I was standing in front of one of the work stations at Mastercut, the hairdressing salon I did my ethnographic fieldwork at. Two or three weeks in the field and I started catching up the work routine as an assistant in the early shift. In my hand I had a round hand mirror which I cleaned with a cloth and window cleaner. Mavi, the other assistant, approached me. She brought up a topic that I thought I had finally left behind: the team vacation. Every year, Felix, the salon owner, would invite his employees for a one-week vacation. Like in the previous years, the destination was Mallorca, the Balearic island which was populated with German party tourists during the summer months.
The party tourists, however, were not the reason for my aversion to the topic of the team vacation. Only a few days after I had started my fieldwork at Mastercut, Felix asked me if I would be interested in joining the team on their vacation. After a lot of considering and talking to friends, I declined the generous offer. The main reason for not coming with the people from Mastercut to Mallorca was my partner Fabio. Mildly said, he did not feel comfortable with the idea of me going on vacations with a group of mostly gay hairdressers who use quite some drugs for partying. “It’s not that I don’t trust you”, Fabio insisted. And I believe that he was not afraid that I would betray him. His main concern was that I would get too much involved in the hairdressers’ extensive partying. “You know that it’s difficult for you to say ‘no’ to people.” Well, he had a point there. On top of that, I had only known the team of Mastercut for a few weeks.
Thus, I decided to not come with them. This, however, was not an easy decision. After a fight with Fabio about my plans to join the vacation, I wrote in my fieldwork diary: “I am pissed off, because he wants to restrict me. If he really trusts me – and he says that he does – then there’s no reason for him to fight against this vacation.” I did not use Fabio’s concern as the reason for not joining, but explained to Felix and the others that I did not feel comfortable with spending the money and free days they had worked for during the whole year. They did not really accept this explanation, but understood that I had made my decision – until things changed…
Here, I was standing again faced with the same issue: Mavi directed her piercing gaze at me and asked me to reconsider my decision. Florian, another hairdresser, had quit his work at Mastercut all of a sudden and thus his seat on the plane and his bed in the villa would remain empty. You could have a week of vacation for free! It would be a pity to let this opportunity pass, Mavi insisted.
And in some way, she was right: The opportunity I had in mind, though, was not a good time with drinks at the pool. In fact, I think that my idea of some nice days off diverged from most of the hairdressers’. Nevertheless, I could really get to know the team during the vacation. It was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the hairdressers’ personal lives and build the rapport, that other ethnographers could only dream of. And still, looking at Mavi who demanded a positive answer, Fabio appeared in the back of my mind, telling me that he wouldn’t prevent me from going, but that it was beyond his comprehension why I would be willing to go. After all, this was not the focus of my research, as he explained to me during our argument – a point that I rejected vehemently: everything was about my research! Torn between Mavi’s request to reconsider my decision and Fabio’s request not to go, I was standing there with the hand mirror still in my hand. Again I declined. This time, I explained to Mavi that Fabio’s concerns were another reason for not joining. Still not fully convinced, she let the matter there.
“Giving time”: Fabio-my-partner
Fast forward a month or two. Again, Fabio is present at the salon. But this time physically. As Florian had left the salon so suddenly, Felix had to employ a new hairdresser. Therefore, Tarik spent three days at Mastercut for trial work. On the one hand, he had to proof to Felix that he had the technical skills by cutting the hair of hair models. On the other, Felix wanted to see if Tarik “fits into the team”. A well-working team was an issue that was very important to Felix which the other hairdressers praised him for: He really had a feel for which person would work well – both technically and socially.
Fabio was one of Tarik’s hair models. After asking Felix for his permission, I had put down “Fabio (Max)” in one of the boxes in the calendar – in the column which had Tarik’s name written on top of it. For hair models, Felix only charged ten euros and this seemed to be a good opportunity to obtain a high quality haircut at a low price for Fabio.
Tarik spent ages cutting Fabio’s thick black hair. What felt like ages to me, was in fact one and a half hours. Too much for a short haircut, as Felix told Tarik later. He had to be able to do it in one hour, because that’s how the appointments were scheduled: one hour for haircuts, two for a haircut and coloring the hair roots, and three or four hours for more complicated procedures. After all, he had to be able to pay the salon’s bills, Felix explained. However, Felix granted Tarik that Fabio’s hair was “difficult” (because of its thickness) and that Tarik had only cut it with scissors, not with the hair clipper.
When Tarik had finished the cut, he called Felix to check the result. Felix benevolently examined Fabio’s head. Still, he had some remarks. He suggested that Tarik should slice through the top of Fabio’s hair with his scissors half opened in a diagonal direction – from the back to the front and from the right side to the left. While showing Tarik how to do it, he explained that thinning out the hair on the top, while simultaneously giving it a direction “saves the customer some time” before he had to come for his next appointment. Fabio approved Felix’s explanation by vehemently nodding with his head: He very much hates that after three or at best four weeks he has to go to the hairdresser again, because his hair would start becoming wavy at the fringes. And he really dislikes those waves. Encouraged by Fabio’s reaction, Felix expanded this point and explained to Tarik that for customers with Fabio’s hair structure, an additional week in which their hair looks good (or acceptable at least) was like a gift: “You give them time.”
My-self-in-a-relationship was not always opposed to my-self-as-a-researcher. Quite the contrary: Through Fabio I gained helpful insights about hairdressing at Mastercut. His appointment taught me that hairdressers can “give time” while constantly being pressured by economic time scales. Tarik can give Fabio more time by using a specific cutting technique. At the same time, he can’t spend more than one hour for “giving time” – even when taking Fabio’s “difficult” hair structure into consideration.
But Fabio’s remarks also gave me other insights: “I would never come to Mastercut, if I had to pay the full price”, he told me one morning. Forty euros for a haircut?! No way! However, he acknowledged that Tarik was doing a great job. He could feel and see the difference between Tarik’s cut and when having his hair cut at a cut-and-go chain. This difference was not just noticeable in the cut’s “durability” – four instead of three weeks before returning –, but also in the result right now. Tarik’s cut was better in the sense that Fabio’s hair did not look like a hedgehog when he left Mastercut. And still, this difference in quality was not worth the price difference. “Having more time” and not looking like a hedgehog were not the only points of consideration. There was also the issue of money.
Fabio’s presence not only gave me theoretical insights about time at the hairdressing salon and different imperatives that guide a customer’s selection of a salon. Through his observations I also became aware of my position in the team of Mastercut. One day – even before he had his first appointment with Tarik – he stopped by to surprise me. When he told Felix at the reception desk that he was my partner, Felix was overly enthusiastic: “Mäxchen, you have a visitor!”, he shouted through the salon. An instance that Fabio would describe as “flamboyant”. According to Fabio’s reporting, Felix then turned to him again and explained: “That’s how we call him: Mäxchen.” So, I was not just Max, the guy in a committed relationship, and Max, the researcher. Fabio, in reporting about this short incidence, also pointed me to my position as Mäxchen, which is the diminutive form of “Max” and could be translated as “little Max”.
Working as an assistant at Mastercut, I was positioned at the bottom of the salon’s hierarchy – also when looking at the payrolls. I was the one cleaning the hairdressers’ hand mirrors and I was the one swiping away the hair on the floor, when they rinsed out their customers’ hair at the washing basins. Also, among the other two assistants I was the new one whom they had to show “how things work here”.
But Mäxchen not only points to the hierarchies at Mastercut. The name also shows that I was perceived as the “young one” with my 24 years. When it came to matters of sex – and it often came to these matters – being the young one turned into being seen as the “innocent boy”. This became most apparent when Cedric, another hairdresser, made a joke about the name of my hometown, Gaggenau. “Are you into gagging?”, he asked. I was hesitant to answer, because I did not know what “gagging” was. (Only afterwards he explained to me that “gagging” was another word for deep throating, when orally stimulating a penis). Reiner, with his thirty-something years the oldest stylist at the salon, intervened and told Cedric “not to corrupt me”.
Becoming hybrid with the field
What the presented instances show is that “the field”, but also “the researcher” aren’t always easy to pinpoint. First of all, the field is not a static unit, or a location even, that can be entered and left as one pleases. Even though the clearly delineated physical space of a hairdressing salon might suggest the contrary, I did not always leave my field when I left the salon. And sometimes I didn’t enter it, when coming through the front door, either. The salon in Berlin Friedrichshain, which I called “Mastercut” should rather be imagined as a tuft of hair made up of different strands – in the form of customers, styles, tools, training heads – reaching out of the tuft and coming together in its center. And so, I encountered “my field” during breakfast at my flat, when I looked at Fabio’s tousled hair or when I (rather unsuccessfully) applied my newly acquired hair product to a friend’s curly hair.
The argument that the field is not a static unit is also an important point in considering my positionality in the field. Where to position myself, if the field doesn’t spread out in front of me out-there? And is there one authentic self-as-researcher-in-the-field? Criticizing the essentializing implications of doing “native” anthropology, Narayan (1993, 681) uses the term “enacting hybridity” to point out that “we are all incipiently bi- (or multi-) cultural in that we belong to worlds both personal and professional, whether in the field or at home”. My writing about Fabio’s presence at the salon shows that this hybridity – between personal and professional – is ambivalent: my position as a researcher could become strengthened through Fabio’s presence, such as when Fabio’s presences there allows me to learn new things about my field. But my-self-as-a-researcher could also clash with me being in a relationship.
Of course, there are always many more positions at play – Max the gay man, Max the German, Max with blond hair, Max the student, Max who does not use chemical drugs – but here, it might suffice to attend to the constant negotiations one has to engage in between one’s private life and one’s position as a researcher. However, the distinction between private and professional is not that easy in anthropological fieldwork which explicitly includes the researcher’s subjectivity as an – or maybe even the – important tool through which knowledge is generated. Hence, being professional means to engage in social interactions as a person – with all their senses, emotions, and relations that go beyond the field. And yet, in my argument with Fabio, personal (Max-in-a-relationship) and professional (Max-the-researcher) emerged as two opposing versions of myself, making my field a matter of concern for my relationship and vice versa.
So, this is my last point: “Negotiating one’s position in the field” might not be the best way to describe what was happening in my depictions about my position at Mastercut. It was not always a conscious act in which I decided which role would be most suitable to play in a situation: Using my-self as a resource or being professional. I was also made Mäxchen or Max-the-researcher by an assemblage of different elements coming together in a specific moment. Therefore, for me, it’s not just about us being hybrid as if we were a mosaic of many small pieces – as if the ethnographer’s self could be fragmented and then put together again (Kondo 1986). It’s about us becoming hybrid with the field. (Here, I borrow Haraway’s term “becoming with”, which she uses to describe the co-constitutive encounter of species “in which all the actors become who they are in the dance of relating”, Haraway 2008, 25).
The researcher and their field should not be thought of as two separated entities: A person (that might be fragmented, but still one) and a site (that might have fuzzy fringes, but still hangs together). Instead, field and researcher constantly shape each other in their relationship. Thus, depending on which kind of hybridity is enacted, “the field” can become a field that troubles one’s relationship or that offers haircuts to one’s partner. It can be a field in which interlocutors joke about your sexual innocence or in which they protect you because of the very same characteristic.
Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kondo, Dorinne K. 1986. “Dissolution and reconstitution of self: Implications for anthropological epistemology.” Cultural Anthropology 1 (1), 74-88.
Narayan, Kirin. 1993. “How native is a ‘native’ anthropologist?” American Anthropologist 95 (3), 671-686.