Archive | July, 2017

In praise of awkwardness

25 Jul

Awkwardness …. Well it makes us feel a little awkward.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Elizabeth Saleh from the American University of Beirut. She talked about some research she has been conducting among Syrian refugees children in Beirut and how awkwardness was a key part of the anthropological method. She described how she would visit various research sites to sit and observe as part of ethnography, and how this entailed a good deal of awkwardness at the beginning. People would wonder: ‘Who is this woman?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is she actually doing here?’, ‘Does she work for the government?’ Essentially, she explained, you have to get beyond that initial period of awkwardness in order to make progress in research.

That got me thinking about the awkwardness that is involved in a lot of the fieldwork I have done, and how awkwardness is more or less a core part of the research process. A few examples of awkwardness:

The interview: You arrange to meet someone for a research interview, possibly in a café or at their office, and there is the initial awkwardness as each party scopes out the other. Basically, they are trying to work out the purpose of the interview and your intentions with the interview material. You are trying to work out if they will be easy to interview: engaging and talkative, or stilted and hesitant. In the vast majority of cases, interviewees are wonderfully generous with their time and insight, but there is always that initial awkwardness.

At passport control: The immigration officer asks you the purpose of your visit. In some cases, you have lied outright to get the visa because it would be crazy to say that you are conducting research. That would spell instant visa denial or bureaucratic delay. So you have to tell the immigration officer that you are visiting friends or there for a holiday. Since I am usually wearing a corduroy jacket and holding a book with a riveting title like ‘The heuristics and ontology of International Relations in the anthropocene” the immigration officer is rarely fooled that I am there to visit friends. They know I am lying, and I know that they know I am lying. It is awkward and usually I am saved by the fact that the immigration officer just does not care.

The walk: Often the best way to get to know a field research context is to have a walk around. It can be very revealing about standards of living, the main sources of employment and diversion, where and how people live etc. But in many contexts, the researcher stands out in terms of skin colour, dress and demeanour. It is obvious to any observer that you do not belong there. And with this observation comes awkwardness. You are simply walking around to see what you can see. You are not helping anyone or contributing to their lives. It is an awkward realisation that you are engaging in an intrusive activity.

Recognising the selfishness of our research: I would like to think that my research is vital for humanity. It is not. In my experience, virtually all policymakers and practitioners are extremely knowledgeable and rarely need insights from largely desk-based researchers who make occasional forays in ‘the field’. To the extent that my research is useful, it informs my teaching and provides material for my writing. That in turn might feed a number of academic debates I am involved in. Those debates, while fun and intellectually rewarding, tend to be among a limited number of scholars. Yet, we study contexts in which people have real needs – often basic needs of security and shelter. From this comes an awkwardness – a guilt – that we are voyeurs or conflict tourists armed with a visa to leave.

With a colleague I held a focus group in a post-authoritarian country in the past year. As a sign of thanks to the focus group participants, we brought along lunch. Although the country did not strike me as food insecure, every morsel of food was eaten. Not a crumb was left behind. As people talked during the focus group, it was clear that they led very precarious lives in which there was much poverty and hardship. It was a humbling moment. People saw this food (perhaps because it was brought to them and slightly removed from their usual diet) as being a great luxury. I left the focus group feeling very awkward – like some sort of crown prince. I would be in a nice hotel in a few hours and could choose whatever I wanted to eat – and would not think twice about leaving something on my plate.

My immediate reaction to awkwardness is that I want it to end. I usually fill awkward silences with platitudes and obvious questions and statements about the weather. But, in the case of research, perhaps we have to accept awkwardness and work through it. If there is any upside of this awkwardness it is that it encourages us to be reflexive and to think about issues of positionality and epistemology. It might help us get beyond the nonsense (indeed, as Patrick Chabal termed it ‘conceit’) that we can be truly empathetic with our research subjects. We cannot. For the most part, our privilege sets us apart from them so completely that we might as well be from another planet. Often our research subjects have not been to university and have little idea of the nature and purposes of academic research (let alone the arcane political economies that attend it).

So what is to be done? One thing that we can do is to embrace awkwardness and see it as a necessary part of the research process. It helps situate us, and reminds us that much field research is a very human process involving doubt and anxiety. Why do none of the textbooks on field research have a chapter on feeling awkward?

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Two new additions to my Rethinking Political Violence book series.

4 Jul