Reliable data? The pressure to deliver, versus the complexities of the field
Translation by Sara Weschler
The author, Esther Kadetwa
Interactions between the Global North and South in the context of academic research date back several decades. On the one hand, these interactions benefit from the intersection of numerous cultural backgrounds, which combine an expertise possessed of easy access to current literature (often on the Northern side of the partnership), with a field expertise rooted in local cultures and complexities (often on the Southern side). On the other hand though, the power imbalance at the heart of these interactions often results in the Southern research assistant working as a subcontractor for the researcher from the North. Such an arrangement comes with the risk of multiple disagreements, placing the research assistant in a very complex position as she navigates between the requirements of the ‘Northern donor,’ and the expectations of the ‘Southern population’ participating in the research.
Naturally, every research cycle is contingent on adherence to several parameters, and a respect for scheduling is a fundamental element among these. Yet the schedules of many projects often fail to take into account the complexities of the situation on the ground. In many cases, a research assistant’s involvement is not limited to data collection alone. Also, the assistant must often work under the pressure of a timetable imposed by a donor who may not have a sufficient understanding of realities on the ground. Thus, the research assistant finds herself in an ambivalent position, caught between her Northern partner’s expectations, and the complexities of the field – and given very little room to manoeuver, in terms of conveying her concerns from the ground to the donor in the North.
Moreover, numerous problems can arise while negotiating access to the field. First of all, certain key respondents may feel compelled to participate in the project without truly wanting to do so. In such cases, they may deploy various strategies to avoid contact with the researcher, which in turn causes her to lose considerable time and resources. Then, once in the field, the researcher may come up against respondents who are reluctant to provide information. In some cases, the researcher may even be viewed as a ‘spy’ in the research setting. This perception may impede her research, or else make her navigation of the research terrain very difficult. Such situations put the research assistant in a very challenging position: on the one hand she must meet donors’ expectations in a timely manner, and on the other she must overcome these various complexities of the field.
Faced with such fieldwork challenges and hounded by the pressure to deliver, the research assistant may find herself feeling abandoned to her own fate. She has this little bell constantly ringing in her mind, telling her, “You’ve got to get the bosses their data,” – even as the context on the ground oftentimes prevents this. It is in these sorts of circumstances that a research assistant may sometimes feel obliged to resort to maneuvers that can bias the results. One group of researchers, for example, related the following experience: “During one study in an area of South-Kivu, we ran into difficulties in accessing information, yet we were already obligated to send our findings back to the donors. To get around this challenge, we fell back on friends and acquaintances who had opinions on the topic and were willing to act as respondents. For some questions, we even provided the responses ourselves.”
The post-fieldwork stage of a project also comes with its own challenges. The donor often requires the local researcher to produce a field report. However, this phase of data transcription and (potentially) analysis can present new forms of stress. We know that it is often more effective to get some distance from the data we have collected, so as to then approach it anew with a fresher gaze. Yet the deadline is often very tight, which puts the research assistant in a stressful position. Once again, the situation pushes her towards pragmatic strategies, such as: proposing an overly summarized report and thus “forgetting” important information – including quotes from respondents; limiting herself to a superficial analysis which captures only a portion of the complexities on the ground; or even copying analyses from other researchers who have worked in contexts which, though fairly similar, are still different. All these strategies have a negative impact on the reliability of field data, with adverse effects for the final products of the research – that is, the “published results.”
In examining all these challenges, we find that at the heart of the matter there lies a more fundamental problem, rooted in the imbalance of power established between the stakeholders from the very outset of the research. This state of affairs can be explained by the fact that the various stakeholders are connected to one another through a “boss-to-subaltern” relationship, where the research assistant’s role within the project cycle is very limited. The use of the above-mentioned strategies, developed in response to pressures from Northern researchers, will persist so long as research assistants continue to be seen as mere project implementers, rather than full partners in research. Taking research assistants into account and involving them in all stages of the research cycle would serve to address numerous challenges and lead to more reliable research.