PhD candidate Clare Coultas reflects on her personal experiences conducting research in the field, discussing the impact and influence of power, privilege and positioning and the importance of researcher reflexivity.
Reflexive awareness is fundamental in all research work. Continually assessing at every stage of a project how we as researchers may impact on not only the people we study but also the findings that we draw is an aspect of research mainstreamed into almost all project ‘checklists’ albeit in different ways. In more positivist and experimental work reflexive awareness carries the primary aim of reducing biases with the ideal researcher being invisible. In qualitative work, which I focus on here, reflexive accounts instead aim to make the researcher visible and demonstrate the part they play in the co-construction of the data produced with participants, aiming to provide a deeper contextualisation of the findings. This is often easier said than done however. And I think the (1975) ‘Inhabited Paintings’ of the Portuguese conceptual artist Helena Almeida (shown above) are useful in aiding to visualise as to why. For the ways in which we might inhabit our research are manifold, dynamic, and sometimes difficult to identify. How much of an insider or an outsider are we in our research and what meaning does this carry? In what ways might our position change over the course of an interview or the study in its entirety? Whose voices can we hear in the decision to undertake the study, in the questions asked, in the analysis chosen, in the interpretations made? Whose voices might be silenced at each of these stages? In my current project that looks at how different ‘knowledges’ (or representations / perceptions) about youth sexuality clash, coalesce or exclude one another in sex education contexts in Tanzania, these questions ring loud in my mind, and the standard approach of writing a reflexive account (normally found as a chapter in the appendices) just doesn’t feel adequate. Drawing on a number of theories linked to identity and interactional processes I begin to unpack some of these questions and what this means for research practice.
Current popular discussions about ‘intersectionality’ highlight the ways in which there are many aspects to our identities that in combination structure our experiences. In this way ideas about ‘what it means to be a woman’ are highly problematic because enormous variances are overlooked according to race, sexuality, gender at birth, socio-economic status, ableism, geographic location, religion etc. Dialogical theories of identity go even further and suggest that our identities are dynamic, and fluidly change as we interact with the changing world around us. How I am positioned as a ‘student’ might be different in one lecture from the next dependent on the lecturer, the topic, the other students around me, the seating arrangement, and this identity will be altogether different from my ‘self’ with my friends, or my identity in family contexts, or with an intimate partner, all of which are also changeable dependent on context. Another important aspect to consider though is history. How do my past experiences and relationships shape the way that I see the world and interactions with others today? A shallow reflexive awareness of myself would be that I am an educated European white woman who has lived and worked in East Africa for over 5 years and speaks Swahili fluently. However this says nothing of my philosophical perspective on the world nor anything of my life experiences and relationships that are continuous and ever-present throughout the research process. Yet furthermore how do historical struggles associated with class, race, gender, or international relations structure my interactions with others and each individual’s ability to act, speak out, or resist? How might those wider and prolonged power struggles such as in the context of my own research, legacies of colonialism, shape present day interpersonal relations? Therefore inhabited in any research project are many voices (old and new) that through the research process can also change. So how can we translate these concepts into practice?
I have found particularly useful the growing body of literature that looks at how research methods can decolonise and work to disrupt rather than (even unwillingly) uphold power imbalances in both social and research settings. Michelle Fine describes this as “working the hyphens” between self-other as well as the global-local in view of the notion that such boundaries are in many ways artificial and highly contestable. A large part of this involves actively challenging the neutrality of the researcher (framed for instance by what I discussed in the previous paragraph) but also the research practice itself. The ethnographer Steven Feierman draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion on practical consciousness (being that which people ‘know how to do’ often in unspoken ways) versus discursive consciousness (being what people talk about) to conceptualise how research practice in itself can act as a colonisation and work to objectify and ‘other’ those being studied. He suggests that by asking respondents to verbalise social relations and phenomena largely situated in the realm of practical consciousness, that an ontological change occurs as dynamic and subjective reality is fixed into a kind of one-dimensional version determined by the context surrounding that particular research setting e.g. who are the discussants (and their individual histories), at what particular moment in time (also situated in the socio-historical backdrop), where does the discussion happen, with what motive(s)? And obviously all of these factors are each continually in motion and changing. Both Feierman and Fine stress the importance of leaving each of these threads hanging and to ‘not succumb to the illusion’ that there is a neat story or explanation for the complex web of contradictions and particularities that make up the social world and human experience. For ‘neat stories’ objectify, and so can become apparatuses for ‘othering’ and colonisation.
In my current research focus, sexualities, this is especially true, where objectifying stories of bad or pathological sexual ‘behaviours’ have been used to categorise and ‘other’ people in wider systems of dominance and control for centuries. In fact it was seeing the disconnect between static stories about “sex in Africa” and the relationships of the youth that I was working and forming friendships with that acted as the basis for my project. For instance a common response to my telling people about my research topic is “oh that must be so hard because people really don’t like to talk about sex in Africa!” However aside from parent-child relationships, as I learnt Swahili I discovered sexual insinuations and jokes everywhere, coming from people of all ages! So many words in Swahili if pronounced slightly wrong come to mean something sexual, and if someone hiccups or yawns or eats octopus soup then the jokes start about them being horny and in need of sex. But I am acutely aware of the historical and contextual backdrop to my research – of white foreigners often connected to colonial enterprises researching Africans, of NGOs coming to ‘educate’ and ‘develop’ Africans – all of which are in some way reliant on objectified stories of difference. I am aware that as I verbalise the above example about sexual insinuations in Swahili, that this interactional dynamic becomes fixed albeit it perhaps being entirely subjective, or even only specific to me as a foreigner learning and speaking Swahili.
As I talk with youth about their relationships and observe and open up for discussion young Tanzanian’s interactions with sex education, I cannot ignore my white body and its historical significance in this particular context. For some people this history validates outright my unsuitability for working in this field. And I respect their concern, for certainly the Western monopolisation of knowledge production about “othered Africa” is an enduring problem, and many “outsider” researchers in African contexts even unwittingly can become complicit in this persisting system of marginalisation and oppression. Yet I also wonder if something quite powerful cannot be learnt from this tension if faced head-on in a continually reflexive and power-conscious way. As I explore the use of methods that work to decolonise I become increasingly aware of how dismantling the (historically) intertwined hyphens of researcher-respondent and European-African is a cooperative act. In our globalising world the latter hyphen is already beginning to blur and in exploring this I have integrated the active and intentional blurring of the former as well. This actually came about inductively, finding that at the end of every session when I ask if respondents have any questions for me, that these were always aimed at seeking true/false answers to the static stories that they had heard about ‘European sexualities’. And when I (often) challenge their thinking – some older men have relationships with younger girls, some girls in Europe also rely on their boyfriends for money, not all relationships between white people are based on trust and monogamy – we all learn. Through their questions I get a glimpse at how they perceive me, and I too learn as I attempt to respond to them, in Bourdieu’s framing, translating practical consciousness into the discursive, and experiencing for myself the difficulties and constraints associated with this.
Yet there is a fragility in this cooperation. From a young age I think we are conditioned to fear difference, often manifesting as embarrassment, awkwardness, resentment, even violence. Creating a safe space for learning from difference requires trust and a comfortable rapport. And here I have to acknowledge the specificities of my project and the ways in which the Swahili language, rooted in a history of bridging communication between people from different cultures and places, inhabits my research. I realise how this language which integrates mannerisms – noises, hand gestures, expressions – and specific references to popular culture that over the years I have shared in, creates a ‘banter’ that has enabled me to almost immediately have warm and jovial interactions with the youth that I’m working with. This would at least have taken a lot longer if we were speaking English or French, if possible at all, and in my view would be near impossible through the conduit of a translator. In any scenario though I think this highlights the importance of having some kind of common ground for mutual exchange from which difference can be opened up. Such a cooperative act can not only provide greater perspective on the ways in which we as researchers as well as others inhabit our research, but also facilitates space to challenge, resist, and actively work to subvert, disrupt and dynamise static stories that dominate and confine identities.
Power however is a slippery thing. I won’t lie. There are moments when I feel conflicted, exposed, or disoriented in my work. Recognising and calling out our own various privileges and restrictions in different situations can be an uncomfortable process; something which sometimes even unconsciously we prefer to shy away from. Yet as William Blake talked about in his writings on ‘contraries’, difference can be a force for creativity and transformation rather than a reason for division, dismissal or domination. Audre Lorde in her speech “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” suggests that our generalised defaulting to the latter is rooted in our being conditioned by Western history and philosophies that see human differences in simplistic and hierarchical opposition to one another. As she explains “it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectations.” We therefore have an obligation as subversive storytellers to continually ask the difficult questions of our ‘selves’ and our practice. To work the hyphens and the discomfort that can come with this and fully explore who and in what way(s) inhabits our research.
This blog piece first appeared on Subversive Storytelling on 22nd October 2015.
Clare Coultas is PhD Candidate in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. She has over five years of experience working for child- and youth-focussed non-governmental organisations (NGO) in East and Central Africa, and has delivered trainings and developed toolkits for the use of participatory and arts-based methods in these contexts. Her current work focuses on knowledge encounters in sexuality education contexts in Tanzania and her research interests include dialogue, critical and community health psychology, materiality, decoloniality, narratives and action research.