Tag Archives: insider research

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.

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.