Negotiating the Self: Researching Your Own While Being the Other

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By Vibhor Mathur


What is ‘home’ and what is the ‘field’, Farhana Sultana (2007) asks, when researching one’s home country as a scholar based in another country. I am an Indian, doing my doctoral research in the UK, studying the lives, labour and experiences of residents of urban slums in India. Working with socioeconomically marginalised communities in India is what I have done my entire professional life.

I grew up in Delhi, worked in urban slums, tribal villages and remote semi-urban towns, teaching in schools and working and living with families. By comparison my doctoral fieldwork seemed like a piece of cake. I was confident that my muscle memory would guide me on how to do this effectively and ethically. I therefore struggled to put in words the specifics of why, how and when I would conduct various activities, much to the chagrin of an ethics board that required me to explore and articulate all possible forms of interactions with participants and prepare for all that could possibly go wrong! I am glad I did though, because the experience of rolling out the pilot, conducting research, and building networks has forced a constant negotiation of identity. From alternating between different aspects of my identity, adopting new ones, to performatively constructing perceptions of myself – the journey of immersive qualitative research in these liminal spaces of familiarity and distance has been riveting and illuminating.

I am part of an ERC-funded Basic Income ‘Plus’ pilot project called WorkFREE, that involves giving an unconditional cash transfer and needs-based participatory organising to around 1400 families in 5 urban slum settlements in Hyderabad, India. My doctoral research aims to study the effects of this pilot on people’s lives, labour and relationships and also create a grounded understanding of freedom and dignity in the voices of the people with whom we work.

The ethnographic and participatory nature of my research required spending long periods of time in the communities, beyond ‘conducting’ specific research encounters. My past experience in development sector work had me confident about building relationships and dealing with my emotions and social dynamics in the field. I thought I knew how to introduce myself, build affinity/familiarity in shared history, cause or vision and ‘blend right in’. But what kicked off, and has continued, is a regular negotiation of identity, involving differently playing, and capitalising on, my various identities of being an outsider and an insider, a researcher and a social worker, and a student versus a provider of cash!

I am Indian, and while I could pass off as South Indian at first sight, there are visible ‘North Indian’ markers to my appearance. I do not speak, but understand partner communities’ local language, Telugu. There are obvious differences in class and caste, most obvious in things like dress, occupation and education. I am often accompanied to the field by other non-Indian researchers on the project, who further entrench the distance between the researcher and researched, and at the same time, reduce the distance between the participants and myself. I am also often accompanied by the local NGO staff responsible for implementing the project, and therefore regularly clubbed in the same category of social worker/patron in their imagination.

The project itself adds another layer of complication, where participants are given money unconditionally and then given the ‘free choice’ to participate in research activities with me and other researchers. We are simultaneously providers of cash and training, and hold onto the practice of informed and freely consensual participation. The project is housed in a foreign university, and implemented by a (local) Christian charity, adding layers of historical tensions of coloniality and missionary activities. The perfect storm!

This negotiation of insider/outsider positionality has, for good reason, come to be a central theme of ethics and qualitative research literature. ‘Positionality’ for a researcher refers to their role/image/perception in the space, time, reality and context of the participants’ worlds. It affects how the researcher is perceived and how they perceive the world. From an ethics lens, it has huge implications for participant comfort, safety and exercise of voluntariness. From a methodological perspective, it shapes what data is generated, in what situations and how it is understood. In the first few months of my research, for example, when I was seen mostly with the programme staff from the local NGO, I would always have eager (often even submissively eager) research participation. Even the conversations would only be about the material challenges in their lives – a template regularly practiced with local patrons.

To return to the opening question however, what is ‘home’ and what is the ‘field’? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Is there a spectrum of insider-ness? Are those identities static over the course of the fieldwork? Beyond the narrow binary of ‘insider-outsider’, the complexity of these relationships and experiences is better captured in what Andrea Jiminez and colleagues (2022) call ‘in-betweenness’: the idea that people embody multiple identities, and in different times and situations highlight and perform to some, both all or none of those. For diasporic researchers like myself, it means inhabiting different worlds, while negotiating the feeling of belonging to neither (or both). I learnt that the route to ethical research, but also effective research is leaning into all the different and dynamic identities.

For example, I possess various visible and invisible ‘insider’ identities, and hidden cultural and social knowledge. My presence in a slum, while an aberration, does not immediately raise eyebrows or draw people towards me. Insider knowledge also means that the cultural practices of where to sit, what to wear, how to greet different groups of people comes naturally. Conversations don’t need to start at point zero for context about each other’s lives and I regularly reassert these similarities by using local slang, greetings and non-verbal gestures. I sit inside people’s houses and eat and drink with them, trying to build relationships of oneness and comfort. Which is obviously not to suggest that insiderness is just about group membership. It is impossible, and probably futile, to try and erase obvious markers or class or caste. I am sure that even after 12 months I have not shaken off the image of the social worker, whose visits are associated to varying degrees with clientelistic baggage. I myself had to make a cognitive shift away from program delivery or advocacy and adopt the lens of a researcher happy to just ‘hang out and observe’. However, this basic attachment through insiderness helped break ice, build trust and establish relationships.

My relative ‘outsider’ markers also helped in many ways. Multiple participants mentioned that having this ‘sir’ come from so far away to talk about their lives, has been a source of great dignity and love for them. The extra distance of being from outside their social, geographical or political universe enables participants to feel a sense of safety in sharing dirty, dangerous or more intimate details of their lives, as it is less likely to have direct consequences on their lives. Most interestingly, not being from participants’ exact cultural context meant that I could feign ignorance/shock/surprise at certain cultural beliefs and practices and dig deeper into issues that locals might not be culturally excused for exploring. When one is expected to know or understand another person’s situation/context well, there is a pressure to not ask certain questions/themes and more importantly, understand the hidden context and subtext of what they mean. This was perhaps best highlighted in my ability to ask (and get coy but clear responses to) questions around family planning, child marriage and domestic violence, much to the horror of my more local research assistants. The performance of naivety associated with ignorance seemed to stretch the boundaries of propriety enough to facilitate deeper qualitative research.

Of course, demographic and sociocultural background is only one of the many issues of positionality that this research has thrown up. There is also the issue, for example, of being a researcher closely linked to the  provision of cash. Through various scoping visits, information days, informed consent procedures and presence with other field staff, participants were aware of my association with the project. This gave rise to issues around perceived repercussions from research responses etc. and could violate principles of unconditionality that are so central to the ethos of the project. This was mitigated to some extent by robust informed consent measures, and my performative attempts to distance myself from the disbursement of cash and present myself as a much younger college student, interested only in the effects of the program. I would, for example, regularly feign ignorance about the management functions of the cash transfers. Yet, any further attempts to dissociate from the money would have been both artificial and amounted to deception. Development research often throws up situations where the passive, neutral, observer-researcher role needs to be dropped in place of a more activist-interventionist role, or needs to be retained when the urge is to act!

There is no one formula, it seems, to become the perfect, most ethically sound researcher. Indeed each day, each situation, and each participant throws up its own dynamics. I find it useful to hold on to Martyn Hammersley’s (2015) advice, that qualitative research doesn’t need to be tied to a specific set of practices to be ethical, but instead held to principles of wellbeing, safety and dignity, which must be realized through specific actions in each situation.

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

Jimenez, A. et al. (2022) 'In-betweenness in ICT4D research: critically examining the role of the researcher'. European Journal of Information Systems. 31 (1), 25–39.

Hammersley, M. (2015) ‘On Ethical Principles for Social Research’. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 18 (4) (4 July 2015), 433–49.

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