Guest Blog Post: “Why are you doing this? Reflections on fieldwork and the ‘purpose’ of Social Science research”

This blog post is from a guest contributor, a Sussex Postgraduate researcher grappling with the following question: What is the point of conducting field research among the marginalised or oppressed, if this research will not lead to any immediate improvements onto their lives?

Read below to see how our guest blogger tries to reconcile with their different positionalities to try and make themselves and their research support the communities they collaborate with. The post highlights some of the contradictions between promising ‘effective’ and ‘impactful’ research, and the realities of working with complex marginalised communities who are in need of both structural changes and different forms of research/activist support.  

While conducting field research, I would occasionally be asked by participants this very question – ‘Why are you doing this?’  

My answer varied over time; in the early stages, I would explain that I was conducting research on refugee camps, with the largely abstract (and naive) hope that this might, in the long run, lead to some improvement in the conditions, or during flights of frankly inexplicable optimism, the closure of the camps. In truth, I knew this would not be the case – who reads the work of a PhD candidate? – but I felt compelled to offer some kind of hope, to legitimise my research project by illustrating its practical relevance.  In the main, this seemed to satisfy most participants; several expressed gratitude, and a belief that drawing attention to their plight would push the relevant authorities to act. ‘If only they knew what it is like,’ goes this line of reasoning, ‘they would not let it continue’. Unfortunately, this logic is fundamentally flawed; the relevant authorities, policy makers from Brussels to Berlin to Athens, were well aware of what was happening. Their respective publics were either supportive of repressive policies, indifferent or so overwhelmed by their own struggles that they were incapable of mustering the energy to engage with more distant (geographically, emotionally) concerns. And so the imposition of ever more repressive ‘border’ policies, of which the (closed) camps are a part, continue apace.    

On reflection, perhaps it would have been better to answer honestly, to explain that my research would have no effect at all on the conditions in the camps. At best, it would be read by a handful of scholars, who might muse over its findings, possibly cite a particularly insightful excerpt in their next paper, and then move on. Meanwhile, the conditions in the camp would not change (indeed, they were to get progressively worse over the period of fieldwork). The wider ‘war on refugees’ (there is a reference here) would continue. Though it is standard academic practice to point to the various ways in which the marginalised/oppressed research participants might gain from such projects, the only real beneficiary, as far as I could make out, would be the humble author, who, on the strength of my thesis, might secure additional funding, or some form of employment (either within academia or outside its hallowed halls). This dire prognosis precipitated a change in approach.  

Improving the everyday lives of participants (and indeed others in similarly precarious situations but not participants as such) therefore became the priority. This took many forms; from re-humanizing (shaking hands, remembering names, listening) to arranging or accompanying people to medical appointments, from offering logistical support/legal connections to setting up literacy or language projects in camp. In this I am not exceptional; the figure of the activist-researcher is well established. Activism, in this context, meant using the various means available to me (time, communication skills, access to social/financial capital) to deliver tangible, short-term improvements to participants lives, whenever and wherever possible. Placing this concern at the centre of my research praxis allowed me to accept the negligible societal impact it would have, and overcome my reservations about the exploitative nature and/or impotence of academia.”

— Anonymous PGR at the University of Sussex 

This blog post is an interesting take on the ‘epistemic extractivism’ of field research, and discussed ways in to try and break the chain of extraction through activist engagements in and beyond fieldwork. While publishers may strive for ‘completed’ research that promises ‘big impact’, the reality is that researchers ‘in the field’ best support communities through a critical and full transparency of what their roles and research can realistically give. Sometimes this is more ‘long-term’ and slower paced than what publishers (or PhD researchers) first aspired. 

If you are ever in doubt about your research and the ethics, however, please read more about the ethical review process for PGRs here


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