Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Ethnographer’s Angst (and how it differs from the Aid Worker’s)

In my last blog post, I talked about some of the shared experiences of aid workers and doctoral researchers, particularly in relation to returning home from field work. Today I am reflecting on some of the challenges that I faced as a researcher – and as an ethnographer – which I found to be quite different from my time doing NGO field work.

First a few words about ethnography. It comprises what might be called a ‘toolkit’ of methods, primarily qualitative, and is used in anthropological studies. An ethnographer generally spends 6 months to a year in the field, immersing themselves in the population they are studying – through activities such as participant observation, where they partake in and observe the everyday lives of their research subjects. They seek to gain an insider perspective of local life, and this is seen as a unique element of anthropology.

One-to-one interviews with research participants are also part of ethnography; but tend to be semi-structured or unstructured – often more like a conversation, without too many set questions. For me, this meant being very general about my research topic when I was interviewing aid workers, and just seeing where the conversation took us; then encouraging my informants to expand upon topics that I thought were particularly relevant or interesting in relation to stress, burnout and the emotional challenges of aid work.

This method is in itself very different from the qualitative research techniques I’d become accustomed to in my career working with human rights and development NGOs; there, the approach was far more direct and with a clearer agenda – there was rarely time to just hang out with the community one was assisting for weeks on end in order to fully grasp their everyday lives. This is one reason why NGOs are often criticised for imposing projects on local communities without a full understanding of their needs; but that is a topic for another blog post.

The unstructured approach taken in ethnography means that you can spend days, maybe weeks on end, feeling like your research is lacking much focus or direction; not knowing where each conversation will lead you, or what sort of data you’re likely to gather from each interview or interaction.

It is perhaps no surprise then that self-doubt was a recurring condition throughout my field research. And, unlike NGO workers who usually have some supervision or support from their colleagues, doctoral researchers receive very little guidance and hence, very little reassurance; it is really up to us to identify what we think is important and find ways of pursuing those areas further.

A number of people I talked to about my research in Kenya didn’t understand this very organic approach. ‘What, you don’t have a specific definition of stress?’ they asked. No, I’d say: I’m more interested in how people define and talk about stress in their own way, which may lead me to a definition.

One person who I was having a casual conversation with about my research, wondered why I’m not asking more direct questions about people’s experiences of trauma or stress. Here is what I documented in my diary that day:

“He continued to look at me doubtfully as we spoke, and I found myself feeling full of doubt. The more he talked and questioned me, the more I began to quietly panic that I’m not going to find anything meaningful out of all this disparate data I’ve collected. I wondered if I’ve really got anything that ‘meaty’ that I can really do something with.”

I wasn’t taking a more direct approach because for ethnographers, interviews and what informants choose to talk about should not be too forced. As such, what is left unsaid can be as meaningful as what comes up in the conversation. Again, this is very different from my days working with human rights NGOs, where it’s perfectly acceptable in interviews to dive straight in with sensitive questions.

But the ethnographic approach certainly left me full of uncertainty a lot of the time. Was I getting the information I was looking for or expecting? Was I asking the right questions? It is still too early to judge – the next year is all about sifting through my data to see what themes and patterns, and eventually conclusions, emerge. All that I know is that there were many moments where I wondered whether I was successfully getting to the heart of someone’s experience, whether I’d built the trust with them sufficiently in order for this to happen, and whether ultimately I was doing good research.  

In many ways with doctoral research it is only we, the researcher, who can judge whether we did enough, and did it well. And as for so many of us – whatever our profession – it is extremely easy for the inner critic to take over. Sometimes I laugh at this whole experience as a doctoral researcher, because we spend so much time beating ourselves up over not doing enough, when there is actually nobody (at least, not in my case, as I have pretty sympathetic supervisors) telling us we should be doing more.

But that is an experience shared with aid workers too; we all feel we should be doing more, and often leave the field with some regrets that we didn’t achieve all that we had hoped. Both aid workers and researchers also question the value of their actions – whether their work will actually have any meaningful impact. My intentions with my research go beyond academia, so it is my hope that the conclusions I reach from it – when those do finally become clear – will indeed be meaningful to the aid sector in the longer term, after thesis completion.

The Return Home: The Shared Experiences of Aid Workers and Researchers

It is nearly two weeks since I left Kenya. The feelings I have as I readjust to UK life are very similar to what I’ve been through before when I’ve returned from mission, only this time I’m returning as a doctoral researcher who has just completed her field research. This fuzzy-headedness, lack of clarity, depletion of energy. Wanting to be alone, not finding the words to express how I’m feeling about being back. Questioning whether anyone would understand, or does anyone really care anyway? And also just feeling too tired, confused and disorientated to engage in that conversation.

Tiredness – or what I would actually describe as inertia – is a familiar feeling to me post-mission or field trip. It’s that feeling of returning home where there are lots of things you need to get done, but where there is an inability to move forward. For a while the tasks pile up, and all you can do is sit there and watch it happen as you feel powerless to do anything about it. Much of the time you just want to be somewhere on your own, doing nothing. This state of inertia is usually short-lived, and I’ve learned that I just have to accept it, and all the complicated feelings wrapped up with it, whilst also remaining present to those feelings. Writing often helps in those moments too.

Aid workers and academic researchers share other experiences too. There is that same emotional attachment to friendships and experiences in the field that seemed unique and intense and unlikely to be replicated in any way back home. Perhaps this is part of just being an expat in foreign lands; the friendships we make tend to be of a quality and intensity that is quite different from the steady development of relationships in our home country. And perhaps it is also linked to the nature of our experiences in a country that is so different from our own. Both aid workers and academic researchers are exposed to communities who, in development studies-speak, are seen as ‘subaltern’ – outside of and excluded from the hegemonic power structures of the global north, often rendering them disenfranchised, disempowered and underprivileged. My actual research subjects – unlike those of many anthropologists and ethnographers – do not necessarily fit this category as in many respects they were seen as the elite. Even a Kenyan aid worker from a poor background – and many I spoke to related to me an upbringing of struggle and hardship – is seen as part of the elite as the NGO sector is perceived by the average Kenyan as pretty lucrative; although many I spoke challenged this assumption.

The point is that, whether as a researcher or an aid worker, we are forced to often step way beyond our comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar to us, where we have to work hard at understanding different social or cultural norms, and where we are often exposed to poverty and suffering on a daily basis of a kind most people in the UK or other wealthy countries could not comprehend. Such moments of exposure – which so quickly become normalised, for both the aid worker and the researcher – nevertheless leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. And such memories are very hard to communicate to others or even make personal sense of back in the comforts of everyday life in the UK. This is partly why the friendships we make in the field are so meaningful, because of that shared, complex experience.

So I find myself, as a researcher, in that strange transient zone I’ve grown familiar with as an aid worker; where I’m here in the UK, walking through the streets of London or Brighton or sitting at home, but much of the time my mind is elsewhere. It’s with the four year old child that was tugging at my sleeve and begging me for money as I bought groceries in Kakuma town. Or with the young Somali incentive worker (refugees who volunteer for the aid agencies and are paid a stipend) who walked me around Kakuma camp, telling me his life story and how since fleeing Somalia as a young child in 1992 he had grown up in Kenya’s refugee camps. Or with the friends I made in Nairobi, many of whom were aid workers themselves, who were there for me when I felt lonely and isolated. Who I felt so touched by when they opened up to me with such trust, telling me the personal challenges they’ve gone through with their work, and who I hope I helped in some way by just being there for them, listening to their doubts, fears, angers and anxieties.

It won’t be long before I immerse myself fully again in UK life and in the next stages of my Phd – the daunting phase of data analysis and thesis writing. But for now the same rules apply as I have taught myself as an aid worker, and which helped me so much in recent years. Stay present to your feelings. Be gentle on yourself. Spend time doing what you love. And find healthy and nurturing ways to reconnect with friends and family.

We are ultimately so lucky to have these experiences, whether as aid workers or academic researchers, as they enable us to broaden our perspectives and connect with a humanity that is far beyond the limited world view of our upbringing. And there are many ways we can put those experiences to good use, both at home and abroad.