Emotions during fieldwork in the anthropology of sexuality: from experience to epistemological reflexions.

Author:Brak-Lamy, Guadalupe


Emotions are inextricably tied up in anthropological research in the field and in the writing of researchers' feelings during fieldwork. Yet these emotions are often dismissed in a number of ways: frequently left out of anthropological research methods courses, frequently edited out of ethnographic texts, admonished when they slip into PhD seminars, in general confined to personal fieldnotes, at times turned into jokes or asides, and at other times treated with uncertainty, embarrassment or silence (Hovland, 2007). It is with this in mind that this article presents a reflection on how emotions are an integral part of qualitative research presenting the relationship between emotion and data through researcher's own emotional response to participation in interactions behaviors in the field.

My task is to show how certain emotions experienced during my fieldwork are related to my gender role and the gender roles of the participants in this study of seduction behaviors (1) and feelings experienced by men and women who attend some nightclubs located in the movida areas in Lisbon. Whilst it has involving the observation of the seduction behaviors in the nightclubs and the recording of participants' accounts (2) of their emotions within nightclubs' seduction behaviors as part of data, I was naively unaware of how emotions can be with research at the time of collating this data, and generally it was not until after I left the field that I became sensitive to how constructive emotions can be for the anthropologist (Kleinman, 1991).

My intention with this study is, in addiction to analysing my emotions as a woman in the context of the seduction behaviors in some nightclubs, also to describe these emotions and the seduction behaviors in order to evoke emotional responses to the reader, thereby producing verisimilitude and shared experience (Denzin, 1997).

Data presented here is focused on heterosexual seduction behaviors in an urban nightlife context, gathered in four recreational spaces (nightclubs). Those spaces are a privileged locus for seduction behavior studies and are found in Lisbon's Bairro Alto, Alcantara Docks, the area between the Alcantara Docks and Belem, and Rocha Conde D'Obidos.

First, I will describe the different stages of this fieldwork, namely the choice of nightclubs, the observation of heterosexual seduction behaviors of social actors in the aforementioned recreational spaces, the method I adopted to seduce men and how I was seduced. Next, I will analyse how the field diary was composed, in terms of interactions and emotions I experienced and observed, as well as the impact of these emotions in the understanding of gender roles, whether they be my own or those of male and female patrons at the nightclubs where I conducted my fieldwork. My working definition of emotions in the context of this article is that they are "relatively intense feelings causing changes in behavior which are responses to social acts and self-interactions" (Dezin, 1983, p. 44). Thus, emotions are grounded in social contexts and interactions (Reger, 2001). Emotions are also shaped by relations of dominance, such as the case between men and women (Lutz, 1988).

My task is to show on one hand, how certain emotions such as discomfort and fear that I experienced (as a female, heterosexual and married)) during my fieldwork interactions are the result of masculine dominance seductive behaviors directed towards me and other females; on the other hand I want to demonstrate that certain emotions that I noted down during fieldwork, such as feeling out of place, are the result of my lack of knowledge related to some masculine and feminine seduction behaviors. I will show that the experience and observation of emotions bring forth knowledge related to gender roles, not only that of my own gender role but also the gender roles of social actors, and a more complete understanding of the kind of behaviors of seduction that are displayed in the nightclubs where I did fieldwork. This article will also highlight the importance of recognising that emotions have epistemological value in research. Reflecting on research provides an opportunity for the researcher to look at emotional encounters with the participants and to utilise them for data analysis (Kleinman & Copp, 1993). So I argue that emotions are integral to research relationships, and I draw attention to the wide range of emotions experienced by me in response to these relationships.

Therefore, the central focus here is on how certain emotions I experienced during fieldwork, when treated with the same intellectual vigour that my empirical work demands can assist rather than impede understanding of fieldwork (including a great awareness of myself and participants gender roles related to the seduction behaviors). In this sense, the researcher's own reflection and thinking can serve as 'a springboard for interpretations' and bring more general insight (Finlay & Gough, 2003). I will explore emotions in terms of how we might develop an understanding, a sense of the people in terms of gender roles related to the seduction behaviors and learn through them. Thus, I consider the concept of emotion as a discursive tool, helping elucidate the complex ways in which the researcher's emotions are woven into the fieldwork process, forming an integral part thereof. This perception diverges from Van Maanen's (1989) 'confessional' way and serves to authenticate research practices.

Finally, the focus turns to the anthropological debate surrounding the values associated with subjectivity, contrasted with "scientific objectivity." Objectivity and subjectivity have been seen as mutually exclusive categories. Anthropologists working in the subjective tradition try to give a more authentic, or at least a more introspective, account of self in the conduct of fieldwork (...). Because researchers believe that all knowledge is grounded in subjective experience, they try to convey as much as possible about themselves as the implementor and reporter of research (Preissle & Grant, 2004, p. 176).

Objectivity has been the basis for scientific research and is based on the conception that the self is independent from the others. Objectivity of research is achieved by distancing the self from others. The ideology of objectivity is found as emotional detachment and distance in fieldwork relationships, or what is seen as the "neutral" role assumed by the researcher.

A perspective on the different anthropological approaches to understanding objectivity and subjectivity will be presented, ranging from the classic approach to Malinowski, the reflexive turn, on to postmodernism, feminism, ethnographies related to sexuality, works on relationships and, finally, radical empiricism.

Fieldwork stages: nightclub selection and participant observation

Nightclub Selection

My fieldwork began in October 1998, with the development of a social geography for the nightlife recreational spaces in Lisbon, in order to investigate the heterosexual seduction behaviours experienced in these locations. I mapped out several zones in Lisbon that had a great concentration of venues for nightlife entertainment. My final selection was four nightclubs, which was made in the course of four months (from October 1998 to January 1999) and was based on the following criteria: location, lighting, size, and sound. In terms of location, all the selected spaces were located in the movida areas of Lisbon, famous nightlife areas. The condition of lighting meant that light in all the selected spaces was strong enough to observe the seduction behaviors. In regards to size, these spaces were not exceedingly large, so the social actors could be easily identified. Finally, sound was taken into account, and I selected spaces where the decibels were not exceedingly high and conversations could be overheard.

I have attributed fictious names to the selected spaces in order to maintain confidentiality. Horda Rock is located in the Bairro Alto. Mirror is located in Rocha Conde D'Obidos. Caipirinha is located in the Alcantara Docks. And lastly, Boat is located in the area between the Alcantara Docks and Belem. Mirror, Caipirinha and Boat are frequented by social actors ranging from eighteen to sixty-five years old. Horda Rock is frequented by young adults, ranging from eighteen to twenty-five years old.

Participant Observation

After selecting the nightclubs, I began participant observation in April 1999. This stage of the fieldwork lasted one year and a half (until October 2000) and, just like a rite of passage, it was a profoundly impressive and individualizing experience (Cabral, 1983). I was introduced to a context that I was not acquainted with. I had never been to any of the aforementioned recreational spaces before fieldwork took place. From the onset I developed empathy (allowing a certain degree of familiarity) for the owners and employees; in contrast, I was unfamiliar with the clients and certain behaviors that I witnessed, namely the simulation of sexual acts during certain dances and the utterance of "lustful" jokes.

I always made my appearance in these locations at opening time, that is, at 11 pm, either in the company of family members, alone, or in the company of female friends, some of them fellow anthropologists. Collaboration with a male anthropologist, which was unfortunately not possible for the present study, would have also granted access to the experiences of a man in the act of seducing and/or being seduced.

What would I observe and hear inside these nightclubs? First, I would notice the decoration of the spaces, as well as the spatial arrangement of tables, bars and dance floors. Then I would observe a range of heterosexual seduction behaviors displayed by costumers and the staff, including verbal (overhearing conversations) and non-verbal language, encompassing a wide range of body language: gestures, attitudes, facial...

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