Sep 4 2014

Competing loyalties: Dilemmas arising from violent outbreak in a planned research site, South Sudan

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Researchers choose field sites for a wide range of theoretical, ideological, interpersonal or pragmatic reasons, usually combined. Some of these rationales are acknowledged, while others remain unacknowledged and hidden from either external or the researcher’s own reflection. However, where these sites focus on conflict or post-conflict settings, the disruptive influence of violence brings with it the expectation of volatility. In this post I examine the reasons underlying my choice of South Sudan as the field site for my PhD research, which were exposed when, as a result of tragically renewed conflict in South Sudan in December 2013, I had to review my approach. Situated within the dilemma of whether to maintain continuity in the research population or the research questions in view of an externally necessitated change to a research project, I relate competing ‘expert views’ that I was presented with as I evaluated the options available, and my own reflection on the emotional content of field site choices, writes Rachel Ayrton.

“No action can occur in a society without emotional involvement” (Barbalet 2002:2, cited in Connor 2007:1)

The reasons and the secrets behind field site choices

Perhaps you have sometimes wondered, as I have, why people choose the field sites they choose for research. This is a particularly engaging question in the case of cross-national studies, where seemingly-unlikely companions are juxtaposed, and I find myself wondering: Whose idea was that?  What rationale do they argue for their choices?  Are there other reasons that they are not telling us? (read the previous posts on comparative research by Charles Stafford and Jennifer Robinson)

Some reasons for choosing field sites are acknowledged, while others remain unspoken and secret, at times even from our own reflection. Our choices in this regard matter, as the contexts within which we co-construct empirical data shape what we find, how we theorise, and (we hope) what is done about the social issues we investigate in the future. Whether these decisions are made by individual researchers, research groups, institutions or funders, they are not disinterested.

Reason and emotion in research decisions

I intended to conduct my PhD fieldwork in South Sudan, and if I am honest I would probably have been content with an adequate rational explanation of my choice to satisfy my supervisors, examiners and potential readers of my work. However, after violent conflict erupted in December 2013, I was presented with unwelcome and unanticipated decisions regarding the direction of my study, whilst managing my own grief about the unfolding tragedy. I became starkly aware of the competing emotional and rational factors that were present in these choices, and in order to reach a conclusion that I could feel both justified in and at peace with, I needed to trace back the reasons why I chose to research South Sudan in the first place. Continue reading

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Jul 21 2014

Art in the field: harvesting visual narratives in the dispersed city

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This post presents a project that engaged designers and citizens in the creation of representations – visual narratives, or films – documenting and interpreting urban conditions in the city of Winnipeg, Canada. The intention of the project was that these stories would articulate problems in the city (both physical and social); that the involvement of different groups would contribute to a dialogue about these problems; and that the existence of the films would help develop a shared, if contested, imagination of the city’s potential future, including its urban design. A range of works were created; each fits on a spectrum between urban documentary and storytelling. All share something with urban activist approaches like “photovoice”: contributing to the social understanding of the city, and to our imagination of it. This post takes a critical look at the methods and results of the project, writes Lawrence Bird.

Winnipeg, Canada

Winnipeg, Canada

In 2009 I began Beyond the Desert of the Real, a two-year project documenting a North American city in short films produced in the community and with graduate students. The project focused on shortcomings of the urban environment as perceived by residents and recent immigrants. The project was funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as a postdoctoral fellowship in research/creation. It was carried out in two departments of the University of Manitoba’s Faulty of Architecture: City Planning and Architecture. This financial support and coexistence in two departments leant some validity to the project, but also created other challenges. What is research? Architects and city planners would probably answer this question differently, as would those adopting different approaches within each of those fields. Such differences are built into a project like this. I’m an architect by training, a social scientist and activist by (I suppose) vocation, and a filmmaker and visual artist by inclination. This project brought those interests together, taking the position that the creative synthesis of approaches and methods is a valuable strategy in understanding the city and giving it form. Continue reading

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Jul 11 2014

Encountering, interrogating and realising the self: Managing emotional upheavals and break-downs during development fieldwork

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In February 2013, I embarked on a field study with my colleagues at a NGO to understand and examine unjust and unlawful land acquisitions by private mining companies in the tribal belt of Raigarh in Chattisgarh during the last one decade. The experience was an emotionally shattering one for me and I decided to quit my research job at the NGO which involved working with highly vulnerable groups, and move full time into the academia where I would spend more time teaching. It was a journey of self-realisation which showed me that I needed more time and strength to face despair day after day and to prepare myself better for dealing with an unjust world where harsh realities stare you in the face when you enter the field, writes Kanchan Gandhi.

Much has been written on the subject of addressing emotions in the process of fieldwork. Moser (2008) argued that emotionally intelligent people (with high EQ)  are able to engage much better with their research subjects and get much more in-depth insights into their lives and experiences than people with lesser emotional intelligence (EQ). Dickson-Swift et al. (2009) illustrate how emotions are a central part of social research by giving examples of researchers who openly exhibit their emotions in contrast to others who hold back their emotions while working with people who were experiencing emotions. They explain how some researchers felt that it was alright to cry if they felt emotionally overwhelmed while others felt that it was irrational or inappropriate to do so. They explain that the emotional aspects of doing fieldwork are seldom written about since university cultures have so far not been very supportive of the same and most often researchers rely on informal support systems such as friends, family and peer-group to discuss the emotional aspects of their research.

More recently Davies and Spencer (2010) argue that denying emotion altogether does not necessarily lead to better research and that emotion is not antithetical to thought or reason, but is instead an untapped source of insight that can complement more traditional methods of anthropological research. Intense emotional experiences are likely to happen while working with marginalised and disadvantaged groups of people. For example Arditti et al. (2010) describe the experiences of conducting research in a prison setting where researchers may feel intense emotions such as anger and sadness that may have a disturbing impact on them.  In their research the injustice in the harsh behaviour of the jail authorities towards the prisoners caused anger among the researchers. The social stigma attached with certain groups such as the prisoners, the homeless and the destitute further stimulates the sensitivity of the researchers as they transform from objective observers to subjective participants in the research process. Often researchers try to place themselves into the research subject’s position and try to imagine what life would be like to be in that place.

In this brief I am going to talk about my own emotional upheavals and break-downs during development fieldwork that I did as a part of my research work with an NGO.  Fieldwork for me became a process of not only understanding the “deprived other” but my own self, as I was not able to handle misery beyond a point which led me to change my career path from working in an NGO for two years to becoming a full time academic.

Raigarh, Chattisgarh, India

Raigarh, Chattisgarh, India

After completing my PhD from the National University of Singapore in May 2011, I decided to work in an NGO which had always been my dream and passion. The NGO that I joined did advocacy and direct implementation work for the poor including the homeless, the destitute and the street children. I joined the research team at the NGO as the  coordinator of the research activities. The research focussed on  conceptualising the lives of the vulnerable groups in the Indian context and documenting their experiences of marginalisation. Having worked with the 2004 Tsunami-affected people during my PhD fieldwork I felt well-equipped with skills to work with socially marginalised and deprived communities only to realise two years later that this work was way more daunting. In my two years at the NGO (from May- 2011 to May 2013) I interacted with several vulnerable groups including people in slums, in homeless shelters and the rat-eaters in the villages of Bihar. In February 2013, I undertook fieldwork along with my colleagues on the issue of land displacement in the context of mining by private companies in the state of Chattisgarh in India. It was this fieldwork that made me realise that doing development fieldwork over a long period of time takes a toll on the sensibilities of the researcher. I personally felt that  I was emotionally not prepared to do it for a very long time and that I needed to take a break from it for some time to strengthen myself to face the field full of injustice and oppression once again. Continue reading

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Jun 19 2014

Gaining access into gated communities: Reflections from a fieldwork in Istanbul, Turkey

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In this piece, Basak Tanulku shares her experiences of conducting fieldwork in gated communities in Istanbul, Turkey for her PhD research. She explains how she decided to work on gated communities, and discusses the problems arising due to difficulties in gaining access. However, access is not a linear process: rather, there are various steps and step-backs during the same study, which can have an effect on the research. Based on this perspective, Tanulku emphasises the importance of keeping a balanced relationship with the participants and of knowing how to ask the right questions.

Selecting the Topic: Gated Communities in Istanbul

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Istanbul, Turkey

I did not live in a gated community nor knew anyone who was living in one. However, I decided to work on gated communities while I was working in a university in Istanbul and collecting news published on various forms of immigration. A piece, published in Tempo Magazine titled as “The Whitest Turks Live in the North of Istanbul” (Tayman, 2004), raised interest in me about gated communities, which were described as reflections of class and cultural segregation and residents living in these developments, as symbols of “cultural whiteness”. “White Turks” has been a popular term used since the 2000s, describing people with an elite lifestyle who complain about Istanbul’s problems such as traffic, crowds and density, air pollution and lack of green spaces leading them to escape from the city centres. I reserved this news and titled it as “reverse migration” which was reminiscent of the conventional “white flight” of upper classes from city centres into suburbs, a trend seen especially in the USA and the UK. This news article brought two personal interests of mine together: a geographical/spatial concept “the north of Istanbul” and a socio-cultural one “White Turks”. Concomitantly, “gated community” is a term formed of a spatial (gated) and a social (community) concept. Continue reading

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Jun 12 2014

Researcher’s social capital: Liaising with local actors for effective ethnographic research


As part of her doctoral research on farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change, Chandni Singh spent 10 months doing her fieldwork in rural Rajasthan, India. In this post, she reflects on effective strategies to liaise with local actors while doing ethnographic research.

“I have started going with SK to have tea at the local dhaba (roadside eatery) every morning. Today Mr LP mentioned that he spent the whole of yesterday waiting for subsidised fertiliser in Pratapgarh. Finally, he bought it for a higher price, because he had ‘no other option’. This perceived (and therefore real?) lack of alternatives, especially when it comes to timely agricultural inputs is a major constraint to farmers in Pratpgarh. But LP is a relatively affluent farmer (he mentioned he carried the fertiliser back on his motorbike) belonging to the Paatidaar caste – it made me wonder how poorer tribal farmers manage. LP becomes overfriendly with me at times, so it is good to have SK from the NGO as a buffer” (Field notes, 4 October 2011)

Why is liaising with local actors important?

District Pratapgarh, southeast Rajasthan, India

District Pratapgarh, southeast Rajasthan, India

The notes above from the first week of my fieldwork illustrate how participating in a common social activity (drinking tea) helped me gain insights into the daily constraints farmers faced in Pratapgarh (my research location). As a young, unmarried, female researcher (see also Yang Shen’s post in this blog), sitting at a male-dominated village dhaba alone in rural India would have been socially inappropriate. However, having SK, my contact in a local NGO, legitimised my presence and allowed me to participate in conversations I would not have ordinarily had access to. I could thus ‘hang out’ in otherwise restricted spaces, allowing community members to “watch, meet, and get to know you outside your ‘professional’ role” (deMunck and Sobo, 1998:41). Forming and nurturing strong relationships with local actors like NGO workers or district officials, not only helps a researcher understand the local context better, but also develops a network of key informants that can be invaluable for collecting data. Through liaising, one can also leverage existing social networks, thus viewing the social landscape of the research area as one where “field participants were interactants who most likely shared settings, history, and who knew each other, at least, by reputation”(Weber, 2001, as cited in Chereni, 2013:12 ). Acknowledging the presence of relationships prior to one’s fieldwork can also open avenues to building a researcher’s own social network. For a researcher who may be visiting the location for the first time, liaising with local actors is useful to help collect background reading before the field work begins, to arrange logistics (finding a place to stay, advising where to eat, helping with travelling) and to sensitise the researcher about social norms (dressing, acceptable behaviour). Most importantly, local contacts can help with introductions to appropriate key informants, help identify and contact village gatekeepers, and facilitate entry into otherwise inaccessible physical or constructed spaces. Continue reading

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