Patricia Richards, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Georgia, came to talk to students at Stony Brook as part of the #MeToo speaker series on campus.
Her new book, co-authored by Rebecca Hanson, “Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research,” features a series of interviews with ethnographic researchers about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault in the research field.
Ethnography is the systematic study and interpretation of different cultures and people’s behaviors. Ethnographers often try to research a culture by immersing themselves in it.
Based on the interviews, the book analyzes why researchers are at risk for sexual harassment in the field and how the issue is not being addressed properly by the scientific community.
“By examining the experiences of women ethnographers, we can better identify and understand underlying assumptions about the construction of ethnographic knowledge,” Richards said.
Richards identified three common themes across her interviews: the solitude of research which can lead to danger, a glorification of danger in the field in order to be seen as an upstanding researcher and an ethnographer’s desire for intimate connections with their subjects to collect in-depth data. According to her research, these factors may result in female ethnographers being placed in high risk situations while completing field research.
Richards shared the stories of several women she interviewed, including Phoebe, a sociologist working in Latin America. After Phoebe told her advisors and peers that she had sexual advances made toward her, instead of trying to help her, they questioned her behavior and told her she should have expected that to happen.
“Me doing a good job as an ethnographer means that I’m intimate and having people share everything, but it opens me up to, ‘Well, you should have expected it, Phoebe. You are hanging out with this guy until nine at night,’ but it’s like I’m taught that I should want him to want me around, right?” Richards said, quoting an excerpt from Phoebe’s interview. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing which is having these strong connections with these people in the field, and that’s what everyone wants, right? That’s the goal, right?” she continued.
Richards went on to explain what usually follows these incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
“The ongoing dominance of the white, hetero-patriarchal perspective in academia has a silencing effect on women after they have experienced unwanted sexual contact in the field,” Richards said.
Very few researchers that were interviewed thought their experiences of sexual harassment were important to share because it was not vital to their data and findings. Some of the ethnographers Richards spoke to felt their work would be seen as invalid or compromised if they spoke up about the uncomfortable incidents they labeled as an “awkward surplus” of data.
“This need to push aside experiences often comes from the contradiction faced by feminist researchers who are taught to be reflexive but also feel this pressure to do work that is judged as valid by their peers,” Richards said.
Solving the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the field of ethnographic research is no easy task, but Richards said she believes women speaking openly about their experiences can lead to real change. For these situations to be eliminated for women researchers, she suggests that change and education must take place at both individual and systemic levels.
“I think part of it means is that we keep insisting on having the uncomfortable conversations,” Richards said. “If we insist that [sexual violence] is an important concept that structures people’s lives as well as their work experiences… that’s one start, that starts the conversation.”
One student at the presentation, freshman political science major Hailey Amador, said she agreed with Richards’ recommendations for change.
“I like the fact that she talked about the impact of the structure and how we have to change it in the workplace and at the academic level. I think it’s good for us to hear at a young age,” she said.
Freshman biology major Nan Lin had a different take on the lecture. “I think what she said was pretty sexist,” Lin said. “She should have addressed the men’s side, too. How they’re harassed in field work how women are, and how they’re being exploited in the same way women are.”
Other students, like freshman sociology major Patricia Kuster, were intrigued by the work Richards is doing. “It was interesting seeing it in this context in terms of the researching and field work because I haven’t heard much about those experiences,” Kuster said. “It was just a different angle.”