13. Power, Knowledge and Field Research: The “Hidden Transcripts” of Methodology

E-mail of panel organisers: mats.utas@nai.uu.se, maria.eriksson-baaz@nai.uu.se, judith.verweijen@nai.uu.se

Like all researchers, the Africa scholar is/should be deeply aware that every dimension of his/her research is informed by power relations, including the research design and the gathering of data in the field. Yet, when analysing power relations in methods sections, they appear limited to certain dimensions of research, such as the relations between researchers and those “researched upon”, or the effects of (self)censorship in the face of power asymmetries in the research context. This leaves vast areas of the ways in which power shapes field research and its methodologies unexplored: from the relations at home (e.g. negotiations about temporary exemption from the multiple exigencies of everyday life), to those in the academy (e.g. the relations between supervisors and doctoral students, between men and women), to those in the field (e.g. the relations between the often Western researchers and African research assistants, brokers and interpreters). While veiled or barely visible in the research text, the “hidden transcripts” of these power relations do shine through. We invite contributions that help unveiling them; that critically reflect upon the multiple ways in which power relations imbue our methodological choices and affect their implementation and the research outcomes. We especially encourage contributions that are not purely “researcher-centric” but that also explore the perspectives of other participants and reflect upon the wider ramifications of their argument for academic praxis.


1. Complex positionality: Reflections on fieldwork among Rwandophone Congolese Refugees in Rwanda

Author: Furaha Umutoni Alida (University of Gothenburg, Sweden)


This paper reflects on issues around identity, positionality and power-relations that emerged while conducting fieldwork 2012 and 2013 in Rwanda among Congolese Rwadophone refugees in camps. The fieldwork was conducted for my PhD project which attends to identity among Rwandophone Congolese. As is explained in the paper, originally the fieldwork was intended to be conducted in DRC (Masisi and Goma), but the outbreak of the M23 rebellion and the security situation did not allow me to go there. While all fieldwork are shaped by power relations linked to the positionality of the researcher, my fieldwork was particularly difficult both due to the conflict dynamics between the DRC and Rwanda and my complex positionality. In addition to conducting research on identity among refugees in a host-country that was accused of backing the M23 rebel group; I was also a Rwandan citizen. However, I also had a similar position as the refugees in that I was born in and grew up in the DRC. Yet, in addition to this I was also a PhD student living in and conducting my PhD research in Europe (Sweden). This complex positionality made certain questions particularly intense: Who do the research subject think I am? How does that shape what they tell me? What do they expect from me? Does my positionality as an “outsider within” provide me with particular responsibilities towards the research subjects? In this paper I will reflect upon these (and other) questions. I will argue that my position as a Rwandan born in the Congo could be perceived as one of an “outsider within”. Yet, in certain contexts it appeared as if the research subjects primarily related to me as someone living in Europe. In that sense, my field-research opened us similar issues around the workings of power-inequalities that are often associated with fieldwork conducted by Northern researchers in conflict zones.

2. Confidentiality, Power, and Moral Rationales: A Methodological Dilemma in Research on Healing and HIV/AIDS in Ghana

Author: Perpetual Crentsil (The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden)


Ethnographic fieldwork on people’s health and interaction often also concerns unexpected events and encounters that may significantly change or somehow affect the research methodology, implementation and outcomes. The whole point of ‘going native’, a key essence of understanding the ‘other’, involves conducting in-depth interviews and observations in particular social contexts and social relations in order to describe deeply and meaningfully. Health/healing and illness, especially HIV/AIDS, are highly sensitive issues frequently charged with ideologies, personal convictions and acts affecting gender relations and sexual intimacies within social, economic, religious and political processes. AIDS in an era of globalization and neoliberal ideals has seen pressure by human rights activists and others for politically-correct language and practices, including those involving patients.

This paper discusses how refusal by respondents—patients, healers (Western experts and spiritualists), staff of organizations working in affected communities, etc., — to grant interviews or to be observed affected my research methodological choices, implementation and outcomes. Using data from my ethnographic research on HIV/AIDS and medical systems in Ghana since 1999, the paper shows how the researcher is entangled in research ethics and moral rationales as people undoubtedly tried to protect their statuses and professions. What became of information from gossips, confidential (intimate/sensitive) accounts, secrets, and acts of propaganda or lobbying revealed by others? The paper relates health research in Ghana (and family involvement in my experiences as a native studying the phenomenon ‘at home’) to cultural patterns, processes of transformation (continuity and change) and ways in which power relations/asymmetries shaped the research process.

3. What Differences Matter?: Research Relations, Reflexivity and Fieldwork in Africa

Author: Marsha Henry (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)


This paper is concerned to critically assess the political depth of accounts of fieldwork dilemmas and challenges in African research contexts produced by a variety of African scholars.  In particular, I trace the growing concern with, and reflections on, power differences between researchers and participants, and argue that recent scholarship, particularly that distinguished by its concern with gender, works to cover over rather than uncover, the structural inequalities that underpin global fieldwork relations and the African field site. I use the example of the enduring figure of the white, female fieldworker, and reflect on the limitations of fieldwork accounts in regard to who can be a knowing subject, and which axes of difference matter in the research process.  In doing so, I call for a repoliticisation of fieldwork, which makes visible power relations on a global scale and acknowledges, rather than obscures, the historical legacies of fieldwork in Africa.

4. What is in a name?

Author: Diana Szanto ((University of Sciences Pécs, Hungary)


Disability is a hot topic in present day Sierra Leone: it is broadly discussed publicly (often mediated by the media); it is also kept high on the political agenda - both by the government and by international organizations in charge of orienting public policies. The issue of disability is important for a large number of actors: the State, international organisations, local NGOs, umbrella organisations, DPOs, individual people with disability - and researchers.  Each of these players vindicates the right to define the scope, the meaning and the implications of disability in a series of discursive and performative acts. In a context, where - according to the opinion of the street - „everything has become political”, speaking about disability is not without dangers. The paper examines the many ways power enmeshes the field of disability, with a special attention to the changing relations between the different actors, covering a period of five years, from 2008 until today. Although it does not focus exclusively on the role of the researcher in this dynamic, presenting her position as one of the possible positions, eventually it poses the question of the „transportability” of the research results. The idea of taking back the results to the field opens a series of interrogations: What are the chances to voice dissident opinions in a public sphere where the freedom of speech is visibly diminishing? How to claim the right to define disability as an outsider – not only to disability but to most of the power games? Who is the research for, after all? There are probably many conflicting answers to these questions. Developing some of them might also help us to better understand what disability stands for in the contemporary political life of a post war West-African country, undergoing quick economic and social reconstruction. 

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