Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research

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Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research Farhana Sultana1
Department of Geography, King’s College London, The Strand, London WC2R 2LS U.K. +44 (0) 207 987 6667 Email: farhana.sultana@kcl.ac.uk

Abstract There are critical disjunctures between aspects of everyday behaviour in the field and the University’s institutional frameworks that aim to guide/enforce good ethical practice, as the conduct of fieldwork is always contextual, relational, embodied, and politicized. This paper argues that it is important to pay greater attention to issues of reflexivity, positionality and power relations in the field in order to undertake ethical and participatory research. Drawing from international fieldwork experience, the paper posits that such concerns are even more important in the context of multiple axes of difference, inequalities, and geopolitics, where the ethics and politics involved in research across boundaries and scales need to be heeded and negotiated in order to achieve more ethical research practices. Introduction The challenges of implementing institutional ethics formalities in the settings of the Global South are often very different from research contexts in the Global North, where issues such as literacy, access, and a sense of equality usually

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© Farhana Sultana, 2007; journal compilation © ACME Editorial Collective, 2007

ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6 (3), 374-385

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present fewer barriers, even if they may still be problematic. Even if the researcher is from the Global South, in which case some of the access and relational aspects may be addressed, class and educational differences (i.e. material, social, political power differences) remain trenchant markers of difference, and often precondition exploitation in the research process. Conducting international fieldwork involves being attentive to histories of colonialism, development, globalization and local realities, to avoid exploitative research or perpetuation of relations of domination and control. It is thus imperative that ethical concerns should permeate the entire process of the research, from conceptualization to dissemination, and that researchers are especially mindful of negotiated ethics in the field. A key concern in pursuing international fieldwork that has plagued critical/feminist scholars is the issue of representation, where over-concern about positionality and reflexivity appear to have paralyzed some scholars into avoiding fieldwork and engaging more in textual analysis; in other instances, criticism of research for perpetuating neocolonial representations, having Western biases, and purporting to speak ‘for’ women, has generated resistance to engage with fieldwork. This is an important concern, as writing ‘with’ rather than writing ‘about’ is a challenge that scholars have taken up in recent years in order to redress concerns about marginalization, essentialisms, and differences in representation. Nagar (2002) argues that there is an ‘impasse’ in feminist geography now, where fears of (mis)representation and (in)authenticity have led to a general withdrawal from fieldwork in the Global South, which means that fewer scholars are engaged in research that can be politically and materially useful for the poor in the Global South. However, such fears and ‘impasse’ can be overcome by understanding that fieldwork can be productive and liberating, as long as researchers keep in mind the critiques and undertake research that is more politically engaged, materially grounded, and institutionally sensitive (Nagar 2002). In this paper, drawing from my own research experience in Bangladesh, and insights from feminist scholarship, I argue that ethical research is produced through negotiated spaces and practices of reflexivity that is critical about issues of positionality and power relations at multiple scales. What is understood as ethical...
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