“Si, ingeniero”: Advice for engaging research participants on equal footing.

I have done research on peasant agriculture in Colombia for over 8 years now. In one project, I studied farmer decision-making to explain why peasants were adopting pesticide use patterns that were uneconomical and dangerous for their own health and for the environment. In a second project, I studied traditional informal institutions that were seemingly hindering, rather than supporting, adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations. These studies have led me to carry out fieldwork in two peasant communities in the Department of Boyacá, in the Eastern Andean Cordillera. Over 8 years I conducted a total of 5 fieldwork campaigns, each campaign requiring a stay of 4 to 10 weeks.

Department of Boyacá (in red)

Department of Boyacá (in red)














To conduct fieldwork in this region has been challenging in many ways, but the biggest challenge has been to engage with local peasants on equal footing.



When visiting households for face-to-face interviews, or in focus groups, I was initially surprised to hear myself called ingeniero (engineer) by the local peasants. People participating in my research would also respond to most of my questions with default affirmative answers such as “Si, ingeniero”, or “Si señor” (Yes, engineer; Yes sir). I soon learned that this is a quite common manner of interaction adopted by local peasants when interacting with supposed ‘experts’ (for example government officials and extension agents) coming from outside the local community. So, by calling me ingeniero the people participating in my research were manifesting their deference and respect for the scientific knowledge that I held and which, they thought, I must have considered superior to their experiential knowledge. But there is something subtler to it; this deferential and slightly submissive attitude is not quite what it seems. In fact, peasants most often believe they know farming better than ‘experts’, but tend to rehearse such deference to avoid gainsaying the experts, and to show instead –at least officially- that they comply with and accept the expert’s opinions or recommendations. To the British reader, this may bring back memories of the “Yes minister” TV series. Similarly to the sly bureaucrat in the TV series, in practice, peasants’ reverence hides practices of everyday resistance that include telling lies, incompliance with laws, and refusal to participate in communal schemes and projects. This attitude has been explained by various scholars (for example Orlando Fals-Borda) as being the legacy of centuries of colonial and post-colonial exploitation of peasants. In effect, it can be interpreted as a protective strategy adopted by marginal groups against the oppression and exploitation of more powerful actors (see for example the great “Weapons of the weak” by James Scott).



This was clearly a problem for my research. I wanted participants to engage in truthful conversations with me. It was not my aim to influence farming practices, and even less so to make recommendations to peasants, on the basis of what they thought I would consider my ‘expert’ knowledge, regarding their crops. For instance, regarding pesticide use or measures to adapt to increase climatic variability. In fact, these were exactly the things I wanted to understand from them, to make sense of the decision-making resulting in dangerous pesticide use patterns, and informal institutions seemingly hindering adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations.

Typical landscape of rural Boyacá.

Typical landscape of rural Boyacá.











Therefore, if I were to make sense of the social reality of those peasant communities, I needed to break open the protective layer that peasants were interposing between us. After more than 8 years of experience in the field, I can say that I have made significant progress in engaging Colombian peasants on more equal footing. This has not been easy, and if I’ve seen some success, it is only thanks to a long and continuing negotiation of my identity as a researcher in the field. In short, that is what I have learned:



– Written consent raises suspicions. Unsurprisingly, research participants often do not to understand the mechanisms researchers need to follow to fulfil ethical guidelines and best practices. Peasants tended to be very suspicious of anyone asking for a signature on any sheet of paper (i.e., their consent to participate in the research), as in their experience, there is only one category of people who does this, and by definition they are to be avoided: tax officers! Moreover, many peasants in the communities that I studied can barely read and write, and therefore dealing with written consent forms may cause some discomfort. Thus, I had to find other ways to record the consent to participate in my research (e.g., via a voice recorder).

– Technology is a barrier. It can be tempting to aid the data collection with various devices (hand held data capture devices, GPS, tablets, and so on). Technology can indeed be very helpful and increase the efficiency of data collection and processing. However, such devices reinforce the divide between the ‘expert’ and the laymen and women who are hardly familiar with such devices and may potentially be seeing them for the first time. Thus, whenever possible I used the simplest technology possible: pen and paper (and voice recorder). This resulted in more demanding data processing for me and my research assistants, but the trade off was higher data quality and enhanced personal connection with the participants.

– Looking and behaving like an ingeniero is counterproductive. The ‘experts’ who visit the community usually move around by car, dress smart casual (even in the field!), talk jargon and are sometimes very dismissive of peasants. I avoided doing these things and travelled by public (and often erratic!) transport and by foot rather than by private car (which also helps in getting to know people and getting a better feel of the place); dressed in more causal outfit (which is also more practical if you have to trek to get to the sparse households in these communities); avoided using difficult or technical terms (well, that was easy for me given my less than perfect Spanish); and, very importantly, did not fall into the trap of telling peasants what they should do, even–and especially–if they asked me.

– Time is crucial. First, the ingenieros normally do not take the time to understand the context, and do not spend much time with the local people, but rather work through short one-off visits. Peasants in one of the two communities where I conducted research were very surprised when they saw me come back the year after my first fieldwork. Second, it simply takes time to build trust and relationships. Peasants were sharing a wealth of experiences and information with me, but they were also curious about my trip, my origin and, of course, about agriculture in Europe.

– (Following from the above) Build relationships. As much as I could, the people I met and who participated in my research were not simply research ‘participants’. I had food at their place, sent them cards from Europe, helped them clean the local primary school, exchanged stories and experiences. Far from being a distraction from data collection, these things made fieldwork much more enjoyable and helped me understand them on a personal level rather than as simply ‘data’ for my research.

Giuseppe about to walk his way up in the study area of Las Cañas (Boyacá)

Giuseppe about to walk his way up in the study area of Las Cañas (Boyacá)











Finally, and giving meaning to all the above, what helped me to reach more equal engagement with Colombian peasants was an honest, sincere, open, sensitive and empathic approach to fieldwork. Without this, any of the above pieces of advice would be purely instrumental. Peasants, like anybody participating in research, feel the researcher’s honesty, sincerity, respect and enjoyment (or lack thereof) and in my experience, this has been the single most important ingredient for fruitfully engaging with Colombian peasants on more equal footing. Fieldwork is what makes research alive. It can change the researcher’s, as well as the participants’ life for the better beyond the impact that the research may, or may not, have. This change happens because fieldwork is more than mechanical data collection. For a researcher, fieldwork is about becoming part of other places and people’s life, and letting them become part of one’s own.


Giuseppe-FEOLA_1594_wAbout today’s blogger: Giuseppe Feola


Giuseppe is interested in understanding the dynamics of change in coupled human and natural systems and to explore the social and social-ecological change required for a transition towards sustainability. His research is interdisciplinary and combines theoretical advancement and practical application. Giuseppe has got a particular, but not exclusive, interest in the Andean region in Latin America.


His areas of interest include:

  • The dynamics of coupled socio-cultural and environmental change
  • Grassroots innovations for sustainability
  • Understanding the behaviour of social actors in coupled human-environmental systems
  • Sustainability assessment


Some Thoughts on Fieldwork…….

My first real experience of qualitative fieldwork was for my undergraduate dissertation; while the content analysis of the newspapers went fine, I felt that the interview I conducted was fairly terrible. Although I had my questions answered I remember how uncomfortable I felt and how clunky it all sounded. In fairness, I had only done physical geography methods on my course but this experience made me retreat from human interaction in my MSc dissertation where I opted to hang out in a cemetery archive, which had the dual merits of being air-conditioned (it was a hot summer) and the dead people didn’t speak back.

From issues of class in death…

From issues of class in death…











Since those early days I’ve got a lot more confident with interviewing people and this is now my preferred technique. I think what made it easier was the realisation that this was just a conversation, albeit one where you had certain things you wanted to find out; in addition, people tend to respond pretty well to interest being shown in them/their company/their ideas so in general you actually have a receptive participant. Although since people choose whether to be interviewed by you there is clearly significant self-selection with some perhaps very interesting people opting out. I really enjoy speaking with people and listening to their perspectives and experiences but developing that sense of rapport isn’t always so straightforward.

…to ethics, power relations and justice in the wine industry

…to ethics, power relations and justice in the wine industry











Sometimes I’m amazed at the way things come out my mouth with the phrasing just making it sound like I don’t really have a clue; other times its effortless and the conversation just flows. Sometimes it takes a while for both the interviewee and I to warm up; other times they talk for 15 minutes from the first question (at times covering other questions on my list, sometimes just rambling but breathing in unexpected places a la Thatcher, which makes it hard to anticipate how to interrupt their flow). From my experience, rapport is generally strengthened by being prepared both in terms of knowledge (although willing to expose the areas that you are less familiar with) and questions (as its easy to disappear down a tangent particularly with the verbose respondents). Furthermore, just demonstrating your general enthusiasm and particular interest in them and what they have to say is a great foundation for encouraging people to speak from their own experience and share stories with you.

In South Africa, the direct interviewee-interviewer is disrupted as I don’t speak Afrikaans so this adds to the challenge of developing rapport as how can you do it when you don’t speak the language? However, after my rather naive experiences last time of speaking through the farm managers when I needed to speak to some of the workers, this time I’m working with an excellent, experienced and independent Afrikaans translator and research facilitator. She has a lovely presence and is passionate about ethical and sustainable trade so is a great colleague to have but in the focus groups we’ve run with farmworkers, I feel even more of an outsider and as if I’m observing the process.

In an effort to overcome this and embed myself, at least initially, I’ve learnt a few sentences so that I can introduce myself:

Haai, my naam is Agatha en ek kom van die UK. Ek is ‘n navorser en ek is geinteresseerd in Fairtrade en wijn. Ek is jammer maar ek praat nie Afrikaans, maar my kollega doen!

Everyone seems very pleased that I’ve made the effort and congratulates me on my pronunciation and the fact that they can understand what I’m saying! I think it disrupts the power balance a little as it makes me feel a little exposed (particularly when I forget certain words) while also demonstrating my interest in hearing what the farmworkers have to say in their own language. It’s interesting as sometimes I can follow conversations (there is a close enough similarity to German in a number of words) but the dynamic of asking questions also feels odd, as I feel almost as if I’m intruding in someone else’s project! They could run perfectly fine without my presence, which also feels odd as I’m used to doing research by myself. The focus groups have definitely worked well and its been useful in giving me insights into how to run them and how to encourage participation. They have also highlighted the power relations inherent to any research process and, for me, encouraged me to consider ways to try and disrupt these.

Working in the vineyards (taken by a South African farmworker as part of a photo elicitation exercise)

Working in the vineyards (taken by a South African farmworker as part of a photo elicitation exercise)











The other thing I’ve been reflecting on in relation to fieldwork has been clothing – what should I wear? I carefully packed a smart-ish skirt and a selection of smarter tops, which I mainly haven’t worn. I have mostly done interviews in shorts, sandals and one of my smarter looking vest tops as firstly its been far too hot and, secondly, I just feel more comfortable. People mostly seem to dress more casually and so I felt that it was better that I don’t appear too different in terms of how I dress, plus if I’m feeling more comfortable and relaxed that will reflect in my interviewing style and, hopefully, a better chance of developing rapport. Plus, when speaking with the farmworkers they have mostly been in their work-wear of blue overalls monogrammed with the company logo, heavy footwear and monogrammed caps. I am already clearly an outsider but by wearing my normal clothes I hoped to avoid too formal an atmosphere, which could arguably put off people from speaking particularly if they weren’t used to being in a focus group or being interviewed.

Before I arrived I had a sort of expectation of how I should dress and act in a ‘professional’ manner and, while this is sometimes part of my persona, I think in general research goes more smoothly when you are more relaxed as this is more conducive to allowing enthusiasm and interest to shine through; for me anyway. There are obviously a whole host of other factors that have and are shaping my fieldwork experiences in this particular context including, amongst others, gender, race, age and nationality but for some reason clothing and trying to develop rapport in a foreign language have been at the top of my mind.

About today’s blogger – Agatha Herman

agatha and jeremy-17








Agatha is a human geographer with interests in geographies of ethics and justice. In particular her research explores the role and impacts of socio-economic and environmental ethics in production systems and spaces. She currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in which she is investigating the capacity of Fairtrade to promote resilient and ethical development within and beyond its producer communities. Building on her PhD research, this focuses on the Fairtrade wine sector and will involve fieldwork in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Tunisia and Germany.

Agatha will also be returning as a Visiting Scholar at the Ruralia Institute, University of Helsinki in 2015 to develop her current research project ‘Negotiating Resilient Production’. In this she explores the interactions between social, economic and environmental imperatives within farmers’ decision-making in a multi-sited study across Finland and the UK.

In addition, Agatha has interests in social transitions, particularly exploring the experiences of those leaving the military and the spatial and social impacts that this has on individuals. This develops ideas around identity, care, social responsibility and spaces/relations of power.

Agatha has a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Exeter as well as an MSc in Society and Space and BSc (Hons) in Geography from the University of Bristol. Prior to joining the University of Reading in September 2013, she held a lectureship in Human Geography at Plymouth University. She has also conducted postdoctoral research on spaces of postsecular engagement in European cities at the University of Groningen (2010) and the impacts of the economic recession on charity shops at the University of the West of England (2011).

Qualitative fieldwork in Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, Ghana and the UK

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.

Charette ride to an interview in Diourbel region, Senegal.

Charette ride to an interview in Diourbel region, Senegal.










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.

Participatory feedback workshop with young people in Kampala, Uganda.

Participatory feedback workshop with young people in Kampala, Uganda.













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).

Meeting family members in Fatick region, Senegal

Meeting family members in Fatick region, Senegal











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.


REvans_2714-wA bit about today’s blogger: Ruth Evans (Associate Professor in GES)

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).