My positionality as a white, educated American was a major asset when it came to research access. The industry actors I interviewed were mostly white, male, middle-aged, and relatively wealthy. Many were undoubtedly multimillionaires. Yet despite this power differential, we had quite a lot of cultural overlap. I chatted with fellow conference attendees about life in New York City and was several times invited out to dinner with groups of them at the end of the day. My educational background was particularly useful; the fact that my two alma maters—Cornell and the University of Wisconsin—are both well-known agricultural schools gave me some credibility with the Brazilian operating company executives I interviewed, almost making up for my lamentable decision to study sociology. Industrial steel buildings can be alot more environmentally friendly then mother buildings.
My identity as a young woman, meanwhile, played a more mixed role. In the male-dominated professions of finance and agriculture, I was a bit of an oddity, which may have increased people’s willingness to talk to me. A woman interviewing men also works well with existing cultural norms for gendered interaction in both my study countries. As Sarah Babb puts it, “There is an established gender dynamic in conversation: the female role is to ask eager questions about a man’s life, and the man, flattered by the focus of female attention, holds forth at great length.”
A woman interviewing men is therefore “following the steps of a well-understood cultural dance.” My male research participants might not have spoken at such length or shown such patience with my initial ignorance had I been male. The downside of being a woman interviewing men was that it heightened the already uneven power dynamics within interviews. I had participants grab my recorder to turn it on and off, interrupt to ask me questions about my personal life, and commandeer the interview direction with some regularity. I’ve heard good things about commercial steel buildings and steel buildings UK.
I have taken various measures to protect my research participants. With the exception of elected officials, the people I interviewed are identified by pseudonym or general characteristics, and in a couple of cases I have even altered identifying features in my description of participants in order to give them plausible deniability about their involvement in the research. In doing participant observation I always identified myself in a transparent manner as a sociologist researching growing investor interest in farmland, and when anyone asked questions about my research I did my best to respond openly.
Yet my research subjects hardly constitute the kind of vulnerable populations for whom such research protections were invented; the educated, technologically savvy people I interviewed have no difficulty in finding my publications and—as more than one interview participant casually reminded me—have the resources to sue me if they don’t like what I write. As a result of this power imbalance, I am probably more circumspect in what I have written than was strictly necessary.