“You are right about e-mail which gives us a strange feeling about the distance and time. I can’t really tell whether we are near or far,” thus wrote to me Mariko my principle informant and interlocutor in my study of the lives of housewives in her own middle-class Japanese neighborhood that was summarized in my book on Housewives of Japan (Goldstein-Gidoni 2012).
The book explores the complexities of the relationship between socially and culturally constructed roles bestowed on Japanese women by a variety of state agents, including the corporate sector, the market and the media, and the ‘real’ lives of these women. It focuses on the role of the ‘professional housewife’ as well as its other novel consumerized versions such as ‘charisma housewives’ and ‘hot mamas’. (Goldstein-Gidoni 2017, 288)
However, here I do not intend to discuss the findings of this research. Instead, I would like to focus on the research process. This is in fact another focus of the book, which aims at a reflexive interrogation of the process of ethnographic research. One of the structural manifestations of this attempt is my choice to include the e-conversation between Mariko and me in the book. These emails include personal, casual as well as analytical conversation.
Fig. 1: Excerpt of E-mail screenshot 2002-10-15
What I aim to illustrate here is that such kind of e-conversation may be used as a reflexive ethnographic tool. More generally, the paper aims at discussing questions related to practicing ethnography in an age where physical, spatial and other borders are becoming more blurred. Among others, I hope to specifically touch upon questions related to collaboration, reciprocity and finally, ethnographic authority.
But, first let me say some words about the setting for this research: Housewives of Japan is based on a long-lasting dialogue between me and the women of a neighborhood which I name Royal Height. Royal Heights is a typical suburban condominium complex (commonly called manshon) located in the Kansai area in Western Japan at a convenient commuting distance from central Osaka, the second-largest city in Japan. The great majority of Royal Heights residents are families of relatively well-paid white-collar workers known in Japan as ‘salarymen.’ Most of them moved into the neighborhood soon after it was built in the late 1990s. Like similar manshons, it is characterized by a high homogeneity of age, income level, and social class. These features allowed me wide access to women who were no longer totally immersed in child rearing and who might consider going back to work after dedicating themselves to the home in the first years of their children’s lives.
Fig. 2: Kansai suburban setting. Photograph: O. Goldstein-Gidoni 2002
Mariko is the only real name used throughout this book. As I have already implied, her role in this research project was much more than principal informant. Mariko was indeed a coauthor of the study, although she did not become a cowriter of its resultant book.
As explained by Eric Lassiter in his excellent Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography (2005), collaborative ethnography is always coauthored. However, in order for it to be also co-written, both the anthropologist and the person who Lassiter usually refers to as consultant and I recognize as interlocutor, must have the time and will — and I would add the professional commitment — to dedicate herself to the writing project.
I met Mariko in the late 1980s when I conducted fieldwork for my PhD. Her mother had ‘adopted’ me — a foreign student and my husband — and found us an apartment just one floor above where she lived with her husband and two grown-up daughters. Mariko was then a happy and busy Office Lady (OL), working in a foreign company using her language skills.
After I left Japan in 1991, Mariko and I kept up an irregular exchange of letters (yes, it was still ‘real’ letters on paper in those days). Our friendship actually began developing when we met again in 1997 after we had both become mothers. In the following years, our relationship became more intimate and our correspondence thicker, largely owing to the ease of electronic communication. It was in fact Mariko who initiated this form of communication in an e-mail that she wrote to me in September 2002 (which I include in full in the book). (See Fig. 3)
In this long email carrying the subject ‘Genki’ (‘How are you?’), Mariko offered to extend our personal communication to include a report and discussion of “fresh information about Japan”
“Please ask me anything about Japan, I guess that you
sometimes need some ‘fresh’ information about Japan. And
maybe a point of view of one shufu [housewife], not an expert, might
help you in some way.”
Mariko’s offer naturally matched my own thirst for closer contact — even if virtual — with my geographically remote field of research, which the tricky combination of motherhood and academic career has too often kept hard to reach physically. At that point in time Mariko’s self-definition as just ‘one housewife’ did not really engage my attention as I was busy with other research themes. Instead, I was drawn to what became a very special kind of communication for both of us.
Fig. 3: ‘Start of an ethnographic relationship’, excerpt of E-mail screenshot 2002-09-13
It was later, in 2003, that I embarked on the research following Mariko’s personal search for a way at a stage of her life when her younger daughter at last crossed the three-year-old threshold, or the ‘mandatory’ years of exclusive motherly protection, known in Japan as the sansaiji shinwa (the three-years-old myth), and could start kindergarten. In May 2003, she wrote:
“[…] after more than 7 years [of] being imprisoned. Oh, it was a long time!!
I spend my time doing things like going here and there by bicycle, visiting museums,
I feel like when I got some vacations when I was working or like when I was living in Mexico.
On both occasions I had plenty of free time.”
Two months later, Mariko opened another long e-mail carrying the subject: MY NEWS with a declaration:
“After enjoying my ‘student-like life’ alone, finally I reached the answer:
‘I need to work outside.’ I started reading many books about women. As I told you before,
[I read] many books by Ueno-san [Ueno Chizuko] and others so that I can be convinced
that I should live my whole life as a sengyō shufu [professional housewife]. I wanted to have
a concrete answer to my question: IS IT OKAY TO BE SENGYŌ SHUFU OR NOT [Mariko’s emphasis].
It’s amazing because I really started reading them [in order] to decide to be a sengyō shufu
as the opposite. Maybe I chose the wrong books, with or without knowing it. It resulted
in TOTALLY the opposite and I started looking for a job seriously.”
Fig. 4: Housewives’ Tea Party. Photograph Goldstein-Gidoni 2002
The way Mariko treated this decision to start looking for a job (or jobs) in terms of TO BE OR NOT TO BE at this crossroads in her life hit me. Furthermore, her talking so clearly about this personal search in terms of such a distinct social category — sengyō shufu — was too illuminating for me as a social scientist to ignore. As I was just planning a research trip to Japan to study more about Japanese women’s lives, I asked her whether she could look for friends and neighbors at the same life stage as herself who would agree to be interviewed. Knowing that Mariko was looking for more work, and since I was enjoying a Japan Foundation research grant, I decided to offer, very carefully, to pay for her help. Mariko enthusiastically came aboard.
I arrived in Osaka in September 2003 and Mariko and I embarked on a busy schedule of in-depth interviews and tea parties. Soon after we started, I decided to focus on Mariko’s neighborhood which seemed like the perfect setting for the research. I also made a decision to ask Mariko to join in fully in the recorded talks, which were conducted in Japanese. I wanted the conversation to take the shape of a dialogue between women, rather than a strict interview.
Fig. 5: Screenshot of Ocha Shiyō forum.
The interviews, tea parties and what we later labeled ippanshi ranchi or laid-back lunches on themes such as The TV series Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City or karisuma shufu, a current Japanese media buzz, were conducted at Mariko’s designed living room, in the women’s houses or in a close-by coffee shop.
In order to keep up the dialogue in-between my recurrent visits which lasted from 2 weeks to 2 months from 2003 to 2011, we formed an internet forum called Ocha Shiyō [Let’s do Tea]. (See Figs. 4 and 5.)
Offering Mariko a full collaboration in the research project felt right. I was following my intuition, which I admit might have been related to the relative freedom which comes with tenure and academic maturity. However, in fact, as I could understand only retrospectively I was looking not only for a new perspective for studying Japanese women, a theme I had been teaching already for many years, but also for novel ways of looking at and practicing the anthropological process.
We collaborated not only in the way we conducted the talks with other women but also in the way we jointly read the transcribed texts. We developed our own system: we each used a different font color whenever responding to the other’s interpretations. This made it easier later on to identify the comments, as often we could not remember who had said what and when. The texts became so profuse with colors that when we ran out of them, and we sometimes had to change fonts (see excerpt).
Excerpt of transcribed interview during the work process
Ethnography is by definition, collaborative. However, as Lassiter has it, collaborative ethnography moves collaboration from its taken-for-granted background and positioned it on center stage:
“We might sum up collaborative ethnography as an approach to ethnography
that deliberately and explicitly emphasizes collaboration at every point
in the ethnographic process, without veiling it—from project conceptualization,
to fieldwork, and, especially through the writing process.” (Lassiter 2005, 16)
This definition of collaborative ethnography underlines two main characteristic
- The collaboration is deliberate and explicit
- The collaboration spans on whole stages of the research process including writing
Working in collaboration with Mariko in the field as well as in thinking about ideas that came out from our joint research came about intuitively and in fact with not much planning. It just felt right, and Mariko fully cooperated. However, what brought about many deliberations and sleepless nights was related to the writing, especially with regard to my search for the means whereby the book would capture the process of its conception.
This recognition in the written text as part of the anthropological process is in fact not new:
“Rather than looking at anthropological texts (books, dissertations, films, articles and so on)
as the fruits of research designed to be shared with an audience of scholars
(mostly other anthropologists and area specialists) it is becoming more appropriate
to view books and articles as integral to the research process itself.”
(Stephen Glazier in When They Read What we Write, 1996)
But still, the question remains: how do we actually do it?
I would like to share with you my deliberations as they were encapsulated in an e-mail I wrote to Mariko in December 2007:
“[A]ctually, I think I have reached an important understanding and I want to discuss it with you. I think that one of the things that has made writing difficult for me was that I was stuck in talking and writing about it instead of doing it. I’ll try to explain myself. I can write an academic book on Japanese housewives based on our interviews and maybe relate in the introduction to the way this work has been done in collaboration with you and about the importance of our e-mail correspondence for so many years. This is one option, but I have always felt and still feel that it is not what I want to do. I want to express in the book the special relationship that we have and about how our talks are significant for understanding. But, the question is HOW to do it in a way that will 1. be interesting to others 2. not be too intrusive for you.”
I believe that this passage encapsulates the nature of my deliberations on the relationship of the personal to the theoretical, the fixed to the dynamic. It also intimates how I finally decided to incorporate the process within the text. I have decided not only to give a place to Mariko’s voice, which echoes loudly throughout the book. But, the main methodological innovation was to give place to our e-conversation and include full emails, which are interwoven as intertexts between the book chapters.
Nicole Constable (2003) who studied virtual romance and mail-order brides suggests that e-mail communication falls somewhere between letter writing and conversation. Unsurprisingly, Internet research, which includes ethnographies that focus on ‘imagined virtual communities’ or on field sites such as private groups or lists that the researcher joins, has recently become prevalent. While the personal e-mail conversation in which Mariko and I engaged from 2002 differs in many ways from Internet conversations, I find some intriguing points of comparison:
Firstly, TIME OF RESPONSE: like Internet forums, e-mail correspondence usually entails a longer time between the utterance of a statement and the response to it than spoken conversations.
How many times I received an intriguing message from Mariko at my university office just before running to class and then being too busy with work and home to reply until a few days later, while nevertheless pondering its content all that time; not to mention the times that I responded in my head and was sure that I had done so in writing.
OPENNESS: The Internet, or the ‘virtual space’ that it provides, often seems to make people less reserved and feel fewer constraints than oral conversations do. This may be largely related to the anonymity of the medium, which is naturally not the case in personal e-mail conversation between two women who know each other in ‘real life.’ Still, I found that the ‘space’ that Mariko and I produced for ourselves, each in the privacy of their own life, exerted a somewhat similar impact of less restraint and greater openness.
Internet and e-mail conversations are also READILY RECORDED OR SAVED IN ARCHIVES OR MAILBOXES, unlike oral conversations. Whereas the e-mail correspondence between Mariko and myself, especially in the pre-research period, was not meant to be recorded, fortunately, at least part of it was nonetheless saved and could be reflected on and used many years later.
E-conversation also allowed me to keep in continuous contact with my physically remote field. Moreover, the intimacy of the friendship between Mariko and me, which deepened throughout this process, served only to intensify the exchange of ideas, which became more conscious, or deliberate, as the research process took shape and thus it supplied what I refer to as a methodological reflexive tool to deepen and expand the dialogue between the researcher and her so-called subjects.
This kind of dialogue is central to another kind of collaborative ethnography usually referred to as reciprocal ethnography as well as to feminist ethnography. The feminist ethnographer Elaine Lawless suggests that the reciprocal approach which puts the dialogue in its center removes the hierarchies between the ethnographer and her subjects. Lawless suggests that reciprocal ethnography:
“[…] takes ‘reflexive anthropology’ one step further by foregrounding a dialogue as a process in understanding and knowledge retrieval. This approach is feminist because it insists on a denial of hierarchical constructs that place the scholar at some apex of knowledge and understanding and her ‘subjects’ in some inferior less knowledgeable position.” (Elaine Lawless Holy Women, Wholly Women, 1993)
As suggested by Niza Yanay and Nitsa Berkovitch (2006), personal electronic correspondence (e-correspondence) can be used as a reflexive strategy to explore ideas, theories, and personal commitment. These women researchers discovered in their own e-correspondence the methodological opportunity to experiment in their common inquiry, and to explore their ideas, attitudes, limits, and possibilities of gender performance. Different from the case of Mariko and me, Niza and Nitsa are both academics. Moreover, also unlike us, they decided from the start to use e-mail correspondence as a public space that would yield an academic writing material. Yet, the similarities between these two feminist methodologies can hardly be missed. Like them, Mariko and I used a form of dialogue, or more specifically writing in response, to create, negotiate, and understand the positioning of our own experiences. Though naturally different in some respects from the correspondence of the two academics trained in the discussion of theoretical ideas, the telling of our ‘stories,’ in Yanay and Berkovitch’s term, yielded an intriguing — albeit unintended, at least initially — social inquiry into an array of sociocultural themes including social structures, gendered roles, and gender equality, as well as womanhood, mainly though not only in Japan.
Finally, one of the main challenges that has troubled us anthropologists at least since the crisis of representation, has been the question of Ethnographic Authority (see Clifford 1983). I would like to suggest that the reflexive ethnographic tool presented here should not be seen narrowly as merely an efficient ‘method’ to produce knowledge but as producing another mode of ethnographic authority. As Clifford suggested in this seminal paper experiential, interpretive, dialogical or polyphonic processes are at work in any ethnography, but coherent presentation, he argued, presupposes a controlling mode of authority.
I believe that collaborative, reciprocal, and yes, also feminist, ethnography which removes the hierarchies between the ethnographer and her subjects removes also the need for a ‘controlling mode of authority.’ I would like to cautiously suggest that the virtual space — that special reciprocal and non-hierarchical dialogical space in-between the ethnographer and her subject — may supply a perfect arena for the production of the ethnographic knowledge. In other words, the ethno graphic knowledge and the ethnographic authority that comes with this knowledge are produced neither by the ‘native’ nor by the anthropologist. It is created in the special third space in-between them.
Clifford, James. 1983. ‘On Ethnographic Authority’, Representations 2, pp. 118-146. http://www.paas.org.pl/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/OPTIONAL-Clifford-Ethnographic-authority.pdf [accessed 2019-05-26]
Constable, Nicole. 2003. Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography and “Mail Order” Marriages (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
Glazier, Stephen. 1996. ‘Responding to the Anthropologist: When the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad Read what I Write about them,’ in When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography (Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey), edited by Caroline B. Brettell, pp. 37-48.
Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra. 2012. Housewives of Japan: An Ethnography of Real Lives and Consumerized Domesticity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), https://www.palgrave.com/la/book/9780230340312 [accessed 2019-03-23]
Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra. 2017. ‘“The Joy of Normal Living” as the Promise of Happiness for Japanese Women and their Families’, Asian Studies Review 41 (2), 281-298, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2017.1295021
Lassiter, Luke Eric. 2005. The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Lawless, Elaine. 1993. Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Yanay, Niza and Nitsa Berkovitch. 2006. ‘Gender Imago: Searching for New Feminist Methodologies,’ Cultural Studies1 Critical Methodologies 6, pp. 193–216.