Category Archives: Research Realities

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.

 

Who is the Aid Worker?

This is a question that has sprung up once again in aid/development debates, and one recent blog post arguing for ‘new words’ captures the issue very well. I have also been considering this question as I conduct research in Kenya. I have used the term aid worker in my research as I wanted to find an expression that could capture the diversity of people I was researching. To me it was the best term available to encapsulate all my research subjects – people working for international development, humanitarian and human rights organisations. But this by no means implies the term is sufficient; in fact it leads to a lot of confusion, for myself and others.

‘Aid worker’ is actually often associated purely with those involved in humanitarian interventions. So people have assumed that I am only interested in staff working for humanitarian organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres or the International Committee of the Red Cross. I’ve found myself having to explain that actually I’m just as interested in investigating the challenges of working on long-term development interventions; in talking to individuals who work on water and sanitation programmes or micro-credit schemes in rural settings, for instance. As what I wish to argue is that chronic stress may arise just as much from working in these sorts of settings as with short-term emergency operations in disaster areas.

But how can a human rights defender be considered an aid worker, some may ask? Well, as someone who has worked for both national and international human rights organisations, as well as development/humanitarian organisations, the easiest way to describe myself, when explaining what I do to people outside the sector altogether, is ‘aid worker’.

But of course this leads to huge misperceptions about what I do. The image of the heroic aid worker feeding a sick child or providing first aid to people fleeing war or violence is what everybody knows; yet I have never been directly involved in these sorts of operations, and in fact when working for human rights organisations there is often no assistance given whatsoever – it’s all about advocacy and raising awareness. But explaining that to an ‘outsider’ sometimes feels too clunky, too tiring….and sometimes one wonders, are they really that interested anyway in these finer details?

Furthermore, when we look at the actual job descriptions of aid workers, many are less on the operational side and more on the systems side of things – whether this be fundraising, M and E or strategy development. They are rarely doing the frontline work of regularly interacting and assisting ‘aid beneficiaries’ (another term that needs a serious overhaul). Yet as I’ve gone about my field research in Kenya I’ve been introduced to and interviewed a range of people who have offered themselves up as ‘aid workers’, who probably spend most weeks and months at their desks in an office in Nairobi, but who have a story to tell about stress and the challenges of the work.

This prompts a relevant question for my research; one which I feel inclined to ask my informants in the ensuing weeks – what does ‘the typical aid worker’ actually mean to people doing aid work?

This could be further expanded to ask more probing questions, like: What is the popular image they have in mind, and what is the real image that resonates more for them? At what point do people who enter the aid sector start describing themselves as an ‘aid worker’? And at what point does this concept of themselves get challenged by the reality they find?

The dissonance between the romantic image of the aid worker and the harsh reality of office politics, donor demands, unethical approaches and ineffective interventions can be a major challenge for people in the sector and, I think, a source of stress and contributing factor for those who burn out. This relates to a previous blog post I wrote about ‘moral injury’. The Headington Institute have a neat definition for this term and of another similar one, ‘wounds of the soul’:

They result from violations of deeply held beliefs about what is right […] when one must choose among “bad” options, [which] may force people to act contrary to their beliefs.

The writer at Headington Institute goes on to give other examples of moral injury within the context of humanitarian aid:

Inability to stop others from committing atrocities; carrying out management directives that violate personal values; witnessing random suffering caused by natural disasters; tolerating overwhelming injustice.

As the writer notes, these experiences can leave aid workers feeling full of guilt, shame and disillusionment – some of the hallmarks also of burnout.

So I feel it is true to say we must consider this term ‘aid worker’ and how we use it. Not just in the intellectual sense, but on a personal level too. Those working within the humanitarian/development/human rights sphere need to reflect on how they wish to see, and be, themselves. The narratives they, and their colleagues and organisations, build around their work may be serving to damage their own sense of self. What is needed in this work is not an inflated or exaggerated image of what one is expected to achieve in a world of extreme poverty and immense suffering, but confidence in the small and modest, but perhaps meaningful role, one can play in challenging opinions and changing lives.

 

 

 

Fieldwork Challenges #1: Accessing Aid Workers

Any new doctoral researcher will arrive at their research site feeling nervous about the journey ahead. They may have spent the first year of their Phd learning research techniques, developing methodologies, mastering the art of investigative inquiry and active listening. But none of this really prepares the researcher for all the uncertainties that lie ahead during field research, particularly if it is in an unfamiliar environment.

I realised this pretty early on in my second year of my Phd, just days before I was due to leave for Nairobi. I had a year’s worth of study under my belt, which included a small research project in Brighton and several essays which examined various research methods – ethnography, life history, elite interviewing, research in conflict settings. And yet as I packed by suitcase and considered what I was about to embark on – at least 9 months of field research, on my own, in Kenya – I asked myself, ‘But what are you actually going to do there? How are you going to carry out your research? What is your starting point and where will you go from there?’

Six weeks in to my field research, and I’m still not sure I have the answers to these questions. And this comes as some surprise to me, as unlike many other doctoral researchers, I’ve returned to a place I’m relatively familiar with, to conduct research among a community whose profession I share – aid workers. My assumption had been that shortly after my arrival my research relationships would fall into my lap, much in the same way my previous relationships have with friends and colleagues when I lived and worked in Kenya, Uganda and Palestine.

But being a researcher in a foreign land is very different from being an aid worker, or anyone else in any other profession. For one thing, you are very much on your own. There is no organisation to cushion you and give you a safe landing into unfamiliar territory. No managers to guide you or structure your day with priorities and deadlines. And the only person who can really answer the sort of questions raised above is you, the researcher.

In addition, I’m realising that no matter how confident we feel in the community we are researching, we should never assume that access will be easy. Accessing research participants – identifying who exactly they may be and how we approach them – requires constant negotiation and self-reflection. As Hammersley and Atkinson note:

Not all parts of the [research] setting will be equally open to observation, and not everyone may be willing to talk…..If the data required are to be obtained, negotiation of access is therefore likely to be a recurrent preoccupation for the ethnographer.

Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 61

This may seem obvious but as so-called ‘insiders’ – those who feel ‘local’ to the community they are researching – we may often assume that we will gain immediate trust and interest from our research participants.

For me, I had gained some confidence about my research topic when talking to friends and colleagues in the aid sector. When I told them I would be investigating stress and burnout among aid workers, they were immediately enthusiastic and keen to tell me their own story or suggest others I could speak to. Yet the reality is that this topic is a sensitive one, for both individuals and organisations. Not all individuals want to recognise the personal challenges they face in doing this type of work, and not all organisations wish to address the thorny issue of why some members of staff appear to be struggling more than others. And even with those that do, I’m finding that this – perhaps understandably – is not a priority for them. We can enter our research site full of expectations around how willing people will be to talk to us about what we see as a vital and important issue affecting wider society, and find that although there may be interest, other ‘life’ situations get in the way. These may be work deadlines, family commitments, or in the case of aid workers perhaps a feeling that they should not spend too long seemingly navel-gazing when their mission is to help others. Any one of these circumstances are of course interesting research observations and findings in themselves – something we have to remember when we feel we’re not collecting the data we had wished for.

Having said that, some moving and relevant stories can come from the most unexpected of sources. Whilst I may spend some days still trying to figure out where I go next and what I ‘should’ be doing, on other occasions I’ve met with people on the pretext of simply finding out more about their work or getting to know them, and left feeling touched by some of the very personal stories they’ve revealed to me. This has taught me that we have to remain open to every new interaction, as we simply do not know where it may lead. And we must treat each relationship very much on its own terms – it may only be a fleeting exchange, but those few moments matter for connecting with people and trying to understand where they are coming from and how they feel about talking to you, as a researcher.

So whilst I try to navigate my way through the sea of humanitarian, development and human rights organisations in Nairobi – through their Directors, Human Resources Managers, programme staff and consultants – I’m doing my best to stick to what I feel are three important principles:

  1. Being open: to whatever opportunities arise, and to enter each situation and interaction without preconceptions or judgements
  2. Patience: to understand that making connections with people, particularly as a researcher, can take time. And that not every day will bring enriching data. There may be some days where little happens at all, except the opportunity to reflect on where I’m at so far and how I feel about it.
  3. Trust: despite the temptation to always question whether I’m doing enough or whether I’m doing things properly, I have to also see this entire process as one of learning – about myself as much as others. We have to feel our way into each day, each interaction, each space we occupy as researchers. Keeping this in mind encourages a sense of trust – that as a new researcher in the field I have to embrace the journey and be confident that each day brings with it a new lesson.

 

 

 

 

How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, as I spend the first days in Nairobi figuring out what I’m really doing here and how I should spend my time.

Whilst I’m here with a purpose – to conduct field research on stress and burnout in the aid sector – the actual reality of what this entails for me as a doctoral researcher, with no person or organisation here to guide me, is hard to grasp. I’ve come here alone and it is only I who can make my time here successful. When a doctoral researcher arrives to conduct their field research, there is no great fanfare or welcoming party, nor a fixed agenda with specific deadlines. We simply have to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

For me this has meant setting up several meetings and networking with aid workers. This side of things is in itself a bit nerve-wracking; working out when it is I’m being a researcher and when it is I’m just being ‘me’ – a new arrival to Nairobi (although I have the advantage of having lived here before), who is genuinely wanting to meet people and make friends.

The challenge I’m describing will be familiar to anyone doing ‘insider research’ – in other words, researching one’s own social or professional community. Putting aside the debate as to whether any researcher, given their status, can ever truly be an insider, I do think having experience in the community one is researching brings its own dilemmas and difficulties. We do not want to appear a fraud in our relationships with research participants, and the chances are as an insider we are sympathetic towards their cause. Yet at the same time we are aware of the ulterior motives that often lie behind each interaction with individuals who may be both friends or colleagues and potential informants. This becomes even more problematic if informants who we have a relationship with outside the research open up emotionally in an interview in a way they haven’t done in normal friendship conversations. How do we respond? As a researcher or as a friend or confidant?

This potential challenge in my research highlights how vulnerability is at the heart of the interaction between researcher and informant, and none more so than in my chosen study topic. I do suspect that for some aid workers, who operate in an organisational culture that discourages the display of too much raw emotion, speaking to a researcher about their feelings may be easier than revealing them to their friends or colleagues. Many aid workers avoid showing their emotional discomfort when assisting poor or war-affected populations or documenting human rights abuses. To do so seems inappropriate in the face of far greater human suffering. And in this way vulnerability is repeatedly pushed aside and denied. This denial becomes so commonplace that it can at times seep into friendship interactions as well, so that when asked how you feel about the work you are doing it is difficult to articulate in a genuine, emotional way.

Being vulnerable is difficult for everybody, not just aid workers. As Brené Brown, vulnerability ‘expert’ says,

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

And it’s difficult for researchers too. Like aid workers, researchers feel they must maintain a level of professionalism that hides vulnerabilities such as self-doubt and guilt over not ever doing ‘enough’, over not meeting our own expectations or those of our informants.

I have a growing belief that recognising and working with these vulnerabilities rather than pushing them aside has value both for aid work and the Phd research process. Staying with our emotions as they arise can help us gain insight into the emotional behaviour of others. Mindfulness, which I discussed in more detail in another blog post, is one tool with which to practise this emotional presence and awareness. Through mindfulness we can observe without judgement our emotions as they come and go in the present moment. By recognising our own suffering, we become more in tune with and compassionate about the suffering of others – whether these are friends, colleagues, research informants or populations being assisted by aid workers. At the same time, acknowledging emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness may be an important way of developing resilience in the field, as an aid worker or as a researcher.

Being emotionally engaged – and vulnerable – can deepen researchers’ understanding of themselves, including their status and position in relation to those they are researching. For researchers of development and aid, this level of emotional awareness may enrich their insights into the hopes, passions and desire for justice that underscore much aid practice. It is these same emotional states that are often the drivers for academic research and which should be integral to understanding how data is collected, generated and ultimately used for constructive ends.