Gesa E. Kirsch, State University Press of New York, 1999
Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork
Diane L. Wolf, Westview Press, 1996
Reviewed by Anastasia N. Panagakos
The authors of Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork and Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research are on a very similar mission: to identify, understand, and situate the ethical dilemmas of power relations encountered in doing feminist qualitative and ethnographic research. Although these works cover disciplines as different as anthropology and composition studies, the treatment of feminist ethical dilemmas is strikingly similar. In the forward of Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, Carmen Diana Deere states that “this collection of essays…introduces prospective field researchers to a broad variety of concrete problems and ethical dilemmas they are apt to face in the field.” (1996: vii). Similarly, Kirsch’s volume provides an accessible account of what feminist research is and how ethical dilemmas can confound the researcher engaged in qualitative work–topics that budding academics interested in feminist epistemology cannot ignore and should, in fact, embrace as challenges. The similarities in topic and theme of these two volumes points to the cross-disciplinary appeal of feminist scholarship and the common responsibilities and problems faced in very different disciplines that deal with issues of power relations between the researcher and the researched.
Although Kirsch and Wolf accomplish a similar task, their methods and choice of presentation are quite different. Wolf’s account of feminist dilemmas is an edited volume of collective research wisdom gathered from anthropology, women’s studies, education, Asian American studies, sociology, history, and geography. The accounts, by Diane Wolf, Gunseli Berik, Brackette Williams, Carol Stack, Suad Joseph, Ping-Chun Hsiung, Patricia Zavella, Valerie Matsumoto, Cindi Katz, Jayati Lal, and Margery Wolf, reveal the changes that have occurred in feminist ethnographic research over the last three decades as the paradigm has shifted from “making women’s work visible” to the politics of representation. Composing this volume with first-time ethnographers in mind, these scholars offer a candid and self-reflexive look at the problems they encountered, both professional and personal, while conducting field research. For example, in dealing with her own position as a Chicana while studying women of similar background, Zavella states, “In the service of Chicana–or Hispana–informants, I had unconsciously privileged the Chicano side of my identity and not listened to women carefully. . . . They helped me realize that I should deconstruct my own Chicana feminist viewpoint” (1996: 153). This statement exemplifies one of the three issues of power identified by Wolf–that certain power is exerted “during the research process, such as defining the research relationship, unequal exchange, and exploitation” (1996: 2). Furthermore, that power differences stem from the positionality of the researcher and researched such as class, race, or nationality, and in writing and representing during the postfieldwork period.
Kirsch addresses these very issues through a different rhetoric as she explores researcher-participant relations, the politics of representation, interpretation, and publication, and working within institutions. Kirsch contextualizes her project by drawing upon her own experience of interviewing academic women about their writing and research, “A reason for writing this book derives from my experience of conducting interviews in the field. I remember simultaneous excitement and discomfort I felt during many interviews. While I enjoyed learning about women’s remarkable lives and hearing their stories of triumph and success, there were also times when I was disquieted by my interviewee’s sharing of private thoughts, secret desires, and feelings of disappointment or anger” (1999: xi). Kirsch’s thoughtful treatment of the research process is enriched by her attention to the various theories that have molded interdisciplinary feminist research, from standpoint to postmodern studies. In the final chapter, Kirsch and Peter Mortensen (who co-authored that chapter) provide a road map to the reader of what feminist ethics in qualitative research could be and what they can accomplish. Their suggestions are useful in breaking down problems that appear too daunting to solve and give feminist researchers a number of ways to incorporate ethical practices in their own research.
Although each volume presents a clear and articulated treatment of ethical dilemmas in feminist research, each may appeal to a different audience. Wolf’s volume suits scholars in the social sciences who already have a grasp of feminist epistemology and are interested in putting it into practice. It is particularly useful as a teaching aid for graduate-level seminars and I would recommend it for any course that deals with qualitative research methods. Kirsch directs her work at scholars of composition studies which she believes is just beginning to incorporate feminist research principles. She sees a flowering of qualitative research in the discipline yet a lack of critical engagement with the politics entailed in such research. Kirsch’s book is very suitable for graduate-level courses in writing and composition studies while offering scholars with a limited background in feminist research an accessible and thorough account of the issues and challenges faced by feminist scholarship.
Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork and Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research exemplify a strong move by feminist researchers to take responsibility for the unequal power relations and exploitation that are manifest throughout the research process. While some scholars would argue that feminist research is impossible since the relationship between researcher and researched can never be completely equal, these authors present this dilemma as the challenge for future scholars. Kirsch cautions her readers to not get discouraged and give up the enterprise of qualitative research since stopping such work would be regressive. Furthermore, Wolf states, “This book is meant to encourage future feminist fieldworkers to continue confronting and integrating these dilemmas without naivete, to continue rocking the epistemological boat, to continue challenging conventional notions about what constitutes quality research, and to continue striving for politically meaningful coalitions and projects (1996: 38). Through example Kirsch and Wolf, et al. provide groundwork that is interdisciplinary in nature and applicable for critical researchers who espouse different feminist perspectives. Each is a valuable contribution to feminist works and a stepping stone for the next generation of critical feminist thinking.