‘Its less ‘muddy’ than I expected!’: On Finally Entering THE FIELD!

When I was very little I was obsessed with the TV show ‘Time Team’ and was convinced that I was going to be an archaeologist when I grew up. As it happens I am not much of an ‘outdoors’ person unless sitting under a tree in the summer with a book counts. No, I’m much more at home in the library, or sitting by a fire in a big comfy arm chair so it looks as though my archaeological aspirations may forever remain just that. Now obviously sociological field work doesn’t usually involve
mud and trowels, but I have carried a reluctance to enter the ‘field’ with me into this PhD. My background is in political theory and I am most inspired by big ideas, abstractions and hypotheses, for me, the ‘real world’ has always seemed like something that got in the way of good thinking!

I also think that my long history with generalised anxiety disorder has added to this reluctance. Despite being fairly extroverted on the surface I am not good at meeting new people, I’m either extremely quiet, or so loud it becomes obnoxious and I spend days afterwards fretting about all of the ‘stupid’ things I’ve said and wondering how many people I have managed to alienate this time. I am unwavering in my conviction that the most valuable source of knowledge for my research is to be found in the experiences, opinions and narratives of real people, but this does not make the prospect of actually speaking to them any less terrifying.

I have been putting off entering the field for too long. I felt that if I could just read enough about methodology and how to conduct research at some point I would feel like I knew what I was doing. Just one more book/article/study, but this point never came and I started to feel that my lack of actual RESEARCH was becoming the elephant in the room when I met with my supervisor so alas, I had to do some concrete planning. As I continued researching my methodology chapter last year I had a minor epiphany when I realised that  in deciding not to recruit any of my friends as participants I was wasting a really valuable resource. I am so lucky to be surrounded in my personal life by brilliant, honest, fierce and opinionated feminists and allies it would be remiss of me not to see if they would be interested in participating – after all they’re always asking about how my research is going (‘oh you know, same old, same old,…’).

I want to be clear here that I didn’t suddenly start looking at my friends as sacks of valuable research material (Scrooge McDuck style with mortarboards in place of dollar signs in my eyes), I was just sat playing some nerdy board game or other with the gang, laughing, singing songs from Buffy and generally sticking two fingers up at the patriarchy when I was hit by a wave of appreciation for these wonderful ‘kooks’ and the role they have played in shaping me, my life and  by de facto this thesis. I realised that the fact that these people are my friends was a reason to include rather than exclude them from my research.

I toyed with this realisation for a while putting out feelers to see if they’d be up for helping and reflecting on the ethical challenges of researching with friends and the potential academic limitations of researching ‘people like me’. I finally decided that I would host a discussion group and invite my friends to participate.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 14.38.18 Ok, so the time has come for me to actually do some research for my PhD. I’ve probably mentioned in passing at some point that I’d like to run a discussion group of people I know who are self-identifying feminists and so I have invited the best feminists I know!

The discussion will focus on the sexualisation of mainstream culture and no preparation is necessary though I would like it if you could bring an image or images that represent what ‘sexy’ means to you as a feminist and/or to wider society. NB such images will be sexualised in nature but please do not bring any explicit material.
I will also be providing images for us to discuss.

I’m really sorry, but I cannot provide re-imbursment for travel costs etc but will be providing lunch and if people are car-sharing from Leeds I’m happy to pay £10 for each car which comes with more than one person in it.

A few things to note

  • Please do not feel obliged to take part I will not be offended and part of the ethics of researching with friends is ensuring that there is no sense of obligation on your part
  • All data will be anonymised prior to publishing
  • I will be recording the focus group via dictaphone or my mobil
  • Please review the information for patricipants and sample consent forms via this link https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7XWUyXWO6y4UVllVHR3U2RtbU0 before confirming attendance. I will have this material available for you to review and sign on the day
  • I have invited my supervisor Dr. A***** to this Facebook event so that she can see the recruitment process but she will not be attending (sorry A!)
  • The discussion will be about sexual imagery and culture and you are invited to discuss your opinions and experiences of mainstream culture, you will not be asked to share any information relating to personal sexual preferences or practices and will be discouraged from doing so.

So a date and time were set and I had done as much prep as I thought I could. Unfortunately on the day, a few people were unable to attend so the group ended up being myself and 4 friends. I was a bit worried about this initially as I feared that it would end up becoming a group interview rather than a discussion but actually there was plenty to talk about (over 2.5 hrs infact!) so this didn’t end up being a problem.

I had wanted the discuss group to be a fairly organic, semi-structured conversation and in particular I was mindful that it didn’t end up with me asking a question and each person answering it in turn. That said, I prepared a list of questions to use as prompts, and also as a comfort for me should the conversation run dry. The discussion group took place in my living room (much better than a ‘field’!) and everyone present had been to my house at least once before so hopefully the environment was comfortable. I had made lunch for everyone beforehand so we had been having a relaxed chat throughout the afternoon. As I switched the dictaphone on and asked a few opening questions about why they had chosen to participate and how they understood my research, things were a bit stiff, although the mood was lightening by a recurring joke that they had chosen to participate because they’re my friends and I made them! (Which is obviously not the case, and they also shared genuine reflections here too but it set a nice tone for the discussion). As things progressed, we all relaxed into it a bit more and became less aware of the recorder which was nice and the conversation began to flow more naturally. I still had to use many of my set questions as I supposed they were looking to me as a kind of ‘chair’ and for guidance but the began to interact with each other more fluidly as time moved on. I had prepared some sample images of ‘sexy celebrity selfies’ which I shared with the group quite early on, and this worked really well to get the conversation moving. Unfortunately due to printer problems I was only able to print some of them out and had to share others on my iPad so I definitely need to ensure that I am better prepared going forward.

I have not had chance to listen to the recording I made yet, so its too early to start drawing any real observations or doing any analytical work – Easter will be a long slog of transcription for me! However I made some initial observations at the time and since as follows

  • I want to listen back to the tape to see how ‘involved’ I was in the discussion it was important to me that I participated, in addition to ‘chairing’ but I want to look and see if I spoke too much or lead the discussion in a problematic way.
  • I don’t think I asked many (any) follow up questions and wonder if this is because I didn’t feel the need to, or didn’t want to put people on the spot.
  • At times, the conversation skirted around sexual practice and I took steps to steer the conversation away from this. I suspect that this happened more than it will when I interview relative strangers because we know each other well and frequently share personal information with each other but this is something I want to be mindful of in future field work.
  • There was quite a lot of discussion around sex education which was interesting as I suppose I only thought of this as being loosely related to my research insofar as that I am primarily concerned with ‘sexuality’ as opposed to ‘sex’ so I will think further on why this was such an emotive topic for my participants.
  • Most of my questions seemed to work well, but hypotheticals such as ‘what do you wish you could tell your 16 year old self about sexuality’ worked less well so I will think about rephrasing these and think harder about what I had intended such questions to do
  • The discussion took much longer than I had anticipated. One participant asked me beforehand how long I thought it would take and I told her ‘I’m not sure, somewhere around an hour’. Obviously it was much longer than this and I apologised afterwards but they all said they had enjoyed the conversation so didn’t mind and I think this was the genuine feeling of the group

So I survived my first tentative steps into the field and it was less terrifying than I had imagined. Admittedly I was still quite nervous before we started, and some of the terror was mitigated by being able to research with friends in the comfort of my own home. When we had finished and everyone had left I felt quite physically exhausted and like my brain was warn out, but in a good way and the sense of accomplishment was really nice, especially after all this time, being able to say that I’ve actually started my field work feels like a big and reassuring milestone. I would even go as far as to say that I think I’ve caught the bug and am eager and looking forward to getting on with the rest of my field work even if it does mean stepping into the real world!

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