Doing Gender Work in a Masculinist Field

Doing interviews as a woman researcher inevitably means thinking about gender and power, particularly when your field is predominantly populated by men. From 2016-18, I engaged in a research project to talk to British ‘extremists’ – men and women activists who were either protesting Islam, with radical right groups including the English Defence League or Britain First. Or men and women who were protesting for a particular form of Shariah law for the UK, as called for by al-Muhajiroun (ALM). At the time, the radical right and ALM, and their leaders – including Tommy Robinson, Anjem Choudary and Jayda Fransen – were to some degree household names. All had been engaged in street protest. And during my research, all were put in prison for periods. All were also engaged in activism that is largely homosocial, characterised by being populated – mainly – by men. 

My experiences of being a woman researcher are my own – they are not universal, and I do not want to assert them as such. In this blog I want to reflect on the unexpected, practical ways gender became evident in my research. While my institution’s ethical approval process sought primarily to protect participants, there was an obligation towards me too. I went into my research prepared: I had read, reflected and sought advice from colleagues. And yet, I still met with unanticipated outcomes. I want to use this blog to reflect on four of those, for those preparing to do similar work.

Interviewing women

Being a woman researcher can have advantages. Enloe has suggested that some interviewees are more likely to trust a “naïve little lady”.  Before the research, some colleagues in the field suggested that my being a woman would make it easier to gain interviews with other women. This assumption did not turn out to be the case. There were women activists in both the movements I sought to access. In the radical right, it was relatively easy to see them, at least, as they attended demonstrations and street protests, whether for Britain First, or the English Defence League. But they didn’t always want to speak. In one situation, in the pub after an EDL street protest, EDL men sought to engage and find out about me and my research. Women at the table, however, stayed silent. I did not read this as hostility until I encountered one of the women in the toilets and she told me what she thought of my project. My presence as a woman at masculinist protest disrupted the gender dynamics in small group settings, and this was evident in unexpected ways.

EDL demonstration 2016 Telford

Talking to Men

Being a woman in a masculinist space also revealed my lack of power, and vulnerability. My identity – white, middle class – felt up for grabs. Men I talked to frequently asked, ‘what does your husband think of you meeting extremists?’ The question gave me insight into their priorities; however, my response could mean a disclosure of marital status. Being an unmarried woman represented something transgressive to ALM-supporting interviewees, one of whom suggested I become his second wife. Another asked me to dinner as his marriage broke down. Refusing such requests had to be done with some care. One Britain First supporter who gave me his number for research purposes, then texted suggesting we meet ‘for fun’. When I did not respond, he sent another message: I was “one ignorant bitch” . At demonstrations, I could not control who touched me and how. There were unwanted hugs, grabs or simply potentially friendly gestures, such as someone placing a hat on my head. Such instances reminded me of other times I had experienced similar loss of power. I balanced my desire to assert my physical boundaries with the contradictory need to get interviews. I was entering a space with a different culture, different gendered rules and I believed – rightly or wrongly – that to carry out the work, and gain trust, I would need to endure some practices I would in other circumstances vocally contest. It was a difficult power dynamic. In contentious research, such as extremism, participants might well view the researcher, not themselves, as the ‘vulnerable’ party.

Blurred Boundaries

One means of gaining trust – and interviews – is to reveal enough of your own identity to enable relationships to be forged, in what Bolognani terms “reciprocal exposure”. While I had read others’ accounts of doing life-history semi-structured interviews, in reality the researcher-participant boundary agreed upon in university ethics forms was not so easily maintained. Before I entered the research, I was clear on what a researcher-participant relationship looked like. During the research, boundaries could become blurred. I spent a good amount of time with some of the participants, and felt they trusted me. I spent a long time with one extremist on the phone, listening to her cry at the CPS decision not to pursue a case against someone who attacked her at a demonstration. I did not feel sympathy, but I did feel empathy. When another participant was raided and arrested, he turned to me for help, as someone with a university education and relative power. As part of the research, I went to their homes, met their families, watched them in the dock at trials. I experienced warmth – participants who insisted on buying for me when we met to interview, who asked, “do you like me?” They had mostly never been interviewed before. They had no knowledge of ‘participant-researcher’ relationships and understandably felt something like friendship was part of talking to me, even though friendship was not on offer. I knew that confused boundaries was a potential outcome of the research, but there was a world of difference between knowing this, and experiencing it.

Online and Gender

My project’s focus was not ‘online’. I always intended to meet people ‘in person’ and to attend public events such as street demonstrations or Dawah stalls. However, I also used online spaces to facilitate access, for instance, initially approaching activists online and arranging to meet at protest. In the case of the Islamist participants, for whom public protest was restricted, online became an important means to meet people. I had a research Facebook account, using my own name; and a research phone. Before long I began to receive screenshots of my conversations with possible interviewees, sent to me by other people. I also received screenshots of conversations between other people, discussing me in mostly unflattering, gendered and untruthful terms. At times I received abuse, and had to block people. Since taking part in this research I’ve been involved in a separate project, REASSURE, which documents harms to researchers looking at extremism online, and this makes clear that there are particular potential harms for women. But at the time of my own research, the gendered harms of doing online research in contentious fields was not widely discussed.

The purpose of this blog is not to deter anyone from doing risky research. I wanted to outline some of the ways that gender became part of my particular research journey, because it is something that when discussing the wider project, other women researchers have asked me about. In fact, the most important way for me to engage with some of the challenges of the research was to talk about it – with supervisors, and with other women working on extremism, of diverse identities. Sharing research experiences from the field – particularly through talking with a community of academics facing similar challenges – was, for me, the best way to manage them. With increased academic interest in other masculinist movements and spaces, such as the manosphere, or incels, women can face greater risks. Through building research communities of diverse backgrounds, and talking about what we find, we can mitigate the possible harms.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Lecturer in Law and Criminology, working on gender, extremism and countering extremism. Further reflections can be found in the book Extreme Britain Gender, Masculinity and Radicalisation, published with Hurst and OUP and available in December 2023.