Somewhere Between Here and There: Goldilocking Between Fieldwork and Academia

Somewhere Between Here and There: Goldilocking Between Fieldwork and Academia

anthro{dendum} welcomes guest blogger Crystal Abidin, contributing the second post in the Private Messages from the Field series edited by Crystal Abidin and Gabriele de Seta.

Somewhere Between Here and There: Goldilocking Between Fieldwork and Academia
by Crystal Abidin

One of my fondest memories from fieldwork is learning how to survive an eyelash curler.

More specifically, I sat for two agonizing hours at a rather public and populated ice-cream parlour on a weekday night in Singapore, with three friends who took turns to cup my chin, tilt my forehead, stretch the skin around my eye socket, and clamp my eyelashes between two slates of shiny metal. They also kept threatening to rob me of all my eyelashes (by way of yanking them out) if I didn’t stop flinching out of fear.

You see, earlier in the evening I had bemoaned to my besties that only two of the 50 prospective informants I had emailed responded to me. After six months of pre-fieldwork training between hours of methodology masterclasses and dozens of guidebooks, I had crafted what I anticipated to be my golden ticket into the field of social media Influencers in Singapore.

My official invitation emails came accompanied by the University letterhead (in color, no less), my supervisor’s signature and contact details (a clearly non-Singaporean, foreign-sounding name with the status-elevating designation, ‘Professor’), and I hoped that documentation of my ethics clearance (in bureaucratic legalese peppered with strings of conscientiously cross-referenced numbers) would signpost my legitimacy as an academic researcher. Having grown up in paper-chasing, bureaucratic Singapore for 20 years before immigrating to Australia, I was confident that my perfectly crafted invitation letter had hit my prospective informants’ sweet spots: Congruent branding, endorsements from a foreign expert, and pristine organizational skills.

But I could not have been more wrong.

Months passed and still, only two of 50 potential informants had responded. And I was to meet the first of them in person for a coffee the very next day. Being incredibly inept at makeup (I had only ever put on makeup twice in my childhood for choir competitions), my caring, fashionable friends were convinced that the glamorous world of hyper-feminine Influencers would surely reject me. And thus we embarked on a mini-excursion to a pharmacy where my friends imparted girl literacies to me while filling my shopping basket with a concealer, sunblock, facial toner, facial masks, anti-blemish cream, and that dreaded eyelash curler (which I have since conveniently misplaced…).

Said “caring, fashionable friends” who brokered my entry into cosmetics and skincare. L-R: Auds, Yins, Amz.

As it turns out, my friends were only half-right.

As fieldwork progressed, it became clear to me that my very lack of feminine ‘beautifying’ skills endeared me to many of the women I was studying who decidedly took me under their wing – they were, after all, perceived as role models and opinion leaders on beauty, fashion, and lifestyle by hundreds of thousands of other women online. I realized that much of the social currency I needed to access my field was tied to performing a very particular type of femininity, one that entailed unabashedly visibilizing some of my ineptitude and vulnerability to people I barely knew.

And this was counter-intuitive.

Young scholars like myself are constantly being told to establish the visibility of our portfolios in order to secure academic jobs that are increasingly competitive, scarce, and precarious. We learn to package and pitch productive and pristine versions of ourselves. Yet, for all my theoretical and practical training on visibilizing the self, I soon learnt that such visibility politics, in which academics aim for maximum self-celebratory exposure, did not lend itself well to my ethnographic research into the even more competitive attention economy of social media Influencers. Simply put, the value of my academic social capital did not transpose into their microcelebrity community, and my visibility as an emerging scholar was not easily deciphered through their established cultural vocabulary of celebrity.

I had not anticipated that researching an ecology of Influencers that mainly played out in digital spaces entailed so much corporeal posturing of my body in physical spaces. Live demonstrations of ‘How To Girl’ took place in the privacy of their homes and offices, as well as in not-so-private cafés and food courts. For instance, I bought my first pair of high heels during fieldwork, under the coaxing of a 23-year-old Influencer who had let me try hers on. Even though they often chuckled at my clumsy attempts, these corporeal experiments were slowly winning the favour of some Influencers, who in turn signposted their approval and insider knowledge of my attempts in person and on social media.

The author attempting-but-failing to walk in heels.

It seemed to matter to them that I was invested and sincere enough to ‘try’ out their worlds – not too little that I was merely a dispassionate auditor, and not too much that I was attempting to emulate and compete with them in their ‘game’. These experiences taught me how to visibly posture myself as a willing apprentice, much unlike the veneer of professionalism in academia where young scholars are conditioned into hiding our fears and failures in honour of peacocking. In the field, I learnt to selectively put my lack and inferiorities on display as an invitation for my informants to guide me and role model the ‘right’ way. As a living work-in-progress, entrusting my informants with the access to witness my learning and growth while risking the fear of scrutiny solicited their care and affirmation.

And thus, despite our months and years of preparation for fieldwork, a vast majority of what digital ethnographers actually do in the field is based on gut-feeling, sensing, and whim. In my case, this entailed learning to perform a specific type of ‘visibility labour’ along various spectrums of conspicuousness, where navigating the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ scapes necessitated the continuous reinscribing of my body visually, discursively, emotively, and symbolically as I felt my way around. In other words, alongside my constant ‘seeing’ of the scene, it was more important for me to manage how selected parts of my intersectional identity should be ‘seen’, and how much of these traits to put on ‘show’.

Displaying an overt visibility (such as dressing too similar to my informants or being too outspoken at social gatherings) might be misconstrued as a desire to emulate my informants’ microcelebrity, that I was competing with them for attention or ‘stealing their thunder’, and I would risk a festering sense of threat and distrust towards myself within our homosocial settings. Yet, being too invisible (such as underdressing for exclusive events or not participating in social media conversations) might also be read as a general disinterest in their craft, or worst still, that my inability to acquire the appropriate insider literacies would permanently mark me as an outlier who would never qualify to inhabit their life worlds.

Like the Goldilocks of digital ethnographers, I had to be visible towards and among my informants, but not too little and not too much. In navigating these spectrums of conspicuousness, I had to glide along the gradient of low to high visibilities, and hop across them as required by circumstances. All this footing work was akin to wax globules in a lava lamp, alternating in existence as heated liquids and cooled solids, always in motion and constantly wandering somewhere between here and there.

Cover image: Taken by the author during fieldwork at the Influence Asia 2017 awards, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Her forthcoming books look at internet celebrity, Influencers, blogshops, and Instagram cultures. Crystal is Postdoctoral Fellow with the Media Management and Transformation Centre (MMTC) at Jönköping University, and Adjunct Researcher with the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin University. Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is Postdoctoral Fellow with the Media Management and Transformation Centre (MMTC) at Jönköping University, and Adjunct Researcher with the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin University. Crystal’s forthcoming book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) critically analyzes the contemporary histories and impacts of internet-native celebrity today. Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

One Reply to “Somewhere Between Here and There: Goldilocking Between Fieldwork and Academia”

  1. Nice piece, Crystal. Resonates strongly with my experience working with advertising creatives in Japan and Daoist healers in Taiwan. That “willing apprentice” presentation of self opens a lot of doors closed to those who try to project scholarly status and expertise. I remember Frank Cancian, who was teaching a methods course at Cornell circa 1970-71, remarking that most people respond really well to our asking them to explain how they do what they do.