The AuthaGraph world map, which is widely considered to be the most accurate map of the world and which notably decentres the West (source: Geoawesomeness)
With Covid-19 restrictions rendering travel for fieldwork impossible for most, the field has been reconfigured to encompass the online space. While the shift to online research methods has undoubtable disadvantages, particularly if it impedes the fostering of relationships of trust with research participants, it also holds the potential for methodological innovation that opens more space for the agency of research participants. One notable example of this is Dr Sonia Marzi’s project Reinventada (Reinvented) in the Colombian city of Medellín. Originally conceived of as a participatory video project in which Marzi would co-produce knowledge with migrant women in Medellín about how they negotiate their gendered right to the city, after travel restrictions were introduced, the project evolved into a remote participatory project whereby the migrant women used their smartphones to chart the impact of Covid-19 on their everyday lives. Reinventada illustrates the potential offered by online research methods to foreground the perspectives of research participants, and to allow them to shape the direction of the research project according to their interests. Furthermore, it demonstrates how online research methods can be designed in a way that undermines the extractivist and deeply problematic tendency for Northern researchers to conduct research ‘on’ or ‘about’ people, rather than with them5.
Another approach to fieldwork that has gained increasing consideration during the pandemic is to contract local or partner researchers already in the field to collect data. Northern researchers who opt for this practice could potentially counteract some of the unequal power relations inherent to academic research if guided by a decolonial ethics. To do so, it is essential for Northern researchers to treat partner researchers as equal collaborators in the production of knowledge6. This necessarily requires the fair and transparent remuneration of partner researchers, as well as attributing their contribution to research projects in eventual research outputs, particularly through co-authorship7.
Even if travel restrictions lift in the coming months (if not years), rather than reverting back to the presumption of travel for fieldwork, as researchers we should continue to consider the viability of online research and/ or collaboration with partner researchers. After all, even in a scenario where our travelling bodies no longer constitute potential vectors of Covid-19, they will continue to contribute to the ongoing climate crisis. For my part, over the past few months I have conducted online interviews where possible, guided by the principle of research ‘as a mode of conversation.’8 In particular, I have tried to pursue a dialogical approach through lightly-structured interviews that opened space for research participants to direct conversation and ask questions of me as a researcher. In the absence of sufficient funding to employ a partner researcher, and given the need for me to build relationships of trust with potential participants, I do still hope to travel to the field at a later date. Nevertheless, this period has prompted me to reflect on how I can strengthen my ethical obligations to the field, driven by the idea that ‘a long-term view on our engagement’9 should be at the core of projects.
Rather than treating fieldwork as a bounded temporality and material space, researchers should consider how they engage with the field - and research participants therein - not only during, but both prior to and post the period designated as fieldwork. Before visiting the field, this could involve devoting time to learning the language spoken there, engaging with its academic production and volunteering for civil society or activist groups. Following fieldwork, more ethical engagement would entail providing the opportunity for research participants to comment on findings, communicating final research results, and where possible constructing longer-term collaborative relationships. As Sabaratnam points out, although ‘deep empirical engagement with those normally excluded’ may be a ‘necessarily incomplete’10 endeavour, it is one that has never been more important as we try to confront deep-rooted and intensifying inequalities.
- Thapar-Björkert, S. and Henry, M. 2004. Reassessing the research relationship: location, position and power in fieldwork accounts. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 7(5), 363-381.
- Connell, R. 2014. Rethinking gender from the South. Feminist Studies 40(3), 518-539.
- While extractivism has multiple dimensions, in the context of this post it refers to academic extractivism by Northern researchers travelling to the Global South to ‘extract’ data which will then be processed and commodified into research ‘outputs’ in the North.
- While I do not (and cannot) claim to speak for all researchers in Northern academic institutions, from my experience as a doctoral student at a UK university, going overseas for fieldwork is rarely discussed as a question of possibility, but rather a question of when, where and how long for.
- Bhattacharya, H. 2008. ‘New Critical Collaborative Ethnography’. In Handbook of Emergent Methods, edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, 305. New York and London: Guilford Press.
- Abedi, O., Baaz, E. M., Mwambari, D., Parashar, S., Toppo, M. O. A., and Vincent, J. 2020. The Covid-19 Opportunity: Creating More Ethical and Sustainable Research Practices. Social Science Research Council, https://items.ssrc.org/covid-19-and-the-social-sciences/social-research-and-insecurity/the-covid-19-opportunity-creating-more-ethical-and-sustainable-research-practices/.
- Mahmood, S. 2012. Politics of piety: the Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 199.
- Kappler, S. 2012. Coping with research: local tactics of resistance against (mis-) representation in academia. Peacebuilding 1(1), 137.
- Sabaratnam, M. 2011. IR in dialogue. But can we change the subjects? A typology of decolonising strategies for the study of world politics. Millennium, 39(3), 26.