Ethnographic Fieldwork and Female Dilemmas

I often write about my experiences as a Black woman researcher in Albania, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. When I use the term “intersectionality”, I am referring to the ways that my identity as both Black and a woman intersect, so that when discussing my positionality, it is critical to note how the two interplay. For this post however, I want to focus particularly on gendered aspects of fieldwork in Albania. Tonight after finishing coffee with my neighbors I felt very pressed to take note of the ways in which I feel my research as a woman is impacted differently than a male researcher, particularly in Albania, and so below I have gathered thoughts to share with you (please note that many scholars have discussed these subjects at length, for more information on sources, see my comments at the end of the post).

1. Very often my research is not seen as valid

Tonight while having coffee one of my neighbors asked me about my research, and while I discussed it, his mind seemed to drift towards another subject. Now I know that I can be very verbose and oftentimes folks stop listening to me when I go on and on. What he said next though confirmed his thoughts of my project: “Don’t worry, next time I will bring my wife and when you meet her, she can teach you about having a baby. You should have a girl. Don’t be afraid of children!” As I have noted in several posts, I am asked every single day why I am in Albania doing research rather than at home with my husband birthing babies. Generally speaking, folks here are usually perplexed that foreigners would come to Albania at all, especially from the US (everyone’s dream is to be in the US!), so both foreign men and women are questioned for even being here. Women, however, are more critically scrutinized and furthermore, are often instructed NOT to do their research, as they are better served as wives and mothers. Even before I was married, when I conducted research here people told me that I was losing time and getting older, and that it was important to head back to the States and find a husband. 

2. I have to fight for my voice to be heard

While having our coffee tonight I was discussing a subject with my neighbor that he thought he knew all about (a typical response). On this particular thing though, I happened to be more well-versed and as I was relaying my thoughts he was very disturbed by my apparent awareness. So he just started saying louder and louder, “Yeah I know, I know” though it was clear that he did not know much at all. I was reminded of a recent ride in a taxi in which the driver began to castigate my research in Roma communities, because as he said, “There is nothing special about them, they are all liars.” I told him that he could share his thoughts but asked how he knew what he knew, what type of research had he done, how often had he visited Roma communities, how many Roma people he knew, etc. There were two other people in the car, both men, and the driver began getting upset as I spat off statistics and talked about my research. So he then just started yelling at me, shouting that he knew everything because he just did, and that there was no way that I could know, besides he was Albanian which meant he must know more (again, gender is not the only thing at play in this example). 

3. My body is constantly surveilled and critiqued. 

My colleague and I once wrote a conference paper on this subject, and the way that we are physically perceived in the field, as few people talk about this aspect of research. The female body, especially in Albania, in not treated the same way as the male body. Sure people discuss and critique all bodies publicly in a way that we do not do in the States, but the female body is dissected and oftentimes publicly shamed for what folks perceive to be “abnormalities”. Women globally have made this case and have discussed it thoroughly (i.e. the various Dove campaigns, the Body Project), and this too has a big impact on female researchers, especially for a woman such as myself that packs a big more junk in the trunk. During interviews I sometimes have to describe and even defend my body for long periods of time before we can get to interview questions. When I say defend, people will ask many personal questions about weight and size, that in the case of a male researcher, he would probably be the big fun guy who drinks lot of beers instead of the the thicker woman who is subjected to harsh criticism for her body. This led me to begin a focus group with young Albanian women about body perception as this is a larger subject to be studied here. 

4. Many times I am now allowed to set my own agenda

Folks here are very friendly and very hospitable, so they often want to host guests and accompany friends places. As a woman however, many people feel that I should not be able to go anywhere or to do anything on my own. This includes going to cafes, traveling to nearby small towns for interviews, or even simply going home in the evening. Now I am not unaware of cultural norms, and I am also conscious of existing dangers. As some of you may have seen in my previous posts about a temporary stalker, I know there are issues that I should keep in mind, places to avoid, things like that. At the same time however, male researchers get to occupy a different space that women cannot, regardless of how much we may demand to do so. Which brings me to my final point…

5. Women are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault

After tonight’s coffee I once again received unwanted and somewhat aggressive sexual advances. I have shared with you all some of the problems I have had with men and verbal harassment, but problems extend well beyond this point. This point speaks to women broadly, not just researchers (in particular sexual and domestic violence are big problems in Albania, a subject that I will attempt to write about later in a different post as it is very sensitive and dense). Female researchers are more likely than men to experience these types of problems, and like what happened with my situation with Kuqi the stalker, I was blamed for even being here alone, for not being with my husband, for even walking around alone. This type of response is all too familiar for females, in that many people tend to chastise women for their behaviors rather than blame and correct men for theirs. 


Of course there are other examples, all of which I believe provide a window into the ways gender is constructed both in Albania. Many scholars have written quite a bit on this subject, and for those interested I encourage you to check out such works as Black Feminist Anthropology edited by Irma McClaurin, Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork edited by Diane Wolf, or Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. All are wonderful volumes and feature writings from excellent scholars. Also I would also highly suggest reading texts by bell hooks, Lila Abu-Lughood, Kamala Visweswaran, and also Zora Neale Hurston. 


10 thoughts on “Ethnographic Fieldwork and Female Dilemmas

  1. This is all so very true! Appearances are so important. Some of this seems universal for women. I wonder though if there is a real fear for your safety.

    • Hi Michelle,
      Thanks for commenting and don’t worry too much. Even though I feel vulnerable at times, for the most part I’m okay. And of course it helps to have so many good friends here who have my back.

  2. 1. Old Albanian neighbors (or friends), not the younger, talk about your personal life (and having babies) to make you feel closer to them or to feel at home, and I will explain you why, if you can be patient to read this. The Tirana you see today, the noisy moving capital, has been like that only for the past 20 years. Before that, in communism, people didn’t move in big cities because there weren’t growing cities. The government was the only one having jobs and building factories, and they built them to employ the current population of each town or city. They didn’t plan to bring people from other cities in one place. That would mean building fewer houses, because could live with their parents, since the government was also the only house builder. That’s why communities didn’t change very much, people didn’t move, lived with their parents and neighbors grew together and lived close to each other until they were grandads. That’s why every town in Albania has its own specific dialect, although we’re a very small country. And that’s why 80% of the population lived still in rural areas in 1990. The reason I am telling you this, and the connection with your topic, is that without population migration for centuries, it means that as a kid I played football with my neighbors on the same field where my father and the fathers of my friends had played football when they were young, and our grandfathers had done the same thing. Our families knew each other families in details. While women met with each other in groups and discussed about things. Not having TV or a pop-culture media, they obviously talked and gossipped about other people around them. Now this makes it impossible to keep from your neighbors as many personal things as you can keep in America. Your Albanian grandfather could tell you the secrets of your neighbor’s grandfather since they were kids. Because this being so close to your neighbor has continued for so many decades, it is common practice among Albanian neighbors to welcome in their group a newly arrived person in the neighborhood by making personal questions and personal comments, so that he can feel at home. This thing to you, to me and to all young Albanians of today seems a violation of privacy. But with their mind they are doing it to make you feel at home, to make you feel one of them, not to tell you what to do because they think that you’re not smart or anything like that. It has nothing to do with you being a female or black. They do it with everyone they feel friendly with. It’s something bothering but for them is a good action.

    2. If you pay attention, you’d notice that Albanians, Southern Italians and Greeks raise their voice on every friendly debate when they have different opinions. They look like they’re fighting but they are not being hostile at all. Boys do it about football, their fathers do it about politics, and so on. It has actually happened with many foreigners thinking that we fight when we are having a normal conversation. When the conversation gets heated in an Albanian table of discussion, you’ll have to raise your voice or you will not be heard. It’s wrong but that’s how it is. And they do it with everyone, not only with women, not only with black people. Once again, this has nothing to do with gender or race.

    3.Women talk about their bodies and men don’t simply because women care more about the look of their bodies then men, since the beginning of times, and the issue here is that they enter in personal details, not because of the body. The reason why they enter in personal details is the one I mentioned in number 1. Once again, this is not about gender or race neither.

    4.Same thing here. They try to interfere with your personal agenda for the same reasons they interfere in personal details. Women are seen more vulnerable because we live in a world where the vast majority of women still behave like they are more vulnerable, especially in countries where the poor economic options give them fewer opportunities to be independent. It has been the same in every country that has been in our same economic conditions, even America. It has nothing to do with being a female or about being black.

    5. As for that staring thing, if you, as a black woman, stayed in Albania for let’s say three years, and during all this time all you saw around was Albanians and no other race, the first moment you’d see a black person after three years in the crowd, you’d stare at him as well with curiosity, wandering what could he be here for.

    After I read some of your posts, I think you’re pushing a bit too hard on the gender and skin issues. I’m not saying there aren’t issues, but it sounds to me like you are bringing them with some kind of exaggeration. It makes you look like you simply judge the habits of Albanians as you see them in the surface, rather than trying to have a deeper understanding on why they do what they do. And I think this is discriminatory as well.

    • Hello, thanks for commenting. If you will, my replies, like your thoughts, are a bit long but I want to take the time to respond to what you wrote. I appreciate your opinions on the matter but I first want to state that this blog post makes mention of intersectionality but its primary focus is gender. That being said, many times you make reference to race, though I said that these points were through the frame of gender. So for instance number 3 is all about gender, even you mentioned that only women discuss their bodies in certain manners. I did not attribute this to race, I spoke from the perspective of a FEMALE researcher, in an attempt to shed light on the ways that a male researcher’s body would not be scrutinized. Furthermore, I did not say this was only the case for Albania, this is for female researchers largely, which I stated. In fact, this could be drawn out further for females in general in all spheres of work.

      In regards to your other points:
      1. I am aware of Tirana’s history–I have conducted research for over eight years in the country and am knowledgeable of how the city has changed, particularly in the post-communist period. That is one aspect of my studies, the change in the urban setting and its impact on everyday life and social grouping. In my post though I was speaking less about a violation of privacy and more about the fact that a woman’s research is not validated the way a man’s would be. That women more often than not are still thought of as better served in the home. This is not unique to me, but a lot of women here, and all over the world. I was only sharing my perspective from fieldwork here. This is a part of a larger global phenomenon.

      2. While you are correct in that Albanians tend to yell and shout a lot in general, I was not speaking purely about volume. If you will go back to the statement, I was making the case that as a female, my voice is not as valid as I would think a male’s voice could be, which has happened on numerous occasions. There is an imbalance in power dynamics. This is the same for my focus groups with Albanian men and women, so that many times the females will say, “The sky is blue” and then men turn around and say, “No let me tell you, the sky is blue.” Or often many men will insist that they know everything and then conversations turn into a showcase of male showmanship. So this point was not to say that I have a hard time talking because I am Black or because I am a woman, but rather to show the ways that even when I present research and data, people still don’t recognize it, and also to point out how often female ideas/perspectives are dominated (again, not just mine).

      3. I believe I already responded to this.

      4. You contradicted yourself. You stated that women are in a more vulnerable position, so this is absolutely about gender, which is what I said. I stated that, I AM NOT UNAWARE OF CULTURAL NORMS. I know quite a bit about Albanian society, I was simply drawing attention to the fact that men occupy a different space than do women. There are countless examples from cafes, to certain restaurants, to ideas about women on furgons, to ideas about women in public generally. So this can complicate matters for female researchers which is what I was saying. Also, once again, I DID NOT bring race into this matter though while we are at it, of course race plays a role when a Black woman goes into an Albanian village for a project, absolutely my race plays a role in terms of shaping interactions. This does not make people “racist” (which if you really are reading my blog you’ll see that I don’t jump to that word easily), but rather acknowledges that people are racialized. And not just me, this is part of my project. Albanians too can be racialized (i.e. in Greece, or Italy).

      5. THIS POINT IS NOT ABOUT STARING. I am not sure how you inferred this. I referenced female sexual harassment and assault, which are HUGE problems here, whether folks want to admit to it or not. I myself have been verbally harassed more times than I can count, stalked multiple times to the point I had to get the police involved, chased home, up my stairwell by a man at night, and these are just some of the examples I care to share. Beyond this, I have numerous colleagues and friends that have been physically and sexually assaulted, with grave outcomes. Furthermore, domestic violence is a big phenomenon here. All this creates spaces that are different for women than for men, which was my point from the beginning.

      To concretely say, “This has nothing to do with race or gender,” and to take a position that seeks to explain away behavior towards me is not productive at all because in fact, you have not experienced it directly as I have. For instance, in a previous post I believe that you commented that staring only comes from curiosity, that it’s not about race, racism, or discrimination. So when folks stare at me and say, “te çifsha zezake” or “bythzinj” or “te djefsha racen” (jo ne menyre “shaka”), or when folks throw rocks at me, or loudly talk about my blackness as though being black indicates dirtiness or uncleanliness, no, I’m sorry, this is not curiosity. And I do not have to exaggerate at all; these are only some examples. Again I have done research here over 8 years. So for you to read my posts and assume that I do not take things into deeper meaning, which I do in my writings, then you have jumped to superficial conclusions.

      I realize that Albania has been othered and orientalized quite often in previous scholarship, and that Westerners kane pare Shiperi me nje syte tjeter. Therefore folks can be weary and even defensive of outside scholarship. This is fair. But if you read my writings carefully I do not rush to quick nor superficial conclusions. In fact I try to complicate things. And if you are bothered by such videos as the staring one, you have to realize that even if you think staring practices are just out of curiosity, that does not mean that I do not have the right to speak back as to what it feels like to be stared at.

      I created this blog to share some experiences of fieldwork with a larger, general audience, and so yes sometimes I present things in a fashion that is not as dense so that it is more palatable. I will take into consideration your comments, perhaps it means that I need to provide more context when sharing posts. If you want to discuss further and happen to be in Tirana I would be up for coffee and even sharing other writings with you, perhaps those that problematize these matters more.

      • Thanks for taking the time to answer. Well, I mentioned both gender and race because your first sentence says them both, and black is emphasized with a capital letter. And I mentioned it also because I was referring to your other posts too, not just this.

        I’m not trying to deny the gender or race problems that in Albania are bigger than in America. I’m trying to explain why many times, many Albanian habits seem malicious by foreigners even when they are not.

        I read about the stalking problem with that guy, and from what I understood from the comments, he was a former intellectual arrested by the communists and turned mentally insane by unfair imprisonment, and during their time in prison their only salvation could be America’s foreign policy to intervene, and that’s why he had told you “you have to save them”, for the other prisoners, with his mind stuck in that period.

        But I find it shocking and hard to believe that you have been thrown rocks at and insulted like that. If that has been more than one isolated case, that would be very bad and I’m sorry to hear that. I had never heard or assisted in a scene when a foreigner is being attacked verbally or physically, and that surprises me a lot.

        I mentioned staring at no.5 because I was referring to your other post, not this.

        As for the gender issues and the way women are treated as more vulnerable, I meant to say that women behave like they are more vulnerable and many of them like to be treated like that or take advantage of it. In every office I have worked, women have asked chiefs to give me as a man the tasks that required more difficulties, like working at night, being sent outside the city, taking the bad desk, and things like that. Many of them behave like vulnerable to use it in their advantage, even when they are in equal positions with men, and that’s why men treat them like that. It’s like that in every office job at least here in Albania. However, in rural areas women are disadvantaged economically and that’s what I admitted that there they really are vulnerable. But in cities like Tirana they are actually privileged, and they still prefer to be treated as vulnerable. All office jobs are taken by women. Men are taken for harder non-office jobs. Take a look at banks, all public administration, boutiques or anything. They only hire women and sometimes they even specify it on the job announcement that they are looking to hire a “perkthyese, not perkthyes. They want men only for late night shifts because women don’t accept those shifts.

    • Way to mansplain the hell out of this blog! Yes, of course her experiences have NOTHING to do with her gender or her race – since you say so! *major sarcasm, in case you didn’t notice *

      • Ha! I’ll have to agree with you Hana, definitely felt like some extreme mansplaining going on. Truthfully though I feel that many men have written off my experiences or have tried to delegitimate them that I almost expect it every time. In fact, I’m actually writing about some of that in my dissertation now. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Hi there again,

    For starters, to clarify, capitalizing the term Black is a scholarly and theoretical choice; it highlights my racial, national, and ethnic positionality. This is a tactic from American writing. Once again though I mentioned it to introduce thoughts on gender and intersectionality. If you have read other posts, I am not trying to dissect Albanian behavior to determine whether it is malicious or not. If you will refer to my earlier posts such as the one about the World Values Survey, you will see that I take issue with simplistic conclusions about any matter (in that case, race in Alnania). Furthermore, as I said, I have conducted research here a very long time so in the blog posts (which is my third blog, I have older blogs dating from 2008), I do highlight particular experiences but never in a vacuum. These are always connected to larger structures and facets, which I am trying to show. My goal is not to demonize Albanian behavior.

    Here is an example for you: recently I have conducted several interviews with people about the use of the term “Jevg” in the present-day Albania. Now from one of my first interviews I learned that the individual felt this was a deragatory and racist term, so I could have run with it and made a post about it being racist. Further inquiry, including interviews, archival research, film study, and linguistic study, however, have pointed out the way in which that term and category are constantly being negotiated, and people understand it differently. Sometimes people employ it in a deragatory manner. Other times folks use it to reference a handyman or blacksmith. Other scholars point out its relationship to the root word Evgjit and the ways in which dialect is responsible for changing the term. So all these factors are important, and you have to talk about all the connections. As such with my blog and of course to a larger extent my research. I am not here to say: “This is what foreigners will be treated like in Abania.” Rather I highlight practices/statements/encounters, sometimes mundane and ordinary, to connect to larger questions of subjects like gender or processes of racialization.

    Your thoughts about women at work are helpful though still, there is a stereotype that women want to be treated that way and take advantage of it. Also even though Albania is a very small country, I think it is difficult to make statements about every single place here. I thank you though for continuing to push me to carefully examine cultural practices.

    Also just to note, the first stalker, I am not sure he was imprisoned in Albania, rather it was in the US. He is just one among many, however, to harass me; because the situation was funny to me later, including the interactions with the police, I made a video about it. Sometimes there are real difficulties and it can be good to try and laugh at them.

    • OK, I understand what you mean. I just feel some foreigners often misunderstand what happens here, that’s why I insisted. As for the women, I’m saying that there are plenty of women who do what I said, of course not all of them.

  4. Pingback: Vegëzat e javës/Links of the week | Shkurra

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