Stories from the field

Avilasa Sengupta: entering the research field

Entering the research field can bring many challenges – particularly for researchers using empowering methodologies, because this approach brings with it uncertainties. In other words, because empowering methodology uses radical approaches to destabilise unequal power relations, they are often in unpredictable situations.

Avilasa Sengupta [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , a researcher on the Project Team, shows her thoughts and questioning of herself during the first two days of her fieldwork. Avilasa researched a non-profit organisation in India that seeks to recognise the Rights of Mother Earth by challenging corporate exploitation and control of natural resources, and promoting local food sovereignty and sustainable agricultural practices. The organisation works with indigenous people, farmers and women. The study focused on the practices used by the organisation to empower women and the religious/spiritual beliefs that they are based on. Here are two extracts from Avilasa’s research diary:

6 March 2019

I did not get much ‘data’ today. The people here have a different gaze towards me. One of being an outsider.

And here I sit wondering if these few days would be enough to make myself welcomed by them. Will I be an insider to them? Or should I? Who knows what is better? This pressure to gather data – I don’t even know if I am on the right track. I don’t know what is it exactly that I am searching for. My questions seem very basic, and this place seems very basic. Or maybe I am looking at it the wrong way.

7 March 2019

It is funny how the camera changed everything. Are we really this obsessed with creating an impression all the time? Are we always on the lookout to be liked and known? Or do we just want to be known for our existence?

These pictures, these videos, these faces – oh, their excitement! How does it feel to be captured into something that shall speak of their existence long after they are gone? How does it feel to own something, a memory, of someone I barely know – to know that this shall remain long after this trip ends, this project ends, long after I end?

Did I just capture them? Or did I – in this capturing of them – capture a part, a proof of my being present here today on this Earth?


Avilasa’s diary

Read Avilasa’s research diary and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • What do you think Avilasa’s main concerns were?
  • How do you think she felt as she began her research?
  • How would you feel if you were in Avilasa’s position?

We recommend that you keep notes of your answers to these questions so you can return to them during the course.

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Avilasa was well-prepared before entering the field. She had discussed this with her mentor who was an experienced academic and had prepared an interview guide. However, Avilasa’s diary entries reveal her uncertain feelings about ‘fitting in’, ‘being out of place’ and ‘belonging’. These are common dilemmas that confront many researchers.

You may have noticed in the first diary extract that Avilasa is concerned about how she is seen by other people and how she sees them. From the second extract, you may have inferred that Avilasa took her camera with her. She noticed how that changed how she related to participants and vice versa, and she asked herself about what ‘capturing’ people’s images could mean. Avilasa’s notes to herself reveal how she tries to think through her beliefs, values, assumptions and techniques in an ethical way. Practising empowering methodology means continually reflecting on one’s motives, personal ethics and the potential consequences of methodological choices, such as photographing participants. Photographic methods are discussed later in Section 7.

Avilasa’s self-questioning in her research diary offers a means of reflecting on her encounters and recording her thoughts in ways which she might not have felt able to do in conversation with others. This self-reflexive approach will be discussed further in Sections 2 and 4. Self-reflexivity is practised by people in everyday life – questioning choices, decisions and occurrences in their heads – but rarely writing them down. Diarising self-reflexive questions, as Avilasa has, can help to alleviate any nervousness or anxieties that the researcher might feel when doing the empirical research, and can become an invaluable source of data that the researcher can later use to analyse their influence on the research, and to trace how it has influenced them.

What are empowering methodologies?