Pride in the Field

Doing fieldwork as an ally: Is it imperialistic?

By Myrto Dagkouli-Kyriakoglou, Malmö University

When conducting interviews with LGBTQ+ participants about their housing practices in post-2008 financial crisis Greece, I found myself in an unexpected situation. I initially found it easy to build trust and affinity with my participants. I was able to recruit participants through a growing network of LGBTQ+ contacts as well as close personal friends who knew me well. However, I was soon called out by one of my research partners for failing to be completely honest with participants. I had heard their stories, taken their time and built friendships with many, but at no point had I properly considered disclosing to them that I am actually straight, as I assumed that they would naturally already be aware of this. I was accused of being deceptive, and that carrying out the research in this way was imperialistic.

In response to this, I began to seriously consider my own role as a researcher interested in questions of sexuality and gender. As an Ally, am I entitled to investigate issues of sexual orientation, or is this potentially imperialistic? In building trust with participants, how should I express my allyship? Is it right that allies should carry out research with communities marginalised because of their sexual orientation and gender identity? What power relations are at play, and how does this shape my interactions in the field? Had I taken my allyship for granted, and failed to fully consider how I am interpellated by my participants, potentially deceiving them as a result?

Of course, the incident highlighted above was an eye opener for me, despite my firm grasp of the context facing LGBTQ+ communities in Greece, and my interest in challenging the violence of cisheteronormtive structures. In Greece, LGBTQ+ people are in a precarious social position: they often live under the ‘governance of family’ and are dependent on family welfare. They often also face discrimination as Greek society is largely conservative, heteronormative, family-centric and strongly religious. As a result, familial housing and financial support are considerably dependent on the degree to which a family approves of the receiver’s lifestyle.

Because of this, some LGBTQ+-identified participants continued to keep their sexuality or gender identity obscured from their families, on whom they depended for housing and financial support. LGBTQ+ participants were wary of ‘coming out’ to their (extended) family, given the impact this might have on their housing pathways. Many LGBTQ+ participants had faced displacement because they had been rejected by their families. The ‘indirect impact’ of disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity included the difficulties they faced in exercising their personal life choices. This context raised ethical questions for me as a researcher, particularly around participant safety, which I planned for by treating participants with confidentiality. It is also for these reasons that I believe it was/is urgent to investigate how housing support and LGBTQ+ housing practices are impacted, directly and indirectly, by sexual and gendered norms and identities. However, this context of risk and safety also raised questions about my own positionality, and how I can build trust with communities marginalised by homophobia, transphobia and biphobia when I myself am privileged by heteronormativity, but also differently oppressed by patriarchy and sexism because of my gender.

This opportunity for critical reflection appears now, with hindsight, to be of major importance. In responding to being called out, I adopted a reflexive research approach, and where I had not originally disclosed my identity as an ally, I made sure that my participants acknowledged it even afterwards in order for them to decide if they will remain in the study. The lack of prior attention I had paid to this had also been a product of the fairly lax ethical process at my university, which allowed assumptions about my positionality and relationship with participants to go unchallenged or unexplored prior to the fieldwork. During my PhD courses in the field of Urban Studies, ethics and methodologies of researching with LGBTQ+-communities were not covered. There was not adequate training as well as ethical awareness about these issues, which meant I had to rely, unfairly, on relevant literature and most importantly on the labour and lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people to inform me of where I was going wrong.

Ultimately, I want to be able to contribute to the field of Gender and LGBTQ+ studies, but I want to be able do so in a responsible and beneficial way for my research partners. I do not believe that LGBTQ+ researchers should bear alone the heavy load of researching themselves. Allies should ‘chip in’ with committed and responsible research, by recognising and calling out the role that heterosexism and other oppressive norms play in the lives of queer people. However, in order for this to be safe and inclusive for all sides there is need for knowledge exchange inside a supportive community where we can and should co-produce resources.

After reflecting on the incident and with the support of my research partner who pointed to the problems in my approach, I returned to the field and made a more conscious effort to reflect on my positionality as something more relational and ambiguous. However, the above-mentioned precautions did not address the issue of probable complicity with imperial or colonial research practices that my research partner accused me of. There is urgent need for support that will enable us to accept and manage the paradoxes of our own positionings. I accept that truly ethical research is not possible because of prevailing power imbalances and that we may never fully understand our positionalities. However, we should try to engage more fully with these imbalances in order to be aware of how our knowledge is harvested, analysed and communicated in paradoxical and contradictory ways. The attention must be in learning how to practice research that will not reproduce but challenge dominant gendered, sexualised and racialised discourses.

This experience highlighted the need for inclusive (pre-)fieldwork spaces that offer training, reflection and guidance for researchers about the potential ethical issues that arise.  Support to identify our positionalities will enable us to ‘overcome static understandings of our subjectivities’ and create spaces for hybrid understandings (Cupples, 2002, 388). For this purpose, there is need for a network that will support the needs and activities of fieldworkers both identified/affiliated with LGBTQ+ communities, as well as for allies, and in relation to local contexts. Except for general ethical guidelines about inclusive research, the circumstances/dangers/challenges that LGBTQ+ people may face in specific geographical contexts should be communicated in order to protect both LGBTQ+ researchers and beneficiaries, and to enhance allyship so that it can avoid doing harm. This can be done according to formal information but also knowledge exchange between researchers and the community.

Feature image: A political stencil of the greek queer movement about Zak Kostopoulos that he was murdered in 2019.

About the author: Myrto Dagkouli-Kyriakoglou is a postdoc researcher at the Institute for Urban Research, at Malmo University. Her research centers around housing and the assemblages of gender, family, and care in the context of Southern Europe.

Suggested further reading

Miles, S. (2020) “‘I’ve never told anyone this before’: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research” Area

Pride in the Field Series:

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