The intimate Labor of Research

As a sociologist and ethnographer interested in issues around gender and globalization, I have previously worked with surrogates in India and migrant domestic workers in Lebanon (Pande 2012). In both these projects I was in research sites surrounded by women, where men appeared only fleetingly. Thus, in 2014, when I embarked on my new project with Bangladeshi male migrants in Cape Town, I suddenly found myself in unfamiliar territory. I was now in a field site surrounded by men where women made not even a fleeting appearance. I soon realized that qualitative research work is intimate labor, and much like all other forms of intimate labor, it is gendered.

The project with Bangladeshi migrants involved oral histories of 23 Bangladeshi men and participant observation in their work and leisure spaces in Cape Town. I conducted all the oral histories in spaza shops (corner stores), usually over copious cups of tea and sweet biscuits. By the second month of my research, I had become familiar with the workings of the shops and helped the men with their accounts and housekeeping. The actual space for leisure and work remains the same for many migrants, who often live in rooms attached to the store. I shared many meals with the men in these rooms during these late hours. Being an Indian made me somewhat of an insider; I was familiar with their customs and could speak the language. Being the only female in an all-male space, however, was challenging and sometimes discomforting. Most of the respondents admitted that they missed their wives, girlfriends or just any female companionship. My married status made me a “sister” or a boudi (sister-in-law), and in some sense normalized my presence in an all-male space. Yet, as our conversations moved from the violence of their journey across borders, a journey that most found traumatic and “emasculating”, to gleeful narrations of “sexual adventures” with sex workers in Cape Town, I found myself squirming. Fortunately, my anxieties as a researcher did not affect my relationship with the respondents. All the men waited eagerly for my arrival and were reluctant to let me leave at the end of the day. Late night instant messages and phone calls became a norm and the men regularly took my advice on matters ranging from intimate “love trouble” to the more frequent visa trouble.

“Moments” of Mobile Masculinities

Scholars of migration often discuss the decision to move in terms of “push and pull” debates. But the narratives of the Bangladeshi men in my project indicate that decisions to migrate are not simply a matter of rational calculation of costs and benefits; but affected by a complex and overlapping set of motivations, that are often gendered. Moreover, each moment in the process of mobility whether pre migration, during the migration journey, or on reaching Cape Town, is shaped by complex construction and performances of masculinity. In the first moment, at home, the decision to migrate is more a manhood ritual, a way to save face in front of the community, than it is about economic deprivation. On the one hand, migration becomes the ultimate signifier of masculinity – a way to lead an empowered, fuller life. On the other hand, the actual experience of migration is often emasculating, particularly in relation to the black African masculinity encountered during the second moment – their journey to South Africa. Here, the interactions between captive (i.e., migrant men) and captor (i.e., brokers and traffickers) are deeply revealing. The respondents talk of the feeling of utter helplessness and deep humiliation as they are held by African traffickers, stripped naked, hit repeatedly and made fun of by the traffickers – African men who appear to be “kings of the show” and fully in control over their lives and that of others. The Bangladeshi migrant is stripped of his manliness and reduced to an effeminate shoga (Swahili slang for effeminate or gay men). At the same time, the African man that the popular media in Bangladesh routinely dehumanizes, is suddenly imbued with superhuman powers, transforming the black African “other” into a powerful authoritarian figure.

The crisis of masculinity, however, did not end with migrants’ arrival in Cape Town. The spaza shop—the space that the migrants worked, ate and slept—is a homosocial space where the migrant’s conventional notions of masculinity were once again threatened. Here the men not only share living space with other men, but are forced to take on domestic chores.  The men recuperated their masculinity through two contrasting strategies – by embodying hyper masculinity (with an emphasis on violence and misogynistic) sex, or by resorting to the Islamic Ummah. On the one hand, there were men, for instance 21-year-old Shamim, the one with a permanent black-eye, who believed violence wins respect in South Africa. Others like Miraz and Rihat talked of the “pleasure” of “getting back in charge” of their manliness by “doing what they please” with sex workers. On the other hand were men, like Abdul and Shumon, who believed that words like Purushottam [Supreme God] and purushotta [manliness] are of the same origin because a real man is God’s man, one who is strong enough to be celibate. Sexual performance, or the extreme lack of it, became a tool to reconstitute their masculinity.

This article is about people, relationships and identities, on the move. As bodies move across borders, identities and hierarchies get (re)negotiated. By focusing on mobility, process and moments, this article brings attention to how gendered and raced identities travel across time, space and borders. It enables us to analyze how these intersectional identities, get (re)negotiated at each stage of the migration project and profoundly affect migrants’ understanding of their selves.


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