Matthias London

Negotiating Positionality During Field Research in Nocturnal Settings

Image Credit: Matthias London.

Negotiating Positionality During Field Research in Nocturnal Settings

I threw my head into my neck to eye a camera above the entry of Bassiani. After receiving a confirmation from the ‘face control,’ the bouncer waved me through the gates of Tbilisi’s monumental nightclub that would arguably unleash all the restrictions imposed on me by the outside world for the next 14 hours. Initially, anxiousness crept up my sleeves, driven by the uncertainty to confront what would await me down the heavy metal stairs that cease in an emptied swimming pool under the Dynamo Stadium – Bassiani’s main stage. I was quick to revise that feeling for finding everything necessary for me to create a sense of comfort and belonging: The all-encompassing darkness only interrupted by the high-frequency light show, which temporarily lay bare the darkrooms sidelining the main floor; the music penetrating my body loudly and highly energetic with the kind of industrial techno that immerses my body in a ritual of unrestricted dance; the warm air laden with sweat from a crowd of rhythmically stomping bodies only scarcely covered in chains and leather. As a raver, I feel free. The club provides a spatial-temporal totality where I can construct and perform any identity that I desire without having to suffer from unapologetic judgment.

The ethnographic account above from a night of participant observation in Bassiani on September 6, 2019, indicates that the electronic dance music culture (EDMC) field can be messy and chaotic at times. Although there is a growing body of research about EDMC, Garcia (2013) contended that it lacks an apt volume on fieldwork methods to investigate them. On the same note, Bennett (2002) reviewed the existing literature surrounding youth culture and musical taste to discuss the methodological use of ‘insider knowledge’ when conducting ethnographic fieldwork. The concept was furthered by Taylor (2011), who elucidated aspects of negotiating the ethics of researching as an ‘intimate insider’ (p. 5). Building on these works and applying them to my own experiences, I will reflect on several practical, ethical, and legal considerations particular to negotiating positionality in EDMC fieldwork on the following pages.

Particularities of the Nocturnal Field Regarding Research Ethics

Throughout his research about EDMC in Berlin, Paris, and Chicago, Garcia (2013) discovered that the application of conventional sociological fieldwork methods leads to dissatisfactory results in such nightlife settings. He discussed the challenges he faced during nightlife fieldwork centered around issues of respect, trust, data collection, and reciprocity.

A postmodern stance on the politics of identity gives ground to the assumption that people engaging in nighttime cultural activities tend to create a ‘nocturnal persona’ that differs from their ‘daytime persona.’ It is a strategy to finetune part of their lifestyle with their everyday practices, which prevents the collision of those two worlds. Moreover, one of the reasons why people participate in nighttime events is detaching themselves from everyday life. In approaching potential subject-participants as a researcher with the motivation to speak about the exact reality that they may be trying to distance themselves from, means interrupting them from this intimate practice.

Another aspect related to respecting nightlives is the issue of documentation. Clubs and festivals are supposed to be judgment-free safe spaces in which individuals can unrestrictedly construct and perform their identities. That often involves club policies that prevent participants from using their smartphones for taking photos or videos during the events. Beyond that, conducting on-site interviews and recording them can be difficult, since the noise of the music or conversing people will distort the recording. How then, can researchers prove that they are doing ‘serious fieldwork’ when facing a dilemma of documentation?

Bringing the aspects of confidentiality and trust to a meso-level of analysis, it raises the questions about how researchers can publish information about entire scenes that would prefer to remain ‘underground,’ or communities that would prefer not having their cultural secrets revealed. This implies that that the researched face a risk of misrepresentation concerning the interpretation and framing of the researcher. Increasing visibility usually distorts a scene’s cultural value of remaining hidden to the public.

In addition to interrupting individuals from fully immersing into the event and running the risk of misrepresenting them, the question remains of how they would benefit from becoming subject-participants in the research. In some cases, speaking to a researcher openly may come with significant risks, particularly when revealing parts of their identity or political orientation.

Lastly, researchers need to create empathy and consider with whom the subject-participants are speaking. To further elaborate this, EDMC researchers partaking in nighttime activities not only do so as researchers but potentially also as people who enjoy the event. How much do you reveal about your various identities to subject-participants before conversing with them for scientific purposes? And more importantly, how much of your identity do you withhold from them? 

Negotiating Positionality in the Nocturnal Field

As the dilemmas particular to fieldwork in nightlife settings indicate, EDMC researchers are facing context-sensitive issues that require context-sensitive solutions. The initial participant observation sketches a commonly held normative ideal among participants in nighttime cultural events, namely that nightlife settings liberate its participants from all possible markers of social identity. This belief certainly impacts how agents in nightlife settings create environments that thrive to live this ideal while failing to perfectly translate it into a practical reality. We do not leave our social standpoint and positionality at the club entrance, hence EDMC researchers need to consider the impact of their positionality on the field and its participants at every moment of field research. In accordance, decolonial and feminist researchers have published pioneering work in delineating how critically reflecting the politics of a researcher’s identity and social situatedness can benefit the deconstruction of rigid dichotomies in the social scientific paradigm that perpetuates hierarchies of power (Ackerly & True, 2010; Castillo, 2015; Dam & Lunn, 2014; Godbole, 2014). Embedding such a reflective approach into nightlife settings means adapting increasingly subjective methods in favor of allegedly value-neutral objective ones. Thus, EDMC researchers need to be aware that the methods they use for fieldwork, such as participant observation or interviews, are channeled through their subjective positionality and situatedness. In the following paragraphs, I will reflect on the importance of negotiating positionality pertaining to the particularities of the nocturnal field using my own experience.

An important aspect that has been largely disregarded by EDMC researchers up to date is that we cannot identify a homogenous EDMC field around the globe that has the same characteristics in every local setting. The nightlife sphere relates to other sociopolitical spheres of a given nation and responds to localized value systems and internalized social norms. Consequently, the EDMC field in Berlin differs from the one in Tbilisi, and so does the negotiation of my positionality in them (Dam & Lunn, 2014; Godbole, 2014).

Besides my ascribed features which agents navigating the nocturnal field can perceive and interpret unproblematically through their subjective lens, there are a multitude of identity characteristics that are not immediately obvious to them (Dam & Lunn, 2014). Although being, for instance, German, white, male, blond, middle-class, or educated remain paramount characteristics in EDMC fields around the globe for gaining access to spaces and people or creating trustful relationships, other markers of identity arguably play a more pivotal role. In my personal experience, being queer, a Berlin resident, an ‘insider’ (Bennett, 2002: 459) of the scene, and being completely transparent about every aspect of my identity and research with the people I interact with have proven to be invaluable in accessing these people and creating trustful relationships to them in the field. Since Berlin holds the reputation as one of the central nodes for EDMC around the globe, sharing the information that I live there almost immediately creates a sense of glorification and trust. Knowing how to behave in darkrooms or on the dancefloor, having an aesthetic understanding of musical taste, and a distinguished style are further elements that help to overcome initial barriers of mistrust. In being perceived as an insider, the researched hold the valid belief that they can hold you accountable for the work you produce about the community or the scene – and trust that you ‘do good’.

Although I always carry a small voice recorder with me when doing fieldwork in nightlife settings, I usually try to use the time to create initial contact with people and to make a personal history of shared experience with them. In doing so, I construct a ‘trust network’ (Garcia, 2013: 11) consisting of ‘informant-“friendships”’ (Taylor, 2011: 8) who become my primary source of data. Bennett (2002) and Taylor (2011) demonstrate that identifying as an (intimate) insider comes with a whole new set of challenges regarding accountability, data validity, or ‘insider blindness’ (Taylor, 2011: 13). These issues require the critical reflection encouraged by the aforementioned decolonial and feminist researchers that resembles an objectivist break (Bourdieu, 2000: 22) or ‘unlearning the familiar’ (Taylor 2011: 16). However, when consistently performing this exercise of self-reflection on every domain of your research (Ackerly & True, 2010), the data collection as an insider with intimate relationships to the subject-participants has a significant potential to yield results with an immense social scientific value (Bennett, 2002; Taylor, 2011).

Using memory work to capture important details relevant for my research immediately after the event has been another strategy of overcoming the problem of documentation, albeit an imperfect one (Garcia, 2013). If I do decide to conduct on-site interviews, I try to find a quiet space in which I can inform the subject-participant about the research for their orally given informed consent. I make sure that they understand that I anonymize the data I collect and that they have the opportunity to read the transcripts and to delete parts they prefer to remain unconsidered. The latter has proven to be well appreciated during interviews with people in Tbilisi’s nightlife setting and also counts for interviews conducted with informant-‘friendships’ after the events. Reciprocity can be various and depends on the subject-participant and the setting. Some of the options are gift-giving of drinks or semi-legal recreative substances (Garcia, 2013), sharing music, or simply providing the researched with a space to express themselves freely about their opinions and beliefs with the guarantee that someone respectfully listens and cares.

References

Ackerly, B. A., & True, J. (2010). A Feminist Research Ethic Explained. In Doing Feminist Research in Political and Social Science (pp. 21–39). Palgrave Macmillan.

Bennett, A. (2002). Researching Youth Culture and Popular Music: A Methodological Critique. British Journal of Sociology, 53(3), 451–466. https://doi.org/10.1080/0007131022000000590

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (Reprint1984 ed.). Harvard University Press.

Castillo, R. C. (2015). The Emotional, Political, and Analytical Labor of Engaged Anthropology Amidst Violent Political Conflict. Medical Anthropology, 34(1), 70–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2014.960564

Dam, R., & Lunn, J. (2014). First impressions count: The ethics of choosing to be a “native” or a “foreign” researcher. In J. Lunn (Ed.), Fieldwork in the global south: Ethical challenges and dilemmas (pp. 96–108). Routledge.

Garcia, L.-M. (2013). Editor’s Introduction: Doing Nightlife and EDMC Fieldwork. Dancecult, 5(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2013.05.01.01

Godbole, G. (2014). Revealing and concealing: Ethical dilemmas of maneuvering identity in the field. In J. Lunn (Ed.), Fieldwork in the global south: Ethical challenges and dilemmas (pp. 87–95). Routledge.

Taylor, J. (2011). The Intimate Insider: Negotiating the Ethics of Friendship When Doing Insider Research. Qualitative Research, 11(1), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794110384447

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