Research and reciprocity
When I lived in rural Timor-Leste (East Timor), I observed a researcher approaching the local people for interviews. She took care to explain to them that she was a pesquisadora, using the Portuguese word for researcher seeing as no such word exists in the national language of Tetun. She had information sheets to give them (as is required by university Human Research Ethics Committees), written succinctly and translated into the local national language.
It was difficult to tell what meaning the research participants drew from her explanation and the subsequent interviews that took place, which were ethnographic interviews related to their experiences and opinions of particular recent events. They may have wondered what was so interesting about this everyday stuff? Moreover, how would this research be of use to them in their lives, after the researcher had completed her research?
On Friday last week I attended a seminar about doing ethnographic research and heard a very interesting presentation on doing fieldwork in a remote community in PNG (Papua New Guinea). Working in Development Studies, the researcher was exploring environmental risk, and talking to people about the way their lives had been impacted by a large mine operating near their village lands.
I asked him about how he had explained his work and purpose. What did they understand he was doing there?
In response, he said that there was quite a long history of researchers coming to these small remote villages, usually connected to the mining companies or development organisations. Therefore, the villagers were “used to” research, and familiar with research processes, so they were unfazed by his presence or by the research interview process.
Later, he mentioned that when he was preparing to leave the village at the end of his 3-week fieldwork visit, people began to ask him when he was coming back. It became quite a heated conversation, he said, that took awhile to resolve. He was a self-funding Masters student, and with his fieldwork completed, there was not necessarily any need for him to come back, so he hadn’t made a plan for this.
But if the villagers had a concept of research formed by their prior experiences, where ‘researchers’ generally came to do an assessment or evaluation of some kind, that would be followed up by some kind of material change, it’s not surprising that they associated research with follow-up visits, and tangible outcomes of some kind. In other words, “research” was conceptualised as ‘questions followed by action and outcome’. What should the researcher have done when this expectation revealed itself?
These questions are of particular interest to me at the moment, as I am preparing to return to Timor-Leste to undertake fieldwork for my PhD. TImor-Leste is a very poor country, where many people live traditional village lifestyles (or are strongly influenced by these traditions) and access to formal education for many people has been extremely limited. I can see that it’s critically important that I am able to communicate what I am researching, why I am doing it, and how I will do it (through interviews and asking about people’s experiences, opinions, and memories) in ways that make sense to the people who I am inviting to participate. It’s also important that I ensure I give back as well as ask for things, in order to acknowledge and reciprocate the time, knowledge, and energy given to me in interviews. I need to do this in some way that is of relevance and value to the research participants.
This has also been pointed out to me by contacts in Timor-Leste. “We are happy to help you, but we ask all visiting researchers to contribute to our learning environment in some way, with seminars, workshops or trainings”, said one contact in a university. Another, from an arts organisation, was even more direct:
“We have had a few ‘PhD students’ in the past who fly in, ask lots of questions, don’t give anything back (skills, shared experiences etc) and then fly out again… with us (who are very much in need of skills sharing/exposure to international music/arts/whatever) left feeling a little ripped off. Know what I mean?”
I am therefore planning and imagining reciprocal offerings that I can make to the communities where I conduct interviews, and plan to talk about and agree on these early in the negotiations. My research concerns music learning and participation, and my research interviewees are for the most part people with a strong interest in music. I am therefore hoping to share my skills as a music leader with them and their communities by leading workshops or projects, so that the research visit becomes more of a cultural and knowledge exchange, rather than something more one-sided. Reciprocity is a core cultural value in traditional Timorese society, but it also just makes sense as the right way to honour the effort that someone is giving you and giving value in real-world (their world) terms.