Mixed Gender-Cross Country Research: Personal Reflections and Experiences of Long-Term Ethnographic Researchers in a Community of Touring Motorcyclists

Mark Austin & Patricia Gagné


Long-term ethnographic research is commonly conducted by a single investigator (e.g. Desmond, 2016), a same-gender team (e.g. Hopper & Moore, 1990), or a mixed-gender team of married or partnered individuals (e.g. Adler & Adler, 2004). The impact of gender in conducting qualitative research has been examined in the literature (Wolf, 1996) but little, if any, analysis of the experiences of a mixed gender, non-coupled, unrelated research team exists. Our goal in this article is to consider some of the benefits and pitfalls of mixing friendship with a professional relationship between a female and a male colleague during a long-term participant observational study. As we share our experiences, sometimes painful, occasionally comical, we hope to open a professional dialogue on the pros and cons of conducting qualitative participant observational research with an unrelated member of another gender, whether on serious edgework leisure or another topic. Our aim is to suggest factors research teams might consider as they embark on long-term ethnographic studies. Our work here is not meant to provide an exhaustive list of issues that might arise nor suggest that the way we handled them is exemplary. We hope our work opens a dialogue that might advance research partnerships between and among ethnographic scholars of varying genders.

Patricia Gagné (left) & Mark Austin (right).

How It Started

A solid relationship with any co-investigator appears to be a necessary place to start when doing long-term research of any type, but particularly work that involves travel and close association with each other over long periods of time, especially when it may be interspersed with danger and  stressful events. It is a good idea to know that the person with whom one seeks to do long term research is someone with whom one enjoys spending extensive time. Similar worldviews, travel styles, and established goals are important.

In the mid-to-late-1990s we each started on a journey professionally and personally that lead us down many roads, literally and figuratively, that in time engulfed both aspects of our lives. The two of us were colleagues who had become friends. At times, we weren’t sure how well we fit the traditional academic mold, having come from blue collar families. We both had a yen for adventure, so when Austin suggested we each take up motorcycling, in time, the idea made sense to both of us.

Austin had ridden as a teenager, then set aside his passion for riding to make his way through college, graduate school, and the demands to publish that come with being an assistant professor. Gagné still an assistant professor, was new to riding, having taken it up at the urging of her new friend and colleague. After she completed the introductory Motorcycle Safety Foundation course and purchased a $500 motorcycle, together we started out on day trips, developing our skills and confidence. After about a year of practice, we set out on an ill-prepared, cold, foggy, rain-soaked, trip through the Smokey Mountains, up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Shenandoah National Park and then on to Washington, D.C. and its rush hour traffic. Lacking basic essential gear, such as a waterproof bag and a rain suit, and the skills needed to pack our bikes properly and ride in driving rain and dense fog, we managed somehow to muddle through unharmed. We were often frustrated and angry, but ultimately we learned to laugh our way through our folly. As we told our tales to non-riding friends and colleagues, we learned that we were somewhat unique in finding pleasure in what most thought of as misery. It would be a few more years until we found kindred spirits who found the challenges the open road as exhilarating as we did. On that trip, we learned a great deal about ourselves and long-distance motorcycle touring. Our commonalities and the bond we established were strengthened as we continued riding together.

We did not start riding so we could conduct research. Rather, the idea that we should do research where we were (Lofland & Lofland, 1995; Mills, 1959) came to us as we started getting involved in the motorcycling community. We were sitting in a local club meeting one day when one of us said to the other, I wonder if anyone has studied this. It seems that having common interests, standards of living on the road, and a willingness to laugh at our mistakes provided a foundation that would help us through the more difficult aspects of our research and provide joy in the easier adventures.

Our Joint Venture into Friendship and Research

After that club meeting, Austin searched the literature and found that there wasn’t much academic research on motorcyclists in general. Social scientists (e.g. Hopper & Moore, 1990) and popular journalists, such as Hunter S. Thompson (1966), had examined “outlaw motorcycle clubs,” but not much time had been spent focusing on recreational motorcyclists. The “biker image” has a long history (Austin, Gagné & Orend, 2010; McBee, 2015) and, as we would learn, stirs resentment among touring riders (Austin & Gagné, 2008). That’s when we decided that we should study what we loved and decided to focus our own research on recreational touring motorcyclists like ourselves. As we continued our project, academic research focusing on recreational motorcyclists and motorcycles began to emerge (e.g. Thompson, 2012; Alford & Ferris, 2007; Glamser, 2003; Joans, 2001), as the work on outlaw motorcycle clubs and stereotypical bikers continued (e.g. Quinn & Koch, 2003; Quinn & Forsyth, 2011; van den Eynde & Veno, 2007; Wolf, 1991).

Why People, Like Us, Ride Motorcycles

A common thread riders share is a need to engage in “edgework” (Lyng, 1990, 2005), or risk-taking activity. At the beginning of our research, we were not familiar with the concept, but it eventually played an important role in our work. Participants in edgework discover a sense of self-fulfillment and connection with themselves and others involved in their particular passion, whether it be motorcycling, skydiving (Laurendeau & Van Brunschot, 2006), high stakes financial trading (Smith, 2005), serving as a bicycle messenger (Kidder, 2006), or criminal activity (Ferrell, 2005). As Lyng (2005:4) described it, “When people separated by division of age, gender, class, race, occupation, and intellectual temperament come together and discover deep-seated commonalities of personal experience, they often feel a sense of connection rooted in something basic to their souls.”

This connection allows edgeworkers to be both individualistic and a part of something larger than themselves. Those connections, which many have described as spiritual, lead people to break free of the safety and security of modern life and test their mettle against varying challenges. Participation in these types of activities allows individuals to “temporarily escape from the stultifying conditions of work life and bureaucratic institutions” (Lyng, 2005:6).

As we got more immersed in riding, we discovered that we had slipped into the world of “serious leisure” (Stebbins, 2001), which proved to be significant to both our professional and personal lives. Serious leisure was not part of our previous professional lives, so we were expanding our career horizons as well as discovering an avenue to understand our personal interest in and passion for motorcycling. As academics, the years spent developing our careers and other responsibilities had left little time for serious leisure or recreation of almost any type.

Participants in serious leisure have a more encompassing experience, which requires a higher level of commitment and skill development as compared to those who are participants in “casual leisure.” They can become increasingly involved in social circles and events that focus on the activity (Stebbins, 2001, 2007).  Anyone who rides knows that there are some people who buy motorcycles and may put only a few hundred miles on the odometer each year. Touring motorcyclists, on the other hand, tend to take riding seriously. Our research found that many touring riders work hard to develop their skills, invest a lot of money and time into equipment and travel, and as a result, derive a lot of personal benefits from leisure (Austin & Gagné, 2008). As we found, women especially overcome a lot of the fears they’ve been socialized to have, including being alone in public spaces, traveling solo, equipment breakdowns, and having to rely on strangers when things go wrong, which can lead to development of more self-confidence (Gagné & Austin, 2010). This concept helped us to understand our study participants and ourselves, as well.

The social circles we encountered and the personal friendships and relationships we developed made sense in the context of serious leisure participants and edgeworkers. These concepts helped us understand the connections we felt with the participants in our study. They also helped us understand the acceptance, support, and enthusiasm we experienced as we began the project as full participants. The concepts of edgework and serious leisure helped us begin to frame portions of our research and furthered our understanding of the subculture of touring motorcyclists.

The Project and Research Methods

As is common among serious riders, motorcycles dominated our personal lives (Pierson, 1997) and took over a good portion of our professional lives, as well. We include information about ourselves and our research methods here so that those thinking about (or finding themselves already immersed in) long-term ethnographic research with a non-intimate unrelated partner might understand how naïve we were going into the field, the depth of our involvement in it, some of the problems we encountered, what worked, and what we learned.

Much as novelists are advised to write what they know, qualitative researchers have long counseled their students to start and stay where they are, study what’s around them (Lofland & Lofland, 1995), and take an analytic-inductive approach to making sense of the population being researched (Charmaz, 1988; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Qualitative methodology differs from the deductive model of research that most people think of as “scientific.” Specifically, in the deductive model, a researcher chooses a topic, reads and reviews the literature on it, specifies research questions or hypotheses, gathers and analyzes data, draws conclusions, and considers the implications of the findings (Silverman, 1985). By contrast, analytic-inductive researchers enter (or find themselves in) the field with few preconceived notions of what is happening, using the literature only as “sensitizing concepts” (Blumer, 1953; Smelser, 1976) to watch for or to raise with informants. This allows findings to emerge from the data as conceptual themes to be explained theoretically as a final step in the research process (Charmaz, 1988; Strauss & Corbin, 1994). This is precisely what happened to us, as we knew almost nothing about motorcycling communities when we started but learned from our own experiences and those around us as we got more deeply involved in their activities as the years passed.

Our project involved a variety of methods, as fieldwork can involve structured and unstructured interviews, as well as survey data (Wolf, 1996). The project started with a survey that we distributed to motorcyclists at various venues and while traveling. It contained close-ended questions that allowed us to gather demographic data as well as other types of information, and open-ended questions that allowed participants to explain, in their own words, attitudes about riding. The questionnaires were self-administered and returned by postage paid mail. Respondents could also return a postcard to us if they were willing to participate in an in-depth interview. To help us better understand gender issues, we each interviewed our subjects whose gender matched our own. This was particularly useful for one of our published articles on gender issues among touring motorcyclists (Gagné & Austin, 2010).

As the surveys started coming back to us, we slowly started to realize just how little we knew about motorcycling subcultures, because some of the responses made little sense to us. We expected some of the more stereotypical responses such as riders enjoying the feeling of freedom when they ride, but other issues were raised that we didn’t fully understand. For example, one very common theme was for riders to express resentment of a subgroup they referred to as “posers” and “wannabes,” as well as hard feelings concerning the “biker image” that has been such a prominent theme in American culture (Austin, Gagné & Orend, 2010). We knew it would take a lot of interviews, conversations, and years of riding and hanging out with riders to make full sense of what the people who took our survey were trying to tell us. That’s when the real ethnographic portion of our research began.

Ethnographic fieldwork, where a researcher lives in and participates fully in a subculture, can be carefully planned and managed or it can grab hold of you one day when you realize you are in the unique position to provide a deeper understanding of a subculture that most academics know little about and that most participants don’t think about as a topic worthy of scientific research. Our experience was the latter.

Adler and Adler (1987) distinguish various levels of participation in field research. As time passed and we became more involved in touring motorcycling groups and events, our role became that of “complete member researchers” (CMR). Researchers falling into the CMR category are fully involved in the group as “natives.” The people being studied and the researchers share commonalities such as emotions and goals. Accordingly, CMRs are able to closely approximate the emotional perspectives of participants in their research (Adler & Adler, 1987). Being full members of the community made gathering data far easier than it would have been if we didn’t know how to ride motorcycles and weren’t involved in the subculture. All we had to do was be there and ask, “Do you ride?” Or “What do you ride?” Or “How long have you been riding?” or “What do you get out of riding?” followed by whatever questions flowed in the course of the conversation. In addition to the formal, recorded interviews, we also talked to riders whenever they approached us, recording “jottings” about the encounter immediately after and then writing full field notes, usually that evening (Jorgensen, 1989; Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995).  Some of our fieldwork was accomplished while traveling together, which allowed us to discuss and process events and conversations while they were fresh in our minds. Other times, we found ourselves alone in a tent or motel room, writing out extensive field notes from the jottings we had taken during the day, trying to make sense of it all.

Conversations are an accepted method in social science research (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009), which was good for us, because so much of our data was gathered at rally sites and other motorcycling events where riders really didn’t want to take time from visiting with their friends to sit down with one of us and a tape recorder. Sometimes meaningful conversations would occur at unplanned locations, such as gas stations and rest stops. These informal conversations allowed us to learn about issues that we might not have included in the formal interviews. We occasionally found conversations with non-riders or former riders to be beneficial in our research.

In our methods we attempted to be consistent with feminist research methodologies by minimizing the distance between ourselves and the participants (Cook, Fonow & Nielsen, 1990). Our active participation helped us achieve this goal and acquire a standpoint epistemological perspective (Smith, 1987), which helped us understand a socially constructed world from the perspectives of those in it (Wolf, 1996). We also realize that the world we portray, or construct, in our ethnographic reporting reflects our world (Stack, 1996). We were aware of the heightened sense of awareness common to ethnographers as they need to be aware of all nuances in the field (Willson, 1995). We sent some of our written work to participants to insure that we were not misrepresenting their individual experiences (Lather, 1993), which helped to assure us that our work was valid.

Not all immersion-based research involves physical danger and discomfort, but the growing fields of edgework (Lyng, 1990, 2005), serious leisure (Stebbins, 2001), and cultural criminology (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008) are pushing these boundaries in ways that are reminiscent of some earlier ethnographies (e.g. Cressey, 1932). This type of research permits researchers to examine social worlds with which they are already familiar or to become familiar with the unknown and experience the world of their research participants. On a personal level, we often felt like we were in over our heads, especially while waiting on the side of the road with a broken down motorcycle, sitting in a motel room or tent hoping the snow would clear, spending a week with a total stranger waiting for a motorcycle part to arrive, or the sheer panic of being thousands of miles from home and having a credit card declined. Sometimes we struggled to make sense of the varying subcultures we found ourselves in; other times we were just doing all we could to keep up with the group of riders we were with or to avoid the inevitable embarrassment of dropping our bikes in the middle of a rally campground. One of us recalls taking refuge from sleet under a pit toilet awning and thinking “I wonder what other people do on their vacations.” Once the clouds cleared, the choice was obvious. We were hooked.

The Project Begins

We started distributing our surveys at Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida. As we described above, the survey was only the beginning. Our work took a major leap forward in the summer of 2001 when we set out on a three week trip throughout the southwest, distributing our surveys to any rider who would take them, including leaving them on parked motorcycles. The trip helped us to develop a deeper understanding of the world of touring motorcyclists, but we were still getting acquainted with the subculture in which we would eventually find ourselves immersed. On that trip, one of our bikes had to be nursed along with ongoing electrical issues, which eventually left us stranded in a west Texas hayfield, where we spent the night, illegally. The following day, and a tow truck ride later, the bike was traded in for a newer model. Later in the trip, one of the members of our traveling party of three, not one of us, ended up in the emergency room after an accident. Fortunately, after a few days of recovery in cheap motel luxury while the bike was repaired, we continued on our journey, handing out surveys and chatting with riders whenever we encountered them and recording our conversations in field notes. Our work over the years experienced ebbs and flows of high and low levels of activity.

Like our initial rainy, cold, foggy Blue Ridge trip, the accidents, breakdowns, and myriad mishaps on our southwest adventure might have ended the project and strained, if not terminated, our friendship. Instead, we laughed at a lot of the problems, reveled in our collective problem-solving abilities, and still look back with fondness and nostalgia on those three weeks.  “The Trip,” as we came to think of it, was not the only one to test our friendship and ability to work together. A later excursion to the Maritime Provinces, taken after conducting research at an international rally in Ontario Canada, was strained when a companion continually voiced a desire to change plans, and, seemed to view the trip as a future bragging point rather than engaging in the daily experiences we were enjoying. Distressed and upset with our friend, on a ferry ride back from Newfoundland, Austin said he wanted to head home alone. Gagné, who had been following the lead of the other two riders, was angry and confused but found her atlas and planned a route home through Quebec, resentful of being left alone on a trip that was supposed to end together in our home city.

When we started out, we did not consider the dangers or financial or personal costs to ourselves or our friendship. Whether it’s our working class backgrounds and navigating the world of academics (Ryan & Sackrey, 1984), our need for “something more” in life, our shared love of motorcycling, or just our mutual need to complete the project and get it published, somehow our friendship and our working relationship survived the strains our research put on us and ultimately grew stronger. In the next sections, we consider some of the issues we encountered and managed to overcome, hopefully with an eye toward getting other mixed-gender research teams to think and talk about some of the things we managed to muddle through. As two other researchers acknowledged (Gallagher & Gallagher, 2008: 11), “For us, research is fundamentally a process of muddling through, sometimes feeling lost and out of place, asking stupid questions, being corrected and having our preconceptions destroyed.” We seemed to be muddling through our research, as well as some of travel experiences, especially during the earlier years of the project.

Issues of a Mixed Gender Heterosexual Friendship and Research Team

Mixed gender research teams, engaging in either qualitative or quantitative projects, are not unknown in the social sciences. Some examples include the very productive married researchers Patricia and Peter Adler, which include methodological efforts (e.g. Adler & Adler, 1987) and numerous empirical studies (e.g. Adler & Adler, 2004). Their work has led to a large number of articles and books based on qualitative research. Other examples include a married couple that examined senior citizens in the recreational vehicle (RV) subculture (Counts & Counts, 1996), and a father-daughter project dealing with labor issues in Romania (Keil & Keil, 2002). Additionally, mixed gender research teams, that are not related or romantic partners might be represented in quantitative research, but we found that a mixed gender unrelated and non-romantic heterosexual research team working on a qualitative project that involved extensive fieldwork and travel together is a rare occurrence in the social sciences. A mixed gender team of researchers examined women in outlaw motorcycle clubs (van den Eynde & Veno 2007). However, in their work, one researcher took on the role of “outsider,” and made no attempt to be part of the culture, while the other became more of a full participant in the role of an “insider.” In our work, we were both participants in the subculture.  Our experiences suggest that our unique friendship and collegial relationship presented us with many issues, difficulties, benefits, and opportunities.

Significant Others

We were not only venturing into the world of research as a mixed gender research team, but we were dealing with issues related to the more general theme of mixed gender friends. Mixed gender friendships face a number of challenges in American culture, one of which is, in a sense, presenting the relationship as authentic (O’Meara, 1989). These friendships are viewed by some as a fairly recent phenomenon impacted by the cultural norms that can impinge on these relationships (Bleske-Rechek et al., 2012).

One of the main issues we were faced with on a personal level, in terms of a mixed gender friendship and working relationship, was the issue of significant others that we were each involved with over the years. Trust is an important component of friendship (Monsour, 1992), and perhaps we projected the trust that we had in each other onto others in our lives.

Even though “friendship attraction” can be the most common form of attraction between mixed gender friends (Reeder, 2000), it is sometimes difficult for a romantic partner to understand his or her heterosexual significant other traveling around the country with a member of the other sex. Reactions ranged from “just not getting it,” to extreme jealousy and, on the other end of the spectrum, acceptance and support. Research suggests that males and females are equally optimistic that mixed gender friends can be “just friends” (Hart, Adams, and Tullett 2015). Our limited experiences supported that conclusion, as we found both male and female significant others to be both supportive and unsupportive over the course of our friendship and research project.

A good example of a supportive partner occurred once when Gagné’s (then) husband called our motel room to hear Austin answer the phone. The man exclaimed, with a sense of humor, “What are you doing in a motel with my wife?” Austin replied, “Watching Wheel of Fortune,” to which he responded “OK, can I speak to her?” His only jealousy was not having the amount of time to travel in the summer that we both enjoyed. He joined us on rides when he could and lived vicariously when he couldn’t. The marriage eventually ended for reasons unrelated to motorcycling, and the two continued traveling together after the relationship ended.

Unfortunately for us, not all of our partners were as supportive. One of Austin’s significant others was so jealous of our friendship and working relationship that she made it extremely uncomfortable for both of us to travel together, whether she was along for the ride or not. On a trip to a rally where we planned to observe and do field interviews, our interactions were so strained that when we got separated by traffic, Gagné turned for home, hurt and unwilling to put up with the unfair treatment. Of course, the problem wasn’t only with jealous girlfriends. One of Gagné’s partners made the mistake of finding fault with Austin and telling her she couldn’t travel with him or other men. After listening to his jealous tirades on a trip that went from the Midwest to Texas and was scheduled to go farther,  Gagné left her boyfriend in a restaurant parking lot and continued on a solo trip to Alaska. Jealous relationships put a short-term crimp in the research we conducted together, but it was ultimately the partners that were sacrificed as we discovered that relationships between serious riders and research colleagues were thicker, more flexible, and more durable than romance.

Whether a life partner is supportive of the study and the research team, in hindsight, there might have been advantages and disadvantages to encouraging our partners to express their feelings about us traveling together, sharing rooms, camping, and spending time working on something we both love. Sometimes talking things through can lead to compromises and a resolution of concerns. We would not know. We naively thought everyone would understand our friendship and collegial relationship and love the idea of us being gone together for weeks at a time as much as we did. In hindsight, we would counsel any unrelated, unmarried, mixed gender dyad or same gender gay or lesbian team to talk things through with their partners before getting involved in similar research. There may be a way to preserve personal relationships and conduct the research that we were too naïve, selfish, or stubborn to consider.

In all our travels, we hit metaphorical bumps in the road in our relationship, in part, because we didn’t communicate well with each other or with our romantic partners. Somehow, though, our early trips and the bonds we created always brought us back to each other and to the project, even when we spent times gathering data and traveling solo. Overcoming those problems was made possible, in part, by the support we received from our professional colleagues and the riders who kept asking if we were done yet.

Friendship and Working Relationships

We didn’t set out to do a study that would last more than a decade, and we didn’t intentionally take time to get to know each other before hitting the road. It was in our travels that we discovered a mutual love of gas station food and a preference to camp for a few nights before splurging on a cheap motel room for the luxury of a private shower, a real bed, and television news. In hindsight, we have come to realize that the fluke that we had similar tastes and travel styles was a major factor in allowing us to complete the project, one that might have killed the project early on, had we not been able to agree on where to get food or sleep or how many miles to try to ride in one day. Once again, talking things through ahead of time seems advisable, though it wasn’t what we did.

Research teams such as ours may be forced to ask themselves how committed they are to both the research and the friendship. Our relationship could be characterized as what social scientists refer to as “fictive kin,” which is when humans construct familial relationships with those who are not related by birth or blood (Muraco, 2006).  Muraco (p.1313) tells us that “friendship is, at once, the most flexible and most tenuous of social relationships,” which implies a certain amount of freedom in the relationship that may not exist with traditional familial ties. One of our riding friends explained it best, “Friends are family you choose.” People may be more likely to form these types of ties when their relationships with nuclear family members are limited (Lindsley, 1981), which ours were due to the geographic mobility required in our academic careers.

As the project continued, the depth and quality of our friendship increased as we got to know each other’s family members better and were present at key life events, such as the birth of Gagné’s first grandchild or cleaning out the home of Austin’s parents after his mother moved to a senior care facility. On a more mundane level, we bummed free lodging at the homes of each other’s friends and family over the years and helped and called on favors from each other’s family members. Essentially, many of our individual friends and family became part of each other’s lives. This phenomenon may have occurred without the research project, but it was certainly enhanced as we travelled to areas near homes of friends and families. Although we had a good friendship that was a foundation for our research project, ultimately the research brought us closer, but not always in a smooth, straightforward manner.

Closeness can breed contempt or it can force compassion and forgiveness. Some of the jealousies described above could have challenged our collegial relationship, our friendship, and the research more deeply than it did. Gender differences in friendship expectations (Hall, 2011) could have also been an issue. We both seemed to have ups and down with expectations, but perhaps, as things tend to do, these regressed to a mean at which we were both relatively comfortable in the long run.

Despite temporary frustrations, we remained supportive of each other as each of us worked through the problems we encountered. There were frustrations with the speed (or lack thereof) with which we analyzed data, wrote, and submitted articles for review. It was frequently Austin bugging Gagné for an increase in productivity, and it was up to her to realize that he was right, even though she was irked at the pressure.

Qualitative research can be an emotional experience (Creswell, 2016) and one of the advantages of working with a close friend as a research colleague can be shared values. Some of our similarities in life experiences and sharing the same academic discipline seemed to result in a fairly similar worldview. This can result in mutually reciprocal support during the experiences of fieldwork, in both personal and professional lives. For example, we were both offended by racist paraphernalia at a motorcycle swap meet. As close friends, we were able to jointly process the experience and essentially decompress by discussing our reactions and feelings on a personal level. On a professional level we were also able to process the experience as social scientists.

Beyond issues such as these (and others we did not encounter), there is the matter of life style, travel styles, riding styles, food choices, research approaches, and a litany of other issues we can only imagine that need to be considered. In addition to concerns unique to our research, we faced the challenges and rewards that any friends or family traveling together face. As friends, we rarely disagreed about where to eat or where to stay for the night, even though we almost never talked about standards, in general. Food needed to be cheap and filling, rooms needed to be inexpensive and bug free, camping was preferred except in cases of imminent snow, severe thunderstorms, the threat of tornadoes, or when we had gone more than two days without showering. We only realized the commonality of our (low) standards as we told non-riders about our travels and read the non-verbal horrified looks on their faces. Our accommodations, alone or together, encompassed a broad spectrum. They ranged from the previously-mentioned hayfield in west Texas and spending a week with a convicted felon in Alaska while waiting for a bike part to staying in a multimillionaire’s mansion on the west coast or spending the night with motorcyclists we met on the road. Although we didn’t discuss travel budgets, food, or accommodations in preparation for our research, we think it might be advisable for members of any ethnographic research team to talk about such matters beforehand and perhaps take a short trial trip together before committing to a long-term project.


Another issue that proved to be important in our work and friendship was patience. At the beginning of our project, Gagné was a very experienced qualitative researcher, while Austin was trained exclusively in quantitative methodologies. This combination proved to have its benefits and liabilities. On one hand, Austin’s experience was useful in constructing a questionnaire, while Gagné contributed her qualitative research training and experience. Her patience and mentoring helped to reassure Austin that he could learn qualitative research methods. Our already well-developed friendship was helpful in transforming our distinctive but complimentary research skills into an asset that allowed for greater triangulation in our research.

Patience was also important in our fieldwork as motorcyclists. Austin was a more experienced rider than Gagné. This meant that riding style and speed preferences, especially in the early years, were something that we learned to deal with. Especially on long roads with tight twists and turns, Austin would ride ahead, enjoying the challenge and total immersion in the experience while Gagné lagged behind, “riding her own ride,” and developing her skills. There was always a place at the end of such a section of road where the leader would wait for the follower, never with a judgmental comment and frequently with one that suggested she was improving. The symbiotic nature of our work and friendship provided a degree of patience that might not have been afforded if we had not been friends before we were research collaborators. It also allowed us to learn from each other and to rely on the unique strengths that each possessed.

Had we talked through all the issues that might have arisen before we started our project, we may never have commenced. On the other hand, in looking back at the problems we encountered, the fact that we never talked about such things beforehand could have led to interpersonal strain, frustrations, and the failure of the project if we were not already in sync with each other. Our counsel would be that unless you already know the potential co-researcher quite well, understand her or his likes and preferences, and have a good working relationship and friendship, if you plan on traveling together and spending extensive time outside academia with each other, these might be issues worth discussing ahead of time.

Personal and Professional Lives: The Impact of Our Research

A mixed gender research team, particularly with qualitative fieldwork research, has the potential advantage of providing easier entrée into various components of a subculture. Specifically, Gagné was able to gain better access to women in the motorcycling subculture than Austin would have on his own, and vice versa. It can be easier to establish rapport with members of the same gender.

One particular example of our gender-based work as researchers was Gagné’s access and rapport at an AMA Women and Motorcycling Conference, where she was openly accepted by various groups, such as octogenarian members of the Motor Maids, as well as a club of Canadian sport bike riders (who were more than patient with her less-than-stellar riding skills). An additional example occurred at a campground during Daytona Bike Week. Austin heard a male motorcyclist, referencing the questionnaire we had left in the hospitality pavilion, stating that the woman listed would probably not know anything about motorcycling. After hearing the comment, he explained that she rode to Bike Week on her own bike, and the man changed his attitude and was more receptive to the idea of participating in the study. The advantages of a mixed gender research team was of utmost importance for one portion of our larger research project, which examined the role of gender among touring motorcyclists (Gagné & Austin, 2010).

Gagné grew up with three brothers and no sisters and subsequently had two sons and was a self-identified “tomboy.”  These experiences may have helped her to be more comfortable in the gendered world of men than some women researchers might have been. Austin, an only child, had a long history of close female non-romantic friends. Our combination of past experiences, perhaps, made our friendship much more conducive to a joint research project. However, she sometimes felt the need to try to be “one of the guys,” for example, while over-hearing an occasional sexist or condescending comment or joke. Overt sexism in the touring motorcyclists’ community was minimal (Gagné & Austin, 2010), but other events, such as Bike Week, exposed her to sexist behavior, attitudes, and language (Page, 2005).  As a social scientist, she didn’t want to appear judgmental and influence the behavior being observed, but as a progressive educated feminist, she found the behavior offensive.

Although, our work colleagues didn’t appear to question our relationship, comments regarding our relationship from some riders we encountered tended to be directed more to Gagné than Austin. She frequently had to field questions about why she was traveling without her husband (when traveling alone) or why she was traveling with Austin if she was married to someone else. Comments were laden with unspoken assumptions that we were having an affair and hiding it in plain sight. No amount of “No, we’re just friends” or “He’s only a friend” stopped the innuendo, even though these phrases seem to have a shared understanding in U.S. culture (Booth & Hess, 1974). They saw what they wanted to see, and we eventually decided that we had to develop studied indifference, or “civil inattention” (Goffman, 1959) to their comments, questions, and attitudes. It may be that some people avoided us because of our traveling relationship, but we don’t think we missed learning about motorcycling culture because of it.  Most of the people we met, talked to, and/or became friends with along the way understood, accepted, and many even supported our relationship. We found mixed gender friendships to be relatively common among touring riders as work and other obligations would sometimes allow only one member of a couple to participate in a motorcycling event, such as a rally.

Some people went well out of their way to help us make new contacts and to become fully immersed in the field. Communities of choice, such as those based on activities, can be more tolerant than other, more encompassing forms of community (Brint, 2001). Some gave us free riding lessons, such as how to take curves at higher speeds or how to ride at extremely low speeds. Many motorcyclists were excited to hear of our research and were very interested in participating. For many, it was reassuring to find out that we were interested in learning about non-biker motorcyclists and it gave them the opportunity to voice their opposition to the biker image that has been so evident in American culture (Austin, Gagné and Orend, 2010; Wood, 2003). Members of serious leisure communities can often feel that the larger culture doesn’t really understand them (Anderson & Taylor, 2010). It also gave them an avenue to voice their attitudes, concerns, and opinions concerning their passion for motorcycling. For some riders, they seemed to view their participation as a way to counteract public stereotypes concerning motorcyclists.

(Almost) Total Immersion in Fieldwork

For about a decade and a half, motorcycles were the heart of our academic and personal lives. We ended relationships that interfered with motorcycling and lost contact with friends who didn’t ride, finding new friends and reconnecting with old ones who had the good sense, in this social world, to own bikes. We found ourselves totally immersed in a subculture we found absolutely fascinating, and were eventually surrounded by people who shared our passion for adventure travel. During our time on the road, conducting research and having fun, together we logged somewhere between three and four hundred thousand miles, owned 14 motorcycles, got married and divorced three times, had seven other romantic relationships (none with each other), two motorcycle-related emergency room visits (only one involved us), and ran through 30 or so sets of tires, perhaps 9,000 or so gallons of gas, and an unknown amount of oil and other fluids. (The total? Priceless!) Together or alone we have ridden in every state except Hawaii, all the Canadian Provinces, and the Yukon Territory. We have spent thousands of hours riding and traveling alone and in the company of other riders, and have conducted dozens of formal and informal interviews with riders who take motorcycling seriously.

Even on campus, we commonly found ourselves still “in the field,” as students would approach us after class to talk about motorcycles or faculty or administrators would inquire about our latest travels or whether we had met a certain professor who had taken up riding. Motorcycling dictated who was and was not a suitable partner, how grandchildren were transported to and from school, financial priorities, or clothing choices (“can I ride in that?”), and how available we were to family members and friends during “riding season,” which grew to be almost year round. As our participation deepened, each of us found ourselves researching the best helmets, jackets, and pants for children and how to ride safely with a child or grandchild on the back of the bike, and finding the ideal life partner that supported, or at least tolerated, our passion for motorcycling. Austin ended up with a sidecar in his garage that was useful in transporting dogs, children, parents, reluctant colleagues, and groceries.

Our research on motorcyclists was central to our professional lives during much of this time period. While we each worked on other projects, we kept this project ongoing as a mainstay of our professional and personal identity. While it may have slowed progress on other projects and probably delayed promotions, the overall personal and professional satisfaction played a significant role in our lives. In hindsight, we agree, we’d do it all again.


The past fifteen or so years have been richer and more exciting because of our involvement with motorcycles and our research on motorcycling than they ever could have been had our careers taken a different turn. We have found that “something more” we were searching for, in motorcycling and in other edgework leisure pursuits. Our department has been supportive of our work and our friendship, and we have never encountered even a hint of suspicion that we are more than colleagues and friends. We have not been quite so fortunate among some riders and partners, but we don’t think suspicions of infidelity are related to or limited to motorcycling.

A long-term ethnographic project could prove quite difficult if it requires that researchers participate in lives in which they are uncomfortable and/or do not find somewhat enjoyable and/or interesting. Fortunately for us, this project allowed us to participate in a subculture we loved. It was very convenient that it provided a rich source of ethnographic data on a poorly understood, and sometimes misunderstood, subculture.

Despite great progress in gender relations during our lifetimes, mixed gender friendships and working relationships remain under enough scrutiny to make it difficult for women and men to enjoy honest, open, and equal platonic friendships and working relationships. Until women and men can be colleagues and friends without such undertones, co-workers are likely to find themselves facing a “glass partition” (Elsesser & Peplau, 2006) as professional workers are concerned about issues such as sexual harassment, misunderstood conversations, and misperceived intentions and the impact that this “glass partition” may have on careers. Seemingly routine work related tasks, such as travel requirements, may prove suspect when it involves heterosexual mixed-gender collegial relationships. We believe true platonic friendships, working and personal, can ease these concerns as well provide increased access to equal career opportunities.

On the other hand, if a research team is secure in their friendship and the boundaries of interaction are established before setting out to the research site, our own research suggests that there are a number of benefits to be derived from mixed gender teams. Researchers are better able to gain full entrée into the social worlds of women and of men that might be less accessible to the other gendered member of the team. Also, mixed gender research team can possibly provide a broader range of perspectives to bring to the project.

The heightened sense of awareness, common to ethnographers as they need to be aware of all nuances in the field (Willson, 1995), and the heightened sense of awareness we needed as motorcyclists, combined with the sometimes physical discomfort of our work, meant that at times we envied our colleagues sitting in a temperature controlled office conducting research. Overall, our experiences were rich, varied, and interesting as they added to our professional and personal lives. We acknowledge that some ethnographic research projects are involved at higher and lower levels than ours was, but we hope that some of the mistakes we made might help others avoid our foibles and that when we got something right, others might build on it.

We are also aware that personal situations, such as family responsibilities, could deter other researchers from engaging in such a demanding and encompassing research project. Of course, being of the same race (white), we were limited in our efforts to gain entry to communities of riders of other races, a factor we would encourage other research teams to consider. Additionally, as a result of riders self-selecting into brand specific clubs and activities (Thompson, 2012), we were limited in terms of access to some subcultures, leaving us to focus predominately on touring motorcyclists. This scenario leads to a potentially sound research decision to branch out and buy more motorcycles. But first, we should probably talk about that.


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Mark Austin is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville and also serves on the Department of Urban and Public Affairs PhD program. A good deal of his past and current research has focused on issues related to community and urban sociology. While much of his past research has focused on geographically stable communities, in more recent work he has examined issues related to geographically mobile communities with some of his research dealing with community, historical, and subcultural issues involving motorcyclists in American culture. This has also lead to an interest in edgework, the sociology of risk-taking. His garage contains a small number of European motorcycles, and a scooter, in various mechanical and aesthetic condition.

Patricia Gagné is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville where she teaches qualitative methods at the graduate level and undergraduate and graduate theory courses. Her research focuses primarily on issues of gender and the negotiation of power, including the battered women’s clemency movement, social pressures and resistance among transgender individuals, and conformity and resistance among women undergoing voluntary breast augmentation surgery. She has also published research on community among touring motorcyclists, corporate logo tattoos and the commodification of the body, and most recently, the commodification of the outlaw biker image, and resistance to commodification among touring riders. She rides a Honda NC700X.

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One Comment

  1. Amazing article! I am an undergraduate student of Justice Studies at San Jose State University in California. I stumbled upon The International Journal of Motorcycle Studies while researching a topic for a proposed research project paper for my Research Methods class at SJSU. One of my professors has encouraged us to be interested in the topic we are researching in order to have an interesting paper, thats why I want to do my research proposal on an aspect of motorcycling. I started riding in the dirt when I was 10 and at 16 I got my first street bike, at 29 now I’m still riding and loving it. Motorcycling is a big part of my life, whether it be commuting to work and school, carving through the back roads or kicking up rooster tails off-road. What I am thinking for my research proposal is why is it that there are so few female motorcyclists in the motorcycling community? If I could get some help in how to set up the design of the project and hear more about your research and if I can help in anyway with your research projects! Thank you for the amazing article!

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