‘Unconventional gender identities’: a master research on the world wide web

Master-student Firaas Fouani is currently finishing his thesis. In the report below he sketches the process and the outcomes of his research on debates on internet-forums and blogs on issues revolving around “unconventional gender identities”. His work is an example of how “the field” for anthropological research today might as well be an internet-site as a specific remote community or an organization.

By Firaas Fouani

For the many years I have dwelled the internet I have witnessed the multitude of aspects the gender spectrum contains being discussed and debated, although rarely with calm, restraint and nuance. Especially when the indisputable truth a specific view has long been thought to possess is being called into question, particularly those opposing this challenge will come out and defend the accepted view with great fervour. As a strong proponent of a view on gender that is more open and accepting to nonconventional ideas I have long wondered why this is the case?

What is it that leads people to so fiercely defend the views on gender they have accepted as normal and true and at the same time attack with just as much vehemence those that do not conform to or go against them? Why is this done with such conviction? Those questions I sought to answer in my 2012 Bachelor’s research through the analysis of comments on two news items challenging the conventionally accepted ideas about gender and in particular the dominant ‘Western’ view of the binary gender system: one about a Canadian couple not revealing the sex of their youngest child to the outside world and raising the child not specifically as a boy or a girl, the other on a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch seeking to improve the rights of transgender people in the Netherlands.


Source: waltzingmorethanmatilda.com

Both invoked much ire and resistance from online commenters reading about these issues. I set out to find out more. Who were these commenters? What did they say? Why did they say these things? By the end of this research I had a fairly expansive answer to the second question, but answers to the who? and why? questions still remained to be desired. Opportunity to fulfill this desire came a year later. The research accompanying my Master’s thesis was an excellent chance to continue and expand upon my Bachelor’s research.

So I ventured back onto the internet for a three month digital fieldwork period. The scale had been increased since the last research. Rather than comments on just two articles, I observed, participated in and analysed seven discussions on nonconventional views on gender, spread across five Dutch online discussion forums. This allowed for a larger amount of participants, and subsequently more data, as well as the ability to actually get in touch with these participants and gain more firsthand insight about them. Where the previous research had focused almost entirely on the commenters opposing the news items under discussion, this time I decided to look at the entire spectrum of reactions for a broader and more complete view on how nonconventional ideas or gender are received. The main research question, how people react to nonconventional ideas about gender and why, remained largely the same.

This was my first relatively large-scale research and it proved to be a more daunting and demanding task than I had anticipated. This became more evident the longer fieldwork continued. Keeping track of all the discussions across the varying online communities simultaneously, making certain they remained active and gathering, sorting and analysing all data they produced made research feel chaotic at times. The implications of it being an online research, furthermore, became evident in two aspects in particular. On the one hand there was the research aspect of the online: I was familiar with the internet, but this was the first time I had entered and actively participated in it in the role of researcher. On the other hand, the online aspect of the research demanded I took into account certain issues that distinguish it from offline fieldwork even before the research had begun. Attaining informed consent, transparency, participants’ privacy and their perception of privacy were especially sensitive as well as ambiguous issues. Both how and to which extent they were to be applied involved a great amount of consideration. Finally, in part continuing on these issues, not everyone was pleased with my activities on the forums, especially when publicly announcing my role as researcher and explaining my intentions during the conclusion of my fieldwork period. Condescension and mockery towards Master’s students, anthropology and social science in general were common. The covert conduction of my research was not appreciated and criticised as not properly handled. It even led to a ban from one of the forums. All these hurdles have certainly not been insurmountable, though, and through the gathered data I managed to come closer to answering the previously unanswered questions.

With the reactions in the Bachelor’s research in mind I had expected the number of people opposing nonconventional ideas to form the vast majority. However, there appeared to be very little consistency in views on gender. Even within specific groups on the individual forums most discussion participants had remarkably varying views on the different issues under discussion and in the less polarizing discussions there did appear to be at least some room for ‘dissenting’ views. Further emphasizing this was the mostly absent correlation between the identity categories I had identified among the forum users and specific views on gender. Even among the more conservative religious commenters, often strictly adhering to their beliefs, there was usually some nuance in the opinions people voiced. Finally, my expectations were further invalidated when issues that moved further away from the binary gender system did not necessarily generate more disapproval or hostility than those that remained ‘closer to home’. Unfortunately, while the what? and why? questions have been expanded upon, the idea of getting in touch with the participants did not unfold as planned and did not go further than forum posts an progress towards answering who? has thus been rather minimal.

Nevertheless, looking back at the research as a whole, I believe it has proven to be both an insightful and surprising experience. It allowed me to better learn the ropes of developing, conducting and work out research in an online research setting, as well as attain new and greater understanding of people’s perception of gender, if only within the scope of the five discussion forums under research. It will of course take more than my single research project to steer the perception of, the thinking about and the attitude towards gender’s many facets into being more open and accepting, but I do hope it will at the very least help push them further in that direction.


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