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