A blog entry by Obert Tawodzera
It is increasingly recognised that undertaking qualitative research can pose ethical challenges for the researcher. Yet academic literature rarely gives an account of the ethical and emotional pitfalls that doctoral researchers from the ‘Global South’ studying in the ‘Global North’ may experience if they return to their countries of origin to conduct fieldwork. In this blog, I reflect on the ethical and emotional challenges I experienced when I went back to Zimbabwe to conduct fieldwork with family members of my UK research participants.
PhD Student, Sustainable Care programme
The main aim of my research is to examine how Zimbabwean migrant care workers working in the UK, and their family members in Zimbabwe, simultaneously respond to the demands of transnational aged care – and in particular, how the care they provide is mediated by use of new technologies. To provide a more holistic account of transnational family caregiving, I am examining the ‘care dynamics’ of migrants and their ‘left behind’ family members. As I am using a multi-sited matched sample methodology, I am trying to collect data from both sides – from the migrants living in the UK and from their families back home.
Having collected data from migrants in the UK and arranged access to some of their family members back in Zimbabwe, I travelled there to collect additional data in October 2019. My research and fieldwork are sponsored by the Sustainable Care Programme, to which by PhD studentship is linked. It is both part of my PhD and contributes to the programme’s broader work on migrant care workers undertaken by two of its component teams.
I travelled to Zimbabwe armed with what I believed was a robust methodological framework, coupled with a set of personal preconceptions about how the research process would unfold. Somewhat naively, I anticipated that being born and bred in Zimbabwe would make the research process straightforward. I had what is referred to as the ‘home comer attitude’. I considered myself an insider with a high level of understanding of the cultural nuances and power structures in a Zimbabwean context.
The experience was markedly different from what I had anticipated, however. Zimbabwe had changed and so had I. I left Zimbabwe 15 years ago and had been going back occasionally to visit family and friends, never spending more than two weeks in Zimbabwe at a time. Also, from the time I was born until the time of my last trip to Zimbabwe, there had been only one leader, Robert Mugabe.
This time, things were different. Robert Mugabe was no longer the premier, having died just a couple of weeks before I travelled. I was in Zimbabwe for more than a month; the social, economic and political situation had changed (for the worse), with implications for my fieldwork. While I was there carrying out my research, an estimated 80% of Zimbabwe’s people were making a living by working in the informal economy, and inflation peaked at 175%. Shortages of bread, fuel, electricity and cash were part of daily life. The new government had also cracked down on all forms of dissent, using Mugabe’s time-honoured methods of fear, intimidation, abduction and violence. Consequently, my presence and research activities were designed to avoid attracting unnecessary attention.
Before travelling, I made contingency communication and withdrawal plans with my supervisors, in case the situation become unstable. I had not anticipated, however, that the shortages of fuel, electricity and cash would pose additional ethical and emotional challenges. Sometimes I found it hard to travel to places to meet participants, due to shortages of fuel. I ended up taking expensive taxis to make it to appointments. Also, with most people working in the informal economy, it was difficult to make appointments and not feel I had wasted a person’s time – especially when I had nothing to offer in return. Paying research participants is a controversial issue, with decisions mainly based on individual researchers’ personalities and perceptions of the circumstances that confront them in research. I find paying participants for their opinions unsettling and transactional. I agree, however, that random acts of generosity can be appropriate, as in this case. So, I offered to buy lunch, coffee or to reimburse any travel expenses my interviewees incurred by participating in the study.
I nevertheless found researching people in my country a humbling experience. Despite all the problems in the country, my Zimbabwean participants welcomed me into their homes and were eager to share their life stories and caring experiences with me. My positionality as ‘one of them’ helped a lot, including when introducing myself; speaking the local language, I felt welcomed as one of them. Feeling comfortable with the language and understanding cultural subtleties, such as how to greet elders, what can be said/not said, and understanding cultural humour made it easy for me to gain trust, blend into social situations and establish ‘natural’ interactions.
I found that I could see first-hand how new technologies bring dispersed families together. Through my interactions and interviews with participants, I was able to uncover how technology-mediated transnational aged caregiving is nevertheless shaped by global inequalities and social power relations that, by and large, reproduce and perpetuate asymmetrical and gendered relations embedded in family caregiving. Doing fieldwork in my country of origin opened my eyes. It increased my understanding of transnational caring relations; it helped me think more deeply about my respondents’ and my own emotions, and it raised important ethical questions on which I will continue to reflect.
PhD student, Sustainable Care programme