The author, Anuarite Bashizi
Conducting field research in contexts characterized by deep poverty and high insecurity implies to be constantly subjected to difficult situations where the humanity of people is called into question. Indeed, in (post-)conflict settings where people are extremely destitute, we are confronted with interviewees who have to struggle to survive, often in miserable circumstances. Knowledge production protocols instruct us to detach ourselves from our field in order to study it. And also when aligning to a less positivist viewpoint; even when we try to connect with the intimacy of our field, we are always asked to be “objective”. Being coherent and consistent when reporting results is required for data to be reproducible in order to gain scientific value. In this sense, the politics of knowledge production promotes a certain distance between researcher and subject. But what does this imply for field ethics in poor and insecure places?
When we talk about the field research ethics, we refer to a process in which the researcher reflects, installs standards and rules, based on his own rationality of what should or should not be considered as ethical. The targets of the research ‒ the communities studied or their living environments ‒ have very little to say in that decision-making process. However, this self-centered focus of the researcher on ethical issues can sometimes be inappropriate when considering the challenges that people in the field experience.
One day, while doing an interview with a woman in a village, I saw her dipping her cheeks with her cloth, trying to dry a few tears that had just escaped from her eyes. I understood right away that my interview had touched upon a subject that was sensitive for her. I wanted to ask for more details, but I didn’t dare bring up another question. Without saying a word, she got up and went into her house. Alone, outside in the courtyard, I began to blame myself for the effects that my research was having on the emotional state of my interviewees.
After about ten minutes, the woman came back from her house, her face still sad, and sat down next to me. She revealed to me what our discussion had released in her. Her story was marked by deep misery and poverty. After her last sentence, the woman sighed, raised her head and, while looking aside, said: “Only the Lord can help us.” I could feel her suffering, but I couldn’t find any words to comfort her. I wanted to offer her some money, but I remembered that within the ethics guidelines, that risked being seen as buying data. And even if I intervened, what was I to do about the enormous needs and demands of the other interviewees whom I was meeting in the field every day? People who were just as poor as she? Couldn’t my helping some and not others easily raise frustrations amongst them? And wouldn’t my conduct then put future researchers in a difficult position? The only thing I finally said was: “Keep strong, mama, the Lord will take care of it, indeed.”
After we parted, I felt a lot of guilt. This woman had shared information with me that would help me to write my thesis. But, in the name of field research ethics, I had not given anything in return that would help her situation. She was in need and I had done nothing. A year later, I went back to my field. I looked for her family but I couldn’t find it. Two years later, I found out that this woman’s husband had died of tuberculosis.
I collected my data in the midst of a context marked by misery. Yet, my field research ethics protocol instructed me to stick to my position of researcher, and not of NGO employee. I reckon that I couldn’t necessarily do much to change the situation, and maybe that’s not my role anyway. But how do we cope with situations that give a face to poverty? In my eyes, my experience points to the problematic egocentricity of field research ethics. We place the researcher at the center of decisions around what is ethical or not. She or he defines the appropriate ethical guidelines on the basis of ‘scientific principles’ in alignment with professional standards, without being accountable for the context of impoverishment in which the researcher circulates. In my opinion, we have to rethink the fact that we currently put the researcher in the center of the decision-making process on what is ethical or not. Especially when the research involves people who are in very difficult situations.