Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

“Into the Field!” Or My Experience of Collecting First Ethnographic Data, By Lidiia Tulenkova (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Concepts and Methods.”

The choice of my ethnographic research topic on gender diversity in gyms was not accidental. I was led not only by the incredible curiosity to understand why many people are afraid of gyms, but also by the urge to challenge myself and finally free my mind from this anxiety and tension when even simply thinking about going to work out in a confined space called an open gym. Through casual talks with my friends, I learned that people had very similar experiences to mine: I could spend an enormous amount of time searching on the websites how gyms work, how to use the equipment, and it was not a lack of motivation that held me back each time but the stress and the reputation of gyms as uncomfortable, anxious spaces. When listening to my female friends sharing their feelings, I could see how even thinking on the topic reflects on their bodies: one thought about going to the gym and their whole body shrinks and freezes, their muscles tighten, they speak more slowly, and I could almost feel how their heartbeat goes faster and faster. I felt the same. A deep breath in and out… In this post, I want to tell you about my experiences of collecting data using a participant-observation method in the field that I previously thought of almost like a nightmare.

One of the most fundamental approaches to collecting data for the purposes of ethnographic research is a participant-observation method, which includes going into the field, participating in the activities of the group you are studying, and observing the group, while taking detailed notes about people’s behaviour, dialogues, emotions, and so on. Although it sounds straightforward, in my research field, I found I had to address it creatively.

The most controversial question that I had was: how will I be observing people?

Before entering the field, I was sharing my concerns with my male and female friends about looking at people at the gyms. “You will be very suspicious”, “haha, I bet others will feel uncomfortable”, “If you look at a man, he will probably think you are attracted to him”. Thus, I was not sure how to do the crucial part of any ethnographic project – looking, because of the well-known sensitivity of the space to human interaction. I was worried about how my presence as an ethnographer would affect people’s behavior, and impact my findings. I had to become invisible.

Next, I realized that I could not just sit somewhere in the open gym, observing people, and taking notes using my laptop or my notebook. People would have changed their behavior and felt uncomfortable. Thus, I had to memorize most of the observations, even though every time I went to the gym, I brought my phone to take at least some notes. After each session, I spent several minutes in the changing room, quickly typing everything I could recall from the session.

In addition to this, there were my personal feelings. Imagine you had never been to the facility before. You are extremely anxious. The fear of being lost, not knowing how to use equipment, the uncertainty of how to observe people, take notes, and being seen as awkward, created extreme tension. I was going through these massive automatic entrance doors of the Athletic Center, passing by the front desk, answering that I was planning on going to the Strength and Conditioning room, a relatively small room fully packed with all sorts of equipment. The next step of this “rite of passage” is changing clothes, the important part of assuming the identity of “a person who is working out at the gym”. But do you feel that you belong? A sense of belonging usually makes you feel safe, comfortable, calm. I did not feel that, even though the rainbow-colored banners hanging on the walls near the changing room, with a depiction of accurately selected representatives of diverse groups stated: “This is Positive Space”.

When I first opened the doors of the Strength and Conditioning room to see if it was the right room for my research, I saw that the room was designed in a way that all sports machines are facing the middle of the room with some exceptions. The area was fully packed with men, around 10-15 people lifting free weights, and around 4 women, all running on the cardio machines located in a row in the corner of the room right beside the entrance. The only woman outside of the group was standing in the “men-area” and talking to one of the men. Without hesitation, I decided to join that group of 4 on the cardio machines as it was not only the best spot to observe the entire room but also the only equipment I knew how to use. Besides, I was concerned about my physical capability of being focused on making observations and performing some exercises at the same time in order to maintain my identity as an insider.

On my first day of my fieldwork I spent 20 minutes running on the cardio machine. In my mind I looked quite comical but I was too afraid to move around in that small room and try other machines. Moreover, as I realized later, none of the women moved around, it was mostly men who freely occupied the entire space on that day. However, reflecting on my next entrances to the open gym and comparing it to the first day of my fieldwork, I felt like the more I learned about the space, the wider, the more comfortable and bigger the space became. Obviously, my personal perception of the field played a trick on me, but it was interesting to compare the adjectives I used to describe the open gym on the first and the last day of my fieldwork: “narrow, low ceiling, packed with people, bright light, quite noisy, hostile, I do not belong”, and “open, now I understand the mechanism of the space, a wide area beside the entrance, I am getting back my control over the place and over myself in the place”.

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