Rose Jaji (PhD), University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe
Researchers, whether their research sites fit into the classical home-field dichotomy or conflate home and the field, plan the field trip with the supposition that they will find research participants. What researchers may not have discussed on the numerous academic platforms available to them is the possibility of encountering a research-fatigued or research-weary community. Potential research participants may also have expectations of the research. But do researchers consider research from the perspective of research participants and what it means to tell one’s story and not see the relevance of the research to one’s life? Relevance of the research to research participants plays an important role in facilitating access (Coleman 1996). Some research participants may have participated in previous researches and may want to know why they should keep telling their stories. I address my experiences as I carried out research with farmers in an irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe and urban refugees in Kenya.
In the early 2000s, I travelled to a rural community in Zimbabwe for research on gender relations in an irrigation scheme. On the first day after my arrival, my host accompanied me to the irrigation scheme and introduced me as a student from the university. I explained why I had come to the scheme. One man who was a member of the scheme leadership committee asked me, “How is your research going to help us?” I told him that I was a student who simply wanted to understand relations between women and men in the scheme and that I was not in a position to implement my research findings for the betterment of the irrigation scheme. Perhaps irritated by this sincerity, the man told me that they were tired of people who came to the scheme to research them. He concluded with the rejoinder, “Why don’t you research each other at those universities of yours?” What could I say to this? I thought this was the final word; the possibility of informed consent had just disappeared. I was thinking of walking away when the man told me that members of the scheme would participate in the research. I would learn in the course of the research that several researchers had researched the scheme before me. Some of them had made promises perhaps intended to make people enthusiastic about participating in their researches and more forthcoming with information. I thought that I had chased myself out of the scheme by telling the truth but I would learn in the course of the research that my honest reply had opened the door for me. In Buchanan et al’s (1988) four-stage access model: getting in, getting on, getting out and getting back, refraining from making promises that I could not fulfil meant that I left the door to getting back open.
A few years later, I went to Kenya for my doctoral fieldwork this time with urban refugees. The same question on how my research would help refugees confronted me. Once again, I explained that I could not promise that my research would improve refugees’ circumstances in Nairobi. As a student, I lacked the means to use my research findings to improve the refugees’ lives. Then, as if to suggest that if my research could not change refugees’ circumstances, there was an alternative to this, some of the refugees asked me whether I would pay them for participating in the research. This is a controversial topic which has generated varying perspectives based on individual researchers’ personalities in relation to the circumstances that confront them during research (see Head 2009; Russell et al 2000; Zutlevics 2016). I find paying research participants unsettling and brazenly transactional. I am uncomfortable with the idea of buying people’s stories. Nonetheless, I draw a line between random acts of generosity towards research participants and paying them. The question of payment coincided with the fact that I was a student and could not afford to pay every refugee who participated in the research. I replied to the question on payment in the negative. Notwithstanding my position, most of the refugees who had raised the question of payment agreed to participate and told me that the reason why they participated was that they wanted me to get my PhD. This reason also came from a woman who initially refused to participate not because of the payment issue but because she simply did not “talk to researchers”. I was intrigued and decided to find out why. I would learn that some researchers before me had come to Nairobi, obtained information and promised to help the refugees get resettled in a third country, usually a Western country. As a result, the refugees now saw every researcher as dishonest. It was the irrigation scheme all over.
It is important to acknowledge the fatigue that research has generated in various communities of research interest. Just like plot holders in the irrigation scheme, many refugees had seen researchers come and go and even participated in some of the researches yet these researches had not changed their lives for the better. Some of my interlocutors did not have the means and opportunity to further their education and yet they wanted me to get the PhD that I was studying for. If they wanted me to get something that I wanted in my life, it was only logical that I should also want them to get what they wanted in their lives. This was clear but what was not clear to me was how I could assist. I understood the fatigue and weariness: what had become of the information that my interlocutors had already provided? Refugees had a legitimate reason to ask why they should keep telling their stories when they could not see the relevance of researches to their everyday lives.
I do not suggest that we should stop researching people in need or people who are research-fatigued. Nor do I have solutions to the predicament that researchers find themselves in when researching with research-fatigued communities who are often communities in need. Rather, I suggest more responsibility, honesty and accountability to the people that we research. Indeed, I have encountered refugees who found telling me their stories cathartic. They felt the need to tell their stories to someone especially in a context where they had limited, if any, access to professional counselling; sharing their stories with me provided some form of emotional release (see Hutchison et al 1994). Research ethics appear to be mundane because they are an integral part of research training and research-related careers. However, navigating informed consent in the field where we deal with people who also have questions of their own to us and expectations of our researches entails choices that may even be detrimental to the research itself. The primary responsibility is to potential research participants who cannot give informed consent without the truth. The second responsibility is to fellow researchers and it is important to remember this as researchers answer questions posed to us by potential research participants and those who may already have agreed to participate in the research. Informed consent is not only about the yes-word but also about the circumstances or how researchers get to have it said to them. The moment a researcher raises expectations that she or he will not be able to fulfil, she or he has violated research ethics, compromised the integrity of the data and jeopardized future researchers’ chances of finding acceptance and willing participants.
My experiences with farmers in the irrigation scheme and urban refugees who agreed to participate in my research even when they knew I could not help them attests to the importance of truthfulness in research. I learnt the humility of receiving from people who did not have much to give apart from their life stories and goodwill. It was a humbling experience to receive where I could not give in reciprocation. In their different ways, plot holders in the irrigation scheme and urban refugees found ways to make me one of them so that I would feel comfortable receiving the information they unconditionally shared. These were people who were under no obligation to participate in the researches yet they found a way to make me feel comfortable asking them questions about their lives. Successful research is not solely an outcome of one’s merit as a researcher; it is also a product of research participants’ grace and benevolence. I experienced these from people who had become fatigued or weary of research but appreciated the truth even when it was not what they would have wanted to hear.
Buchanan, D., Boddy, D. and Mc Calman, J. (1988). Getting In, Getting On, Getting Out and Getting Back, In Bryman, A. ed. Doing Research in Organisations, 53–67, London: Routledge.
Coleman, S. (1996). Obstacles and Opportunities in Access to Professional Work Organizations for Long-Term Fieldwork: The Case for Japanese Laboratories, Human Organisation, 55, 334–343.
Head, E. (2009). The Ethics and Implications of Paying Participants in Qualitative Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(4), 335–344.
Hutchinson, S. A., Wilson, M. E. and Wilson, S. W. 1994. Benefits of Participating in Research Interviews. IMAGE: Journal of Nursing Scholarship26(2) 161–166.
Russell, M. L., Moralejo, D. G. and Burgess, E. D. (2000). Paying Research Subjects: Participants’ Perspectives.Journal of Medical Ethics, 26, 126–130.
Zutlevics T. L. (2016). Could Providing Financial Incentives to Research Participants be Ultimately Self-defeating? Research Ethics, 12(3) 137–148.
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