Research, or Adventure? The lived experiences of researcher assistants
Translation by Sara Weschler
François-Merlan Zaluke Banywesize
Research collaborators and assistants play a key role in many research projects in the DRC. Nevertheless, their role in the cycle of knowledge production often remains invisible. The conditions under which they work are rarely analyzed or discussed. Their presence is rarely made visible in a project’s final results. They are, in a sense, treated like data-collection “robots.” Very little thought is given to the research assistant’s “lived experience” in the course of a project; to how he feels during his trips to the field; and to how his state of mind influences the quality of his work and his personal wellbeing. And even when the interests of local collaborators are considered, discussion is often limited to the question of their salary, without taking other aspects of their experience into account.
First of all, the research assistant’s experience begins with the fieldwork preparation phase. Oftentimes, the preparatory training phase of a study involves very little organization and is carried out in a hurry. Let us consider, for example, my own experience in a project I worked on in 2010. The study involved the use of an accelerated participatory research method (méthode accélérée de recherche participative, or MARP, in French). This method incorporated a wide range of techniques: individual interviews, focus group discussions, participatory mapping, various participant observation protocols; as well as the development of seasonal calendars, an ecological timeline, and a causal tree diagram. For a project with such a wide range of methodologies, not much time was allotted to training. This created immense psychological stress for the researchers involved. Nobody felt like they could really absorb all the information. And this feeling of “not being up to the task” began to pervade the very atmosphere of the training room. Some researchers stopped talking. Others fell sick trying to confront the complexity of the work we needed to complete in such a short timeframe. When some of the researchers made modest attempts to bring this to the attention of the funders, project managers simply replied that the fieldwork would be easy: “It’s a field visit of just a few days, and we’ll have an easy time getting the data.”
The experience of the research process does not stop there. Once in the field, the research assistant is expected to find solutions to all sorts of complexities that arise. If one’s funder is not necessarily aware of these issues, it is not easy to discuss such complexities, or bring up the psychological burden that they create. Indeed, in the case I have just mentioned, as we progressed, the research became more and more embarrassing. One greatly underestimated dimension, for example, was the amount of energy it took research assistants to motivate our target groups to participate in the study. In every encounter we were confronted with comments like: “Don’t take up too much of our time. What will you give us after this exchange?” and also, “let’s begin, but keep in mind that you guys are people, too…” This statement referred to the fact that the participants implicitly expected some sort of compensation for providing us with data. As researchers, we had to find mechanisms for confronting these challenges, which in turn caused us to stay in the field longer than expected.
And then, the “research experience” does not end at the moment when the data has been collected. Often, the research assistant is responsible for coding this data according to a predetermined template. After that, though, the research assistant is not necessarily involved in the rest of the process. This can pose a problem, since the populations that participated in the study may later hold him or her accountable for the lack of feedback or follow-up on the data they provided. Moreover, getting left out of the loop in subsequent stages of the project and being denied visibility during the presentation of the final results can also leave the research assistant with a feeling of powerlessness.
As the ethical dimensions of research are now starting to be raised in training workshops, it is important that we also consider the “human” dimensions of local researchers’ experiences. Offering them more flexibility in the various stages of a study could be a step in the right direction. In addition, it would be important to create space for discussions and exchanges about the human challenges of research.