Feminine Advantage: Doing Ethnography of the Outlaws

Paper presented at The 12th Annual International Etnography Symposium, 29.08.2017 - 02.09.2017, Manchester Business School

Tereza Kuldova

University of Oslo

University of Vienna

An assumption has dominated ethnography at large and feminist anthropology in particular. Namely, that the value of ethnographies by female writers often resides in female researcher’s ability to easily gain access to other women and to somehow intuitively understand other women grounded in their shared womanhood. In other words, in their ability to understand women the way men are imagined to be unable to, and hence to tell stories that have been often previously neglected due to male dominance in research. The reverse has been true also for men; it has often been assumed that some topics are best left to men to study, such as violent street gangs, bouncers, mafia or criminal organizations, where studies done by women remain extremely rare. In our joint paper, grounded in our respective fieldworks among outlaw motorcycle clubs in Europe (Kuldova) and street gangs in Belgium (van Hellemont), i.e. among exclusively male, periodically violent, and proudly hypermasculine groups, we wish to unsettle these common assumptions. Firstly, we argue that our femininity provided us with a unique research position when studying these male groups. In this respect, we shall discuss both the benefits and limits of what we call the ‘feminine advantage’ and compare our experiences of what could be termed ‘extreme fieldwork’ to those recorded by male researchers in similar environments. In particular, we argue that our femininity provided us with an easier access, as we were not perceived as a threat, and thus with overall ‘easier time’, while also allowing us to gain knowledge which remains otherwise hidden to male researchers, as our femininity often facilitated openness on the part of the men, who shared things with us they would not share with other men (or for that matter women they were romantically interested in). Moreover, we were also often relieved from participating in violent or criminal acts (as opposed to male researchers, who often have to ‘prove themselves’). Secondly, we wish to challenge the assumption that women somehow understand better and gain access easier to other women than men do, an assumption grounded in the naïve and essentialist idea of gender solidarity. Our ethnographic experiences clearly show that other women can present a serious obstacle in conducting fieldwork, and even become a violent threat to the female researcher, often triggered by jealousy or envy. Effectively, women in our fieldworks remained, with few notable exceptions, typically inaccessible, even though regularly physically present, while often acting in far more threatening ways towards us than the men. Class, educational and ethnic difference clearly play a crucial role here, too, as our higher status was often perceived as a positive asset and a potential resource by the men gang/outlaw motorcycle club (OMC) members (without the added burden of being a threat, as is often the case for male researchers, who often face humiliation for being effeminate, due to their status and education, and for lacking street-smartness). By women in the milieu, on the other hand, our status was generally perceived as a threat as opposed to a potential resource. Thus, not only do we argue that female researchers studying gang and OMC members often have a ‘feminine advantage’, we also believe that the assumed mysterious solidarity grounded in shared gender needs to be problematized, as these ethnographies clearly suggest.