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GENDER, PARENTING, AND OTHER PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS

By the 1930s, Margaret Mead had already made clear the importance of gender as a variable in data collection (see Mead 1986). Gender has at least two consequences: (1) it limits your access to certain information, and (2) it influences how you perceive others.

In all cultures, you can’t ask people certain questions because you’re a [woman] [man]. You can’t go into certain areas and situations because you’re a [woman] [man]. You can’t watch this or report on that because you’re a [woman] [man]. Even the culture of social scientists is affected: Your credibility is diminished or enhanced with your colleagues when you talk about a certain subject because you’re a [woman] [man] (Altorki and El- Solh 1988; Golde 1986; Scheper-Hughes 1983; Warren 1988; Whitehead and Conaway 1986).

Sara Quandt, Beverly Morris, and Kathleen DeWalt spent months investigating the nutritional strategies of the elderly in two rural Kentucky counties (Quandt et al. 1997). According to DeWalt, the three women researchers spent months, interviewing key informants, and never turned up a word about the use of alcohol. ‘‘One day,’’ says DeWalt:

the research team traveled to Central County with Jorge Uquillas, an Ecuadorian sociologist who had expressed an interest in visiting the Kentucky field sites. One of the informants they visited was Mr. B, a natural storyteller who had spoken at length about life of the poor during the past 60 years. Although he had been a great source of information about use of wild foods and recipes for cooking game he had never spoken of drinking or moonshine production.

Within a few minutes of entering his home on this day, he looked at Jorge Uquillas, and said ‘‘Are you a drinking man?’’ (Beverly whipped out the tape recorder and switched it on.) Over the next hour or so, Mr. B talked about community values concerning alcohol use, the problems of drunks and how they were dealt with in the community, and provided a number of stories about moonshine in Central County. The presence of another man gave Mr. B the opportunity to talk about issues he found interesting, but felt would have been inappropriate to discuss with women. (DeWalt et al. 1998:280)

On the other hand, feminist scholars have made it clear that gender is a negotiated idea. What you can and can’t do if you are a man or a woman is more fixed in some cultures than in others, and in all cultures there is lots of individual variation in gender roles. Although men or women may be ‘‘expected’’ to be this way or that way in any given place, the variation in male and female attitudes and behaviors within a culture can be tremendous.

All participant observers confront their personal limitations and the limitations imposed on them by the culture they study. When she worked at the Thule relocation camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, Rosalie Wax did not join any of the women’s groups or organizations. Looking back after more than 40 years, Wax concluded that this was just poor judgment.

I was a university student and a researcher. I was not yet ready to accept myself as a total person, and this limited my perspective and my understanding. Those of us who instruct future field workers should encourage them to understand and value their full range of being, because only then can they cope intelligently with the range of experience they will encounter in the field. (Wax 1986:148)

Besides gender, we have learned that being a parent helps you talk to people about certain areas of life and get more information than if you were not a parent. My wife and I arrived on the island of Kalymnos, Greece, in 1964 with a 2-month-old baby. As Joan Cassell says, children are a ‘‘guarantee of good intentions’’ (1987:260), and wherever we went, the baby was the conversation opener. But be warned: Taking children into the field can place them at risk. (More on health risks below. And for more about the effects of fieldwork on children who accompany researchers, see Butler and Turner 1987.)

Being divorced has its costs. Nancie Gonzalez found that being a divorced mother of two young sons in the Dominican Republic was just too much. ‘‘Had I to do it again,’’ she says, ‘‘I would invent widowhood with appropriate rings and photographs” (1986:92).

Even height may make a difference: Alan Jacobs once told me he thought he did better fieldwork with the Maasai because he’s 6' 5" than he would have if he’d been, say, an average-sized 5'10".

Personal characteristics make a difference in fieldwork. Being old or young lets you into certain things and shuts you out of others. Being wealthy lets you talk to certain people about certain subjects and makes others avoid you. Being gregarious makes some people open up to you and makes others shy away. There is no way to eliminate the ‘‘personal equation’’ in participant observation fieldwork, or in any other scientific data- gathering exercise for that matter, without sending robots out to do the work. Even then, the robots would have their own problems. In all sciences, the personal equation (the influence of the observer on the data) is a matter of serious concern and study (Romney 1989).

 
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