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.