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Power dynamics with researchers on the ground needs a reset

View from above of two men standing and holding clipboards and pens
Many researchers from the global North engage research assistants in their geographical field of research. Photo by Axel Fassio/FLICKR

Many researchers from the global North (Europe and North America) who do fieldwork in the global South engage research assistants and associates in the geographical field of research.

At best, their contribution is mentioned in a footnote of the articles or reports. At worst, they are kept invisible.

Yet these contributors are key actors in the research process. They forge access to difficult zones and find people to take part in research efforts. They are important in the collection of data, production of research reports and dissemination of results. Eventually, they help to orient, shape and produce knowledge.

Research shows that their role is seldom made visible in research outputs. In addition, they aren’t invited to be part of the research design process. And their role isn’t recognised in the institutional field of research, which is guided by publishing records.

This is problematic because of the way unequal power relations – and power abuse – determine the conditions in which knowledge is produced. Also, there’s a loss of expertise in the hands of these research associates and assistants.

Concerns over research associates and assistants in the production of knowledge aren’t new. They connect to a rich literature on research ethics which emerged within different disciplines as early as the 1960s. This research highlighted the importance of research associates and assistants in the production of knowledge, and the importance of locally embedded expertise – though often without giving them a voice.

To shed light on what’s needed to correct this, we – a group of academics from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Europe – have initiated the “Bukavu Series” – a series of blog posts and a new online cartoon exhibit.

Written by research collaborators and research assistants in the DRC, over 30 blog posts discuss how power relations in knowledge production are skewed. They give first-hand accounts of the role of research assistants and associates, their challenges and their responsibilities.

We don’t want to pretend that the Bukavu Series can solve the problem of invisibility of research associates and assistants. But this is a step in making their voices heard.

Bukavu Series

The contributions in the Bukavu Series cover a number of ethical and emotional challenges that research associates and assistants face.

They discuss the incompatibility between research projects’ expectations and field complications. These include difficulties in getting access to “the field”. They are often embedded within the methodological set-up of research projects. Resolving these complications can be difficult because of time pressures and limited budgets.

Another challenge is related to the associates’ interactions with people in contexts of violence, conflict or economic hardship. As some blog posts tell us, they often struggle with people’s expectations to be financially compensated for participating in research. But these resources are usually not provided, and associates’ struggles with respondents’ expectations often remain unacknowledged.

Research collaborators and assistants also struggle with questions around the communication of research results to their respondents and society at large. People expect to get an insight into the outcomes of the research in which they participated. But again, this is often not foreseen in the research design.

Besides the inherent ethical issues, this complicates any potential return to areas as part of future research activities.

Similarly, there’s little recognition about how doing research in conflict-affected environments can have profound effects on the mental well-being of researchers. Various posts reflect on researchers’ entanglements and traumas, shed light on strategies that might reduce these risks, and point at the lack of support by those commissioning research activities.

And there’s the challenge of visibility. Several contributors claimed the right to be recognised as full partners in research projects. Some bloggers argued that the role of research associates was almost automatically confined to that of “research assistants”, pushing them into a position of subordination.

What must change

To change this, there are a few principles that should urgently be adopted. This is not only a moral obligation but also a necessary step in the transformation of the production of knowledge and academia at large. These steps include:

  • Acknowledgement upfront of the key role played by research associates and assistants alongside the lead researcher(s) right from the start of the research cycle;

  • Equal participation between lead researchers, collaborators and assistants in the design of project cycles;

  • Equal ownership over the generated data;

  • Recognition in the final outputs of research.

More generally, contemporary problems of knowledge production cannot be detached from the broader inequalities, nor can they be considered separated from existing power relations defining academia. The relations of domination – at the root of these inequalities and ingrained in a historical trajectory – explain to a large extent the unequal representations in the production of knowledge.

There’s a need to call into question the tendency in academic circles to consider institutions located in the global North as “the” valid reference points for the production and validation of knowledge. More prominence should be given to institutions – and scholars – located in the global South in all the dimensions of knowledge production and by all those involved in the generation of knowledge.

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