybody, and really listened to what they said, and looked at them when they were talking'. The speaker went on to say that she knew Maclean was the same when she was speaking to people whether male, female, old or young, but that many Beulach men would take it as sexual interest (cf. Willson, 1995: 268). Maclean felt very frustrated by this: how could she 'do ethnography' without being interested in everyone, listening, etc.? However, Moreno states that 'In a field situation, the mere fact that one is a single female anthropologist doing her own thing may present an intolerable provocation to some individuals' (Moreno 1995: 220), so perhaps Maclean was lucky to have as little trouble as she did. Attitudes to gender and sexuality were certainly different from the university city circles she was used to moving in (e.g. attitudes were generally homophobic; and in nearly all scandals it seemed that men were regarded as morally weak and therefore not culpable, unlike women who were generally blamed).

It is difficult to resolve these sorts of issues: obviously one approach is to concentrate on the lives of women. However, Maclean had not wanted to do this exclusively, although in practice she did eventually spend more time with women and became increasingly cautious about interactions with men.

One woman who grew up in Beulach but had lived in cities for much of her adult life reiterated strongly that there was nothing Maclean could do that would protect herself totally from gossip - just being who she was, regardless of behaviour, could provoke envy, as Maclean was educated, and free to leave Beulach, not 'trapped' by marriage or children. This echoes Willson:
I would suggest that nearly any woman outsider who cannot be controlled by the norms of the dominant society is typecast as loose: loose because she is truly independent, and because she is not controlled by the male-ordered society. (Willson 1995: 263)

Maclean found the focus on her femininity and sexuality a difficult aspect of her fieldwork. She found it difficult not feel hurt by gossip, despite knowing from the literature and from her participant observation that this was a major feature of village life, and even meant that to a degree she was seen as 'belonging'. When gossiped about she wanted to withdraw from village life, but she found that acting guilt-free and confident was the best defusing measure (although she also discovered that it is amazing how guilty one starts to feel in such circumstances, even when innocent of what one is supposed to have done (cf. Parman 1990)). Without evidence to feed the flame, stories about Maclean died down to be replaced by the next scandal about someone else. However, no doubt there are still some people in Beulach who think of Maclean as the lesbian/the one who wrecked the Macleods' marriage/the gold-digger who nearly married the local landowner, etc.

Despite disliking the focus on her femininity and sexuality, Maclean found it fascinating to try to analyse the processes and values involved. Indeed, this had a direct academic benefit - resulting eventually in the exploration of gossip, conflict, and the use of humour, which has been viewed as the strongest part of her thesis. So, the rather uncomfortable experience of having her awareness of herself as female heightened, ultimately meant she learned a lot about Beulach (and about ethnographic methods) through attitudes towards her as a woman. She also found that her awareness of herself as female was heightened. Fieldwork also effectively brought home to Maclean that no matter what she decided about her appearance and behaviour and how well she adhered to these decisions, ultimately she could not choose how other people chose to see her.

There are also three aspects to Maclean's fieldwork experience that she found difficult to tackle in the thesis and/or has become more aware of subsequently.

Firstly is the issue of significant relationships. Maclean's partner is from the fieldwork area, and she would not begin a relationship with him until after the fieldwork was completed. It felt important to keep as clear a boundary as possible between being 'a researcher' and being 'a person' - despite the fact that she did not agree intellectually with attempts to make such a distinction. Rationally, she felt it was unnecessary, but also knew that she would feel uncomfortable and as if flouting an unwritten code of honour on 'good ethnography' if she acted otherwise (cf. discussion of ethnography's implicit directives and unwritten rules in Dubisch 1995: 30 and Kulick 1995: 10). Maclean found that friends, including the man in question, were supportive of her wish not to embark on a new relationship during her fieldwork, although they could not quite understand why she felt this was necessary. Another particularly important set of relationships during the fieldwork and subsequently was that with the family who were her 'fictive kin'. Fictive kinship is a recurring theme in the collection Gendered Fields (1993) and Maclean was interested to discover that her relationship with her 'landlady' was very similar to that of, for example, O'Brien and her landlady (O'Brien 1993: 235-239). Writing this paper, Maclean was amused to realise clearly for the first time that by doing her fieldwork she had created 'fictive kin' links that fulfilled a childhood wish to be a daughter/sister in this particular family.

Secondly, several years' distance from her fieldwork enabled Maclean to confront more directly that it was not simply being 'a woman' that caused the particular situations she faced in her fieldwork. Rather, it was being a woman who fitted most of the criteria of sexual desirability in that cultural context - a young, long- haired, blue-eyed, slender and toned (Bordo 1990: 88) woman. Maclean was aware of this at the time but found it impossible to acknowledge directly. It was also highlighted on subsequent return trips to the fieldwork area, when many people reacted with visible dismay to her short hair and change in weight.

Finally, although Maclean was always aware that she felt a strong emotional connection to the place and landscape of her fieldwork area, working on this paper has caused her to reflect on the ways this might connect with what she had thought of as gender issues. Altork is notable for her discussion of the 'intense emotional reaction to landscape' (Altork 1995: 117) and how this connects with sensuality. Many ethnographers note that a heightened state of emotions is part of fieldwork, and especially first fieldwork. Although parts of her fieldwork were difficult, for much of the time Maclean revelled in living in the area. Thinking back, and even looking at photographs from the period, Maclean can see how this sense of positive well being was quite tangible and may well have affected others' response to her.

Discussion and Conclusions

Though the two accounts are comparable, there are some differences that are worthwhile pointing out. Maclean's account is written from the standpoint of being out of the field. She has experienced some shifts in perspective as a result of that distance, and also as a result of work done since. Gill, while aiming to be reflexive, writes whilst still in the thick of the research, so lacks the distance required for some sorts of reflection. The issues and emotions are still raw and, in some instances, ongoing.

Maclean went into the field as a 'known' entity, with family connections and holidays spent there working. The sense of being familiar was partially due to Maclean's prior contact with the area, but also because she shared the nationality of many of her respondents. Gill entered the field as a complete outsider, not only unknown in the town and district, but also from another continent, complete with alternative patterns of behaviour and interaction. Her immersion into the culture of rural Britain was sudden and shocking. Behaviour considered normal in Australia was definitely not normal in Bordertown, particularly with regards gender norms and patterns of interaction between men and women. Thus the authors' immediate preconceptions and experiences were totally different. Maclean entered the field knowing some of what to expect. Gill's experience was very much one of feeling her way in the dark, having no context in which to place her experience.

Finally, whilst Maclean's academic background had been in sociology, Gill's was in politics and history. Therefore, Maclean had more awareness that gender was going to be an issue, and some ideas about how to deal with it. Gill went into the field and learned by experience, reading the relevant literature during (or indeed after) specific issues arose in terms of the methodology of the research. In some ways, therefore, Gill went in with a relatively naive attitude, whereas Maclean was more intellectually prepared.

Both experienced a gap between the intellectual issue of gender, and the emotional and social reality - that people would treat us like women with all of the social and sexual expectations this entails, not like researchers. As Maclean said 'what she had failed to anticipate was how it would feel'. Neither of us was ready for the sense of powerlessness and dismay resulting from our lack of control over how we were perceived.

This was both loss of control of the direction of the research and also loss of control in terms of their self-presentation. A woman entering a male-dominated setting is often the target of innuendo, rumour and boasting. A female ethnographer, though, is expected to deal with this situation such that the research does not suffer. Who she is, is subordinated to the needs of the research:
Identity and selfhood are primarily viewed relatively impersonally, and in terms of achieving successful access and research results.
(Coffey 1999: 5)

If a female researcher behaves in a way that is necessary in order to collect data, she may lose the respect of those she is studying. If she does not, she may be unable to carry out the research. The issue becomes reduced to the question of 'how much of the 'self' should be sacrificed for the sake of the data?' (Pettigrew 1981:70). For many women this is a dilemma that is not easily resolved. If the compromise between self and data becomes too much, the researcher may be forced to walk away.

At a presentation of an earlier version this paper, a colleague commented that we did not really address the split that exists between the identity of the researcher as a researcher and as a woman. In response to this, Gill noted at the time that 'I struggle to put boundaries round my identity but others won't let me.' This may be read as a reaction to the difficulties experienced in all ethnographic research, and is not necessarily limited to female researchers. What seems to be at issue here is the desire experienced to do 'proper' research and the dilemma experienced when people stop treating you as a researcher and stranger, and start treating you as a person and friend. What is to be done with the information given in such situations? One possible strategy, to try to avoid possible ethical and moral complications, is to draw a boundary around the 'real' part of the researcher's identity - them as a person. Unfortunately, this boundary is not recognised by the people being researched, and is continually crossed. Both authors noticed the crossing of this boundary in the way they were treated as young women rather than as researchers. Being seen as women, rather than researchers, they were expected to behave in gender-appropriate ways, although these sometimes contradicted the needs of the research role.

Gender became problematised, and as such, the authors' identities as women and researchers became difficult to deal with. This has been experienced by other female ethnographers, notably Altork who wrote:
I was a highly visible presence. As a result, I became more visible to myself - as a female - over time. Having my gender reflected so consistently by those with whom I came in contact brought me ultimately to a point where I became more aware of myself as a gendered being. (Altork 1995: 131-132)

Most of these difficulties arose from the issue of how to deal with being perceived as a woman who was out of her place, who was behaving in unconventional ways. When this occurred, people in the communities talked, in ways which the researcher was unable to control, but also in ways which felt like a direct attack on the authors' own identities. Much of the discussion revolved around the authors' sexuality, and forced them to confront their own sense of gender and sexuality, as well as the norms of the society they found themselves in.

This is perhaps not surprising, as there is a strong link between gender and sexuality. Most of the rumours arose as a result of people watching the ways Maclean and Gill interacted with others in public. Although in some instances, their behaviour was entirely in keeping with their perceived gender roles, at the same time the needs of their research dictated a willingness to become involved and engaged with a wider range of people than is otherwise usual for women in these settings. This interaction with people, and also their relatively privileged position as educated and independent, made Maclean and Gill different from other women in their fieldwork areas. Their visible departures from their gender roles were more simply explained in terms of their sexuality, as part of their gender role, rather than as being part of doing ethnography. As a result, the authors' sexuality was of interest to everyone else precisely because of their identities as women. This interest took the form of sexual passes, rumours regarding sexuality, and speculation about possible relationships in the field. Both authors experienced concern not simply because of the pain that some of these rumours caused them, but also because these rumours potentially affected other people too.

Each author experienced a sense of distance, and disbelief, that the stories being circulated were, in any sense, related to her, so distant were they from her own sense of identity. The only way to counter such perceived attacks on the self seemed to be to be open and to laugh about what was being said. But an increased awareness of how to behave, and of the constraints placed on women in the fieldwork area was the ultimate result.

This awareness had both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, certain areas of knowledge were not available to them. Maclean found it necessary to obtain 'chaperones' to enter some areas of Beulach's social life, and discovered that it was nearly impossible to enter others, with or without a sponsor. Gill found that getting some men to talk to her was impossible thanks to her membership of the women's team, and that some public spaces were not open to her.

On the other hand, different areas became accessible and more significantly, the experiences recounted here benefited the research and analysis of both authors, encouraging a more reflexive approach towards ethnography and research. For Gill, still writing up her PhD, these experiences and the writing of this paper have informed the ways in which the end of her fieldwork has been carried out, and also the writing up of her PhD. This is necessarily going to affect how her experiences and data are analysed. For Maclean, as already mentioned, her thesis was strengthened. In addition, she deliberately chose to do post-doctoral research that drew on ethnographic methods but did not involve living in the communities involved in the project.

The starting point was Middleton's comment that she must 'keep in her place' (Middleton 1986: 129) in order to do successful research. Although this is necessary if one is to be able to become part of a community and relate to people, our experiences and reflection indicate that occasionally transgressing norms is a valuable and necessary part of research. It is difficult to see how one could avoid doing this and still be able to study anything at all. Although sometimes personally uncomfortable, ultimately the insights gained by leaving one's place have academic and personal benefits. Maclean's remaining in her place and adopting a socially familiar and deferent role which was also gender appropriate enabled her to gain access to different areas of life in Beulach. This role did, however, involve her negation of sexuality and attempts to be as uninteresting as possible, and it was the 'collapse' of this that led to improvements in her analysis and subsequently in her thesis. Gill, however, adopted a socially ambiguous role by joining a group of women who did step from their places. In doing this she learnt a great deal not only about their situation, but also about herself and her own identity.

The aim of this paper was not to provide a review of the literature analysing the effects of gender on ethnography. Rather, it was an attempt to describe our own experiences of conducting research without detailed knowledge of and reflection upon this literature, and the impact that this had on our data and on ourselves. We are convinced that reflexivity is necessary for both effective research and for assisting the researcher to acknowledge the impact of the research on their own identity. In our discussions, we agreed it would have been helpful to us at the outset of our doctoral work, if more accounts of 'first fieldwork', discussing the less-than-perfect reality and sometimes emotionally difficult nature of the experiences had been available. This paper constitutes a small step in that direction.


1 A register of the ownership and transfer of land and houses in Scotland. For further information see: Williams N.J. and Twine F.E. (1991) A Research Guide to the Register of Sasines and the Land Register in Scotland: A Report to Scottish Homes,Edinburgh: Scottish Homes.

2'crack' or 'craic' is friendly chat, gossip and the latest news. Someone who is 'good crack' is good fun to talk to.


We would like to thank: the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, who generously supported the research by providing Catherine Maclean with a 3-year scholarship and Fiona Gill with two grants for the completion of fieldwork; the residents of Beulach and Bordertown; the three anonymous referees for their insightful comments; and all the friends, families and colleagues who have helped us during our research, particularly Graham Crow, Jamie Heckert, David McCrone and Janette Webb .


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