Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Shadowing researchers at work

By Miriam Bernhardt

Wishing to deepen my practical knowledge about qualitative research in preparation for my master thesis and, potentially, doctoral research, I embarked on an unconventional internship with the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium. I shadowed researchers on fieldwork. For two weeks in September 2018, I had hands-on experience of doing research in the Casamance region of Senegal. Retrospectively, I view the time as one that has had a lasting impact on me as a scholar and as a person.

Getting into the research
The idea of shadowing researchers at work came to fruition in conversation with Migrating out of Poverty researcher Dorte Thorsen, who taught some of the MA programme on Migration and Global Development at the University of Sussex. She and her colleague, Mélanie Jacquemin, from Aix Marseille University – Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, invited me to join them in the field. They were going to do a second round of qualitative research revolving around the trajectories, and living and working conditions, of adolescent migrants moving to Ziguinchor in Lower Casamance.

Already on our journey to the field by ferry from Dakar, I was introduced to important actors within the project and the outcomes of earlier field trips. Concurrently, I was invited and encouraged to join any upcoming discussion or activity and to add important remarks from my observational point of view. Such openness and valued collaboration enabled me to profoundly immerse myself in both the challenging and delightful dynamics of research.

Learning to work with local research assistants
At first, the initial planning meetings and several incidents during the inquiry showed me the importance of trusted cooperation with the local research assistants. It was significant that the local research assistants acted as knowledgeable informants, as they lived on site and were often more aware of the daily routines of working adolescents, employers and others playing a role in the adolescent migrants’ lives, as well as the best times to trace them. Furthermore, they could notice the presence or absence of former interviewees and if dynamics in the field had changed since the last field work. Similarly, it was necessary, that the research assistants were capable of speaking the various local languages, approaching potential interviewees sensitively and explain the research objectives in a simple and comprehensive manner to the adolescents. In this sense, I realized just how dependent short-term research was on successful collaboration with research assistants, and thus how important it was to choose carefully assistants and to develop their skills.

Ethical and practical considerations
During the course of the research, it also became evident how much flexibility along with effective planning and reflection is asked of a researcher, who often faces limited time to conduct research. We traced interviewees at unusual hours or often had to arrange interview locations spontaneously close by their work places and often in bustling and noisy places.  However, such spontaneous manoeuvres were accompanied by constant prioritization and reflection on the overall state of the research outcomes, eventually guiding decisions about further action steps to comprehensively answer the research question.

By being part of a substantial number of different interviews, I learned how important it was to comprehensibly explain your role and objectives as a researcher. Especially, as you will be repeatedly asked about your intentions. In those cases, where the adolescents had well understood the underlying motives, they were more trusting and appreciated the interest and concern shown in their situation. Moreover, I drew insights from how differently the interviews evolved. I saw adolescents who opened up to us and revealed very vulnerable stories or felt the need to show us the dire circumstances they worked in. In other cases, interviewees felt increasingly uncomfortable to speak and indicated their need to end the interview prematurely.  In each situation, I learned from the researcher’s reactions to respect the autonomy of the adolescents to terminate the interview at any time.

Thinking ethically about the research also involved a consideration of how taking part could affect the adolescents. On the one hand, sensitive and attentive interaction with the young migrants’ bosses or guardians proved significant. It was imperative to ask for their permission first before approaching the adolescents and to make sure they understood the scope in order to avoid subsequent irritation that could be directed at the adolescents. On the other hand, I understood the significance for researchers of being aware of and connected with local social services and initiatives, in order to bring a range of initiatives to the adolescent’s attention, if interviews revealed that their situation was particularly precarious.

Using participatory methodologies
The research project furthermore offered the opportunity to get to know different participatory methods. Within my studies, I have had little insights into such methods and even less into the practicalities of employing them. Thus, I was keen to explore one of the applied methods called “photovoice”. It invited the young participants to document their daily activities with pictures that served as a basis for an interview the following day. Although I initially had the impression that the interviews with the photos shifted the focus too much on the details of the pictures leaving less time to ask more elaborate questions, I increasingly started to appreciate the method. It opened the way for surprising insights, as the adolescents could steer the course and content of the interview with their photos and narratives, as much as the researchers with their questions. In the same vein, I consider the method as valuable to build up trust from the outset. The first step of entrusting the participants with a camera constitutes a leap of faith and together with the given time to decide what they would like to show, it lays the foundation for the participants to ease into the interview situation. At the same time, some photo prints handed over a few days after the interview helped to round off the encounter.

The observation of participatory group activities starting with a role play or mapping were equally instructive. I witnessed once more that having a thematic framework was important, however leaving sufficient space for the adolescents to express their concerns proved enriching for the following focus group discussions and could generate unexpected insights.

Shadow learning
In conclusion, the observation of the research paired with the possibility to launch methodical or conceptual questions at any time, created an unbelievable stimulating setting for me. I left the research field with an excitement to further follow up on research from a theoretical side complementing the practical experience I gained. Concurrently, the field visit triggered the deconstruction of former concepts of migration and child labour and provided me with valuable background knowledge for my work with adolescent migrants in Germany.