The Embodied Researcher and The Disembodied Participant:
Navigating Telephone Interviews with Trans and/or Non-Binary People
By Abby Barras
The body in sociology receives much attention. For those of us researching sport, gender and sexuality, the focus of this attention is frequently on other people’s bodies, the athlete perhaps, or the interview participant. As researchers, we frequently run the risk of objectifying the people we are lucky enough to talk to, perhaps overlooking how important our own embodiment as researchers can be in the process of understanding the aims of the research. Often it is not enough to rely on our own reflexivity when trying to better understand exactly what our research is telling us; our own embodied awareness is crucial.
As a cis-gender person conducting her PhD research on the participatory experiences of transgender and/or non-binary people in everyday sport and physical exercise in the UK, I am constantly aware of my outsider status; I have also been increasingly curious and troubled about how my own body has become an object of inquiry in the research process. This piece tries to offer an open reflection of the dilemma of asking difficult questions over the telephone about another person’s body when you can not see them, and how we might ‘feel’ our way through an interview. Can we ever avoid making assumptions about each other’s bodies? Why did I experience such a sense of embodied disorientation when conducting telephone interviews, simply because I couldn’t see someone? As a researcher who carries a deeply rooted sense of embodied anxiety about the research topic, is it ever possible to move towards a more comfortable position, one which helps all of us to rethink our approach to bodies and identities?
Sport is a domain where gender boundaries are carefully drawn and frequently policed. As a researcher who is not transgender and did not share the same experiences of gender dysphoria as many participants, I have never had to think too deeply about my own embodiment. There is perhaps a limit to how reflexive we can be, and that we are often unaware of the events which have shaped and influenced our research until it’s over.Indeed, I had not considered my own embodiment as a researcher to be significant until I reflected upon my transcripts.
My PhD research notes that there is evidence that transgender people are less likely to engage in sport and physical exercise, with significant differences in participation rates compared to the cis-gender population. This is often in part due to feelings of gender dysphoria, but discrimination and transphobia are also cited. A growing body of work discusses the inclusion of transgender athletes at elite level, but there is less qualitative research which asks transgender people directly about their experiences of participating in everyday sport and physical exercise. However, inclusion requires preparation and as a researcher my own preparation has focused on the commitment to place the voices and narratives of transgender people at the centre of my research.
So why has my own embodiment as a researcher become such an issue for me? Almost a whole year before I was due to start my PhD, I attended a public event with one of my supervisors, organised by the University and focused on representations of transgender characters in fiction. At the end of the talk, the audience were invited to ask the author questions. Someone raised their hand. ‘I’m sick of this,’ they said, ‘cis gender people wanting to research us all the time. I work for a charity, and every week I get an email from some student wanting to examine trans people and do their dissertation topic on us. Trans lives and trans experiences aren’t up for debate, and certainly not by cis people.’ I froze. My supervisor and I exchanged looks. I was convinced that this person was talking about me. I am, and will always be, a cis-het student conducting research about transgender people’s lived experiences. I felt guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, then worried that I would only ever be perceived as an outsider and that no one would want to talk to me, which I then felt more guilty about, for only thinking of myself and my PhD. This is a common feeling, I know, we all worry about misrepresenting or misinterpreting the communities we are researching.
I considered changing my data gathering method to one which did not involve talking to people, such as a discourse analysis on LGBT sports policies, but this would not satisfy the research gap I had identified. I decided to continue with my research design, but to remain vigilant to the issue of research fatigue which can often affect groups perceived as marginalised. This formed part of my reason to offer telephone or Skype interviews, alongside face-to-face interviews during my research between May and October 2018. I also hoped this would enable a wider geographical sample and allow myself and the participants more flexibility. Additionally, qualitative telephone data have been judged to be rich, vivid, detailed and of a high quality whilst offering increased anonymity, privacy and decreased social pressure. I felt that this was particularly important given my earlier reflections, that it might enable more privacy for individuals who may feel more comfortable with this option, perhaps due to their gender presentation or transition stage or even how they wanted to be imagined. As a cis-gender person I was wary of positioning my own normative body as a site for comparison, something which happens subconsciously when we conduct an interview in person and we rely on another person’s body language to guide the conversation. In the current climate of such hostility to transgender people in the UK press and social media, telephone interviews also offered another means to talk to someone who may be feeling unsafe and unsure of my motivations.
We may assume a telephone interview is a disembodied act or process, but it is not. It was during transcription and the listening process that I began to notice my own sense of embodied disorientation, triggered from not knowing what a person looks like and from my anxiety around my role as an outsider researcher. I audibly stutter and I can hear myself searching for the right words, because I do not want to offend, misgender or use the wrong pronouns. In an in-person interview, this embodied disorientation may have been alleviated. My research is about gender and sport and, as such, I might need to ask some very personal questions about people’s bodies. My inhibition often manifested itself in my inability to ask deeper questions.
I identified a number of ways in which my embodied disorientation manifests. The first was to apologise and move the conversation on. This frequently happened when someone offered a physical description of themselves, perhaps to better explain the context of their sporting history. These histories were not always happy ones for some people, and would often be accompanied by a description of their body. For example.
Jim (21, trans masculine, non-binary, boxer):
‘Yeah, so I’ve always had, my bad eyesight and wasted back muscles, you can’t see me, but I’m 5 foot 8 and I’m very skinny, I’m very gay looking, I look like an ugly teen boy, I’m still stuck being quite weedy and at the mercy of anyone who wants to pick a fight with me.’
‘That’s awful, I’m so sorry. I’m just thinking of how to word this…’
It is not the details of another’s body that inhibited me, rather it was the inability to offer comfort and find a way to ask more without upsetting them. Although Jim encouraged me to ‘ask me anything and I’ll tell you if it’s not ok’, I still worried about taking advantage of their negative biographical disclosures. Harris writes that the interview process can be said to occur ’in the intermundane space between bodies, where energies circulate, and boundary distinctions are unclear.’ When interviewing Jim, I felt those boundaries very clearly via my embodied disorientation. But when interviewing Marcus (26), a water polo player who identifies as non-binary, those boundaries were unclear. We spoke at length about swimming and the joy it offered us both. I was eager to disclose my swimming identity, one Marcus and I share. Marcus shared some very personal details about their body, but our shared identities as swimmers allowed me (on reflection) to feel better qualified to ask them to expand on their own embodied journey. Making a connection via a personal disclosure established what Csordas calls a ‘somatic mode of attention’, a connection our bodies shared, rather than our minds. As a cis-woman I would have felt disingenuous to assume my gender journey was the same as someone as transgender (though of course why couldn’t they be in some cases?), but as a swimmer, I felt able to better understand a sporting experience.
Another manifestation was the lack of disclosure of my identity as a mother. This avoidance of a very important aspect of my life surprised me. This occurs when talking to Jane, a 47 year old trans woman and climber:
‘Can I just ask you how old you are?’
’47, lovely! We are almost the same age!’
‘Ooo, you are doing your PhD late in time!’
‘Oh, well, you know, other stuff got in the way (laughs), as it sometimes does, but it’s quite nice doing it when you’re a bit older, you’re a bit more, you have a different perspective on the world. Erm…’
Whilst I had no problem disclosing my age to Jane, I did not disclose that the fact that I had a son was one of the reasons I came late to postgraduate education. It’s possible that I was worried about not being taken seriously as a researcher if I was a middle-aged woman with a child, but I think the real reason was not wanting to mention my own family after Jane had disclosed being estranged from hers for being trangender. Reflecting back on the idea of intermundane spaces and unclear boundaries, my conversation with Jane seemed to sit somewhere in between that of Jim and Marcus’s.
What does all of this offer me as a researcher in relation to my own embodied journey? Harris writes that ‘the researcher’s body in qualitative research is often absented, an absence that can render deceptively tidy research accounts.’ I went into telephone interviews thinking that they would be tidy because of the absence of both of our bodies, but in fact they were beautifully untidy, rich and emotional. This can only assist my understanding of the experiences of transgender people in sport whilst being mindful of not co-opting transgender people’s experiences to create homogenous research, nor sidestepping the very real material challenges and discriminations transgender people face.
My lasting feeling is that they ways in which we use our own body in the interview process has haptic value. We may need to ask difficult questions, but we are also able to hold a hand, nod our head, offer eye contact and read bodily cues. We can take a break and make a cup of tea. Whilst we may be able to offer more haptic value to in-person interviews, this is still present in telephone interviews. There were stories of joy and optimism and humourous disclosures and with Jane, tears when describing how significant sport is for her mental health and well-being.
Additionally, as evidenced, they may also enable the participant to perhaps feel more relaxed and able to disclose sensitive information due to increased privacy and anonymity and perhaps enhanced safety. Conducting telephone interviews also created a new way of reflecting on my own embodiment and researcher positionality, the opportunity it offers to participants to speak freely and openly about their bodies and experiences cannot be disregarded. Whilst not being able to see a person’s physical appearance was disorientating for me, participants may have experienced increased feelings of ease and agency and empowerment. Empowering participants and facilitating agency is a key part of this research and beginning the process of un-labelling of bodies through telephone interviews perhaps helped to break down gender normative assumptions and not treat participants as if they are the ‘other’ in sporting settings.
Abby Barras is a full-time PhD student at the University of Brighton, based in the School of Applied Social Science. She lives in Worthing with her partner and son, and is a slow but enthusiastic sea swimmer.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Abby tweets: @abbybarras