Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 15, September 18, 2012


Emotions during Fieldwork in the Anthropology of Sexuality: From Experience to Epistemological Reflexions

Guadalupe Brak-Lamy, Anthropologist, Ph.D.
Research Fellow at CAPP (Centre for Public Administration and Public Policies)
Department of Sociology, Superior Institute of Social and Political Sciences,
Avenida Almerindo Lessa, 1300-663 Lisbon
guadalupe.lamy at gmail.com

This publication was supported by a grant provided by the Foundation for the Science and Technology (FCT), Portugal.


This article delves into my personal emotional experience while engaged in fieldwork on heterosexual seduction behaviors in four nightclubs of the movida areas in Lisbon, the parts of the Portuguese capital where nightlife entertainment is readily available. Different stages of this fieldwork will be described, such as the observation of seduction behaviors, as well as interactionist methodology. Subsequently, my data recording processes of personal interactions and emotions experienced and written into the field diary will also be analysed. Finally, emphasis will be placed on the relevance of the epistemological dichotomy between objectivity/subjectivity, implementing several anthropological approaches. Conclusions emphasise that my own emotions experienced contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of my own gender role as well as a more comprehensive understanding of the gender roles of the social actors under study, in addition to those seduction behaviors taking place in the nightclubs. I contend that emotions are important in ethnographic writing because they are implicated in the production of knowledge. Furthermore, I argue that the emotionality of the research process needs to be incorporated into discussions of methodology and analysis to enable anthropologists to produce high-quality social research.


Emotions are inextricably tied up in anthropological research in the field and in the writing of researchers’ feelings during fieldwork. Yet these emotions are often dismissed in a number of  ways: frequently left out of anthropological research methods courses, frequently edited out of ethnographic texts, admonished when they slip into PhD seminars, in general confined to personal fieldnotes, at times turned into jokes or asides, and at other times treated with uncertainty, embarrassment or silence (Hovland, 2007). It is with this in mind that this article presents a reflection on how emotions are an integral part of qualitative research presenting the relationship between emotion and data through researcher’s own emotional response to participation in interactions behaviors in the field.

My task is to show how certain emotions experienced during my fieldwork are related to my gender role and the gender roles of the participants in this study of seduction behaviors1 and feelings experienced by men and women who attend some nightclubs located in the movida areas in Lisbon.  Whilst it has involving the observation of the seduction behaviors in the nightclubs and the recording of participants’ accounts2 of their emotions within nightclubs’ seduction behaviors as part of data, I was naively unaware of how emotions can be with research at the time of collating this data, and generally it was not until after I left the field that I became sensitive to how constructive emotions can be for the anthropologist (Kleinman, 1991).

My intention with this study is, in addiction to analysing my emotions as a woman in the context of the seduction behaviors in some nightclubs, also to describe these emotions and the seduction behaviors in order to evoke emotional responses to the reader, thereby producing verisimilitude and shared experience (Denzin, 1997).

Data presented here is focused on heterosexual seduction behaviors in an urban nightlife context, gathered in four recreational spaces (nightclubs). Those spaces are a privileged locus for seduction behavior studies and are found in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, Alcântara Docks, the area between the Alcântara Docks and Belém, and Rocha Conde D`Óbidos.

First, I will describe the different stages of this fieldwork, namely the choice of nightclubs, the observation of heterosexual seduction behaviors of social actors in the aforementioned recreational spaces, the method I adopted to seduce men and how I was seduced.  Next, I will analyse how the field diary was composed, in terms of interactions and emotions I experienced and observed, as well as the impact of these emotions in the understanding of gender roles, whether they be my own or those of male and female patrons at the nightclubs where I conducted my fieldwork. My working definition of emotions in the context of this article is that they are “relatively intense feelings causing changes in behavior which are responses to social acts and self-interactions” (Dezin, 1983, p. 44). Thus, emotions are grounded in social contexts and interactions (Reger, 2001). Emotions are also shaped by relations of dominance, such as the case between men and women (Lutz, 1988).

My task is to show on one hand, how certain emotions such as discomfort and fear that I experienced (as a female, heterosexual and married)) during my fieldwork interactions are the result of masculine dominance seductive behaviors directed towards me and other females; on the other hand I want to demonstrate that certain emotions that I noted down during fieldwork, such as feeling out of place, are the result of my lack of knowledge related to some masculine and feminine seduction behaviors. I will show that the experience and observation of emotions bring forth knowledge related to gender roles, not only that of my own gender role but also the gender roles of social actors, and a more complete understanding of the kind of  behaviors of seduction that are displayed in the nightclubs where I did fieldwork. This article will also highlight the importance of recognising that emotions have epistemological value in research. Reflecting on research provides an opportunity for the researcher to look at emotional encounters with the participants and to utilise them for data analysis (Kleinman & Copp, 1993). So I argue that emotions are integral to research relationships, and I draw attention to the wide range of emotions experienced by me in response to these relationships.

Therefore, the central focus here is on how certain emotions I experienced during fieldwork, when treated with the same intellectual vigour that my empirical work demands can assist rather than impede understanding of fieldwork (including a great awareness of myself and participants gender roles related to the seduction behaviors). In this sense, the researcher’s own reflection and thinking can serve as ‘a springboard for interpretations’ and bring more general insight (Finlay & Gough, 2003).  I will explore emotions in terms of how we might develop an understanding, a sense of the people in terms of gender roles related to the seduction behaviors and learn through them. Thus, I consider the concept of emotion as a discursive tool, helping elucidate the complex ways in which the researcher’s emotions are woven into the fieldwork process, forming an integral part thereof.  This perception diverges from Van Maanen’s (1989) ‘confessional’ way and serves to authenticate research practices.

Finally, the focus turns to the anthropological debate surrounding the values associated with subjectivity, contrasted with “scientific objectivity.” Objectivity and subjectivity have been seen as mutually exclusive categories. Anthropologists working in the subjective tradition try to give a more authentic, or at least a more introspective, account of self in the conduct of fieldwork (…). Because researchers believe that all knowledge is grounded in subjective experience, they try to convey as much as possible about themselves as the implementor and reporter of research (Preissle & Grant, 2004, p. 176).

Objectivity has been the basis for scientific research and is based on the conception that the self is independent from the others. Objectivity of research is achieved by distancing the self from others. The ideology of objectivity is found as emotional detachment and distance in fieldwork relationships, or what is seen as the “neutral” role assumed by the researcher.

A perspective on the different anthropological approaches to understanding objectivity and subjectivity will be presented, ranging from the classic approach to Malinowski, the reflexive turn, on to postmodernism, feminism, ethnographies related to sexuality, works on relationships and, finally, radical empiricism.

Fieldwork stages: nightclub selection and participant observation

Nightclub Selection

My fieldwork began in October 1998, with the development of a social geography for the nightlife recreational spaces in Lisbon, in order to investigate the heterosexual seduction behaviours experienced in these locations. I mapped out several zones in Lisbon that had a great concentration of venues for nightlife entertainment. My final selection was four nightclubs, which was made in the course of four months (from October 1998 to January 1999) and was based on the following criteria:  location, lighting, size, and sound.  In terms of location, all the selected spaces were located in the movida areas of Lisbon, famous nightlife areas.  The condition of lighting meant that light in all the selected spaces was strong enough to observe the seduction behaviors. In regards to size, these spaces were not exceedingly large, so the social actors could be easily identified. Finally, sound was taken into account, and I selected spaces where the decibels were not exceedingly high and conversations could be overheard.

I have attributed fictious names to the selected spaces in order to maintain confidentiality. Horda Rock is located in the Bairro Alto. Mirror is located in Rocha Conde D`Óbidos. Caipirinha is located in the Alcântara Docks. And lastly, Boat is located in the area between the Alcântara Docks and Belém. Mirror, Caipirinha and Boat are frequented by social actors ranging from eighteen to sixty-five years old. Horda Rock is frequented by young adults, ranging from eighteen to twenty-five years old.

Participant Observation

After selecting the nightclubs, I began participant observation in April 1999. This stage of the fieldwork lasted one year and a half (until October 2000) and, just like a rite of passage, it was a profoundly impressive and individualizing experience (Cabral, 1983).  I was introduced to a context that I was not acquainted with. I had never been to any of the aforementioned recreational spaces before fieldwork took place. From the onset I developed empathy (allowing a certain degree of familiarity) for the owners and employees; in contrast, I was unfamiliar with the clients and certain behaviors that I witnessed, namely the simulation of sexual acts during certain dances and the utterance of “lustful” jokes.

I always made my appearance in these locations at opening time, that is, at 11 pm, either in the company of family members, alone, or in the company of female friends, some of them fellow anthropologists. Collaboration with a male anthropologist, which was unfortunately not possible for the present study, would have also granted access to the experiences of a man in the act of seducing and/or being seduced.

What would I observe and hear inside these nightclubs? First, I would notice the decoration of the spaces, as well as the spatial arrangement of tables, bars and dance floors. Then I would observe a range of heterosexual seduction behaviors displayed by costumers and the staff, including verbal (overhearing conversations) and non-verbal language, encompassing a wide range of body language: gestures, attitudes, facial expressions, glances, smiles, kisses and caresses. These seduction practices would take place in different areas of the nightclubs, namely at the tables and at the bar, along the railings in the mezzanines and on the dance floors. I would also observe social actors’ physical appearance: their garments, makeup and accessories.

Every time I stepped inside a nightclub I wore the mask of a “native” (in this context, anonymous, according to Humphreys, 1970), that is, someone who attends these nightclubs to listen to music, dance, have a few drinks, engage in conversations and seduce or be seduced by someone. I was, in this sense, what Spradley (1980) calls an insider. In contrast, given my role as a researcher, I observed the seduction strategies adopted by the different social actors involved and the male seduction strategies directed towards me, which placed me in the position of an outsider (idem).

While frequenting these nightclubs I interacted with social actors from an interactionist point of view, considering the dramaturgic aspect of the relationship, in which the subject’s actions are motivated by the projection of the conduct other social actors display (Goffman, 1989). Consequently, in what sense did I participate? That is, how did I seduce, and how was I seduced? I engaged in visual seduction (I never adopted a verbal or physical approach), but male glances were often directed towards so as to be seductive. Sometimes, after these glances some individuals approached me and engaged in conversation. In some cases, when I was interested in exploring the progression of their advances, I responded to their verbal seduction. I never exceeded pre-established limits I set, namely engaging in physical contact because, as Coffey (1999) establishes, important to attend to ethical, safety and power issues. Moreover, I did not reveal my role as an anthropologist or what I was doing there, as that would have compromised the research and made subjects refrain from spontaneity. I introduced myself with an alias at all times, even pretending to be a foreigner at time, for in the course of time I realized that many subjects perceived foreign women as “easy”, that is, quick to engage in sexual activity.

It has been noted that the evolving researcher-participant relationship in field research is often conditioned by the researcher’s personal characteristics such as gender, culture and age (Dewalt & Dewalt, 2002) as well as well as by researcher’s  biography, all of which may inhibit or enable certain research method insights in the field (Hastrup, 1992).

Firstly, gender mattered in this study. As a female researcher participating in the seduction process in nightclubs, I had easy access to males because I this context I was not perceived as threatening to them. This gender advantage in field research has lent support to the position that in order to understand women’s life experiences I had to interact with men to experience what women feel in the same contexts.

Secondly, culture mattered in this study. Having the same cultural background as the researched is usually advantageous in fieldwork. For me it was easy to understand what men and women said and behave because almost all of them have a cultural background similar to mine.

Thirdly, age mattered in this study. As a women with 32 years old I had some experience in previous seduction of men (in nightlife context) and I have only a little bit more than the average age (26)  of the girls who attend nightclubs.

Field diary: interactions and emotions

Entries in the field diary

In the course of my fieldwork, I recorded the decorations in these nightclubs, the spatial arrangement of tables, bars and dance floors, the music genre being played in my field diary. Likewise, I noted the heterosexual seduction behaviors observed (involving verbal and non verbal language), both in clients and the staff, as well as the seduction behaviors directed towards me and adopted by me, in addition to my personal reactions towards these observations (Emerson et al., 1995). The fact that I recorded the seduction behaviors I took part in steps away from the traditional line of work found in anthropology, where the processes of erotic or sexual interaction between the researcher and the subjects under study are not exposed. This tends to be the norm because these revelations raise some issues concerning the character and the professionalism shown by the anthropologist.

The entries in the field diary documented my “in-depth immersion” (Emerson et al., 1995) in the field. That is, they record what I observed, overheard, and experienced in the field (Berg, 1989; Emerson et al., 1995; Goffman,1989; Lofland and Lofland, 1984; Schatzman and Strauss, 1973), as well as my personal reactions (the running record), and they were generally written when I was either alone or in the company of friends and/or family members. These records were made in loco (Berg, 1989; Emerson et al., 1995; Goffman, 1989; Lofland & Lofland, 1984; Schatzman & Strauss, 1973), away from the eyes of patrons to these nightclubs, in order to avoid any discomfort or intimidation on their part. These entries were recorded in an abbreviated form (short sentences) and chronologically numbered according to the observation (location, date and time) of behaviors taking place in different social interaction scenarios.


After leaving these nightclubs at anywhere between 2 am and 6 am, I went home and inscribed (Geertz, 1973) everything with as much detail as possible that is in a “microscopic” manner (Geertz, 1973) in the field diary that I had previously experienced and recorded in shorthand during the course of the night.  These journal entries were initially descriptive (Bernard, 1988), and later interpretations (analytical commentaries) were separately added to each entry (Emerson et al., 1995). Those commentaries in the running record are comprised of my reactions to and reflections/interpretations on the observations and the interactions but are also related to the intrinsic emotions3 arising from each (Atkinson et al., 2001) without feeling that this blurs or interferes with the objectivity of the reports.  I believe that no fieldwork is capable of dissociating the researcher (who is formatted by his object of study) from the emotive subject. Hence, when anthropologists assume their role as investigators, they must take emotions into account, as opposed to connoting them with lack of objectivity (Delany, 1989; Jaggar, 1989; Johnson, 1984; Newton, 1993; Tedlock, 1991; Vendler, 1984; Wikan, 1991).

In accordance with Hammersley and Atkinson (1995), my field diary is a narrative revealing the self, reflecting the emotions that I experienced in the field some of which were connected to perception and imposition of gendered roles.  As a female researcher, I was not able to join men “in the bars” and hang out with them in the same way a male researcher might have done with females. Yet sometimes being a female researcher had positive consequences: I was aware that if I had been a male I likely would not have been asked out for evening dinners/for a drink at the bar and so would not have had access to informal and more informative data. As a female, there was one image ascribed to me: a potential sex partner. Sometimes I was purposely subordinate and naive, other times I was more like one of the guys; occasionally I was playful and flirty, and at other times I played a passive role. As a result, various ‘selves’ emerged (Denzin, 1997; Coffey, 1999) that were continuously re-shaped throughout the research process; sometimes tactically through a degree of “impression management” (Goffman, 1959), at other times, unknowingly and reactively.

Sexual advances, sexual jokes and vulgar remarks about a female’s physical appearance or sexual acts were common practice, and sometimes they were directed at me. I interpret sexual comments as a “guy thing”, as something that “guys do”. Although sexual advances and sexual jokes did not offend me, occasionally they made me feel uncomfortable, at times made me feel uneasy or frightened me and some of them instilled in me a feeling of strangeness and wonder. I noted these emotional feelings in the field diary. However, it was not until I was physically distanced from the field that I finally made the powerful associations between emotions and my data.

What I write before (in the nightclubs) as a collection of quotes and observations from the nightclubs, at home became highly charged data  that could be  interpreted as illuminating examples of how I and the participants went about expressing emotions that provided the gendered nature of the seduction behaviors. So field notes provided means for developing and working through theoretical connections and analytical understandings.


I will describe some of my emotional experiences that are a result of the masculine dominance seduction behaviors directed towards me. These kinds of masculine behaviors are related to power strategies, as we shall see in the following four examples:

a) “Lustful” remarks from men (especially alluding to certain parts of my body). When I was approached with this type of comment I felt slightly uncomfortable:

 Boat nightclub. It is a Friday in the month of September. Half past midnight. I am having a drink by the bar, on the left side, when a tall man with brown hair, who appears to be forty years old (four years my elder), wearing a jacket and white trousers, winks at me and coming closer says: “Beautiful shining eyes!” He tells me that my eyes resemble his but that he is not quite sure if they are green or blue. I look at him and notice that his eyes are a very dark brown, so I ask: “You can’t really see the colour, is that it?” And he answers: “No, it’s very dark in here.” And then he adds: “You have a fine bosom too!” I smile and move away, because I feel a little uncomfortable with this approach and fear he’ll touch me. (Passage from the field diary, p. 26).

The feeling of discomfort caused by verbal seduction directed at me made me flee the seducer. This was a strategy for avoiding physical contact with the men, which means I was afraid that this verbal seduction would lead to some action such as caresses or kisses. I found - through the observation and the in-depth interviews - that many women who frequent these bars also used the same strategy. Hence, I identified with many women who went through the same experience, which in turn, revealed the production of my identity and participants’ identities as “women”. This viewpoint identified within myself confirms the specificity of the anthropological practice, following a constituent epistemological approach. That is, whenever the anthropologist is observing and interacting in the different social situations that comprise the social universe under study, he or she is constantly confronting his or her own identity and the identities of his or her subjects. Goffman (1989) argued that fieldwork can only uncover what participants feel by repeatedly putting themselves in the same situation as participants. So, my feelings while in a particular role mirror those holding a similar role in that same setting.  If I examine my feelings of discomfort rather than dismissing them, I gain insights into how participants feel and why. As a result, feeling is a way of knowing.

Most of the time, men started kissing or touching women, after a gaze, smile or talking. In many cases (especially younger males, aged 18 to 25 years old), they were encouraged by peer groups. However, sometimes men (particularly the younger and more active ones) did not gaze, smile or talk before acting. They just got close and then touched or kissed the other person.

I experienced an episode with a man who had already seduced me verbally with the intention of having sex, holding me by the waist and trying to kiss me on the lips without my consent. These situations made me feel scared, as seen in example b.

b) That Friday was a cold January night. After having dinner with a group of friends, I say goodbye to them and head alone on over to the Mirror. After fifteen minutes I am approached by a guy that appears to be forty years old. This man has already approached me on three other occasions. He heads to the bar, and then he comes back to me and offers me a beer, which I accept. He had ordered a beer for himself as well. After two or three gulps, he starts a conversation about the “atmosphere” inside the nightclub, but the conversation soon turns to sexual propositions: he invites me for a ride in his car and after that, if I feel like, we could go to his house, listen to music and spend some “good moments” together. I feel scared and tell him that I was meeting a friend who has just arrived and who has just waved at me from the upper floor. I go downstairs to the dance floor. I dance for about fifteen minutes and then, feeling shaken and tired, I decide to leave. As I am reaching the door the same guy grabs me and, holding me by the waist, tries to kiss me on the lips. At that point I push him away and leave the nightclub very quickly. I take a taxi and, on the ride home, I am a little bit scared about everything that has happened that night. (Passage from the Field Diary, pp. 35-36).

There were also some occasions when, after male attempts at seducing me, I adopted avoidance strategies for when male seduction was causing me discomfort. For instance, while I was dancing, a man placed his left hand around my waist and started caressing my thigh with his right hand. I felt uncomfortable, although I had already been through some of these situations in the past, when I was a teenager and went to nightclubs. Through some of these past situations, I learned ways to stop male “pick up” strategies, as shown in example c. 

c) Caipirinha nightclub, 1 am. After thirty minutes of conversation he asks me to dance, and I accept. The dance floor is packed with people. We start dancing, facing each other. Little by little he comes closer to me, and when he is very near he places his left hand around my waist and starts caressing my thigh with his right hand. I do not panic and decide to do something I have done in the past, when I was nineteen. Back then, my casual dance partner had also grabbed me by the waist and was pulling me hard against his chest. In that moment, I feel a little uncomfortable and tell him it is extremely hot, and I need a drink at the bar. This strategy works and the man never tries to touch me again (Passage from the field diary, p.39).

This sort of memory takes me back to another period and brings back feelings and emotions experienced in nightclubs, at a time when I was younger, and I had a very different social status, that of a single high school student who often spent nights out. Bearing this in mind, this rite of passage (fieldwork) is not only disciplinary but also biographical. Memories of the researcher (as his/her field experiences) are always connected to lives and biographies (Coffey, 1999). This episode sticks in mind because it remains significant and the engagement with the past in the present represents a continuing search for intelligibility and understanding.

Whereas some emotions I never experienced through male seduction attempts, there were some that I observed in and through others around me.  These emotions, contrary to those presented above, were not the result of male dominance, with an intention of men having power over women, but rather are the result of my lack of knowledge related to the type and intensity of erotic behaviors that I observed.  I will describe a situation of gender equality in the context of pseudo sexual acts performed during certain dances. This particular context (and others, like sexual practices taking place in the restrooms) gave rise to a feeling of strangeness as evidenced in example d.

d) Mirror nightclub. It is a warm summer Friday night. At midnight the dance floor is opened with a male striptease show, danced to the rhythm of lambada. There are three strippers, around twenty-five years old, dressed in black leather pants, red t-shirts, red underwear and black patent leather shoes. Right after the show, a young woman dressed in a black mini Lycra dress, black jackboots (knee high), who appears to be twenty-one years old, dares one of the strippers (the tallest and most slender) to dance with her. She approaches him and pulls him to the dance floor. Their movements are highly erotic: she presses her chest against his, climbs to his waist, hanging from his neck; he brushes his backside against hers, and then he gropes her body, slowly and with satisfaction, with his hands, feeling her buttocks and breasts. Their bodies are glued to each other, swinging rhythmically. After that, the couple starts to simulate the sexual act. They are suddenly interrupted by a security guard, who asks them to put an end to their dance, which they do. The young couple seems proud to challenge the guard; both of them are smiling as if they are being complimented. After that, the girl takes hold of the guy’s hand and introduces herself, saying her name out loud: “Hey, I’m Teresa. It is a pleasure to meet you”. And the guy answers: “I’m Pedro”. Those who witness this episode are astonished. I confess that I have never witnessed anything alike, and, although I feel it was all a bit over the top, I also find it relevant, in the sense that it has introduced me to something different. (Passage from the field diary, p. 50).

I realized that those dancers stirred intense erotic feelings in the other dancers around them because most of them started kissing each other after the couple had physical contact, mainly after the simulation of the sexual act. Through this snapshot of nightclub behaviours, I was able to unveil that seduction performances generate other erotic performances. I understood that the dance couple wanted first and foremost to give seduction performances for the audience, and furthermore, the dancers had the desire to be admired by the public. The other couples and the people that were dancing also wished to be admired by the audience and wanted to compete with each other. I also has the opportunity to interpret that this episode and other situations, mainly the ones enacted, to be situations of excess: young boys and girls wanting to break the rules and exhibiting attitudes of seeing how much further they can go in public while touching each others’ backsides, kissing and caressing in an intense erotic way, almost as if they were naked.  However, these acts do not presuppose real sexual intercourse. And why does this indeed not happen? Because in these night socializing spaces freedom itself is managed by certain norms. Therefore, freedom is parallel to the establishment of codes of conduct. Infringement of rules that some people intend to perform is not incorporated in a plan for subversion of these social barriers but rather in their permanent restoration. This is an important unveiling, serving as an advance for anthropological knowledge.

Objectivity versus subjectivity: Epistemological Considerations

Tension between objectivity and subjectivity: From the classic approach to Malinowski

The development of participant observation techniques gave way to a conflict within anthropological research. In its quest to assert itself as a science, anthropology has taken the standards of objectivity and neutrality associated with the exact sciences for granted (even when these standards were being questioned by the exact sciences). Malinowski introduced the idea that the anthropologist should make an effort to immerse himself in the lives of the groups he studies. For a long time, the tension between scientific objectivity and the emotional impacts experienced in the field seemed to be settled by the belief that the “professional” behaviour of anthropologists in the field would be enough to avoid the “desecration” of their observations by inclusion of emotional experiences (Willson, 1995).

These ideas can be found in the well-known introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1984 [1922]), where Malinowski exposes his methodological concerns. In this text, the author explains that one of the main problems found in most of the reports made by missionaries, traders and other representatives of colonial countries in contact with “natives”, was that “they were for the most part, naturally enough, full of (…) biased and pre-judged opinions (…), yet so strongly repulsive to a mind striving after the objective, scientific view of things” (Malinowski 1984 [1922]: 29).

In this sense, we can understand the impact that the posthumous 1967 publication of the Malinowski Diary - A Diary in the Strict sense of the Term - had on the academic community. By revealing the subjective impacts of his participation in the field, the Diary questions the image of the anthropologist whose responsibility was to develop his work devoid of partiality and unscathed in his reputation, so as to render new perspectives on and unearth new dilemmas in Anthropology. Taking into account this conflict in anthropological roles, the publication of Malinowski’s Diary broke the illusion of the emotionally detached, professional scholar, an image that had seemed so convincing in the early history of the discipline (Svasek, 2011). The Diary contained the emotions which Malinowski excluded from his formal writings. The Diary spoke of sexual feelings, feelings of boredom, frustration confinement, anger, indifference and irritation4 . The confessions of sexual feelings for certain native females,5 in particular, produced a shockwave in the professional community. The Diary unveiled what had previously been unacknowledged as the influence of the anthropologist’s own agency on his or her work.

Confronting the Diary and the ethnographic texts published by Malinowski, the solution adopted unconsciously encountered by the author to smooth over this dilemma was the partition of his identity between the public figure of a “serious” and, consequently, “objective” anthropologist and the inverse, an identity tormented by his own sexual desires.

To James Clifford (1988) it is exactly this partition, in addition to the quest for a coherent “me”, that allows us to read the texts not as veritable revelations of a concrete experience, but as different “programs of truth”. From this point of view, we can understand the notes that Malinowski made in the Diary, as an attempt to avoid the contamination of scientific questions with subjective frames of mind which, according to Wengle (1988), were pervaded by a constant struggle to maintain a sense of identity. Here I agree with the opinion put forth by Geertz (1983) when he states that for the anthropologist to become a convincing “testimony”, he must first become a convincing “me”. Malinowski reveals this process of protecting his testimonial “me” in his Diary.

These ideas bring us before two different positions that can be found in Anthropology. They are diametrically opposed to each other when it comes to the importance of including personal accounts of the researcher in his field experience. The classic approach nearly “deletes” subjectivity and emotions from this experience. Therefore, the object under study is transformed into a mere example among many possible examples and, following the epistemological presupposition, into objectivity, materialized through neutrality and impartiality (Van Maanen, 1988), excluding the emotions of the researcher. Rosaldo (1989) argues that this detachment is said to produce objectivity because social reality comes into focus only if one stands at a certain distance. In this view, the researcher must overcome the observer bias, becoming the emotional, cognitive, and moral equivalent of a “blank slate.” Kleinman and Copp (1993) suggest that classic ethnographies either omit researchers’ emotions or relegate them to a preface or an appendix. At the objectivist end of the continuum, Preissle & Grant (2004) said that “researchers report little about themselves or their relationships to those in the setting. The research participants are foreground, and self as researcher is background. Social relationships formed in the field are blurred or even obliterated” (p. 172 ). Yet why does this happen?

Davies (2010a: 236) offers some thoughts on the neglect of subjectivity in anthropology highlighting three reasons: the Durkheimian legacy, the influence of “traditional empiricism”6 and the “poor provision in anthropology departments for training students to think psychologically about field experience.” Watson (1999) points to the fact that most of the literature on fieldwork emotions (in terms of books describing the subjective experience of fieldwork) is from American anthropology. The reason mentioned by Watson (1999) refers to a culture of “self-disclosure” whereas the British confessional style is “more ironic, more detached, never in fact being explicit, and frequently obscuring emotion entirely behind self-mockery and humour” (p. 12). Shore also explores British academic reluctance to write about fieldwork experience and says that British anthropology has held to a “Durkheimian self-image, one that was positivist but strongly anti-psychological (….). British anthropologists were therefore strongly discouraged from introducing their own ‘subjectivities’ into the frame of analysis” (p. 28). Shore (1999) adds some other reasons to that reluctance: “anthropologists may feel insecure and uncertain in talking about fieldwork emotions and (…) anthropologists are trained in conditions of a ‘conspiracy of silence’ on fieldwork” (p. 29).

Spencer (2010) points out another explanation for the omission of the subjective experience as a source of published knowledge that might have been driven by moral and methodological concerns, such as the conscious act of protecting people in the field, or the anthropologist’s own self.

From the reflexive to the post modern approach

An alternative perspective that aims to reflect upon the intersubjective experience of anthropologists and participants during fieldwork began in the 1970’s with the reflective approach to understanding the self and the “other.” Various scholars such as Rabinow (Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, 1974) and Crapanzano (Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan, 1980) decided to examine the emotional ethnographic encounter and knowledge production as an intersubjective dialogue. Through this anthropolocial lens “ethnographic knowledge was seen to surface out of interaction and dialogue between subjects” (Davies, 2010b, p. 9).

Since the 1970’s and especially since the 1980’s anthropologists have begun to focus more on deriving knowledge from experience by means of the different ways of writing it. This happens especially following the reflexive turn in Anthropology, the rise of postmodernism and particularly with the publication of Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford and Marcus, 1986) and Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fisher, 1986), as well as the contributions of anti-colonialism (e.g., Asad, 1973) and feminism (e.g., Cesara, 1982).  

Such an approach critically reveals the inherent workings of power and inequalities in the ethnographic encounter, a residue of colonial domination in the ethnographic gaze; the impact of rationalistic thinking and the workings of racialised and gendered discourses. (Spencer, 2010). This kind of approach has also increasingly acknowledged that the flavour and scope of all research findings are influenced by the researchers’ personal experiences as well as their interpretation or structural positions (Lerum, 2001). Ethnographers have begun to bring together the political and the personal, as well as the psychological and philosophical in their written accounts. This shift has opened a more systematic discussion of fieldwork (Spencer, 2010) and has revealed itself as intersubjective and embodied, social and processual instead of being individual and fixed (Tedlock, 2000).

Feminism and postmodernism literature have challenged “the notion that subjective and emotional responses are irrelevant or disruptive of epistemology, academic analysis, interpretation and theorizing. Emotional response is being linked to establish the veracity of the text and the quality of qualitative inquiry” (Laine, 2000, p. 151). Theses approaches recognize the presence of emotion within the research process7 (e.g., Reinharz, 1992; Wolf, 1992) and criticise the “ethnographic authority” anchored in scientific objectivity and question the invisible role of the researcher in the ethnographic text. These theoretical approaches critically comment on the representational practices that portray ethnographers as objective observers. The alternative is to view the intersubjective experience itself as the content of anthropological investigation. When the emotional dynamics of intersubjective relations fail to be described and analysed, a considerable portion of the work done to interpret the field experience is lost (Berg, 1989; Jackson, 1990). This is linked to what Tedlock (1991) describes as the 1970’s and 1980’s “shift in cultural anthropological methodology from ‘participant observation’ toward the ‘observation of participation.” In the former, anthropologists “attempt to be emotionally engaged participants and coolly dispassionate observers”, whereas, in the latter, anthropologists “both experience and observe their own and others’ co-participation within the ethnographic encounter” (p. 69).

The anthropology of sexuality approach

In the field of Anthropology of Sexuality there are various references that narrate the emotional experiences during fieldwork intersubjective relations, such as: Self, Sex, and Gender in Cross-Cultural Fieldwork (Whithead & Conaway, 1986), Intimate Communications: Erotics and the Study of Culture  (Herdt & Stoller, 1990), My Best Informant’s Dress (Newton, 1993), Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork (Kulick & Wilson, 1995), Out in the Field: Reflexions of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (Lewin & Leap, 1996) and Sex, Sexuality, and the Anthropologist (Ashkenazie & Merkovitz, 1999), among others.  Some of these anthropologists may not have acted according to their sexual desires in the field, however the presence of emotions related to erotic fantasies and feelings experienced during fieldwork is a constant. This is true especially for male anthropologists (Caplan, 1993).

Other anthropological approaches are not related to the “intersubjective turn” but are instead engaged in the “affective turn” (Clough & Halley, 2007), particularly the work on the relational in feminism such as Mackenzie and Stoljar (2000) and earlier feminist work on emotions and knowing such as found in Jagger and Bordo (1989) and Jagger (1989). This author argues that many emotions may contribute to the growth of knowledge at the same time the growth of knowledge may contribute to the development of certain emotions.

The psychological anthropology approach

More recently, the importance of analysing fieldwork emotions has been highlighted in a number of publications especially in the field of psychological anthropology. One of the most important works, Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork experience, edited by James Davies and Dimitrina Spencer (2010), calls for the approach of radical empiricism introduced by the psychologist William James (1912) and brought to anthropology by Michael Jackson (1989, 1998).  Radical empiricism includes the study of “the relations between things and the relations between person and person(s) (exploring the intersubjective space) between person and method (exploring how traditional methods constrain what we can experience in the field) as well as between person and materiality and environment (exploring how site and environment affect our subjectivity)” (Davies, 2010b, p.23). The contributors of Emotions in the Field help to demonstrate how emotions are evoked within fieldworkers and how these manifestations can actually reveal dimensions of the social world. In this sense, radical empiricism constitutes a kind of psychology of fieldwork so far it takes the heuristic significance of what transpires in the researcher’s subjectivity during the process of research very seriously. A similar viewpoint was developed by several authors contributing to Anthropological Fieldwork: A Relational Process (Spencer & Davies, 2010). These contributors reflect on emotions theoretically and methodologically in order to understand how they produce knowledge of relatedness and how they and the participants in the field are affected by this relatedness.


This article contributes to the ongoing debates over hidden processes in conducting fieldwork and also seeks to give an account of my personal experience of emotions. I have raised issues which are rarely considered formally and about which anthropologists usually silence themselves in light of the accepted boundaries of mainstream texts.

In the course of my ethnographic work experience, I have concentrated efforts on integrating my emotions into my anthropological analysis in order to achieve an interpretation model for ethnographic methodologies, with the purpose of highlighting the subjective, procedural and dynamic dimensions of fieldwork, as opposed to concealing, forgetting or reducing them to “intimate” texts (Lourau, 1988). Conventional understandings what constitutes credible anthropological research need to acknowledge the value of emotions, to the extent that researcher must address them somewhere in their analysis to ensure that they are indeed producing social research that is attaining to the academic research standards of accuracy and honesty (Woodthorpe, 2007, p. 9).

In order to have an insider’s experience and point of view, I set out to explore everyday realities related to the behaviors of seduction in some nightclubs in Lisbon by immersing myself into the culture I studied. Entering into the field as a participant researcher, I intended to take the perspectives of females who seduced and were seduced, to see the world through their eyes, to feel what they feel, and to experience what they experience. As walking in the shoes of female seducers I experienced a range of emotions during fieldwork, including discomfort and fear, through the exersion of male dominance seduction behaviors on me as a female. These behaviors are linked to gender roles: men want to have power over me and the other women at nightclubs, and I, at times, feel uncomfortable and respond within my role as a female who wants to avoid male dominance as other females do.

The description of these situations led me to a better understanding of my gender role and that of the participants related to seduction behaviors and feelings that took place in nightclubs. Thus, my emotional experience has contributed to an understanding of how ethnographic subjectivity and live experience in the process of fieldwork may lead to valuable insights and important personal and anthropological knowledge. So emotions are firmly linked to knowledge production and recognition of this is vital to the understanding of people’s lives. In this study I gained insights into how women and men feel and why.  Feeling here was a way of knowing. Through this finding I provided further evidence that “the object [of scientific knowledge] is the continuation of the subject by other means (…). The knowledge of the object is the knowledge of the self” (Santos, 1987, p.50).

Other personal emotions that I had during fieldwork are not related to situations of gender dominance but rather to lack of familiarity with the feminine and masculine seduction behaviors I had not previously experienced but then observed during the course of fieldwork, namely the observation of pseudo sexual acts during certain dances that causes me strangeness.

Since the ‘reflexive turn’ in anthropology appeared, awareness has emerged that the researcher is not a distant neutral observer, but emotionally a participant. So without noting the psychological impact of fieldwork, the existing data becomes distant, cold and mute. Notwithstanding, empirical reality and the emotions that are revealed in the course of the subjective encounter should not overshadow theory. However it is the very discursive and explanatory richness of adding emotions into ethnographic data that provides a richer account and anthropological perspective on fieldwork. Researchers must value the extra power in understanding, analysis and interpretation that the emotions they and participants experience in the field can bring to the research. In this way, there should be a theoretical discussion inspired by ethnographic data.  Additionally, being ‘reflexive’ provides conclusions which settle the debate over the role of relationships, even in their most neutral version, established in anthropological theory and fieldwork practices.


1. Heterosexual seduction behaviors are types of sexual seduction performed by men and women, which tend to follow a pattern:  non-verbal seduction, visual seduction, verbal seduction and acting – consisting of caresses, touch, and kissing (Brak-Lamy, 2006).

2. I conducted 120 in-depth interviews with men (60) and women (60) between 18 and 65 years old with different marital status (married, single, divorced and cohabiting. The interviews took place in the bars where the behaviors were observed, however, due to some bar managers’ restrictions on recording on the premises, several of the interviews were conducted on the street or in gardens nearby.  All the interviews were recorded and lasted an hour each. They were conducted in a respectful, friendly, and non-judgmental manner. As the interviews progressed from simply telling stories about seduction to reflectively interpreting the meanings of seduction, these women (and the men) became more and more comfortable sharing their private seduction experiences. Their openness yielded detailed and in-depth information on how they came to seduce in nightclubs and what seduction meant to them.

3. As Laine (2000) says “The personal component of field, the subjectivity of the observer, nowadays is being given more significance (…) in field notes. Field notes are not just “data”; they capture the subjectivity of the fieldworker.” (p. 168).

4. Take an example: one day, while staying with the Malibu as an apprentice fieldworker, Malinowski (1989 [1967]), expressed his irritability with his informants: “At moments I was furious at them, particularly because after I gave them their portions of tobacco they all went away. On the whole, my feelings towards the natives are decidedly tending to exterminate the brutes” (p. 69).

5. For instance, in his entry of 22 January 1918, Malinowski (1918 [1989]), wrote that his “[p]urely fatherly feelings” for two Trobriand girls were ‘spoiled’, and that he had to “direct [his] thoughts’ to his fiancée to ‘shake off lewdness” (p. 192, original italics).

6. Davies (2010a) defines traditional empiricism "as the methodological approach which ascribes greater value to the study of things themselves than to the study of the relations between things. This tradition assumes that is impossible for an observer to attain a detached and uninvolved stance towards his or her studies object". (p. 234)

7. This link between feelings and research has been a long-standing interest of post modernism and, specially, of feminist scholars and has become an integral part of feminist methodology despite positivist criticisms from within the major academic disciplines (Campbell, 2001; Campbell & Wasco, 2000; Devault, 1999; Kleinman & Copp, 1993; Reinharz, 1992).


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