Working with research assistants in over-researched communities

This blog post is a transcript from a presentation I delivered at the Leeds Researchers in Development conference @RiDNet_Leeds on 27th January 2017. The conference provided a fantastic environment for researchers to discuss reservations and learning from individuals' time in the field. The event was excellently curated and discussions were open, encouraging and honest. I felt very privileged to be presenting among such an interesting and varied crowd.

This presentation discusses the benefits of working with research assistants when conducting fieldwork with an over-researched population. Many researchers feel insecure about their relationships with their research participants and how this affects their data. My insecurities come from choosing not to have a close relationship with my research subjects. This presentation goes some way to explaining why I made this choice, and why I think it was the best choice for my research circumstances.


 Slide 1:

“We have already been interviewed a lot. So many researches about us have been conducted already, so many times since we starting being “uchokoraa” until we are almost old. At the end of time it seems like we are just talking without action being taken. You know there is a way someone uses you as a bridge, someone lies you down and he walks by on your spine.” I7.1, street-connected young person, male, 22.

Introduction:

This presentation will focus on how to avoid an extractive relationship within the research context when working with an over-researched and extremely resource poor population. This presentation will highlight two approaches I took to address this challenge, one is the research methodology and the second is working closely with a local research assistant.

Point 1: Context and background of the topic.

My PhD research is investigating the relationships and social networks of street-living children in northern Tanzania. The research participants specific to my fieldwork area are particularly vulnerable to research fatigue due to; the presence of two internationally funded NGOs delivering projects with street-connected children in the area (Sultana, 2007); voluntourism generated by the presence of Mount Kilimanjaro and popular safari sites (Ezra, 2013); and, the accessibility of Tanzania due to its tourism infrastructure and status as a peaceful, and therefore safe to travel to, country (Sukarieh and Tannok’s, 2013). Ezra (2013) asserts that host communities in this region were more likely to view visitors through a socio-economic and racial lens, rather than distinguishing between visitors’ different purposes. Therefore to many local residents, a visitor with a ‘genuine’ research purpose is no different to others who pass through and may behave in a more extractive manner. Additionally, due to their high visibility, street-living children are more likely to receive attention from researchers and well meaning visitors.

Point 2: My methodology

I used grounded theory as my research methodology which takes an open approach to inquiry in order allow research participants to define what topic areas were important to them. Throughout the research process, I emphasised that the most important thing was to ensure that the children and young people felt genuinely listened to. Therefore, any list of questions that we may have and desire answers to should be prompts to generate discussion, rather a structure for conversations to be drawn back to. Since grounded theory methodology is interested in identifying participants main concerns, it is forgiving of an open line of inquiry and allows the participants to take discussions in areas that they consider to be important. Since transcripts are analysed between each interview, this allows follow up and clarifying questions to be drawn from participants data. This means that questions are contextual to participants’ concerns and therefore understandable and more meaningful.

I worked with four different research assistants to collect 26 individual and group interviews. One of the research assistants, Asimwe, had more responsibility than the others, leading interviews, transcribing, translating and helping with the analysis of the data.

Slide 2:

“The most thing I liked about Grounded Theory Methodology is its tendency of developing a binding bond between the researcher and interviewee. This may sound nice to researcher who do it with passion and sound bitter to researchers who do it out of forced options, though the fact is everyone enjoys having a good relationship that binds you and people you are working with. Though am not so sure if this happens with any group of people the research is targeting, with street–connected children the methodology worked so perfect.” Asimwe, research assistant.

Point 3: Working with a local research assistant

During my time in the field, I was aware of my presence as a western visitor and how this influenced those around me. Partners in country retailed times when they had taken western visitors to the street which had resulted in raised expectations and a deterioration of trust between street workers and children. Children and young people would accuse street workers of keeping the money that visitors provided, leaving them with nothing. The presence of visitors was a reminder that street workers were earning their income by virtue of children living on the street, and the children saw an injustice in this. I sought advice from my colleagues in Tanzania about when it was appropriate to visit the street, and when it wasn’t. I would visit to greet children and young people during the day, but I would not be involved in any interviews - an environment where we were asking something of the children and young people. Children and young people may find it more difficult to say no to a westerner, or expect that if I was there they may receive something in return. We always informed children that they could not expect any assistance from being involved in the research, but no one would withhold any pre-existing services if they declined. In return for their time, we promised to buy them food after the interview.

To ensure that Asimwe was effective, I trained her in active listening and open questioning techniques. I used the first couple of interview transcripts to show her times when she could have employed these techniques and her interviewing technique improved over time as she relaxed into it. We analysed the first few transcripts together so that she understood how I was working with and probing the data. This meant that she understood how I was generating questions and queries from the information we were hearing. Before each interview, I would brief her on topic areas she could raise in order to generate discussion. After each interview she either wrote reflections or we discussed how the interview went - I recorded these discussions to use as data. After she had transcribed and translated the interviews, we went through each transcript together and I questioned her on the children’s meanings, adding notes to the transcripts. The working relationship required tremendous trust between myself and Asimwe. I considered her my equal in her analytical insights and also a gatekeeper to a culture that she was more familiar with.

Asimwe worked closely with two street workers, one in each field site, who already had pre-existing relationships with the children and young people and could act as her gatekeeper. Over time, Asimwe managed to build strong relationships with the children and young people. Both her and the participants looked forward to her visits and, being resident in one of the field-sites, she still maintains contact with some of the children and young people even now.

Point 4: Benefits of my approach

Since my research was investigating the street children and young people’s relationships, I was keen not to perpetuate forms of transient and extractive relationships in the children and young people’s lives. I knew that I was not able to commit to the children and young people in the way that they needed - in a long-term, supportive and committed way. As a researcher based in the UK with no intention of relocating to Tanzania, I could not provide any stability to these young people. However, in order to do good research with them, it was necessary to build a relationship of familiarity, trust and reciprocity with them. To provide this relationship, locally based researchers are best placed. All four research assistants that I worked with throughout the research had previous contact or relationships with the children involved in the interviews. These individuals knew better about how to interact with this population than I did. By working as a team we were able to work to our strengths. This, of course, required me to hand over a certain level of control to the research assistants, but since my methodology required that I analysed each interview transcript before collecting more data, there were plenty of opportunities for quality control. Working in the Global South carries the responsibility for the capacity building of local people and one of the best ways to train others is to give them responsibility. Working with, training and trusting Asimwe was an extremely pleasurable and rewarding part of my time in the field. In the circumstances, I am confident that the data she was able to gather was just as good, if not better, than the data I might have gathered if I had taken full control of conducting interviews.

To add balance, some of the constraints of this approach involve the extra time it took to understand the data and gather from Asimwe her impressions of how the interviews had gone. We would spend hours talking about single interviews which limited the speed with which we could collect data. Also, although I wrote field notes and recorded each of these discussions, it never felt as if I had captured enough, and once those opportunities had passed, without a first-hand memory of the interview itself, there was no other way to interrogate or reflect on what had happened other than through the transcripts.

Conclusion:

The combination of the method and the approach of the research assistant are what made the research effective. Since the research assistant was eager to learn and interested in both the research population and the methodology meant that it was possible to build a sufficient level of trust to work well as a team. Although there are obvious setbacks to not being present in the field during data collection, for this population, the benefits outweighed the costs.

Bibliography

Ezra, P.M. (2013) ‘Host Community Perceptions of Volunteer Tourists in the Northern Tourist Circuit, Tanzania.’ A Thesis Submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Tourism Management. Victoria University of Wellington. Available: http://nikau.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/2793 [Accessed 05/11/2015]

Sultana, F. (2007) ‘Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.’ ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 6(3), 374–385.

Sukarieh, M., Tannock, S. (2013) ‘On the Problem of Over-researched Communities: The Case of the Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon.’ Sociology 47(3): 494–508.