With a little help from my family: how do researchers negotiate the risks and problems of doing fieldwork

Kanchan Gandhi (right) with her mother during fieldwork

Menusha De Silva, Singapore Management University, and Kanchan Gandhi, New Delhi

How can higher education institutions ensure the safety of researchers while they conduct overseas research without compromising the researcher’s academic freedom and their ability to deliver high-quality work? The cases of Giulio Regeni, who was abducted, tortured and murdered during his fieldwork in Egypt in 2016, and Matthew Hedges, who was imprisoned for over five months in 2018 during his fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates, exemplify some of the more brutal dangers researchers can face in the field.  Although most researchers will not face such extreme danger, all fieldwork – whether it is conducted overseas or in the researcher’s home country – involves some form of risk to the researcher’s physical and/or emotional well-being.

Geographers have drawn attention to the physical dangers researchers, particularly women, have to negotiate when they conduct fieldwork. For example,  some researchers rely on family members to assist and accompany them in the field. Meanwhile, some white, female researchers who engage in cross-cultural fieldwork, especially in the global South, rely on their husbands and/or partners to provide protection from physical harm. Female researchers often present themselves in a way that conveys that they are conforming to the social and cultural norms of the communities they are studying. In some instances, taking young children to the field can make it easier for researchers to build a rapport with their participants as they bond over common concerns about children. Researchers’ dependency on family to ensure the success and safety of fieldwork highlights that our work is shaped by who we are as individuals, our family, and our social connections. In other words, our gender, age, class, religion, ethnicity, citizenship status, sexuality, physical appearance, and personality, among other factors, are implicated in the ways in which people interact with us and consequently our work.

Our paper in Area focuses specifically on how we, as PhD students, relied on our parents to help us with research in our home countries. We reflect on our negotiations as ‘natives’ to our field sites in Sri Lanka and India and refer to three of our colleagues’ experiences in India and the Philippines. Our identity as local women meant that we had to align with the dominant gendered cultural norms of our field sites, such as being accompanied when we traveled to distant places or meeting with unknown people. In addition to protecting us from both real and perceived risks, we discuss how our parents assisted the research by tapping into their social networks to identify study participants, giving back to the communities we researched, and providing care and accommodation.

While there were occasions when we insisted on navigating the field alone, our fieldwork was most successful when we relied on our parents and emphasised our identity as a ‘daughter’ who was under the protection of their parents. Yet, due to our identity as PhD researchers, and experiences of living alone in an unfamiliar country, our dependence on parents led to feelings of shame. We show how the explorer and survivor rhetoric that continues to influence general understandings of fieldwork led us question was it means to produce an ‘independent’ piece of work. There are numerous individuals who contribute to PhD research, but they are ordinarily only mentioned in the thesis acknowledgements. Our parents played important roles by helping to facilitate our fieldwork and by mitigating risk during our fieldwork. Through this paper, we retrospectively recognize our parents’ influence on the research process and highlight the need to critically engage with other people’s contributions to shaping and accomplishing a research project.

About the authors: Menusha De Silva is a research fellow in the School of Social Science, Singapore Management University. Kanchan Gandhi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

Chiswell, H. M., & Wheeler, R. (2016). ‘As long as you’re easy on the eye’: Reflecting on issues of positionality and researcher safety during farmer interviews. Area, 48, 229–235. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12257

De Silva, M. and Gandhi, K. (2018) ‘Daughter’ as a Positionality and the Gendered Politics of Taking Parents into the Field. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12525

The Guardian (2016) Italian student killed in Egypt: Giulio Regeni ‘showed signs of electrocution’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/14/italian-student-killed-in-egypt-giulio-regeni-showed-signs-of-electrocution

The Guardian (2018) Matthew Hedges jailing: two more UK universities cut ties with UAE. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/nov/24/matthew-hedges-jailing-two-more-uk-universities-cut-ties-with-uae

Lunn, J., & Moscuzza, A. (2014). Doing it together: Ethical dimensions of accompanied fieldwork. In J. Lunn (Ed.), Fieldwork in the Global South: Ethical challenges and dilemmas (pp. 69–82). New York, NY: Routledge.

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