Danger in the Market Place: Achieving Gender Equality in Social Research

Can men and women conduct the same ethnographic research? Grantham Scholar Sally Faulkner, who conducted nine months of research in Peruvian mining towns, believes they can’t.

I have a friend who completed fascinating PhD research on urban violence in Bangladesh and how this relates to the power relationships and dependencies that the extreme poor develop as a means to survive. Through a 12-month ethnographic study of a market place in Dhaka city, my friend was able to form friendships with the people in the market, including local gangs and mastans (Bangladeshi gangsters or mafia leaders) to gain an in-depth understanding of how politics worked at the street level. By claiming the research was focused on a local school – which was partly true – my friend was able to build good rapport with the people who frequented the market.

Sally with some of the miners she worked with during her fieldwork in Peru

The research was not without risk; often, rival gang members started fighting, and they often used the presence, or at least the threat of the presence, of my friend as a bargaining chip or as a means of controlling the behaviour of others. Ultimately though, the ability to be in the market for a year provided some great insights into how the mastans operate and my friend was able to produce an extremely insightful thesis. 

For anyone with even a basic understanding of the Bangladeshi context, it will probably come as no surprise that my friend is male. Due to the strong patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh are not regularly seen out unaccompanied, even in the daytime. A female researcher in a Bangladeshi market place at night would attract too much unwanted attention, runs the risk of being associated with prostitution and sex work and may be the victim of crime, harassment or assault. It would most certainly not be possible to build any sort of rapport with mastans or local male youth groups, even if she had fluent Bangla language skills and wore the appropriate clothes. The situation would be inherently dangerous and it would be impossible to overcome existing cultural barriers to the extent that she could build the familiarity and dialogue needed for ethnography.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, as I suspect that many men who would feel uncomfortable in this context, as being in the market carries some level of risk for anyone. However, in the short time I have been doing a PhD I have encountered numerous other examples in social research where gender barriers exist for female researchers. For example, I recently met a male PhD researcher at a conference who was doing his research on extractive-industries in East Africa. He explained that to build rapport with the men working for the oil companies he had accompanied them to bars where they drank beer and watched football. I wondered at the time about the feasibility of a female researcher being able to take this approach. I suspect in the context of East Africa, and in a male-dominated industry such as extractives, while it may be possible, is likely to be more difficult for female researchers to build friendships and they will be much more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment.

My own research is looking at the social impacts of the migration associated with the illegal mining industry in Peru. I recently read an ethnographic-study by an American researcher who had spent 18 months working for free on alluvial mining in Colombia. I have considered numerous times that by far the easiest way for me to learn more about the community in the mining settlement would have also been to do ethnography. Rather than working in the mining areas, it is more culturally appropriate for a woman to work in a bar; yet again, I suspect the links with prostitution would make this perhaps not the most sensible idea, and not something I could get my Department (or, indeed, my parents or boyfriend) to get on board with.

Illegal miner walks home through La Riconada, Peru after finishing work inside the mountain

Of course, there are a number of research topics where female researchers are better able to get access to the field than men. A prime example of this is gender-based violence, where it is considered inappropriate for men to interrogate women about such experience, although this may not necessarily stop them. However, the difference here is that it is the content of the research, rather than the situation itself, which is the issue. Although one could argue that it is difficult for men in patriarchal societies to interview women on any topics, my experience in Bangladesh showed me that as staff at NGOs and research institutes are overwhelmingly male, there seems to be some acceptance that women and men can interact in this capacity.

In social research, research questions are often approached through a gender lens, with all types of gender imbalances in societies across the globe scrutinised by both male and female academics. However, the world is unequal and the same issues which we investigate and analyse in gender research also dictate the acceptability and even the capability of either male or female researchers to conduct other research that does not necessarily have a gender focus.

We can strive for equality in the work place and within academia, achieving this in terms of the types of social research that is feasible for male and female researchers to carry out is far more difficult.