Doing research involves collecting data within a specific, designated timeframe. In this context, for data collection, research coordinators (academic and NGO actors) often make use of research assistants based in the Global South. These assistants, however, are constrained by various difficulties in gathering the necessary data within the allocated time. Very often, navigating the research terrain proves more complex and risky than expected and entails dynamics that render the allocated time insufficient for the research.
One of the most frequently encountered problems is a target population’s refusal to participate in the research and provide the researcher with information. This refusal is not always radical, and can evolve over time towards a more collaborative position. It can involve missed appointments that impede the research process, not only for the researchers themselves but also for the project managers. This aspect of the research process presents ethical challenges that are sadly not taken into account during project design phase. Yet they place the research assistant under considerable stress when, as a result of these missed appointments, she is unable to present results within the allotted time. In other words, the field imposes certain working conditions on the research assistant that are rarely taken into account in research designs, which tend to be guided by a logic of extraction.
Navigating the research terrain is not a simple task. The complexities of the field are often seriously underestimated. Above all, being able to convince people to participate in a study is by no means a given. Indeed, the researcher can’t just force her way into the field; her access to the information she needs to carry out good research is always dependent on the good will of the research participants. In some cases the refusal to participate is clear-cut. Some respondents do not want to make themselves available for delivering up information. They sometimes see the research as a disturbance, or a waste of their time. Others decide not to deliver data (right away) to the researcher because they assume that she has been paid while they haven’t gotten anything. In many cases, research participants schedule appointments for after the research deadline has passed, which places the research assistant in a difficult position. Faced with such unavailability, research assistants find themselves stymied, especially if they have no other alternatives. This kind of situation creates many frustrations. Researchers and research assistants must prepare themselves for the challenges that arise from participants being unavailable, since these participants are in no way obligated to provide information or make themselves available on the schedule set by the research project design. In other words, researchers have no given right to information. This poses real challenges and it is up to the researcher to figure out how to navigate between various spaces to attain the expected results.
Recently, I worked on a study about the political economy of elections and the role of gender. I had to meet with women who had just been elected, and with others who had not. I was in for an unpleasant surprise: the majority of them refused to see me, since they were very busy and had better things to do with their time than discuss elections that had any rate already passed. Others demanded that I show them a proof of my research mission in which it was clearly stated that I must complete my research by a specific date. Yet even then, many suggested that I come back on a date two weeks after the conclusion of the project. They would then see if they were freed up from their various commitments. Still others told me: “Come back later!” And when I asked, “On what day?” they’d respond, “Just, come back later !” This vagueness around meeting times always left me in an uncomfortable position. But still more seriously, it left me without concrete answers to many lines of questioning. I asked myself what other research assistants do in such situations. Do they turn in incomplete, or even false, data – just to get themselves off the hook and please their project managers? And what do those project leaders do when an honest researcher reports her difficulty in collecting data within the allotted timeframe? Is the researcher received with trust, appreciated for her efforts, and remunerated for all the work this involved? Or is she, on the contrary, treated like a slacker who failed to deliver on what she was hired to do? More generally, do we have the right to impose ourselves as researchers?
After being in the field, in sharing these experiences with fellow researchers, I quickly came to understand that I was not the only one being faced with these difficulties. One of my colleagues was quite troubled and tormented because in a project he worked on, he was expected to meet a single person for an interview. He tried on several occasions to meet her, but to no avail. All he got were promises. Unfortunately the appointment dates he was finally given greatly exceeded the timeframe allotted for the research.
Research assistants encounter many other such experiences that constitute huge challenges in their work. But from another angle, researchers should not see these scheduling challenges as a source of frustration. Rather, they should develop alternative pathways and mechanisms for successfully carrying out the work expected of them. But more importantly, research donors and managers should grant research assistants more room to maneuver. This ought to open up alternatives in case of a research appointment falling outside the anticipated timeline for a project. And that, in turn, will have a definite impact on the quality of data collected.