AfREC convenes seminar on “Doing Fieldwork in Africa”

On 2 August 2019, AfREC convened an interactive panel discussion on “Doing Fieldwork in Africa”. The well-attended discussion sought to provide researchers at different stages in their research projects and careers with the opportunity to reflect on the logistical and normative challenges and tensions that they have encountered in the planning and conduct of research fieldwork on the African continent. The diverse panel included AfREC Research Fellows Professor Erika Techera and Dr Tina Lavin, AfREC Postgraduate Fellows Muhammad Dan Suleiman and Alicea Garcia, and Murdoch University’s Dr Gloria Rupf. The discussion was facilitated by Tinashe Jakwa, AfREC’s Postgraduate Co-Coordinator.

To introduce the discussion, Ms Jakwa highlighted the concerns that the need for empirical data and to manage subsequent risks raises in relation to doing fieldwork in Africa. She noted how for risk-averse institutions and bodies, the African continent often emerges as a “dangerous” space, with risk management strategies inadvertently contributing to the securitisation of not only research, but the African continent itself. Building on this, Muhammad Dan Suleiman, who recently completed his PhD at UWA and is the AfREC Postgraduate Co-coordinator, reflected on the importance of re-examining the ways in which “risk” is both defined and assessed by universities and other institutions seeking to exercise their duty of care towards researchers conducting conflict-related research.

Many African-born researchers based at Western institutions often have a high level of contextual knowledge and experience to draw upon when it comes to the African countries their research requires them to travel to for fieldwork purposes. This prior exposure to the African continent and situations and circumstances which universities would deem “risky” is often not appreciated in risk management processes and efforts.

For Mr Dan Suleiman, it is important to re-examine how we measure risk so as to bridge the gap between perceptions of risk and actual risk. This also requires revisiting our understanding of “insecurity”. Mr Dan Suleiman also urged fellow researchers to pay attention to the positionality of the respondent or research participant in relation to the researcher. What are the power dynamics at play between researchers and research participants and how do these dynamics shape participants’ responses to researchers’ questions? Moreover, whose voice emerges in the analysis of data, the researcher’s or the respondent’s voice?

Subsequently, Dr Lavin, a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Research Fellow at UWA, highlighted the difficulties of securing funding to conduct research overseas, especially on the African continent. According to Dr Lavin, Australian funding bodies do not often prioritise overseas research, least of all Africa-focused research. This often requires researchers to seek out funding opportunities outside the country in order to make the conduct of research feasible. Dr Lavin also highlighted the importance of universities establishing partnerships with African universities in order to enable research collaboration and to make it easier for Australian-based researchers to conduct fieldwork in Africa. In other words, the importance of partnerships with local institutions cannot be overstated.

Dr Rupf, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Murdoch University further emphasised the importance of local partnerships. According to Dr Rupf, it is often not possible to conduct research in the absence of these partnerships, least of all because external researchers often lack local networks. Beyond facilitating research, however, local institutions and organisations represent an opportunity for research collaboration. Often, they are already conducting similar research.

Dr Rupf drew on her experience of working with partners in Rwanda. While she had initially intended to carry out a separate research project, Dr Rupf learnt of an existing research project one of her research partners was working on. This presented an opportunity to collaborate. For Dr Rupf, this experience demonstrated the importance of humility and being open to learning from local partners in the conduct of research. This is important not only for the generation of sound knowledge, but for building trust between different research stakeholders.

Building on this, Alicea Garcia, a PhD Candidate at UWA, reiterated the importance of paying attention to both the positionality of the researcher in relation to their topic, case-study, and participants, as well as participants’ positionality in relation to the researcher. What is the impact of a researcher’s cultural background on both the conceptualisation and operationalisation of research? Moreover, how do cultural and other differences shape participants’ relationship with the researcher? Questions like these led Ms Garcia to select participatory research methods in order to ensure that participants were co-producers of knowledge, making researcher and participant co-learners. While conducting fieldwork in Ghana’s Central Region, Ms Garcia kept a “positionality diary” to keep herself accountable by ensuring that she was consistently reflecting on these dynamics.

To conclude the discussion, Professor Erika Techera, UWA’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (International), re-emphasised the importance of paying attention to research participants’ positionality, and building and strengthening local partnerships. Professor Techera also noted how time and funding constraints can equally have a detrimental impact on the quality of research. This is because for reasons relating to both time and funding, researchers are often unable to spend enough time in “the field”. Professor Techera also highlighted the importance of mentoring, knowledge and skills-sharing with local partners in order to contribute to the development of local capacity to conduct research.

The interactive panel discussion, therefore, revealed the many faces of doing fieldwork in Africa. In addition to the challenges, it highlighted the opportunities that exist for re-thinking how to do both research and fieldwork better. The discussion presented the first step in determining how to address the challenges identified by panelists. Due to the popularity of this event and the wealth of important issues raised, a follow up seminar is being planned.

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