In my experience, fieldwork is one of the most rewarding parts of the research process. My qualitative fieldwork with young people and families in Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and Ghana as well as in the UK has enabled me to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics and diversity of family life and the importance of reciprocity in caring relations and community support networks. I feel privileged to have been able to listen to people’s life stories, even if only for the duration of an in-depth interview. The personal connections that I made with people ‘in the field’ who helped to facilitate the research, such as those who helped to identify potential families to participate, those who provided interpretation and transcription of audio-recorded interviews and those who have welcomed me and provided somewhere to stay and share meals with during fieldwork, have often developed into lasting friendships. It is now much easier than when I did my PhD research with street children in Tanzania to remain in contact with friends, local facilitators and participants ‘in the field’ due to wider access to mobile phones and the internet.
Doing fieldwork demands flexibility in the times and places that research is conducted, especially when working in the global South, to fit in with participants’ caring responsibilities, schooling/ studies and livelihood activities. I can recall interviews conducted in the dark in a village in Senegal, writing notes with mosquitoes and moths fluttering against the torch, as the orphaned young man I interviewed lacked electricity and could not afford oil for a paraffin lamp; and chaotic focus groups and interviews conducted on the street in Tanzania, with some children disappearing when income-earning opportunities arose to carry someone’s shopping and others were high on glue. I have also travelled by charrette [horse/ donkey and cart] to meet participants in Senegal. While for me this was a novel way to arrive at an interview, it was sobering to learn that this was residents’ only means of transport to the nearest health facility over 7 kilometres away; such delays sometimes resulted in the deaths of pregnant women who had complications, as had sadly happened to the wife of one widower I interviewed.
Fieldwork may also pose ethical dilemmas for researchers, particularly when conducting research with families experiencing chronic poverty. The small expenses payment offered to participants at the end of interviews often seems inadequate in view of the basic needs and problems that interviewees have talked about. This was particularly evident in our recent research in Senegal (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/deathinthefamilyinsenegal/), when Joséphine Wouango (http://www.reading.ac.uk/ges/about/staff/j-wouango.aspx) found that some young people asked directly for financial assistance to pay for school fees.
Leaving the ‘field’ and reverse culture shock can also be difficult for some researchers and maintaining links and friendships made in the field can help to address such experiences, as well as a way of ‘giving back’. I still sometimes receive texts in Kiswahili from one young participant I interviewed on two occasions in Dar es Salaam, referring to me as ‘sister’: ‘Shikamoo dada Ruth’! Returning to the field for dissemination and to share preliminary findings with participants is often an ethical requirement and can help participants to see how their experiences relate to those of others in similar situations which can be empowering.
In researching ‘sensitive topics’ that involve the participant talking about intimate, difficult life experiences, such as in my research with people living with HIV, with young carers and with those who have experienced the death of a relative, fieldwork is often a very intense experience which demands considerable ’emotion work’ by researchers. I have found the cumulative effects of listening to numerous participants’ life stories emotionally draining and have sometimes felt isolated in the field, due to the need to ensure the confidentiality of information shared by participants. The emotional risks and potential harm to researchers, as well as appropriate institutional support, have only recently been acknowledged and appear to affect women researchers more than men, particularly those engaged in research on ‘sensitive topics’ (see Sampson et al., 2008 – http://soc.sagepub.com/content/42/5/919.abstract and Hubbard et al., 2001 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13645570116992#.VNUUfC4wCkM).
This highlights the importance of acknowledging our own emotions, being reflexive about the research process (as advocated in feminist research methodologies), and providing appropriate opportunities for debriefing and discussion of emotions. In our research in Senegal (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/deathinthefamilyinsenegal/), we have adopted a reflexive approach to understand the multiple positionings of the research team, comprised of British, Senegalese and Burkinabé researchers and seek to interrogate our own cultural assumptions (see our recent conference paper – http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/evansddpaper.pdf). We also seek to ensure that the emotions involved in doing research are regarded as a shared responsibility of the team.
So, while celebrating the benefits and rewards associated with fieldwork, it is also important to recognise the physical and emotional demands that qualitative fieldwork can make on researchers and provide appropriate supervision and support for researchers, particularly for those doing sensitive research, within universities and other research environments.
Ruth’s research focuses on gendered and generational inequalities in access to resources, caring relations, and social vulnerabilities experienced by children, youth and families, particularly those affected by bereavement, chronic illness, HIV and disability. She recently completed a collaborative research project with colleagues at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana on Access to land, food security and the intergenerational transmission of poverty in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana (2012-14) http://www.reading.ac.uk/geographyandenvironmentalscience/Research/HER/ges-RE-Ghana.aspx which you can watch a video about here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqZLmwkN3LM&feature=youtu.be. Recent research has focused on Inheritance, access to resources and family relations in Senegal (2011-12) and Palm Oil, Land Rights and Ecosystems Services in Liberia (2012-13) http://www.reading.ac.uk/geographyandenvironmentalscience/Research/HER/ges-inheritance-senegal.aspx.
Ruth also completed a study on stigma, gender and generational inequalities in asset inheritance and the intergenerational transmission of poverty in Tanzania and Uganda (with Caroline Day), funded by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (2010-11). Read more about the project here – http://www.reading.ac.uk/geographyandenvironmentalscience/Research/HER/ges-resassets.aspx. Ruth conducted a qualitative, participatory study of young people’s caring responsibilities for their siblings within child- and youth- headed households in Tanzania and Uganda, funded by the RGS-IBG and the University of Reading (2008 – 2010).