5. The site of au pairing and mixed and messy methods
5.10. Analysis and representation
In practical terms, I dealt with the different kinds of material in much the same way. I watched, listened and read, rewatched, relistened and reread, transcribed and systematised according to various themes or categories, then watched, listened and read again. Parts of the films were transcribed, and so were all the interviews – some by me and some by others, according to my instructions. I kept hesitations, pauses, ‘um’s and ‘eh’s, as well as clear signs of emotion in the transcriptions, but changed quotes into (more) correct English where, for
example, sentence structure made the meaning unclear. My relatively small number of informants and films enabled me to go deep into each story; yet it also provided some challenges in terms of anonymity. Norway is a small country with relatively few au pairs. I thus decided not to disclose any information about my informants except for the general area of the continent they had travelled from, whether they lived in a small or a large place in Norway (where this was relevant) and their approximate age. I also sometimes changed details about the families for whom they worked. Their pseudonyms were chosen from online lists of common names from their respective regions of the world.
A positive aspect of the small number of informants is that it enabled me to work through the material manually. In a sense, this allowed me to carry the story of each informant with me as I pulled out smaller excerpts of the interviews to use in the articles. Furthermore, being able to analyse each story in depth also provided me with the luxury of not having to determine the topics of the articles of this thesis in advance, but rather to go deep into the interview material and decide, across the material, which topics, stories or moments carried most intensity, appeared most important to the informants or surfaced most frequently.
I felt, on numerous occasions during the analysis of the interview material, that this process required distance – distance from the material as well as from the informants who shared with me a moment of their lives as well as their stories. I found this seemingly required distance – or rather what I perceived as distance – troubling. In carrying out the analysis, I found that my informants were so vivid in my memory that it felt at best artificial and at worst unethical to be sitting at my desk considering the meanings of our conversations without them physically present and able to converse with me. In other words, in doing the analysis (where analysis means trying to unpack some of the numerous possibilities of meanings in what my informants were trying to tell me as well as the co-production of meanings in the interviews), I both struggled with and benefitted
from a sense of mental proximity to the people behind the transcriptions. This proximity to the ‘informant’/’researched’ is described very well by Avtar Brah:
Knowing is not so much about the assemblage of existing knowledge as it is about recognizing our constitution as ‘ourselves’ within the fragments that we process as knowledge; ‘hailing’ and being ‘hailed’ within the discourses that produce us and the narratives we spin; directing our socially, culturally, psychically, and spiritually marked focus of attention upon that which we appropriate as ‘data’ or ‘evidence’.
Hence, ‘data’ are neither more nor less reliable simply because of the nature of their source: whether the source in question is autobiography, biography, history, religion, or science. (Brah, 1999, pp. 5–6)
In short, I felt as if I was continuing a conversation, but with my conversation partner missing. This dilemma is not new within feminist research, and is eloquently addressed by, for example, Patti Lather (2007). I certainly have no hope of solving feminist ethical and representational dilemmas here, but merely aim to acknowledge some of the discomfort, feelings of shortcoming and indeed insecurities that were part of the process. I find Gunaratnam’s words about learning from different sites and (re)producing and (re)presenting complex knowledge comforting, as they incorporate some of the insecurities and uncertainties that are part of empirical research:
experimentation and uncertainty … are part and parcel of the experience of pursuing genealogies of social and cultural phenomena across experiences, meaning frameworks and spaces. The idea that uncertainty is methodologically valuable may provide some comfort to those of us who are struggling with some of the dilemmas, challenges, contradictions and difficulties of researching ‘race’ and ethnicity. (Gunaratnam, 2003, p. 195)
John Law and Annemarie Mol make suggestions for maintaining uncertainty and mess in research: ‘to list rather than classify; to tell about cases rather than present illustrative representatives; to walk and tell stories about this rather than
seek to make maps’ (Law & Mol, 2002, p. 17). I am not certain if I succeeded in this, but it is what I aimed for.
Yet academic writing is not only about how one thinks about learning and communicating knowledge, but also about making the form of presentation fit with certain scholarly standards. Also, the fact that this was a three-year project affected what I was able to do and not do. The thesis takes the shape of an article dissertation, which is directly related to the short timeframe as well as to the fact that two of these articles were written for anthologies. The methodological restrictions of publishing in books and articles that generally seem present mean that I did not really contemplate writing experimentally. More experimental writing could have included audio files or visual material co-produced with my informants; alternatively, it could have involved some sort of biographical account of my informants, which would have enabled the reader to see more of the positions from which they spoke from. Yet, as argued by Mary Fonow and Judith Cook, the ‘crisis in representation’ has led to a greater variety in the way in which academics represent their findings and think about methods, and refers to Lather (2001), who claims that ‘we cannot solve the crisis but only trouble any claims to accurate representation’ (Fonow & Cook, 2005, p. 2222). This is what I hoped to do with my emphasis on a messy, multi-sited, multi-method approach.
The three articles of this thesis investigate domestic labour and affective boundary work, migration and citizenship and the cultural representation and cultural conditions of au pairing. They each revolve around and investigate aspects of the au pair scheme. This is actually not a given: the articles, as well as previous literature on au pairs, clearly demonstrate that ‘au pairing’ is a black box that may refer to numerous arrangements; it is not, for example, simply a clear-cut visa category. While au pairing sometimes refers to a visa category, it may also be an informal agreement between two parties regarding some form of live-in domestic work and/or childcare (which is sometimes arranged by a third party with or without financial interests), or it may be a migration route, a gap year or merely flexible and affordable domestic work. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, these ambiguities, the label of ‘au pairing’ serves as an organising principle for this thesis. Part of what I have tried to do is to define what au pairing actually is at this particular time and place.
In the introductory chapter as well as in the articles of this thesis, I cover a number of aspects that play a part in shaping what au pairing is. In this conclusion, I discuss the overall argument of this thesis. In doing so, I return to the main findings of the three articles and discuss these in dialogue with the research questions: How is au pairing understood by au pairs? How are au pairing and the figure of the au pair produced in Norwegian media representations? How is au pairing constituted simultaneously as work and non-work? What forms does agency take for au pairs? And finally, which processes of marginalisation, inclusion and exclusion become active in producing au pairing and the figure of the au pair? I also return to the questions from the umbrella project (see part 1.1.,
‘Why au pair research?’) and discuss these in relation to the overarching issues of gender equality, home and nation. Towards the end of this part, I look at possible
‘solutions’ for the au pair scheme – given that there is something that needs resolving.