Negotiating private spaces as an ethnographer

One morning, a few months ago, I was on the bus as it made its way into the city. It was full of people starting their work day. Most people were on their phones or staring out the window. One woman caught my eye.

She was sitting a few rows in front of me and she was applying make-up. Not a quick dash of lipstick but the whole works. She was bare-faced, mirror in one hand, applying foundation with the other. Ordinarily women ‘put their face on’ in the privacy of their homes: being seen in public bare-faced is unthinkable for most. Painting our faces is done behind closed doors, a private, intimate act that, for the most part, only those closest to us get to see.

Presentation of self

The first thing that sprung to mind was Goffman’s ideas about the presentation of self, to which I was first introduced as an undergraduate, learning about ethnographic fieldwork. An anthropologist, Gerald Berreman, was describing his experience of conducting research in India (1972), and one of the (then) unspoken difficulties of fieldwork: how to get access to ‘backstage’, to get behind the ‘masks’ people wear. By backstage I mean, of course, the private, intimate space in which we are the most relaxed, being most ourselves: our homes, and to a certain extent, our cars.

As ethnographers we go into people’s homes, at their invitation, in order to conduct research. Seeing people in their own homes gives us valuable insights into how people’s lives are actually lived, what they do or don’t do, the meanings they ascribe to things, and so on. 

Private and public spaces in the home

Trained ethnographers understand the need to build rapport, to make people feel at ease, and less like research subjects. But ultimately we are visitors in their private space. In England in Victorian times, visitors were led into the parlour, which was the best room of the house, a carefully managed 'frontstage' space. Even working-class homes had parlours, which were always at the front of the house to ensure visitors did not walk through the rest of the property (which would be kept hidden, away from prying eyes), a room which was only ever opened for visitors and on Sundays and special occasions. Even today some homes have a family room, a relaxed space, as well as a more formal lounge where visitors are invited to sit.

In our own homes, in the presence of strangers, however friendly and approachable they are, we are always on our guard, still presenting, as much as possible, our best ‘public’ self, wanting to please, conscious of what others will think of us, how they will judge us. In other words: attempting to control the impression we give other people. I'm aware of it in my own behaviour: ensuring I make a cup of tea using the nicest mug, perhaps using the wooden tray with a china jug of milk, casting my eyes quickly round the room, worrying if my guest will spot the dust because I haven't done the housework yet. As ethnographers, although we are in someone’s private space, we are not fully privy to a participant’s ‘backstage’ activities.

Being acutely attentive

This is where the ability of the ethnographer really comes into play: to be continually aware of the environment around us (such as smells and noises), what the participant is saying and not saying, their tone of voice, how they are behaving (micro-gestures reveal so much), those moments of concentration or inattentiveness when they accidentally reveal that which they wish to conceal, what they are doing (or not doing), and so on. I’m looking for those moments when what I'm seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling are inconsistent with the appearance or impression that the person is trying to manage. Those slip-ups (accidental or on purpose) in the act of impression management that reveal discrepancies and contradictions, what that tells me, and where it might lead me in my research.

(And of course, as a researcher, I am also conscious of the impression I'm trying to make on my participants, how I want them to perceive me.)

As researchers, being acutely attentive to how people behave when we are invited into their ‘backstage’ space is one of the most powerful tools in an ethnographer’s tool kit. No matter how relaxed we try to make participants feel, they will still feel as if they are ‘on stage’. Being constantly cognisant of this makes the difference to the quality of the data we collect.

Image credit: Photo by Nicolas LB on Unsplash.