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The Importance of Gender as a Social Role in Linguistic Fieldwork

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Title: The Importance of Gender as a Social Role in Linguistic Fieldwork
Authors: Grimm, Nadine
Issue Date: 03 Mar 2017
Description: Fieldwork, and preparing for fieldwork, are paramount for language documentation. In the past years, a number of linguistic fieldwork guides have been published (Ratliff/Newman 2001, Bowern 2007, Sakel/Everett 2012) helping to train new fieldworkers. With the exception of a section in Chelliah/De Reuse (2011), none of them, however, discuss the impact of a fieldworker's gender on their research situation. In contrast, anthropologists (Wax 1979, Gifford & Hall-Clifford 2008, Williams 2009) have called for more awareness and better preparation of graduate students for their fieldwork, emphasizing security issues pertaining especially to women in the field. In this talk, I abstract away from a purely female perspective and investigate the impact of a researcher's gender on their fieldwork. I argue that the gender of a researcher is of two-fold importance, namely for i) the fieldworker's mental and physical wellbeing and ii) the quality of the research results which ultimately reflects back on the speech community. I will first dissect the concept of gender and its cross-cultural applicability, putting forth that gender can never be seen in isolation, but is just one social role, along with age, race, and social and economic status (see, i.a., Crenshaw 1991). The combination of a person's social roles determines their power status and has consequences for a researcher's expected behavior within the community which most likely differ from a researcher's home society. It also regulates speaker access: where can the researcher (not) go? with whom can s/he (not) speak? I will illustrate this with insights from my own geographic area of expertise, namely Africa. For instance, a relatively young, female, unmarried, child-less researcher holds a low power status in West African societies. Her being white and, as such, wealthy, however, overrides a lot of behavioral expectations, allowing her to interact both with men and women which, in turn, might not be the case for male researchers. At the same time, she might face (unwanted) hopes and expectations (financial, sexual) for which she needs to develop coping strategies. A deeper understanding of these principles as they apply in the context of a different society holds several advantages, including facilitating a better relation to community members and avoiding cultural misunderstandings. Consequently, the researcher achieves better integration in the community supporting their well-being (Macaulay 2012) and work environment. The talk makes a methodological contribution in raising awareness among fieldworkers and encouraging the inclusion of this topic in teaching curricula. References: Bowern, C. 2007. Linguistic Fieldwork. A Practical Guide. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Chelliah, S. L. & W. J. De Reuse. 2011. Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. London: Springer. Crenshaw, K. 1991. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241-99. Gifford, L. & R. Hall-Clifford. 2008. From Catcalls to Kidnapping. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. Anthropology News. pp- 26-27. Macaulay, M. 2012. In: Thieberger, N. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 457-472. Newman, P. & M. Ratliff. 2001. Linguistic fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sakel, J. & D. L. Everett. 2012. Linguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wax, R. H. 1979. Gender and age in fieldwork and fieldwork education: no good thing is done by any man alone. Social Problems 26: 509-522. Williams, B. 2009. “Don’t ride the bus!”: and other warnings women anthropologists are given during fieldwork. Transforming Anthropology 17.2: 155-158.
Appears in Collections:5th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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