Making sense of discomfort: the performance of masculinity and (counter-)transference

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  • 1 Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
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This article features a case study about the author’s two research encounters with an emotionally reluctant male participant who seemed to experience discomfort and who also made the author feel uncomfortable. To make sense of this mutual experience of discomfort, the article explores the intersubjective exchange between the interviewer and her participant through the application of the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘defence’ and ‘(counter-)transference’. The article argues that the mutual discomfort resulted from the participant’s desire to perform masculinity in ways that fit the Vietnamese hegemonic masculinity and from the researcher’s inability to identify this desire during the interviews. By locating the participant’s engagement with hegemonic masculinity within the sociocultural context of contemporary Vietnam, and investigating the resulting discomfort, the article demonstrates how applying a psychosocial approach to a research relationship can be fruitful. It shows that such an approach can help researchers acquire unexpected insights into the psychological and social meanings of research encounters beyond an analysis of just the text, thus adding to methodological discussions about qualitative interviews.

Abstract

This article features a case study about the author’s two research encounters with an emotionally reluctant male participant who seemed to experience discomfort and who also made the author feel uncomfortable. To make sense of this mutual experience of discomfort, the article explores the intersubjective exchange between the interviewer and her participant through the application of the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘defence’ and ‘(counter-)transference’. The article argues that the mutual discomfort resulted from the participant’s desire to perform masculinity in ways that fit the Vietnamese hegemonic masculinity and from the researcher’s inability to identify this desire during the interviews. By locating the participant’s engagement with hegemonic masculinity within the sociocultural context of contemporary Vietnam, and investigating the resulting discomfort, the article demonstrates how applying a psychosocial approach to a research relationship can be fruitful. It shows that such an approach can help researchers acquire unexpected insights into the psychological and social meanings of research encounters beyond an analysis of just the text, thus adding to methodological discussions about qualitative interviews.

Introduction

How does an interviewer get someone to open up? I never asked myself this question before I started conducting interviews for my research project in mid-2019. I had assumed that if people were interested enough to participate, they would eagerly tell me memorable stories about their lives. It turned out to be true for most participants, but not for others, who showed reluctance when faced with personal questions.

Featuring a case study of two encounters with one such unwilling participant who caused me to feel lingering unease, this article discusses the participant’s reluctance to open up and the emotions evoked by this reluctance.  The article argues that our mutual discomfort resulted from the participant’s desire to perform masculinity in ways that fit the Vietnamese hegemonic masculinity and from my inability to identify and engage with this desire during the interviews. By locating the participant’s engagement with hegemonic masculinity within the sociocultural context of contemporary Vietnam, and examining the resulting discomfort, the article demonstrates how applying a psychosocial approach to a research relationship can be fruitful. Such an approach can help researchers acquire unexpected insights into the psychological and social meanings of research encounters beyond an analysis of just the text, thus adding to methodological discussions about qualitative interviews.

Before explaining the method and discussing the case study, I introduce some background about the call for scholarly attention towards interpersonal research dynamics and the psychoanalytic concept of ‘(counter-)transference’. I draw attention to Sigmund Freud’s development of ‘transference’ and the contemporary approach to the concept, which help explain the discomfort experienced by the participant and myself.

Psychoanalytic background

Social scientists have recently paid greater attention to the relationship between the researcher and the participant, or the intersubjective experience of this relationship, and how it plays out in the interview process. Hollway and Jefferson (2000), Clarke (2002), and Gadd (2004) have urged interviewers to explore the roles of both parties in co-producing data and to attend to obviously felt and unconscious experience throughout a research relationship.  The unacknowledged emotional exchange during such a relationship is known as transference and countertransference.

Sigmund Freud, who conceived the concept of ‘transference’ (Ellman, 1991), described it as a situation in which analysands unconsciously reproduce patterns of past relationships in interactions with the analyst: ‘[T]he transference is itself only a bit of repetition, and that repetition is the transference of the forgotten past not only on to the physician, but also on to all the other aspects of the current situation’ (Freud, 1991 [1914]: 56–7). Freud (1991 [1912]) drew a distinction between positive and negative transference, explaining that the former is manifested by the analysand’s affectionate feelings towards the analyst and the latter by their hostile feelings. According to Freud, a psychoanalytic process can be overwhelmed by either positive or negative transference, but the two can co-exist, which is shown in the analysand’s ambivalent feelings towards the analyst (Freud, 1991 [1912]; 1991 [1914]). Freud (1991 [1912]; 1991 [1914]) saw transference as a patient’s resistance, exhibited in symptoms such as their attempt to discontinue their flow of thoughts and feelings, or a reluctance to recall the past in clinical contexts. Nowadays, the concept of transference has been broadened to include all of the analysand’s conscious and unconscious feelings towards the analyst. Further, transference is now understood to occur in everyday relationships rather than clinical contexts alone (Ellman, 1991; Skogstad, 2018).

Judith Butler (2005: 51) hints at the ubiquity of transference by posing the question: ‘Can there be telling without transference?’ She emphasises the role of the intersubjective context in the construction of personal narratives, arguing that ‘the “I” is narrated but also posited and articulated within the context of the scene of address’ (2005: 51). Butler (2005: 81) highlights the performative nature of narration: ‘to tell the story of oneself is already to act’ (for an audience). The case study in this article demonstrates how a participant performed a particular self (in this case, Vietnamese hegemonic masculinity) in response to my questioning and how his desire to maintain this performance resulted in transference.

Attention to transference leads to countertransference, which Freud rarely discussed but implied by exploring the analyst’s reactions towards the analysand’s transference (Ellman, 1991). Countertransference is widely understood as an analyst’s feelings towards their analysand, often unacknowledged until things are reflected on later, particularly as reactions towards the analysand’s transference (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973). Psychoanalytic writers such as Bird (1972) and Brenner (1985) posit that countertransference is, like transference, ubiquitous in everyday interactions.  As Hueso (2012: 3) puts it, ‘everybody has had the experience of inexplicably disliking another person, or being induced with feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the presence of another person’. Scholars in various disciplines have argued for the importance of analysing countertransference alongside transference (Walkerdine et al, 2001; Ewing 2006; Johanssen, 2016), requiring researchers’ openness to exposing how feelings and attitudes affect research encounters. To respond to such a call, I also reveal my own feelings (countertransference) in response to my participant’s attitude.

The study, method and context

My research project is on the Vietnamese reception of soft masculinities in romantic South Korean television dramas (K-dramas), a genre that contributes significantly to the ‘Korean Wave’, the global popularity of South Korean pop culture. ‘Soft masculinities’ is a new concept hybridising Western metrosexual trends and pan-East Asian ‘pretty boy’ images characterised by entertainers’ feminised youthful looks (Jung, 2011). The representation of soft masculinities in K-dramas and Korean pop music (K-pop) has become popular worldwide since their emergence in the 2000s (Elfving-Hwang, 2017). This commercialised and feminised construction of masculinity arguably challenges traditional ideals of masculinity with its display of male vulnerability and gentleness and attention to looks, which cater to the female gaze. In Vietnam, soft masculinities have met with both (mostly female) celebration and backlash from men who feel that soft masculinities threaten traditional binary ideals of gender (Rydstrøm, 2004; Nguyen and Harris, 2009). Under the Vietnamese patriarchal framework, men are expected to exhibit sexual and financial prowess, restrain vulnerable emotions and demonstrate self-determination (Nghe et al, 2003; Institute for Social Development Studies, 2020;  Vu, 2020). Also, men’s excessive attention to looks can be frowned upon or viewed as a sign of homosexuality, which remains stigmatised (Horton, 2014).  The present case study helps explain this backlash through its discussion of a participant’s changed attitudes towards soft masculinities: from his open embrace of the trend as a teenager, to his rejection of it as an adult.

For data collection and interpretation, I employed the ‘free association narrative interview’ (FANI) method developed by Hollway and Jefferson (2000). This method, based on a Freudian ‘free association’ approach, encourages participants to talk about whatever comes to their mind, especially regarding experiences that helped to shape their worldview. Following Hollway and Jefferson (2000), I attended to omissions, contradictions and repetitions in participants’ narratives to study their conscious and unconscious feelings. I also traced parts of informants’ biographies to understand whether, why, and how they enjoy soft masculinities and romance in K-dramas.

Participants, whose privacy is protected through pseudonyms, were informed beforehand via an information sheet that interview questions would concern their lived experiences and that they could choose not to answer a question or stop the interview at any time.  They were selected for their familiarity with K-dramas even if, like Tài, the subject of this article, they no longer watched them. Ethical approval was granted by the Victoria University of Wellington’s Human Ethics Committee. The interviews, based in Hanoi (the capital of Vietnam), were conducted in Vietnamese; translations of excerpts are my own. In what follows, I discuss both the content and performance of Tài’s narrative, which was influenced by his ideals of hegemonic masculinity, and the sociocultural factors behind his performance.

The research narrative

When we met in 2019, Tài was an unmarried 32-year-old language translator, to whom I was introduced by a mutual acquaintance. He can speak Korean and has worked for Korean companies in Vietnam. Although Tài enjoyed K-dramas during his school and university years, he stopped watching them when he graduated.

Tài adhered to a hegemonic ideal of masculinity (Connell, 1995), which emphasises maturity, autonomy and competence. Stressing the importance of self-determination, Tài said he hated weak-minded (nhu nhược) people who are unable to make decisions for their own lives. He asserted: “I’m an independent person, [I] always want to lead my own life.” Tài showed signs of unease in discussing soft masculinities, which he idolised as a teenager, but no longer identified with. “I’m beyond the age for that,” he said, explaining that soft masculinities are too feminine for him to enjoy now.

During our two interviews,  Tài usually responded instantly, sometimes interrupting my questioning, and showed an obvious reluctance to discuss anything that may trigger emotional memories. Early in the first interview, when inquired about his feelings towards male characters in K-dramas,  Tài discussed fashion trends that Korean actors brought to Vietnam. He said he used to admire some Korean actors as “icons of beauty” but stressed that that was in the past. To encourage Tài to recall the past, I asked him to talk more about those ‘icons of beauty’. He then spoke about how Korean beauty trends arrived in Vietnam and how Korean popular culture replaced that of Hong Kong.

To move the conversation away from trends, which I viewed as a superficial theme, I encouraged Tài to discuss the male characters:

Me:‘Besides the looks, what about the male characters’ personality and qualities?’
Tài (immediately answers):‘I find male characters in Korean dramas … I have to say … they’re very … romantic and sentimental. The actors are very good at crying, they know how to make it real, sentimentality is abundant. I feel that it’s a change. Previously when people talked about masculinity, they’d think men must be tough, muscular for example, but then … The images, when Korean actors arrived, they changed. I observed that in my class [at high school], some friends totally adopted the Korean style. Their looks, personality … everything was Koreanised.’

(Excerpt 1, first interview)
My question aimed at encouraging Tài to talk about characters, not actors. I was hoping that Tài would discuss the personality of characters with whom he might have identified, but he went on to critique actors’ performance. Examples of such critical commentary from Tài were abundant. At several points, he explained K-dramas’ strategy of making viewers identify with characters as highly commercial. He elucidated that producers needed to create sentimentality that appeals to people, discussing others’ feelings rather than his own. When I tried again to lead him back to affective experiences by asking for scenes that left an impression on him, Tài answered immediately:

‘I think … let’s say Winter Sonata. When the male and female character have sentimental scenes of separation for example, both cry a lot. The male character is very quick to cry, sometimes [pronoun missing] found it moving, even wanted to cry along, but now as I think back, I ask myself how it could be possible.’

(Excerpt 2, first interview)

Tài mentioned his past feelings here, but he did so in comparison with his current attitude of disidentification. He went on to critically discuss Korean actors’ crying performance:

Me:‘So what do you feel about romanticism in Korean dramas?’
Tài:‘Like I said, romanticism in Korean dramas is the kind that brings audiences to tears. It takes … what to say, the audience’s sympathy, sometimes it combines with the beauty of the scenes and soundtrack, to bring audiences’ emotions to a peak. For example, in Winter Sonata, romanticism is when they go skiing, make a snowman together. The location is Nami Island, the soundtrack is also very nice, captivating people. Although back then I hadn’t learnt Korean, I still hummed the tune. And the scenes are beautiful. Those are the factors that lift spirits up, making people feel good and become drawn to the drama.’

(Excerpt 3, first interview)

Tài never talked about a scene or character that left a strong impression and instead focused on actors’ fashion style or their performance, or the settings and music. His tendency to critically discuss the dramas is reminiscent of middle-class participants in Seiter’s (1990) research, who maintained a distance by delivering ‘mini-lectures’ as they discussed a genre they perceived as mediocre (Seiter, 1990: 64). Tài’s reference to mass reception resonates with Seiter’s (1990: 60) contention that ‘people often compare their own television viewing to that of the imagined mass audience, one that is more interested, more duped, more entertained, more gullible than they are’.

In the second interview, as I again invited Tài to recall past feelings by asking about scenes that he had related to, Tài said he did not remember. While Tài’s statement was probably truthful, he did not take time to pause and reflect on this question, and therefore was unable to engage with past emotions, including moments that brought him close to tears (excerpt 2). The way Tài responded seemed to communicate that he was now mature, could not be easily manipulated, and would not waste time on romantic fantasy. His speech seemed symptomatic of a defence mechanism known as ‘intellectualisation’, or ‘isolation’, identified by Freud in his 1894 paper ‘The neuro-psychoses of defense’ (Vaillant, 1977). Schimek (1968: 576) describes the defence as follows:

Intellectualisation is manifested by a general style of thinking and verbalisation characterised by an extreme emphasis on objective judgment, technical knowledge, a need to view everything as an intellectual task, and a preference for dealing with words and abstractions. The maintenance of such a detached, impersonal, precise, and dissecting approach allows avoidance of the immediate raw impact of the more affective and subjective aspects of one’s experience.

While Tài was reluctant to talk about feelings related to his past viewing experiences, he showed greater reluctance to discuss more personal issues. At the beginning of the second interview, when I asked, ‘Can you tell me a bit more about your family?’, he said he remembered talking about it already – the first signal that he did not want to discuss the topic. When I explained that I needed more ‘background’, Tài said in an uneasy tone: “I could only tell you what I did, I don’t … I don’t like to talk too much about my family.” This refusal, manifest in double negation (“I don’t … I don’t”), caused me discomfort, possibly because it showed both a resistance that hindered free association and a lack of trust. His defensiveness made me feel like he was defending himself against me as an intruder, as if I was threatening him with private questions. I wished to be seen as a friendly researcher who conducted interviews professionally and ethically, but Tài’s defensive response made me feel otherwise.

In response, I smiled awkwardly – probably to hide my discomfort – and explained that he could say whatever he was comfortable enough to say and keep what made him uncomfortable to himself. Tài seemed to relax a little and started talking a bit about his sisters, but then he wandered to unemotional facts about himself instead of discussing his family. This evasion showed that family was a very sensitive topic to Tài. This sensitivity might be related to the fact that his parents made a living from farming – a fact he told me only when I specifically asked what his parents did. It means that, unlike him – well educated and middle class – his parents may be classified as working class. However, class was not necessarily the issue, as there was a deeper reason that Tài later revealed: his father had passed away five years previously, which he remarked was a traumatic turning point in his life. Tài disclosed this information when I least expected it: during the second interview when I asked about his change of attitude towards K-dramas. In the first interview, Tài spoke of “my parents” as a unit as if his father were still alive.

Me:‘You mentioned moving scenes that you used to enjoy, but that you are no longer interested in, you’re beyond the age to enjoy them. Tell me what made you stop relating to them?’
Tài:‘Actually … Five years ago my father passed away. It’s a … let’s say a big incident in my life that makes me stop seeing life [through a] rosy lens. I feel … Those entertaining things … they are just … their jobs. Their jobs are to amuse people, to entertain them. It’s similar to the tourism industry in some respect. But … those people who do such work, they really work very hard, it’s not fun for them. When I understand it, I think the entertainment is no longer purely fun.’

(Excerpt 4, second interview)

This excerpt reveals the impact of his father’s death on Tài. Roseneil (2014: 25) addresses this substantial impact of parental loss: ‘[I]f we belong first to our parents, when parents die, questions of belonging are thrown open.’ Such disruption in one’s sense of self may cause the subject to yearn for a coherent identity that fits their changed living circumstance and that warrants a more secure self-perception. And the changed circumstance is that, with the loss of his father, Tài became the man of the household.

Tài emphasised his obligation to his family as the only son – a feeling common in Vietnam due to a Confucian emphasis on filial duty and men’s role as trụ cột gia đình, or the ‘family backbone’ (Rydstrøm and Drummond, 2004). Despite being his parents’ youngest child (he has two older sisters), Tài is the eldest son of his extended family, which includes his own family and relatives who live nearby – a position deemed important due to a traditional Vietnamese emphasis on patrilineage (Rydstrøm, 2002; Horton and Rydstrøm, 2011). His sense of filial duty became much more important with his father, the patriarch of the family, gone and his older sisters married off. Such obligation might have given Tài a sense of importance, yet also put pressure on him, creating a need to feel and act mature. He might have felt the pressure acutely by living in close proximity to relatives and being under their constant gaze. It is not uncommon to observe Vietnamese men change after a turning point in which their role in the family and society shifts. Minh T.N. Nguyen (2018), for example, shows how her young working-class male informants squandered money and engaged in risky leisure activities before marriage but changed to a more responsible life afterwards. These men adjusted their ways of living to better fit their new socially expected role as the family backbone (Nguyen, 2018).

Tài’s desire to be seen as a family man also manifested itself in his actions during the interviews at his home: he kept the light off to avoid disturbing his grandmother’s nap as she slept nearby (we met in the afternoon) and tended to his young cousin’s studies. Applying Goffman (1959) and Butler (1990)’s performativity theory to this case, Tài was presenting himself as a responsible family man. As Butler (1990) argues, to reproduce the perceived ‘truth’ of gender, one needs to frequently perform one’s determined gender. Tài’s overdetermined identification with the self-image of a responsible family man seems to have made him distance himself from ‘feminine’ romantic K-dramas and soft masculinities, and from his past self, who indulged in these dramas.  Tài’s disillusionment with love appears to have played no less important a role in his changed attitude towards romance, which he again revealed with signs of emotional evasion:

Me:‘You say that you think no one should depend on anyone. That makes me think about Korean dramas, because in there the characters live wholeheartedly for their lover, even die for their lover.  What do you feel about that?’
Tài:‘I used to find it so wonderful, now I find it ridiculous. First, I find it unrealistic. I think only parents are irreplaceable. Or siblings who share the same blood. Anything else is replaceable. [Missing pronoun] can love someone and then love someone else. Circumstances change, emotions change. At university I used to like someone, liked very much, was even crazy about that person. Kind of. Several years later, I calmed down and changed. I think oh, such a fool, how could you like [missing object] so much. Because I’m the realistic type. I used to face incidents in life, so now I find those things … those things are nothing … And the Koreans are very pragmatic. If a relationship is not beneficial, they’ll break up and it’s normal. I think it only exists in dramas.’
Me:‘Umm … You mentioned the incidents that made you change. If … can you share a little about that?’
Tài:‘First it’s when breaking up with ex-girlfriend,1 for example. Second, it’s … after family member passed away, for example. Then I was depressed, stressed, for example … or because I quit my job. When I quit my job, I realised that having a stable job can be so important. Women are pragmatic now, they may date but don’t want to marry someone aimless, without stability. For example, two people date but when they graduate from university, the woman marries someone else with better conditions. I witnessed my friend in such a situation. Can’t say they’re a bad woman.’

(Excerpt 5, second interview)

Tài implied that, to maintain a relationship, it is more important for a man to be financially stable than romantic.  This view reflects a social reality: recent research shows that many Vietnamese women prioritise men’s ability to make money over other qualities in judging them as a good partner (Nguyen and Trang, 2015; Warren, 2017: 44). Tài was not overtly critical of female pragmatism but adapted himself to fit such a pragmatic attitude. He no longer wanted to be a financially unstable and aimless man who a woman might date but not marry. He reflected on his romantic past self with reproach (“what a fool”) and saw his previous emotional investment in love as a sign of weakness.  Tài’s cautious approach to commercially deceptive K-dramas may stem from a feeling of getting betrayed by a fantasy that promised him eternal and unconditional love. Life as he had experienced it apparently had not promised him the ‘one true love’ – a woman who would never leave him like in a Korean drama. The emotional anguish caused by previous breakup(s) might have been deeper than Tài wanted to fully acknowledge.

Tài associated soft masculinities with not only femininity but also immaturity and a lack of pragmatism, which did not correspond to his self-image of a heterosexual adult. It is important to note that soft masculinities do not run counter to the prevailing ideal of men as a breadwinner and social leader; K-dramas even foster this ideal by featuring heroes that embody wealth, privilege and talent. However, while representing the ‘dream men’ in women’s fantasy, soft masculinities belong to a fantasy world detached from reality (Maliangkay and Song, 2015) and therefore are not taken seriously by many viewers. Furthermore, male characters’ narcissistic attention to looks and wholehearted devotion to their lover may lead to their being perceived as feminine and weak in a culture that emphasises men’s strength and emotional restraint (Nghe et al, 2003; Vu, 2020). For some people, alternative gender constructions like soft masculinities may be seen as ‘threats’ that disrupt the traditional dyadic ideal of gender. Iida (2005: 69) helps explain this defensive attitude:

Perhaps, those who strongly react against unconventional gender practices have their own good reason to be fearful of the dissidents, for their gender identities are immediately dependent upon the undisrupted operation of phallocentric discourse. This dependency, moreover, could be more than just psychological, but may also involve total personal well-being, for the gender identification via the symbolic penetrates the formation of sexuality and thus personhood.

Let us return to the evidence of emotional evasion I mentioned earlier: whenever Tài revealed his vulnerability, these revelations came with signs of defence. In excerpt 4, he revealed how his father’s death had had profound effects on him, then quickly switched to a critical discussion of entertainment industries. In excerpt 5, Tài changed the topic whenever he revealed something personal and said “family member passed away” instead of “my father passed away” to soften the emotional impact. He kept saying “for example”, possibly to impersonalise what he discussed.

Tài’s reluctance to relive the past and past interests (romantic ideas and K-dramas) might have been his guarding against an old self, whom he saw as a naïve teenager. His unwillingness to recall past feelings, manifest in his quick responses, might have been a way to construct a stable sense of self, which may have become important following his father’s death and the experience of growing up. Connecting with a former self would risk him being less of an adult.

By remaining fully engaged with his present self,   Tài might have felt more confident about who he thought he was at present. It was to preserve a sense of ontological security and a feeling of complacence with his existence.  Tài indeed stressed that he hated losing control over his life. His old self was certainly one with less autonomy and power.  Yet, the following excerpt reveals other important aspects of his past:

Me:‘You said you used to like some actors, you wanted to do the same hairstyle. Now you no longer like it, you find them feminine … What made you change, what made you stop relating to such images?’
Tài (immediately answers):‘First, it’s because I go to work. I go to work and find … back in my school years, I found everything simple, fun. Back then I had plenty of time to have fun. Now I work, I am more realistic, have less time to wander, to entertain, to listen to music and to watch movies, to imagine. Second, I’ve had some encounter with their culture, the Korean workplace environment for example. I find it not as beautiful as in dramas, not as rosy.’

(Excerpt 6, second interview)

Although Tài refused to connect with his old self, his old self enjoyed a privilege he currently could not afford: a carefree life with greater room for imagination, a life in which possibly no big incidents had happened and shattered his rosy lens, and a life in which his “irreplaceable” father was present.  Tài explained his situation further: “I no longer afford time to, I’m no longer allowed to live a carefree, full-of-day-dreams life, since I started going to work, it’s become totally different.” It seems that Tài did not allow himself to enjoy life the way he used to. Notably,  Tài repeatedly stressed time constraints, stating that watching K-dramas was time-consuming. By such emphasis, Tài showed that he was leading an adult’s life and moving away from a carefree past.

(Counter-)transference

My psychosocial analysis thus far reveals how Tài showed discomfort in response to my affective questions due to his desire to perform hegemonic masculinity. Only through later reflections did I realise the depth of his discomfort and desire, which caused Tài to become defensive against my invitation to emotionally engage with his old self and me to also experience discomfort. This section discusses the nuances of our mutual discomfort, or our experience of (counter-)transference.

Tài’s emotional reluctance caused me to feel unease and his quick responses, which indicated a shallow emotional investment, disappointed me. Tài’s way of responding, which appeared more about showing his knowledge than providing personal narrative, may have been his unconscious attempt to compete with me, who was supposed to hold knowledge about Korean pop culture as a female researcher.  The way Tài led the encounters also made me feel uneasy, as he made it clear that participating in my study was not his priority. As both interviews took place in his house, sometimes he would go to another room to check on his cousin’s homework. He set the interviews to take place mostly in the lounge, next to the entrance door where family members occasionally passed by. Once, while responding to a question,  Tài stopped to ask his aunt about her son’s studies. In the second interview, to allow the cousin to concentrate (without the noise from our conversation), Tài moved us from the lounge to another room where his grandmother slept nearby on a sofa. He did not turn on the light when I commented it was a bit dark to avoid disturbing his grandmother’s nap.  These arrangements were made even though I had asked him before we met to make sure that the interview would take place in a quiet environment. Those interruptions made free association, which aims for the smooth flows of thoughts, seem impossible. Tài’s attempt to filter his feelings added further difficulty.  This is an example of how interviews may not go as well as expected due to factors such as background noise or unwilling participation.

Tài’s reminder of the time limit, while understandable considering his busy life, made me feel like an unwelcome guest who needed to leave early. As we met in his house, which was quite a distance from my own, the contrast between Tài’s position and my own was obvious:  Tài was inside his comfort zone, and I was outside mine. In meeting a man I never knew before in his home, I was placed in an anxiety-provoking situation. Because of the factors presented, I did not feel that I received adequate support. My disappointment may have been deepened by the fact that participants before Tài were more accommodating, a fact from which I formed expectations I should not have had.

Further, Tài’s quick responses made me feel that he wanted to get the interview over and done with, unlike most participants who showed little hurriedness. Tài seemed to see the interview as a task to finish so that more important matters could be dealt with. How Tài led the encounters can be explained as his attempt to present himself as a busy adult and assert authority in a seemingly asymmetric relationship between a researcher and a participant (Abell et al, 2006) in which the former may appear to have greater authority. To cope with this possibly felt lack of power, Tài may have tried to assert his power by leading conversations the way he wanted rather than the way I wanted.

I felt most uncomfortable at one point when Tài questioned my research. Early in the first interview, when asked, ‘What makes a good man, in your opinion?’, he responded, ‘You mean in Korean dramas?’ I explained that it was a general question and he could answer whatever way he wanted, and he said: ‘What strange research, are you studying Korean dramas or something else?’ I remember feeling as if the way I conducted my study was being questioned. I found myself at the receiving end of an unconscious form of aggression, which can be identified as negative transference.

In line with Tài’s desire to perform hegemonic masculinity, the following possibilities may explain his behaviour. First, Tài might have felt unease being confronted with affective questions that could make him look vulnerable to a woman he barely knew. Within my study, gender proved to be an important factor, as I had much less difficulty eliciting responses to personal questions from women than from men. Men may find it uncomfortable to share personal problems with a member of the opposite sex. Tài may also have felt disappointed when I did not ask much about his knowledge about South Korea. He discussed the Korean culture, including the working environment and people, numerous times without me asking. Perhaps he expected me to ask for his comments on those unemotional topics. When it turned out that I desired other kinds of information, which he was not prepared to share, he had reactions that, retrospectively, were understandable.

Tài might have seen his relevance to my study in his knowledge about South Korea. He probably expected to be approached somewhat as an adviser rather than a research subject.  The former seems to be of greater power, while the latter involves sharing private information. I would not say, however, that he just wanted to show off. As I was a stranger before we were introduced, he might have genuinely wanted to help. Tài probably did not read the information sheet carefully before we met. Mentally preparing before one takes up a position is important, and the lack of readiness, coupled with the possible disappointment over not having a chance to show knowledge, may have caused Tài to respond as he did. Tài’s desire to assert authority and his greater eagerness to show knowledge rather than emotions were in sync with his adherence to hegemonic masculinity.

Drawing on Bollas (1987), Butler (2005) argues that the analysand may use an analyst as a ‘transformational object’ for the transference of his feelings related to the past. If I was a site of transference here, I possibly was the object to whom Tài placed his hostility towards emotional drives of the past, such as romantic fantasies, and Tài expressed his desire for a coherent self through the image of a responsible family man.

Further reflections and concluding remarks

In hindsight, I was possibly partly responsible for Tài’s negative transference. Being preoccupied with my research agenda, I did not fully register his desire to be an adviser and his need to assert authority and defend against vulnerability. His mentioning “like I said earlier” several times suggests his boredom with my repeated questions for his feelings. Although I never interrupted him, I might not have shown adequate interest. When Tài focused on critical discussion, I would usually try to move it back to affective topics, which may have irritated him. My desire as researcher and his desire to show knowledge were not in sync, resulting in a conflict. If I had shown more interest in his analytical discussion, he may have become more open. I also realised retrospectively that attending to his critical discussion, which I viewed as irrelevant during interviews, proved useful in better understanding his gender perspective. This case allowed me to learn that a good interviewer must be not only ethical (in abiding by ethical principles) but also open to adjusting their agenda. As Jazeel and McFarlane (2010: 115) put it, fieldwork entails ‘a commitment to uncertainty, humility and unlearning’ (emphasis in original).

In the second interview, I stopped asking about Tài’s parents after his initial refusal because of my concern about research ethics. Tài later volunteered details about his family himself. Why did Tài initially avoid the topic and bring it up afterwards? Perhaps it was exactly because I did not push the family topic that Tài relaxed and shared more. His willingness to discuss such an issue when not requested means he could open up, yet without pressure. Discussing such an issue when questioned would mean Tài conformed to my request, but volunteering information meant he did what he wanted in his own time. When Tài dropped part of his ‘performance’ by revealing vulnerable aspects, I could relate to him more and saw him less as someone preoccupied with asserting authority but rather as an ordinary person coping with insecurities. I felt the need to show compassion and thus did not push him to further discuss uncomfortable experiences. The research relationship shows both Tài and me as ‘defended subjects’ (Hollway and Jefferson, 2000; Gadd, 2004). As Gadd (2004: 398) explains, in biographical interviews, ‘both [parties] depend on this defensiveness for psychological protection’. Our second interview showed mutual compromises: I forfeited some narrative lines about personal issues, and he volunteered private information when he saw fit. In hindsight, meeting Tài a second time helped vastly. The elicitation of richer content in the second interview shows that multiple interviewing proves effective, especially with defensive participants who require a higher level of familiarity. Researchers seeking in-depth data, especially from a small sample, may consider doing multiple interviews for this reason. In such cases, attention to (counter-)transference can be helpful in better understanding informants.

Note

1

In Vietnamese, nouns do not come in definitely singular or plural form as in English. It was uncertain whether Tài was referring to a single break-up or several.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Tài sincerely for taking the time from his busy schedule to participate in my project. His participation allowed me to reflect on my shortcomings as an interviewer and possible ways to improve my interviewing skills. I also extend my thanks to my supervisors, Stephen Epstein and Cherie Lacey, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nguyen, T. and Trang, Q. (2015) Gender discrimination in the way the Vietnamese talk about face thể diện: results from interviews with Vietnamese teachers, Qualitative Research Journal, 15(2): 14754. doi: 10.1108/QRJ-12-2014-0066

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nguyen, T.N.M. (2018) Money, risk taking, and playing: shifting masculinity in a waste-trading community in the Red River Delta, in K. Endres and A. Leshkowich (eds) Traders in Motion: Identities and Contestations in the Vietnamese Marketplace, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, pp 10516.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roseneil, S. (2014) On meeting Linda: an intimate encounter with (Not-)belonging in the current conjuncture, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 19(1): 1928. doi: 10.1057/pcs.2013.24

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. (2002) Sexed bodies, gendered bodies: children and the body in Vietnam, Women’s Studies International Forum, 25(3): 35972.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. (2004) Female and male “characters”: images of identification and self-identification for rural Vietnamese children and adolescents, in L. Drummond and H. Rydstrøm (eds) Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp 7495.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. and Drummond, L. (eds) (2004) Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, Singapore: Singapore University Press.

  • Schimek, J. (1968) Cognitive style and defenses: a longitudinal study of intellectualization and field independence, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(6): 57580. doi: 10.1037/h0026577

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seiter, E. (1990) Making distinctions in TV audience research: case study of a troubling interview, Culture Studies, 4(1): 6185. doi: 10.1080/09502389000490051

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skogstad, W. (2018) Psychoanalytic observation – the mind as research instrument, in K. Stamenova and R.D. Hinshelwood (eds) Methods of Research into the Unconscious, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vaillant, G.E. (1977) Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company.

  • Vu, T. T. (2021) Love, Affection and Intimacy in Marriage of   Young People in Vietnam, Asian Studies Review, 45(1): 100116. doi: 10.1080/10357823.2020.1798873

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H. and Melody, J. (2001) Growing Up Girl: Psychosocial Explorations of Gender and Class, Houndmills: Palgrave.

  • Warren, J. (2017) Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity, New York, NY and London: Routledge.

  • Abell, J., Locke, A., Condor, S., Gibson, S. and Stevenson, C. (2006) Trying similarity, doing difference: the role of interviewer self-disclosure in interview talk with young people, Qualitative Research, 6(2): 22144. doi: 10.1177/1468794106062711

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bird, B. (1972) Notes on transference: universal phenomenon and hardest part of analysis, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 20(2): 267301. doi: 10.1177/000306517202000203

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bollas, C. (1987) The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Brenner, C. (1985) Countertransference as compromise formation, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 54(2): 15563. doi: 10.1080/21674086.1985.11927101

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Butler, J. (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself, New York, NY: Fordham University.

  • Clarke, S. (2002) Learning from experience: Psycho-social research methods in the social sciences, Qualitative Research, 2(2): 17394. doi: 10.1177/146879410200200203

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities, Berkeley and Los Angeles, LA: Polity Press.

  • Elfving-Hwang, J. (2017) Aestheticizing authenticity: corporate masculinities in contemporary south Korean television dramas, Asia Pacific Perspectives, 15(1): 5572.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellman, S.J. (1991) Freud’s Technique Papers: A Contemporary Perspective, London: Routledge.

  • Ewing, K.P. (2006) Revealing and concealing: interpersonal dynamics and the negotiation of identity in the interview, Ethos, 34(1): 89122. doi: 10.1525/eth.2006.34.1.089

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, S. (1991 [1912]) The dynamics of the transference, in J.S. Ellman (ed) Freud’s Technique Papers: A Contemporary Perspective, London: Routledge, pp 3550.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, S. (1991 [1914]) Further recommendations in the technique of psycho-analysis: recollection, repetition and working through, in J.S. Ellman (ed) Freud’s Technique Papers: A Contemporary Perspective, London: Routledge, pp 5164.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gadd, D. (2004) Making sense of interviewee–interviewer dynamics in narratives about violence in intimate relationships, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 7(5): 383401. doi: 10.1080/1364557092000055077

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, NY: Doubleday.

  • Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research Differently, London: SAGE Publications. 

  • Horton, P. (2014) ‘I thought I was the only one’: the misrecognition of LGBT youth in contemporary Vietnam, Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(8): 96073. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2014.924556

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Horton, P. and Rydstrøm, H. (2011) Heterosexual masculinity in contemporary Vietnam: privileges, pleasures, and protests, Men and Masculinities, 14(5): 54264. doi: 10.1177/1097184X11409362

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hueso, S. (2012) Connection and disconnection: value of the analyst’s subjectivity in elucidating meaning in a psychoanalytic case study, Journal of Research Practice, 8(2): 113.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Iida, Y. (2005) Beyond the ‘feminization of masculinity’: transforming patriarchy with the ‘feminine’ in contemporary Japanese youth culture, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6(1): 5674. doi: 10.1080/1462394042000326905

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Institute for Social Development Studies (2020) Men and Masculinities in a Globalising Vietnam, Hanoi: Vietnam Women’s Publishing House, http://isds.org.vn/en/an-pham/men-and-masculinities-in-a-globalising-viet-nam/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jazeel, T. and MacFarlane, C. (2010) The limits of responsibility: a postcolonial politics of academic knowledge production, Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(1): 10924. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2009.00367.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johanssen, J. (2016) Did we fail? (Counter-)transference in a qualitative media research interview, Interactions, 7(1): 99111.

  • Jung, S. (2011) Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J. (1973) The Language of Psychoanalysis, London: Hogarth Press.

  • Maliangkay, R. and Song, G. (2015) A sound wave of effeminacy: K-pop and the male beauty ideal in China, in J. Choi and R. Maliangkay (eds) K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, New York, NY and London: Routledge, pp 16477.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nghe, L.T., Mahalik, J.R. and Lowe, S.M. (2003) Influences on Vietnamese men: examining traditional gender roles, the refugee experience, acculturation, and racism in the United States, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31(4): 24561. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1912.2003.tb00353.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nguyen, K.L. and Harris, J.D. (2009) Extramarital relationships, masculinity, and gender relations in Vietnam, Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 31: 12742. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nguyen, T. and Trang, Q. (2015) Gender discrimination in the way the Vietnamese talk about face thể diện: results from interviews with Vietnamese teachers, Qualitative Research Journal, 15(2): 14754. doi: 10.1108/QRJ-12-2014-0066

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nguyen, T.N.M. (2018) Money, risk taking, and playing: shifting masculinity in a waste-trading community in the Red River Delta, in K. Endres and A. Leshkowich (eds) Traders in Motion: Identities and Contestations in the Vietnamese Marketplace, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, pp 10516.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roseneil, S. (2014) On meeting Linda: an intimate encounter with (Not-)belonging in the current conjuncture, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 19(1): 1928. doi: 10.1057/pcs.2013.24

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. (2002) Sexed bodies, gendered bodies: children and the body in Vietnam, Women’s Studies International Forum, 25(3): 35972.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. (2004) Female and male “characters”: images of identification and self-identification for rural Vietnamese children and adolescents, in L. Drummond and H. Rydstrøm (eds) Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp 7495.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rydstrøm, H. and Drummond, L. (eds) (2004) Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, Singapore: Singapore University Press.

  • Schimek, J. (1968) Cognitive style and defenses: a longitudinal study of intellectualization and field independence, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(6): 57580. doi: 10.1037/h0026577

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seiter, E. (1990) Making distinctions in TV audience research: case study of a troubling interview, Culture Studies, 4(1): 6185. doi: 10.1080/09502389000490051

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skogstad, W. (2018) Psychoanalytic observation – the mind as research instrument, in K. Stamenova and R.D. Hinshelwood (eds) Methods of Research into the Unconscious, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vaillant, G.E. (1977) Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company.

  • Vu, T. T. (2021) Love, Affection and Intimacy in Marriage of   Young People in Vietnam, Asian Studies Review, 45(1): 100116. doi: 10.1080/10357823.2020.1798873

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H. and Melody, J. (2001) Growing Up Girl: Psychosocial Explorations of Gender and Class, Houndmills: Palgrave.

  • Warren, J. (2017) Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity, New York, NY and London: Routledge.

  • 1 Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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