An Ethnographic Liminality: The Hurry Up and Wait of Dissertation Research Predeparture

An Ethnographic Liminality: The Hurry Up and Wait of Dissertation Research Predeparture

I am about to depart for Dakar, Senegal to begin twelve months of dissertation research. I’m not sure when I’ll be leaving – the slog of uncoordinated bureaucratic machines keeps me from knowing just yet. For now, I’m just in that all-too-familiar mode of “hurry up and wait”: I was packed and ready to leave November 1. I am packed and ready to leave December 1. And given a recent hiccup in the process, it looks like I’ll be packed and ready to leave January 1, too. While in Dakar, I intend to blog about my experience (in addition to use my social media accounts) as I have in the past. In my current liminal time – pending approval from Fulbright-Hays, pending approval from an ethical review board – in which I fear committing to meetings, conferences, and dinners too far out because I just don’t know when I will leave, I suppose I can start blogging about it now.

Consider this the first in an ongoing series about my dissertation research. I will begin by giving some background as well as a primer on my research objectives, that way we have some context with which to ground the later blog posts.

Relations of Reproduction: Investigating Men, Masculinity, and Pregnancy in Dakar, Senegal

Since 2012, I’ve been researching medical plurality and competing bodies of healthcare knowledge in Dakar, Senegal which has led me to my dissertation research on men and pregnancy. My dissertation research is about expectant fathers, gendered spaces, and changing ideas and practices of masculinity more broadly in Dakar. In Senegal, as in much of West Africa, men are proscribed from spaces associated with women’s activities (or affaire u jigeen in Wolof, literally “women’s business”), meaning that even if men are open to engaging in that space, they risk flouting social decorum or may not be welcome. While some nongovernmental organizations (such as Tostan Senegal) aim to get men more involved with their pregnant partners with the idea that it will improve maternal and infant health outcomes, kin and local healthcare professionals through their use of space may actually be indirectly discouraging them from doing so. My dissertation research is an ethnographic exploration of (1) the shifting meanings, desires, and experiences of expectant fathers in Dakar, Senegal, (2) the ways in which men navigate gendered spaces while simultaneously balancing the tensions between their desires to be engaged in the continuum of reproduction with the social risk of transgressing notions local notions of masculinity and femininity, and (3) how men renegotiate their own masculinities as they transition into fatherhood in the context of locally-produced gender norms, changing forms of marriage, religious notions of parenting, and economic precarity.

Because pregnancy is not a regular topic of conversation among men or between men and women in Senegal, my research methods require careful and thoughtful community engagement. This means that in addition to undertaking participant observation in the homes of my interlocutors, I must work in closely coordinated partnership with healthcare professionals and college student researchers to recruit participants in clinics. Additionally, my commitment to public engagement means that my ongoing research is shared and accessible to both Senegalese and American laypeople through social media and blogging. Finally, as a visual ethnographer, I rely heavily upon digital and film photography to document the daily lives of my research participants. My research is supported in part by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Fellowship.

Photo: © 2017 Rokhaya Seck

While I’m in Dakar, I’ll focus these blog posts on my experience, data, thoughts and themes, methodological challenges, and photography. Until I leave though (which is looking more and more like January 1 at this point), I’d like to write about my pre-departure preparations. First of all, I’m willing to take some requests. Should I write about my proposal writing process, or how I go about writing an interview instrument, or what I’m taking with me to Dakar? What else? Hopefully, such posts can get readers talking about similar issues in their own research, and ultimately I’d like this series to be a resource to undergraduates and other graduate students as a transparent case study in how one goes about doing dissertation research. What would be most helpful?

Second, for searchability, I’ll need a hashtag to attach to every post in this series, like #RoR2018 or something. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

3 Replies to “An Ethnographic Liminality: The Hurry Up and Wait of Dissertation Research Predeparture”

  1. I’d like to hear about your ethics review board experience and grant writing process, and the interview instrument. Sounds like a great project and I look forward to following it!

  2. Hope you are on your way soon! I’m interested in what you’ll take with you (tools, special trinkets, the like) and also how you prepared for this trip emotionally. As I think about grad programs, esp in Anthropology, I think about the toll it will take on myself and my loved ones when I do diss research abroad for an extended period of time.