I’m Sure I’m Uncertain

By Jenny Lendrum

Ethnographic research is far messier than I anticipated. And harder.  And complicated. And…well, you get the idea. As a novice researcher, I’ve repeatedly found myself in situations that mountain of methods books warned about but failed to prepare me for. The reality is that qualitative research is a process that is perpetually evolving. And to be blunt, I often find I have no idea what I’m doing—let alone doing it right. However, I remain optimistic that the more experience I amass in the field, the more skilled I’ll be as a feminist qualitative researcher.

I will never not be an outsider. Both of my parents were raised in the Detroit neighborhood in which I’m conducting my research—decades ago. Looking back to the start of my field work, I realize I overestimated the potential benefits of this connection. Truth is I am the quintessential outsider, a white woman working in a predominantly African-American community. Needless to say this presents formidable challenges and many of my interviewees are initially suspicious of my motives. However, I’ve learned that accepting this reality is the best approach. By being upfront I’ve somehow managed to build rapport and trust. One of the first women I interviewed sells food at one of the neighborhood corners. She invited me into her home with her family while she cooked and told stories. Not long after, she called me from the hospital and that afternoon, I spent several hours with her and her aunt sitting on her hospital bed, sharing fried mushrooms and more stories. We laughed and cried. At times like these, I stop feeling like an outsider.

Rookie recruiting. I have also learned that recruiting requires a great deal of finesse. Communication with each interviewee has to be handled on a subjective, individual basis. For instance, some women tend not to respond to texts sent in the evenings or weekends, but are more likely to answer messages sent during the day (while their children are at school, or while their husbands are at work, etc.) And that’s just one variable to consider—others include the amount of time allowed to lapse between correspondences; determining where and when to meet; the overall tone of our correspondence (formal vs. informal); the list goes on. Learning all this came with some hard lessons, and missed opportunities and connections. But because of these mistakes, I have learned to be more judicious and flexible in my recruiting practices—helping me build stronger and, ultimately, longer-lasting relationships.

But, I’m tough! Aren’t I? Ethnographic studies are emotional labor. Period. The more time I spend in the field, the more difficult it is to leave it behind in the evenings. One interview particularly haunts me. Having originally agreed to discuss her work in the informal economy, one woman instead shared a story of rape—in which her estranged husband forced his way inside the home they once shared while their children slept unaware of the unspeakable violence their mother endured. Although I was overwhelmed with gratitude for her trust in sharing this with me, I am left heartbroken. To this day, I still feel grief for her and the other women who’ve experienced similar horrors. Their lives have been affected in unforgiving ways, all while they remain largely invisible to the outside world. I desperately want to help right these injustices—which jeopardizes my role as an “unbiased” researcher. At what point does expressing sympathy cross ethical boundaries? It’s times like these when I’m most grateful for the seasoned feminist scholars who surround me. They empathize with how emotionally taxing ethnographic research can be—and remind me it is a necessary part of ensuring our work is authentic. While I remain conflicted in my personal feelings, these extraordinary scholars understand why acknowledging – and dealing with – these experiences will make me a better researcher and a better person.

What this all means. I won’t deny it: I’m still not convinced everything I’ve described will translate into eventual successes in the field. But by learning from my mistakes, I’m fostering more meaningful relationships in the field. I’m gleaning greater insight from my work, and acquiring a growing sense of the type of researcher I’d like to be. I have begun to embrace feminist ethnography for what it is – hard, complicated and messy. And I’m realizing there are some aspects of ethnographic work that I just might be good at.

Jenny Lendrum is a Phd candidate at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. She is currently in the field, collecting data for her dissertation project which explores gendered and racialized urban spatial arrangements and processes of economic activity in Detroit. She is also one of the managing editors for Gender & Society. 

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