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Research that hurts – On the practice of care in fieldwork

[By Rawshon Akhter]

Many ethical concerns connected to fieldwork are already a matter of established and routinized practice. For example, the privacy of respondents is protected by anonymizing their identity. In recent decades, we have further pushed these methodological norms. Ethnographers grapple with their legacy of an extractive culture, making a compelling case for ethical action: to incorporate the rights of respondents in the sharing of the benefits (monetary and non-monetary) and the responsibilities of researchers towards their respondents.

In monetary terms, there is a need to address intellectual property rights of respondents to help in our research innovations. For example, Farnsworth reported that out of 119 drugs produced from extracting chemical components from plants, 74% have their use in traditional medicine which isn’t protected sufficiently, often due to their oral knowledge cultures. The non-monetary angle is even less attended to in terms of giving back to the community through supportive mechanisms. This is often overlooked, especially when it comes to trauma and related emotional risks of the respondents.

A report by Action Aid Bangladesh noted that women respondents during in-depth interviews usually become emotional when they share personal stories, especially given that sexual abuse is often part of these narratives. Women in these contexts also tend to hesitate to share stories of abuse, fearing reprisals from employers including job loss, or stigma and harassment from co-workers. I recall an incident that took place during fieldwork I was doing for another project:  a divorced mother of three young daughters became faint when she recounted her experience of domestic abuse meted out to her for failing to give birth to a male child. I had to call for help as she was close to collapsing.

Before going into the field, I think we researchers need to map out the potential affective risks of the study, especially the psychological stress experienced by respondents, and outline a plan to address them. The goal should be to enhance the wellbeing of our respondents. Granted, this is no easy task. Researchers are not psychologists nor social workers. However, they may find themselves playing these roles unconsciously as they try to be of help to their respondents. After all, fieldwork is about relationship building.

In the FemLab.Co project, we anticipate such encounters as we are dealing with a group that is likely to be burdened with numerous vulnerabilities. Out of a total of 4.1 million workers from the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh, one-third are aged between 16 and 20, and are new entrants to urban modernity. Many of them are illiterate (35%) migrants from villages with no formal qualifications and little awareness of the working conditions in the industry, including the hazards in a city (e.g., transport and housing), industrial life (physical safety at the workplace), and harassment (gender-based violence) within factories and security (safe commute to and from the workplace). Low wages (193$ minimum monthly payment in 2018), violence, abuse and harassment (mostly sexual) are regular phenomena in the lives of garment workers.

Image credit: Wallpaper Flare

Research on this subject (e.g., Action Aid in Bangladesh, 2019, CPD working paper, 2018) reveals that around 70-80 percent female garment workers either experience or witness abuse at work. They are subjected to at least one type of harassment and abuse such as (a) having been sexually harassed; (b) molested or assaulted while working; (c) having been subjected to extreme verbal abuse at work; and, (d) having seen a factory manager or supervisor abuse and harass other women. Due to the dearth of bargaining agencies or worker unions (only around 10 percent factories are unionised) to protect their rights and the fear of further harassment or losing the job, most avoid disclosing these events. Harassment and abuse in the workplace and outside have traumatised these women workers. Due to their plight, many of them might feel apprehensive about sharing their experiences.

This requires psychological support during the interviews. In qualitative interview design, we researchers need to draw on counselling support when engaging with such vulnerable populations. It is necessary to explore the involvement of psychologists and experienced counsellors, possibly during the interview, which might help respondents to minimise their trauma. Given that such participants are from a disadvantaged section of society and may feel uncomfortable sharing their grievances due to strong social stigma against mental health issues, we need to repackage such counselling, perhaps as ‘friendship networks’ that could be acceptable in these contexts.

Often these traumas are made worse by the choice of the interview location. To avoid this kind of risk, we need to get the interviewees away from their home. This continues to serve as a major challenge in fieldwork. One strategy can be to provide a community building project where the women’s family can be supportive, allowing for more autonomy of movement and privacy. Through the creation of such safe spaces, we can unwrap the layered issues of exploitation and violence, while also developing strategies of resilience.

I have noticed that rapport building through regular telephone calls or mobile chatting in advance of field study can be an advantage to building an understanding of respondents, so we can tailor our questions in ways that can reduce the trauma. Digital tools clearly can be leveraged to benefit our respondents as it can provide more privacy and freedom to express themselves to us. However, we cannot be naïve about their communicative data, which if leaked into the wrong hands, can compromise the well-being of our participants, who are already in a vulnerable position.

The fact is that in studying vulnerable populations, researchers have to step out of their academic mentality and look at their respondents beyond the informant paradigm – to people who require more nurturing and empowering networks, knowledge, and possible pathways to enable them to improve their social conditions.