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Panel 30: Field research as a gendered practice: Nominal men, sexless persons, and the myth of neutral gender relations in Melanesia


Susanne Kuehling, Isabelle Leblic

Session presentation

This session invites a discussion on gender-related research experiences in Oceania. The Pacific has a long tradition of male and female researchers who have had distinct gendered experiences and outcomes of fieldwork (e.g. Mead/Freeman, Malinowski/Weiner etc). As ‘nominal males’, some female anthropologists had access to male domains (e.g. Hauser-Schäublin in the Sepik), while in other places women were forbidden to enter the men’s house (e.g. Kuehling in Micronesia). We believe that it is important to re-open the topic with a focus on the relation of age, gender and experience in various field sites. How do age and gender of a researcher influence her/his situation in the field? Are some research projects and contexts more vulnerable to gender violence, barriers between the sexes, discrimination, and misunderstandings than others; and if so, why? We invite papers that engage with these themes by asking:
•Are there specific methodologies that “work” better for male or female researchers in Oceania?
•How does age feature in relation to gender during field work?
•Which strategies are we using to overcome barriers based on gender, age, and skin color?
•Has fieldwork in relation to gender changed since the colonial period?
•How is gender a feature of specific types of research (activism, survey work, long-term study, working in rural or urban regions)?
Papers on gendered research relationships, and on the limits and potential hazards of ignoring, idealizing, or simplifying gender dimensions during field research are especially welcome.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers


Introduction of the Panel

What difference does it make to be two anthropologists in the field? Analysing male initiations among the Angans

Pascale Bonnemère (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)

Let’s start by discussing the proposed subtitle of the panel. Is it really true that there ever was a myth of neutral gender relations in Melanesia? Women anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s blamed their colleagues of the opposite sex who worked in New Guinea (particularly in the Highlands) for paying greater attention to men’s activities and listening to men only. When these women decided to do fieldwork there, they wanted to balance out the ethnography and so favoured working with women. There was thus a strong awareness about how the gender of the anthropologist helps or hinders access to specific categories of people.

What was not prevalent was the idea that the presence of a man and a woman working at the same time in groups performing male initiations could make a difference, not only in the ethnography but in the way such large-scale, significant events could be analysed.

The paper will discuss this situation in particular, but will address others as well (bringing children into the field in a long-term study context or coping with obstacles thrown up by government representatives when they find themselves dealing with a woman on “development projects”).

Respectful Relationships?: Reflections on Gender and Research in PNG

Ceridwen Spark (RMIT University)

In this paper, I explore personal experiences of research in PNG including in urban and rural areas and with men and women. Taking place over more than a decade, these experiences in ‘the field’ have led me to view the interactions between researchers and participants through an intersectional feminist lens. Through description and analysis of my interactions with a broad range of participants, including educated urban women, rural village women and a cast of players including male taxi drivers in Port Moresby, I argue that there is no single way in which being a white woman affects research. Rather, in some instances, my ethnicity, gender and relative privilege open up discussion, in others, empathy and in others, guardedness. The practical challenges of being a white woman trying to navigate Port Moresby, which are also pertinent to this discussion, are explored here. I conclude with some reflections on gender in relation to a recent project about Respectful Relationships program in Port Moresby schools.

Learning to be a woman in Dobu: reflecting on advantages of age-related roles within the gender category of ‘female’

Susanne Kuehling (University of Regina)

BETTER UNDERSTANDING Pacific Life-worlds, a task mentioned in the last paragraph of the conference blurb, is indeed as important as ever. How much, and how well we understand our ethnographic data hinges in many ways on the relationships that we built during fieldwork. These involve gender constructions, changing over time as we all age, I will explore the vantage points open to me during my life on the island where I did most of my research: Dobu (PNG). We teach our students that genders are fluid, on a continuum rather than in two polarized categories. Yet within our field sites in Western Oceania, we may become ‘socialized’ into rather clear-cut gender roles that only marginally match our own construction. The time that passes before we understand what has happened may be too long to actively work on changing the expectations. This paper will focus on the advantages of being classified as a woman (waine) in her changing stages through life in the village world of the Dobu-speaking area of southeastern Papua New Guinea. Using myself as an example, I show that age and merit matter more than gender in local power relations; as elsewhere, the differences within each gender group are larger than those between them. In matrilineal, matrilocal Dobu society, in particular, women were arguably not the disadvantaged gender, and being privileged to a taste of their socialization over 24 years from young to old made me a stronger person as well as a ‘deeper’ researcher.

Returning to the field among the Korafe

Elisabetta Gnecchi-Ruscone (Università di Milano Bicocca)

In this paper I wish to reflect on two experiences of fieldwork among the Korafe of Tufi, Oro Province, PNG: a long period in the late 1980’s as a young unmarried and childless student, and a shorter visit in 2014 as a mature mother of three grownup children.

I will discuss how my work was influenced by the kind of interactions I was most and least comfortable initiating and developing in the field in terms of gender, of course, but also other aspects of identification and positionality. I also wish to reflect on how these factors depend on cultural expectations both on the researcher’s and the hosts’ side, but should not be considered as absolute: since fieldwork is based on the relationships that one builds in the society in question, it should be recognised that these are negotiated and modified through time and interaction, as well as by events in the life of the researcher and the hosts.
In addressing these themes I also wish to raise questions about seemingly shared or universal emotions “reflecting anthropology’s abiding tension between cohumanity and lived diversity” (Dureau 2012).

Réflexions sur trente années de recherche de terrain en milieu kanak (Nouvelle-Calédonie)

Isabelle Leblic (CNRS - Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique)

J’ai commencé mon terrain en Nouvelle-Calédonie en 1983, jeune femme non marié et sans enfants, en travaillant sur les clans pêcheurs, milieu réservé aux hommes s’il en est. Puis au fil du temps, j’ai continué mes recherches sur d’autres thèmes, notamment la parenté dans les années 1990. Dans le même temps, je suis passée du statut de jeune femme célibataire à celle de mère d’un enfant métis kanak.
Au fil des années, mon statut de femme anthropologue et mes relations avec mes hôtes sur le terrain a donc évolué en raison de différents facteurs : mes intérêts de recherche variables, mon statut devenu plus proche avec « ma famille d’accueil » à Ponérihouen, ma plus grande connaissance du terrain et des sociétés kanak.
Je vais donc revenir ici sur ces diverses interactions et ce que cela induit quant à ma pratique de recherche en tant que femme et anthropologue.

Gender Hierarchy in Western Fiji: Reflections on Research and the Anthropology of Knowledges.

Pauline McKenzie Aucoin (Concordia University, Montreal)

The initial goal of my research into gender and the politics of meaning in Western Fiji has been to appreciate gender hierarchy as a social construct. This work has engaged with the anthropology of knowledge, space as a practice of power, domestic violence, and gendered religious ideology. Power and the exercise of power is real. However, this research has also broadened my understanding of the need to study complex societies with an eye to appreciating intersecting cultural domains, a perspective which compounds the understanding of the varying realities that a society encompasses. In Fijian society, a study of gender hierarchy facilitates an appreciation of the practices of power, but an understanding of the lives of women requires investigation into unknowledge, reactions, displacements, and subversions. This paper argues for the study of the multiple realities of Fijian culture(s).

Researching in a Gendered, Social and Cultural Space: The faikava for Pacific and Tongan males

Edmond Fehoko (Auckland University of Technology)

My research explored the experiences and perceptions of Pacific and Tongan males who participate in the faikava (kava-drinking). The faikava is a well-known ceremonial cultural practice that in recent times has been adapted as an informal and recreational activity embedded in the activities of some churches and other agencies in Tongan migrant communities in New Zealand, Australia and in the United States of America. This cultural practice includes aspects of socialising, sharing and talking, social bonding and fostering camaraderie. For my study, the faikava was the vehicle for my data collection. Presentation will argue the value of the faikava as an epistemological site, which provides Pacific and Tongan with the opportunity to reinforce their knowledge of the anga fakatonga (Tongan culture) protocols and language and to engage in discussion about issues of concern to Pacific and Tongan people today. Drawing on this, I will share my experience in researching in a gendered, social and cultural space in a predominant male practice. Furthermore, share how female may be interested in participating and researching in this social and cultural practice.