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Building an Ethics of Care in Research During COVID-19

Feminist Perspectives
Dipali Anumol

PhD student, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

29 January 2021

In April, I received a fellowship to conduct preliminary fieldwork in India over the summer. However, the reality of COVID-19 and the importance of being an explicitly feminist research project led me to question my approach. This piece will explore my decision to build an ethics of care into my research process, and the methodological implications of doing so on the long-term viability of my project.

At the end of the first semester of my PhD, I wrote myself a feminist research manifesto. Building on Sara Ahmed’s idea of a feminist killjoy manifesto, I developed my own feminist research manifesto to “expose the violence of a patriarchal order,” unearth power dynamics, and upend the natural way of doing things.1 Feminist research focuses on the hierarchies and power relations embedded in the process of ethnography and field work.2 It foregrounds the role of gender by uncovering the ways in which multiple forms of privilege allow people to “wield power or benefit from it.”3 Feminist research, thus, implies three things:

  • An epistemology of how knowledge is produced from a feminist standpoint.
  • A collection of methods that reflects upon power relations in the field and in academia.
  • A goal of challenging current structures and fostering social change.

My aim was to use my manifesto in the field, while researching and writing, and whenever I was asked to explain what I do. The core principles behind my feminist approach to the research are:

  1. Don’t Just Document, Notice – Go beyond traditional understandings by looking at the margins and at the unexpected.
  2. Listen – Center the experiences of your research participants and interlocutors.
  3. Be Reflexive – Who you are affects what you can do.
  4. Care over Power – Use an ethic of care, don’t wield power.
  5. Galvanize – Make sure your research effects change.
  6. Don’t Run away from Emotions – Your feelings are valid sources of research.
  7. Take Care – Be kind to yourself.

My dissertation is an explicitly feminist research project aimed at studying the relationship between feminist groups, legal reform and social change with respect to sexual violence in India. It is the study of the actual substance of the law as well as the actors and actions involved in the push for reform. My study draws upon and contributes to a burgeoning anthropology of policymaking.4 The study of policymaking and reform requires an ethnographic and feminist sensibility to study ‘up’ (the group’s relationship with the state and judiciary), ‘down’ (the group’s grassroots and local relationships) and ‘sideways’ (relationships with other groups).5 My project aims to understand feminist groups' daily functioning and how they work on sexual and gender-based violence between moments of public outrage. Given my research questions, and my desire to create care-centered research, ethnography and interviews are the appropriate inductive methods to build a theory of how feminist groups in India are able to advocate for change.

Earlier this year, I received a fellowship for preliminary research and fieldwork I initially planned to travel to India over summer and . planned on using a combination of purposive sampling and snowball sampling to speak to feminist groups about their work. Additionally, through semi-structured qualitative interviews with key organizations, legal scholars and policymakers, I wanted to gain a more granular, grassroots understanding of the Indian feminist movement.

However, with COVID-19 spreading to India in late-April and my university’s decision to suspend foreign travel for research purposes, I was forced to rethink my plans. This decision was also a recognition that an ethic of care requires introspection during a pandemic. I initially decided to try to undertake the research remotely via Zoom and WhatsApp. Unfortunately, as the rates of infection increased drastically in India, the country was put under a strict lockdown.6 I was presented with a dilemma: do I try to interview participants during a pandemic, or do I revise my methods?

As aforementioned, I wanted to build an ethics of care into my methods. What did this mean? At its heart, an ethic of care endeavors to minimize harm in the research process. While the inherent power dynamics of the researcher-researched make building trust difficult, a feminist researcher focuses on creating non-hierarchical relationships where the researcher and the researched invest their time and share experiences. This requires building an emotional connection, over and above the research relationship. Building an ethic of care provides participants with a safe space for catharsis, self-reflection and self-acknowledgement,7 recognising human beings as agents and narrators, and creating conversation and discourse with others, not merely about them.

By building an ethic of care into my research process, I want to create a safe space for participants and actively think about their well-being. This entails the resolve to ensure that the well-being and safety of the research participants guides the process of research. Consequently, the reality of the lockdown in India meant that most, if not all, feminist activists were working from home while juggling household and caregiving responsibilities. This was compounded by the fact that participants did not necessarily feel comfortable inviting me, a stranger, into their houses and having difficult conversations about sexual violence via video/audio conferencing, especially with the prospect of being overheard by family and children. Additionally, in a stressful lockdown situation with health worries and isolation, asking participants to speak about their traumatic experiences of sexual violence would further harm their emotional well-being. Practically, without stable internet connections in their homes, Zoom seemed infeasible. In terms of trust building, I did not think audio conferencing would be beneficial – it seemed impersonal and wouldn’t allow for non-verbal cues.

Keeping these considerations in mind, I decided to rethink my methods and conduct secondary research for a literature review. An ethic of care requires flexibility about research plans and adjusting timelines to ensure participants are not put under undue stress. While interpretive approaches to fieldwork such as interviews and ethnography are not currently feasible because they require face-to-face interaction, I believe they are essential to gaining an in-depth understanding of feminist activism. During the University of Oxford’s South Asia from Afar workshops, Dr. Ajantha Subramanian, stressed the need to rethink research in more expansive terms; this entails a multiplicity of methods. Multiple methods allow for a longer-term approach to research where methods can be sequenced depending on access, resources and time constraints. Centering an ethics of care thus means a revising and resequencing methods: with an initial focus on studying how the law has evolved over time through a feminist jurisprudence approach, followed by ethnography and key-informant interviews when the pandemic recedes in the next year or so. This is just the first instance of ensuring an ethics of care in my research. If/when I am able to do fieldwork in India, I am sure I will be met with questions of care, power, inequality and well-being.

 

1. According to Ahmed, a manifesto is “a statement of principle,” “a mission statement,” “a declaration of intent” and “to make manifest.” A manifesto is grounded in what exists but aims to cause a disturbance by rendering a new order of ideas. Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

2. Zavella, Patricia. “Feminist Insider Dilemmas: Constructing Ethnic Identity with ‘Chicana’ Informants.” In Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, ed. Diane L. Wolfe, 138-169. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

3. Davis, Dána-Ain, and Craven, Christa. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. 2016.

4. Greenhalgh, Susan. Just One Child : Science and Policy in Deng's China. ACLS Humanities E-Book (Series). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Shore, Cris and Susan Wright (eds.). Anthropology of Policy: Critical Perspectives on Governance and Power. London: Routledge, 1997.

Tate, Winifred. Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

5. Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1996.

Behar, Ruth. “Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres.” Anthropology and Humanism 32, no 2 (2007): 145-155.

6. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists India as a Level 4 country, with a very high level of risk. India currently has the largest number of confirmed cases in Asia, and has the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the world after the United States. Cases steadily rose over the summer with a peak of 90,000+ cases per day in September.

7. Campbell, Rebecca. Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape. New York: Routledge, 2002.

About the Author

Dipali Anumol is a PhD student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where she specializes in Gender and Human Security. Her research interests include South Asia, gender, feminist activism, legal reform for social change, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Her proposed doctoral work aims to understand the relationship between feminist advocacy, civil society, and responses to sexual violence. Prior to Fletcher, she worked in development consulting across a range of projects on education, child rights, gender, and urban development. Dipali previously studied International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M).

Email: Dipali.anumol@tufts.edu

Twitter: @dipali17

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that uses gender as a category of analysis or…

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