Dissertation Diaries I: To accept tea or not to accept tea


For my dissertation I interviewed women in farming and quickly recognised the perils of participants’ homes! Although this setting for conducting interviews was chosen for convenience and comfort to participants, it presented various issues which I had to negotiate and reflect upon in light of power relations and their impact on conclusions.

We all know home is not a neutral context but a space awash with memories, emotional stimuli and personal possessions familiar to the inhabitants. Therefore, this represents a certain level of trust and commitment on their part for allowing a researcher to integrate within their daily life and home. Participants made me feel welcome, almost like a friend, by offering tea which forged an intimate scenario perhaps detrimental to the maintenance of some professional distance. However, the rapport necessary for qualitative study was established in other ways by attentive listening and body language throughout the interview, as well as accepting the presence of various pets in the room! Similarly, emphasising my farming background and wearing casual clothing alluded to sensitivity to participants’ circumstances and sought to minimise the discrepancy in social characteristics such as age and education. To that end, there is much more to qualitative study than using open questions as a means to balance power as I found situational dynamics to be more diverse in character!

My personal safety was particularly relevant, given the remote locations of the farms and private environment of a participant’s kitchen. However, I soon found the research setting was not always private as some spouses would enter the room and interact with the interview questions. Given the threat to privacy, I had to stop the recording which meant the discussion became fragmented at times. Otherwise the participant may have withheld information that they did not wish others to hear, for example an experience of prejudice, which would have compromised validity.

Conducting my interviews has opened my eyes to how far the relationship between researcher and participant must be closely considered and negotiated, not only prior to research but during data collection. It all boils down to reaching a compromise on hospitality in line with the research agenda and relations.

Comments

  1. I am struck by the potential strife caused by the acceptance of an 'innocent' cup of tea: tea and the empowerment of women are certainly ripe topics for discussion! From the outset this drink has had a role in defining and identifying women and their place in society. An expensive and exotic product from the Orient, tea entered into the English genteel family home in the 18th century. A less 'intoxicating' and therefore much safer beverage for women than coffee, it became one of the only areas in which women were given control: the lady of the house in charge of the key to the tea cabinet. Whereas men inhabited the male space of the public coffee houses, women dominated in the domestic sphere, making female-only tea parties a space for private discussions, free from the eyes of men. Husbands at the time began to fear for their place in the household, and anxiety over the dangers of tea to the patriarchy can be seen in the literature circulating at the time. In the context of this study, it is interesting to see how the women you interviewed still use tea as a method of portraying power and possession. In a modern context these women are not necessarily conscious of the implications of their offering, and are more likely obeying social norms relating to courtesy and amicability. But it is striking to note that no matter how 'empowered' women are supposed to be in the modern age, old, deeply ingrained cultural traditions trap women in a cycle of domesticity.

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  2. I had never previously considered the history of tea and gender to be of sociological interest so thanks for sharing those insights! I can definitely see the offering of tea linked to social norms and as an act in attempt to make both host and guest feel more at ease.

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