It is widely known that you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. This is the reason why many young people end up doing unpaid internships. However, this may be coming to an end soon. October 8th, 2020 was a day to celebrate among all the students and newly graduates who are looking for internships as EU lawmakers adopted a resolution with 574 votes to 77 and 43 abstentions calling on all member states to ensure that young people are offered “good-quality, varied and tailored job, training, apprenticeship or internship offers, including fair remuneration”.
As I am writing this article, Joe Biden has just become the 46th President of the United States. If, from a European perspective, this seems to be some welcomed news, the consequences of this election could be worse than they appear. Indeed, the results were so close that it took more than four days after Election Day to know the name of the new president. The country seems more divided than ever. But what do the results of this election entail? More particularly what are the consequences for Europe and Transatlantic relationships? Why would a Biden presidency be both for the best and the worst from a European point of view and for international relations in general?
How do you win a modern day US election? First, hate and fear the other side. Second, show up with your ‘opposition hating’ crew. We often call love a binding factor, yet it has become apparent that where love is missing, hate will do just fine. For nothing breeds camaraderie like a group of people coming together to actively dislike someone, something or even an ideology. It is for this reason that the odds were in favour of Biden and Harris in the 59th quadrennial US elections. This observation is not remiss of the 2016 presidential elections, and the insurmountable odds that Donald Trump beat to synch his presidency. Yet taking a closer application of negative partisanship this year, it was clear that something was different: the tables had turned in favour of Biden.
TW: This article deals with issues such as sexual assaults and gender-based violence.
Don’t walk alone at night; change sides of the street regularly so no one can follow you; don’t get distracted by looking at your phone; walk with a group of friends; don’t get alone into a taxi by yourself; open the windows as soon as you get into the taxi (you don’t want to get intoxicated, do you?); ALWAYS share your location. “Are you getting into the bus dressed like this?” This one was said to me the last time I was in Peru on vacation. It was summer and I was wearing a nice little white dress. But of course, what was I thinking going out like this in a country of rapists?
Poland was already one of the strictest countries in terms of abortion laws in Europe, but the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) has been trying for a long time to make the abortion law even stricter. Back in October 2016, demonstrators all across the country took the streets to protest on the PiS party’s attempt to enact this law. The Parliament rejected the abortion ban on October 6th. After the controversial judicial reforms in the country and the nomination of court judges by PiS, it comes as no surprise that the ban could be passed this time.
Six years after a referendum which tore the country in two, support for Scottish independence could be at its strongest yet.
The Scottish public is, quite frankly, exhausted. The 2014 referendum on whether the country wanted to become independent from the United Kingdom invoked a highly polarising effect among the people of Scotland, with a result of 55% in favour and 45% against. Throughout the months leading up to the vote, the debate became so emotionally charged that one had to avoid the topic entirely in conversations with friends and co-workers.
Retrospectively, the Yes campaign was a messy one. An exaggerated nationalist discourse and Braveheart-themed memes dominated social media, while a lack of clarity regarding issues such as the future currency further weakened the independence movement’s credibility. Later speculation about the potential involvement of Russia in endorsing the Yes campaign lead to further controversy. Despite all of this, the pro-independence Scottish National Party was re-elected just months after the referendum, headed by new party leader Nicola Sturgeon who, despite being initially met with scepticism, has proven to be a popular leader and a substantially uniting force for the country.
Das Private ist politisch – Kommune 1’s infamous motto has perhaps never been more pertinent than it is at present, as the zeitgeist of the 60’s protest movements persists in today’s vitriolic political climate. Whilst social conventions were once challenged by the likes of Rudi Dutschke and his army of rebellious youths, it appears that corporations and celebrities have taken the lead in matters of social responsibility.
In Sweden, just like in Belarus? An attempt to find out.
As the Covid situation relatively improved in the European Union over the summer, the cases increased in the Americas and Asia and it now seems that Europe is entering the second wave WHO was foreseeing in June. Somewhere in the middle of this ocean of events, Sweden’s soft measures left no one indifferent and created fertile ground for the holy war on approaches to stop the spread of the pandemic and conspiracy theories.
The situation has caused a lot of resonance in the EU and abroad. However, it seems that it especially disturbed the minds of Belarusians, who live in the country where the only football league in Europe kept playing for months after the rest of the continent had been put under lockdown, of the only World War II parade being held and of the general denial of coronavirus containment measures. Being accustomed to the long-lasting contempt of their government, Belarusians are genuinely confused with the measures of the world’s most reputable country – Sweden.
I have spent hours formulating my questions, over and over again, so that they are precise but cannot be interpreted as provocative or too critical. Despite my intensive preparation, we reach a crucial point in the interview and I am nervous. I want to confront my interviewee, ask him why he says X thing happened, when official memos quite clearly state Y event was key instead. The look in his face tells me he doesn’t think I know about it, nor that I am likely to put him in a sore spot.
I ask him an easy question first, let him paint a pretty picture, before I move on to the meaty stuff. Then I aim my metaphorical weapon. I make sure my posture, face expression and voice all reflect an adequate sense of gratefulness and respect for his time and knowledge. My efforts are rewarded as I get a somewhat honest answer, if one that also vastly underestimates my knowledge in the subject.
When I exit the office, however, I do not feel exultant or accomplished; I am actually angry with myself and with my interviewee for the charade. For having had to feign ignorance and slow thinking in front of officials I have researched. I know, however, that others approaches (confident assertiveness or jovial camaraderie) would have not worked. As a female researcher, the ‘good girl persona’ is my only realistic approach to interviewing powerful institutional elites.
Of course, even using the ‘good girl persona’ hinges on me being a young, middle-class, female Spaniard with good command of English. If we travelled away from this positionality to a, say, black gay male German researcher, we would find other strategies for protection. While this piece is rooted in my experience as a woman, I hope it will motivate other minority researchers to come forward and discuss the “personas” they use in their fieldwork.
The ‘good girl persona’ introduced
As the name indicates, the ‘good girl persona’ is a performance, on the part of the researcher, of a predetermined set of traits: class, education, and most importantly, a gendered attitude that panders to traditional power dynamics. The ‘good girl persona’ is receptive, and changes according to the values of those attributes in your interviewee and surroundings. Its performativity, however, travels very well across a multitude of fieldwork and identity perspectives. The purpose of the persona is to allow the researcher to pursue gender unfriendly areas of research, and to protect her from the backlash of standing up to well-established power structures.
It presents female researchers as professional, well informed (“homework done”) individuals. Educated enough to be competent, but not so much so that they come across as intimidating or overly intelligent. It shows a diligent female academic, collected and with just the right touch of naiveté (a favoured trait in women), so that the interviewer will feel at ease, willing to talk and impress, and will not fear intellectual or professional competition from her.
The main advantage of the ‘good girl persona’ is perhaps the same thing that annoys most of us who have to use it. It shields the researcher using it from being seen in certain ways. It projects a very specific and gendered attitude, so that female researchers employing it might come across as harmless, respectful and deferential to the interviewee’s knowledge and position of power. The “adulating inquiry” mood that the ‘good girl persona’ performs, though, is not an easy on the ego. As a woman in academia, you will have already learned how to phrase your intelligence correctly, so that men (particularly older men in positions of power) won’t feel intimidated. In institutional settings, this is also an invaluable tool, for it ensures access to actors and knowledge that would be closed to an assertive, better informed woman.
It might seem that playing the ‘good girl persona’ is a simple choice not to make, if researchers want to avoid the dangers outlined. This is, however, a lie. Most working women, be it academics or professionals, have had to perform a certain degree of ‘good girl persona’ attitudes in order to be successful, navigate office politics and achieve their goals. It is not as simple as being, instead, forward, self-assured and unapologetic. Such an attitude, as a woman or other minority, is not likely to get you anywhere in most institutional environments, where unjust power hierarchies and gender gaps abound. This is, therefore, not a choice to be punished for, but instead a technique, with advantages and disadvantages.
Health and safety implications
So, we may wonder, what are the disadvantages? And what is the link between the ‘good girl persona’ and institutional research risks? Institutional fieldwork tends to take place in official, generally safe locations; furthermore, access to policy and political figures is highly regulated and guarded, so you are very likely to secure interviews weeks in advance, and be screened upon arrival to the premises. Some physical risks, then, can be avoided, such as open violent assault. Instead, researchers in institutional settings will be most seriously affected by mental health issues and sexual assault.
On one hand, researchers’ mental health can very seriously degrade in stressful fieldwork scenarios. This is especially true for female and minority researchers, who might feel even more pressured to make a good impression on interviewees and “prove” themselves. This leads to the first serious drawback of the playing the ‘good girl persona’: performance pressure. Doing fieldwork, being away and isolated, is already a stressful and alienating experience for the researcher.
In a way, the ‘good girl persona’ implies actively undermining your own intelligence and assertiveness. This display may seriously damage a researcher’s mental health, for it too often conflates with the all-too-prevalent “impostor syndrome” that plagues female researchers in academia (Bahn, 2014). These factors, combined, drown researchers’ self-esteem and can lead to abandoning fieldwork or suffering from depression.
On the other hand, the ‘good girl persona’ exposes researchers to the uninvited guest of every social gathering: sexual harassment and assault. There is a very real risk that one of your interviewees takes your ‘good girl persona’ (and it’s soft, appeasing air) as permission to openly flirt with you; tell sexist jokes; ask you out; corner you in an office; and any and every variation of sexual misconduct.
The fact that you are in an institutional setting doesn´t mean its actors aren’t part of the same patriarchal system perpetuating gender stereotypes and gender violence. In fact, given the hierarchical nature of intra-institutional power dynamics, you might find yourself in rather conservative and inflexible power environments. If you interview policy making and political elites, you are likely to deal mostly with men, far older than you, who are used to exercising authority and occupying prestigious or powerful positions.
We should remember that even when experiencing outright assault or harassment, it can be very difficult for victims to report or openly admit it. It may also seem impossible to confront the perpetrators if they are protected by their own power. Importantly, it is often the perception of our own powerlessness in contrast to the perpetrator’s power, which stops researchers from reporting sexual misconduct.
Mitigating Risk and Handling Aggression
So where does this leave us? I hope the answer is on the path to change. As a necessary first step, we must stop fetishizing fieldwork in general as a necessarily painful and lonely experience. Fieldwork is not a rite of passage, it is our work, and it should not be peppered with sexual harassment and feelings of uselessness. At the end of the day, such a change demands an active effort at the university level. We need to provide researchers with things like fieldwork preparation sessions, pre and post fieldwork counselling, and peer-to-peer exchanges on the realities of fieldwork in various scenarios.
That’s not all, however. We must also explore and discuss the specific hurdles of institutional fieldwork, mental health and sexual harassment, and find better ways to overcome them. I find that reflexivity and preparation help a bit. Researchers have to become aware of their boundaries, their willingness to endure or not certain discriminatory attitudes. This is, do you want to use the ‘good girl persona’ or not? Academics engaging in institutions need to talk and write about their experiences, encouraging other researchers to be forthright and honest about it too. No longer can we afford to tiptoe around these issues in university classrooms.
It also generally helps to thoroughly research your institution prior to your fieldwork. Identify their Anti-harassment Committee or Human Resources equivalent, so in case of sexual misconduct you will immediately know who you can go to for support and next steps. Almost every government or NGO has, at least on paper, a set of guidelines to communicate sexual harassment, and now it is the time to remind them why they were put into place.
Finally, I think the easiest way to survive the performance anxiety and burn out of the ‘good girl persona’ is to maintain a network of support. For a start, you can find a liaison/mentor person in your target institution. They will constitute an invaluable ally within the institution, to navigate institutional conduct and etiquette, facilitate access to difficult interviewees, etc. Additionally, institutional liaison figures can and should be your first point of contact for reporting sexual misconducts and other discriminatory incidents. The difficulty of communicating sexual assault can be made easier by having an intra-institutional ally, a person with whom you can drop your ‘good girl persona’ act and demand help and respect.
Another good way of building a network of emotional is to maintain regular counselling sessions. Preferably with someone you have worked with before and who can counsel you remotely during your fieldwork. Many universities nowadays offer counselling services, and in the current pandemic, conducting therapy over Skype has become common practice for counsellors. A therapist can help you navigate the feelings of anxiety, worthlessness and insecurity associated with institutional fieldwork, whilst providing an extra source of emotional support in case of more intense negative experiences.
I want my final words to be an exhortation to the academic community in general. We need to acknowledge how gender discrimination affects researchers’ experiences and ability to gather information and progress in their careers. Not only in renown dangerous or “exotic” areas, but in our everyday routines, governments and institutions. Gender discrimination is perhaps the biggest risk to female researchers’ careers, and there are no methodology manuals to help us with it.
Kirby, Vicky (1994) ‘Response to Jane Gallop’s “The Teacher’s Breasts”: Bad Form’, in J. J. Matthews (ed.) Jane Gallop Seminar Papers: Proceedings of the Jane Gallop Seminar and Public Lecture ‘The Teacher’s Breasts’, June 1993. Canberra: Humanities Research Centre.
About the author Ines Bolaños Somoano is a former Euroculture Student who is now a PhD researcher at the Social and Political Sciences Department of the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy. This article was initially published in the online magazine The New Ethnographer.
About The New Ethnographer The New Ethnographer is an academic project about making fieldwork safer, healthier and more ethical. For more information visit www.thenewethnographer.org
Photo Credits Article: CoWomen, Pexel Ines’ photo: personal file
“Happy slaves are the bitterest enemies of freedom.” – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
In February 2020, I attended a seminar of the Konrad-Adenauer-foundation, where I am a scholar and where I was honoured to spend a day of interesting lectures and readings with Dr. Karsten Dümmel, a contemporary witness of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). This experience made me think about how little this important part of German history is discussed in schools and by people in Germany, but probably even less in other parts of Europe and the world. With the current corona crisis, one can observe the long-lasting effects of the DDR regime, particularly with regard to surveillance and the considerably higher fear of many Germans, compared with their European neighbours, of measures like a corona tracking app, curfews and compulsory vaccination. This article wishes to provide some insights and a deeper understanding of the DDR, especially regarding surveillance, mainly pursued by the Ministry State of Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit)commonly known as the Stasi.Continue reading “Insights into the Stasi: a surveilled life in former Eastern Germany”→