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Hero-image_Negotiating Institution, Negotiating Gender in the Juvenile Home: Notes on Feminist Methodologies ;

Negotiating Institution, Negotiating Gender in the Juvenile Home: Notes on Feminist Methodologies

Feminist Perspectives - ’Disciplined and Resistant Bodies’
Abhishek Kumar (he/him)

PhD student in Psychology, IIT Bombay

10 July 2023

One of the foundations of feminist research practice is the attention to the discursive relationship of the researcher, participants, and site of study. In attending to these dynamics, feminist scholarship opens itself to the possibilities of critical and reflexive engagements rooted in the ethics of standpoint and situated knowledge.

In this ethos, the current paper draws from field notes and the ethnographic experience of a cis-male researcher working on masculinities among incarcerated Children in Conflict with Law (CCL) in Delhi, India, and focuses on how the sameness of gender (maleness) interacts in the interview process.

The reflection also unpacks the idea of gender by contextualising its social function through other vectors of power, such as class, caste, and sexuality. By reflecting on ways hegemonic forms of masculinity mediate the interaction between the researcher and the participants, the paper opens up about complicated ethical and pragmatic negotiations faced in encountering misogyny and homophobia in the field sites. 

For my MPhil research in Gender Studies, I worked with Children in Conflict with Law (CCL)[1] in an Observation Home[2] in Delhi. The field site was not new, I had been here before in my Master's research. In 2016, with my fellow Psychology peers, we administered multiple (self-report) measures like aggression, frustration, and anxiety among the CCLs. I felt a sense of unease and vacuum with hypotheses correlating individual dispositions to criminal tendencies, especially when most participants we worked with belonged to socially and economically marginalised communities. During my coursework in Gender Studies, I was introduced to the social construction of masculinities, especially through experiences of caste, class and religious identities, where I began to better understand my experience and voids within my previous research. In 2017, I revisited the Observation Home and conducted 3-month long fieldwork with these young boys - this time exploring the role of masculinities within the institutional setting.

I distinctly remember one time from my fieldwork when a participant overcame his skepticism of being interviewed, as he trusted me with his stories of sorrow, despair, hardships, and vulnerabilities. I held my field diary on my lap, and we talked about his life for over one hour. It was one of the most revealing interviews I did during my research, where the young boy opened up about repression in the Observation Home, such as the staff's use of power and strict behavioral control, which threatened rehabilitative goals and even violated children's rights.

One of the most fundamental issues in qualitative fieldwork is gaining access to research participants, particularly when it involves a sensitive subject such as the study of masculinities and an institution like an Observation Home. These gendered spaces ask the researcher to account for their assumptions and experiences as they affect how the observations are interpreted and understood. In such a setting, the audiences are both staff and CCLs who are enforced with a strict code of behavior. The relationships arising from such contexts are inherently linked to their gender identities. I always imagined how my standpoint would shape the research but failed to consider how the participants and the staff would shape me.

I saw my gender presentation of a cis-male as a means to access institutions that offer homosocial interactions. The Observation Home appeared to have a very hostile environment for me as I planned to investigate the conception of masculinities through a feminist framework. To get valuable insights from the Observation Home, a natural response was to see if I could be assimilated into its culture. However, a lurking danger for someone who adopted a feminist standpoint, this position ran the risk of being compromised as every interaction with the different institutional bodies demanded strategic silence and tangential suggestions towards the overlooked aspects of social domination within the CCLs and with the authority.

Male Staff and Researcher: To Bond or Not?

On reaching the Observation Home, I went through a rigorous check with the security officers, especially during the early part of my research. I then had to report to welfare officers entrusted with managing CCLs’ reports and ‘constructing’ disciplined male bodies. The construction was hierarchical in nature and not necessarily recognised by the officers. The hierarchies were related to competing notions of masculinity which placed aggressive and hardened boys at the top and ‘feminised’ men at the bottom.

These officers clarified that they had control over my access to the CCLs and could minimise the contact time if and when they wished. There were provocative statements in the form of verbal abuse offered to the CCLs. While sharing a common space, I heard conversations among male staff that were homophobic and misogynistic. At these moments, there was an invitation from their end for me to join such conversations to develop a social bond since we shared a workspace. I remember these instances as critical points in my fieldwork, for my responses to these conversations were carefully calculated to balance expressing my discomfort and ensuring my access to the field site.

Interviewing Boys: The Power to Direct Conversations?

As a male researcher working with the CCLs, it was difficult to ignore the presence and effect of sexism inside the institution. The social life of residents was dictated by confirmation of dominant masculine presentation - displaying aggression, bullying, physical strength, the nature of the crime committed, and time spent within the institution. Younger and physically weaker boys were vulnerable to violence among the residents and often resorted to embodying hegemonic masculine ideals through gender performativity. For example, some of the boys spoke about how they enacted their masculinity through their bodies (behaviourally), by their bodies (in terms of their body posture), and on their bodies (through the physical structure of their bodies, hairstyles, etc.)

Interviewing participants for the alleged crimes they were involved in was an uncomfortable terrain. I often heard justifications for the crimes they committed, and in my role as a researcher, it was not appropriate for me to challenge why and how they think, as most of their thoughts were grounded on the premises of hegemonic masculinity and the resentment of feminist views - which were valuable for my research. While as they elaborated on their story, it used to be difficult for me to listen passively. In such cases, I found myself using unacknowledged power discrepancy and authority to direct conversations. There were other times when the CCLs shared how they had to hide their vulnerabilities from appearing tough and fit into the strictly normative structures of masculinity in the Observation Home.

How could I have shown loyalty to my social-political values and the practice of (value-free) empirical social science? I found a politicised polarity in my field where I could draw my allegiance to feminist theory or adaptation to the field. Although I started the research with principles of ethnography, it was later based on creative instinct, intuition, and the ability to connect with others. With time, I developed covert strategies for coping with misogyny while at the same time not appearing to be completely in sync with the Observation Home culture. Jewkes (2005) calls this “wearing a mask” – a strategy for coping with the rigours of imprisonment. Directly confronting the institutional culture could have compromised access to the research site and prevented the nature of such attitudes from emerging.

Given the precarity of the setting, I could not involve myself in the social life of my participants due to considerations of safety and relative freedom, excluding the research from the traditional field of ethnography. However, the reflexive account helped me acknowledge internalised subjectivities within my work. In doing so, issues about the researcher's position with the participant and my role in shaping academic knowledge were very prominent. For example, it helped me chart out how the sameness of gender and the shared masculine cultural script may have left some masculine behaviours and activities untheorised/unexamined.

As a researcher, our job lies with listening and observing the field site and our participants to critique certain practices and push toward further research into similar areas of scholarship. In my research, the Observation Home was entrusted with helping youths alter behaviours and attitudes associated with the development of criminal thought. How the institution reinforced hegemonic ways of being a man poses an alternative lens to see how the Juvenile justice system fosters rehabilitation in the CCLs. Thus, there is a need to look at other sites like locker rooms, sports centers, and residential hostels, which offer homosocial interactions with young men, to see how these spaces become sites of understanding patterns of social interaction that shape their gender identities, making them gendered subjects.

Drawn image of a shadow of a child behind prison bars


[1] ‘Child in Conflict with Law’ has been defined under Section 2 (13) of the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2015 as a child who is alleged or found to have committed an offence and has not completed eighteen years of age on the date of commission of such offence.

[2] An Observation Home is an institute established for temporary reception of Children in Conflict with Law (CCL) during pendency of their inquiry before Juvenile Justice Board.

Image credits (hero/thumbnail): Pradeep Gaur/Mint

About the author

Abhishek Kumar (he/him) is a PhD candidate in Psychology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.

His research explores the psychological basis of political polarisation in India. The current work is part of his MPhil at Ambedkar University, Delhi, where he examined the construction of masculinities in a juvenile home in Delhi.

To get in touch, follow him on Twitter: @abhishek_psyD, or Linkedin.

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