I heard the above quote on the podcast Fortunately which is by the wonderful Radio 4 presenters Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. It was from an email a listener had written in and explained her ‘imposter syndrome’ when it came to her job and men. That these men may not have been as qualified as her didn’t matter as they would ‘interrupt her experience with their confidence’. She had been the first female bomb disposal officer during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was a lightbulb moment for me and could not have come at a more fortuitous time.
I am a final year PhD student, due to submit mid-December, and was tackling the Reflexive section of my thesis. I am researching conservative Presbyterian churches in the Outer Hebrides (very niche, I know) and looking at how women navigate between the patriarchal church and equality driven social spheres of their lives. I have discovered that not only do women comply to the codes of religious practice, they choose to do so and actually uphold the patriarchy. After listening to the podcast, I realised that I too was upholding the patriarchy when I was carrying out my fieldwork.
I am, and here I am appropriating Phillip Pullman’s phrase, a Christian atheist. I love a good sermon, love a church wedding and a baptism but have no faith. I am interested in religion from a sociological perspective and have spent the past 14 years studying it. When I am collecting data, I go to church in the community and take part in weekly Fellowship. On more than one occasion I have had men trying to direct the course of my research. During my MA, one went so far as to ‘hide’ all my questionnaires. He told me that researching the history of the community was better. I ended up writing about fundamentalism on that particular island and his actions formed the basis of the research. To this day he doesn’t know and thinks I gave up my studies. During my PhD, whenever men tried to tell me what to do, who to talk to and what to observe, I actually agreed with them, I agreed to let their confidence interrupt my experience. I then totally ignored their direction and continued on as planned. However, I am upholding the patriarchy in this church. I allow those in positions of authority to take control, albeit for a short period of time. I allow them to believe that they have directed my work.
A previous supervisor said to me ‘you are a product of your age and gender’. Before anyone starts jumping up and down in indignation, he was right, although I would also add class to his list. I was at school in the 1970s (yes, I am that old) and girls were not encouraged to have a voice or to go on to university. I attended a comprehensive school in a large industrial town west of Glasgow and girls of my academic ability became nurses or secretaries or bookkeepers. Of my peer group seven of us went into nursing. Girls did not speak up in class and those who did were seen as troublemakers or tomboys.
This is not a man bashing blog. I also allow women to talk me down. Recently I was in my local pub and was talking (from a distance of 2 metres and sitting down) to a couple I vaguely know. On two occasions the woman contradicted what I had said. On both occasions I was talking about events that had happened to members of my family. On both occasions I had the experience of the events, she, however, had the confidence to tell me I was wrong. One concerned the date my dad was diagnosed as having COVID-19, the second was concerning a university offer my daughter had been given. She continually spoke over me saying I was wrong on both accounts, COVID tests were not available then and the university in question did not offer that course. I assured her that COVID tests were being carried out at the end of March and that LSE did indeed offer Social Anthropology (to be honest I began to doubt myself on that one and googled it on the way home) but she refused to listen.
So, where does that leave me? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? What is this blog about? I am aware of what I do and why. I hate confrontation and know that I will continue to allow those with the confidence to believe they have the authority and power to direct my work. They do not. It has made for an interesting Reflexive section and being self-aware is no bad thing. The object of this blog is to say to all student:, be aware and do not doubt yourself. Stand tall and say, ‘Let me interrupt your confidence with my experience’.