Collidoscope: Creating Intimacy, in Public and Private

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

After a long hiatus, Collidoscope, The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research by Jahnavi Sen, is back. 

A friend once told me about a fascination for kaleidoscopes that she never outgrew. She collects them even today – and it isn’t hard to understand why. There’s something very cool about one thing looking so different, just with a slight shake of the hand.

Looking at things from different perspectives is also a lot of what social science does, then bringing them together in conversations and debates. Collidoscope brings together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society, focusing on a different theme every week. This week’s topic: intimacy.

Every Friday, you can receive a curated update on who-is-saying-what in the world of social science research by subscribing here. I’d love to hear what you liked or disliked, and if you have any suggestions. Email me at [email protected].


Let’s go to the museum

What if the most intimate space you have is also the most public?

For most of urban India’s young couples, that’s an everyday reality. Parks and monuments are convenient dating spots where you can spend many hours but not much money. You’re also away from the people you know, who may not approve.

There’s another public space to add to this list, according to Ina Ross’s article in Museum & Society ‘The museum as a dating venue: Couples in the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum in Bhopal, India’ – museums. While they may not sound ideal, if you imagine a museum to be a formal, guarded space where you can’t even talk loudly, it is these very characteristics that make couples see them as a safe space.

Ross spoke to couples who frequent the Tribal Museum in Bhopal for her research, and found that the ordered expectations of behaviour actually work in their favour. They can spend hours in the museum or museum cafe, they said, including in the exterior garden, and nobody will look at them or expect their attention.

While a more traditional view of the museum does not necessarily exclude it as a possible romantic destination – for a one-off date, for instance – it is certainly not imagined as somewhere a couple may spend hours talking, without being bothered, whether or not they are interested in the exhibit.

This, according to Ross, is the ‘bottom-up’ appropriation of the museum space in Bhopal. Couples are making the space work for them, without disturbing those who may in fact have come to enjoy the art.

The Tribal Museum in Bhopal. Image: Museum website

“No entry ticket needs to be bought to use the canteen, and tea, coffee or small snacks are priced in the range of 20-60 Rupees,” Ross writes. “Hence they are clearly more affordable than the dishes or hot drinks in coffee shop chains.” Even if the couples may want to enter the museum area, the entry fee for Indian citizens is small.

Museums are known to be disciplined spaces – and previous research Ross cites argues that Indians have often not taken to the rules (like being told not to touch exhibits). But for the couples, the discipline works – it “means other users who could potentially bother and harass them will be more restricted”.

Ross’s paper is clearly written for a Western audience. She spends time explaining certain obvious cultural references and often reiterates her perception of how dating in India works (for instance: “Owing to the often tight accommodation situation, private space is a rare commodity for members of an Indian household regardless of their age and relationship status. There is constant monitoring by family members, especially in joint families.”).

But even given that, her insights on dating – how young couples are doing it, what their considerations are and why a museum, of all places, is so popular – are both interesting and informative.


The story behind that selfie

What are you thinking about when you take a picture of yourself?

A friend once told me I look “mildly surprised” whenever I take a selfie – and I took that as a compliment, given that the pictures I take of myself are few and far between. When I do take one, it’s usually making a funny face or trying to fit in the same frame as my cat.

But what does a selfie – particularly one posted on social media – represent? What aspects of ourselves are we choosing to show, and what remains hidden? Begonya Enguix and Erick Gómez-Narváez believe studying that can reveal a whole lot – particularly because the photographs are supposed to be an expression of intimacy.

In an article titled ‘Masculine Bodies, Selfies, and the (Re)configurations of Intimacy‘, published in Men and Masculinities, they talk about what they found based on studying selfies of masculine bodies on two apps – Grindr (a dating app for homosexual men) and Instagram (a social media app based on photo sharing, which some call the new Tinder). “Through our focus on masculine bodies,” they write, “we aim to explore whether (and how) hegemonic masculinities are changing through a process of increasing objectification of men’s bodies connected with a masculine desire to be desired.”

The authors focus on three masculine body types – hegemonic (muscle and hair), resistant (particularly transmen) and nonbinary (who self-identified as agender or gender fluid). Unsurprisingly, the found that hegemonic bodies were overrepresented on both apps. And while they had no trouble at all finding selfies on the apps, “regular bodies, fat bodies, or flat bodies are mostly invisible”.

After studying photographs, the researchers moved on to interviews – talking to users about which body parts they would focus on or leave out and why, what they were aiming to do by posting selfies online, and what they thought other app users were expecting of them.

What they found was that users claimed to be reconfiguring intimacy. They were sharing what may otherwise be deemed private (like nude photographs), but they also thought their true personality was hidden – their bodies may be public, but their essence was still private.

There was also a key difference between how the three body types were presenting themselves. While men with hegemonic bodies were the most likely to post nude photos or pictures of genitalia, transmen posted photos documenting their transitions and nonbinary people used selfies as a way to express their identity. Perhaps surprisingly, the first group felt like they had the least control over their exposure.

For those of you who, like me, thought a selfie was a simple picture someone took of themselves and chose to share because they were bored, the authors have a counter. “The bodies they [selfies] show are not just bodies; they are creative bodies that redefine intimacies through active decisions – agential decisions – on what to stress and make visible and what to hide.” Maybe I won’t scroll past that picture quite so quickly next time.


Research in times of austerity

How do you study people ethically while watching them face hardship?

In the aftermath of the 2008-09 recession, geographer Sarah Marie Hall wanted to know how austerity measures were impacting everyday family life in the UK. Her paper ‘Personal, relational and intimate geographies of austerity: ethical and empirical considerations‘ in the journal Area, though, is not about her findings. Instead, she looks at the responsibility of the researcher in a situation like that, and how to make sure you’re going about your work ethically.

What Hall found was that asking people how austerity had affected their family situations ­– and indeed watching people lose out on government benefits – put her in a position where she was not just a researcher anymore. Participants received practical and material support as part of the research project.

Hall did not pay her participants, though she writes that she did consider it. Instead, she found other ways to express gratitude such as taking along token gifts whenever she went to meet them, taking them out for meals or paying for their bus fares if they went out together. “I was actively, albeit inadvertently, caring for participants through these material exchanges, becoming part of the very networks of support and care that I set out to study.”

The families also often saw her as someone in a similar situation, whose family too might be affected by the government’s spending cuts. They asked her for practical advice or even to lend a hand with shopping (the tasks she was asked to help with were care tasks being done by the women). An intimacy grew, even if that wasn’t what either party had expected.

“A researcher’s place and position come under new scrutiny in the context of austerity, in terms of how we might carry out responsible research,” Hall argues. So instead of going in blind to that reality, a discussion on what constitutes ethical research is such situations – of which austerity is just one – could make a difference. Hall’s work is a step in that direction.