Farmlands, or agricultural landscapes, captures the interest of a number of researchers based at the Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University. On this blog we share information about research findings, activities, events and comments related to our work.

Our interest in farmlands has three roots: farming, landscape and society.
Farming as a practice, including farmers knowledge and labour investments
Landscape as society-nature relations, congealed history, and as space and place
Society as a short form for institutions, gender relations, political economy and scientific relevance

Most Welcome to FarmLandS!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

When different needs, "worlds apart", meet in the field: Reflections from a PhD student and mother.

In 2009 I was off to my first field trip in Africa. A preparation workshop introduced us, a handful of master students, to participatory methods. Since then, focus groups, participant observations, and unstructured interviews have become an important part of my data collection repertoire. In combination with structured livelihood interviews, these methods have provided me with a good insight into households in rural Niger and lately also in rural Mozambique.

My experience does not allow me to call these methods what many researchers do: rapid. All that is said in a meeting must be acknowledged as single perceptions. Assessing common perception (or maybe facts?) usually requires a great deal of time. The insights provided by one group is double checked with groups of similar composition and cross-checked with different groups.

The more time you spend with your respondents, informants, participants, the more you learn about their lives, the smaller is the distance that separates you. “They there” slowly approaches “us here”. Participatory methods, by allowing “them” to guide you, the facilitator, into their world constitute a powerful tool in this approximation.

In combination with open-ended participatory methods, I often rely on structured livelihood interviews. How much land is used by the household members? How many ruminants are owned? What are the main crops? What are the income sources? Which skills are detained by the household members? These, and a series of similar questions, are posed in attempt to estimate the various resource basis that could be drawn upon in pursue of different livelihood alternatives. I usually interview one adult household member at each time, in order to allow them to answer without interference from others. Once individual interviews have been conducted, group household groups follow and tend to enrich each other’s stories and answers.

I have relied on this set repertoire for collecting what I hold to be qualitative unstructured data and also qualitative structured data in some of the poorest regions of the world. Out of the 187 countries ranked by UNDP’s Human Development Index in 2014, Niger and Mozambique lie at the bottom, Mozambique at the 178th position and Niger at the absolute last 187th position. If we add into consideration the fact that my research has been in rural areas, the general urban development bias gives an idea of just how deprived my informants were.

Finding out that a single mother with five young children had nothing but a quarter of a hectare that hardly sufficed to feed them was common place. Too little rain, too much rain, sickness, crop pests, every unpredictable although not uncommon event reminded them of just how vulnerable their lives were. I listened carefully, reminded myself that I am a student, a researcher, not an aid worker, and noted their answers: male, female, elder, younger, richer, poorer, less or more vulnerable according to my classification.

Back home I processing the data, often with distressing thoughts. My informants are so generous, they share their time and so many aspects of their lives and livelihoods with me, I know that deep inside they hope I may be of some help. When we speak the same language and share the same jokes, their hopes become less implicit, and distances must be reviewed: close enough to collect good data, and far enough to remain in the researcher’s position.

The problem is, and my reason for writing this text, that I am no longer only a researcher, I am a mother. I have a little daughter who must eat, and sleep, who needs a clean and safe environment and clean water to bathe, who has received a first round of vaccination, and has been to the hospital already a couple of times. And now that I have her, I think of all the parents that I have come across, women that went through their pregnancy without any medical assistance, babies that were born to undernourished mothers, to homes without water and proper toilets, where food is scarce, and where medical care is rare. As I look at my baby sleeping, I wonder if I will be able use the same methods and listen to similar stories when I now can feel the consequences of what they are telling me. Will I be able to ask, listen, note, and move to next question? I wonder if the other researchers I have met in the field have understood the consequences of their respondents’ stories. We have all listened to them, and noted that their endurance is a proof of just how resilient they are! But I question whether the majority of us has understood them, particularly those storming through selected sites applying “rapid” methods.

I think that now I understand. And, although becoming a mother is probably not a sine qua non condition to feel empathy towards others’ sons and daughters, it is what has led me to realize that in any point of time their deprivation is incommensurably larger than my research objectives; that, when we meet, their needs are far more vital than mine! How to conciliate these “needs” so dramatically apart?

Maybe the following suggestions can help... 1) To reflect with empathy: taking the time to reflect over activities… what are the consequences of these to the respondents? How sensitive is the information we really need to know? More sensitive information should requires more time, less structure, and more empathy; 2) To allow for changes: How opened to changes in our own planning have we been? Even if these changes may not seem “productive” to our own researches, can we accept them when they derive from respondents’ initiatives and inputs? When respondents lead the activities and discussions, these are usually more meaningful to them. 3) To try to give back throughout: regardless of what the research is about (even if the plan is to publish a master piece paper explaining how to eradicate poverty!), why should we wait for our research recommendations to be implemented instead of giving back throughout the research process? A meaningful moment, new information, a new critical thought, or even a larger contact network with persons and organizations known by us can be of important value. What are we giving and what could we give that may be of value to them (without harming future research in the area?)?

Although the researcher will continue a researcher and won’t become an aid worker, we must talk more about the responsibilities that emerge once persons “worlds apart” meet. When we, after eventually obtaining a formal ethical approval, go on implementing subscribed methods without reflection, the researchers’ agenda prevail, and power relations are reinforced and perpetuated with a cynical silence. Tring to be more sensitive, opened, flexible and generous will hopefully allow me to continue doing field work. I think that, after so many years of development research and still so little change in the most vulnerable “field sites”, it is still and always time for us to engage in renewed self-critical reflection.

What are your thoughts on these issues? Are you a formal adept of “Action Research” or similar methodology? Have you reflected about your eventual responsibility towards your respondents? Are you satisfied with how you have conducted field work? Do you have suggestions or reflections to share with us who were/are (or have never been!) struggling with distressing thoughts of unfair relations in the field?

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