Skip to content

On participatory research and the 'third space'

Today I just read again the draft that Lara sent us some months ago. There she makes an argument against participatory observation – which is becoming so popular now in IR and Security studies – saying that this method draws a line between the observer and the observed. Yet more important, participatory observation means that the observer can afford not to be always connected with those observed – she can always leave the site, unlike the people for which the ‘site’ is a daily struggle. As a footnote, in our methodology class we once had a discussion about if and how to keep in touch with those we interviewed and researched after our dissertation is over; some professors were actually telling us that sometimes they would just send a copy of the thesis, and other times not contact the ‘respondents’ at all; and one sociology professor once confessed that most people only do the field-work for their PhD thesis, and never return ‘to the field’ afterwards.

I found Lara’s reminder to be crucial for one aspect of our situatedness as field-researchers. Not only that we should ‘go back to the field’ and keep in touch with those we have studied, but also I want to think that any participatory research should go beyond taking notes and making interviews, and then wrapping up a paper – it should be exactly that: participatory, with everything that it entails – shouldering the work of those people, voicing their concerns and demands to wider (academic) audiences, understanding them, becoming one of them even, working with them. And this works will definitely not end once we finish the thesis or the article. Another professor told me once that doing participatory ethnography is useful because you learn a craft; not the craft of gathering empirics and then arranging them on paper, of course, but whatever the work of the people you’re participating with is. And this clearly means that your situatedness becomes more than becoming reflexive of the context and the conditions around you, but it means that you are learning the skills of your ‘subjects’, you are becoming one of them. In a way, this is also a personal development project.

Then comes the ‘critical’ part, which for me should have some emancipatory aspect. This means that the work I do with the group I’m studying should aim to improve the life and conditions of that group. This is usually easier said than done. Yet there are a lot of examples of ‘militant academics’ that manage to situate themselves in the ‘third space’, at the intersection of academia and activism (whatever any of these two labels mean). But I came across a problem here, and I can illustrate it with a recent situation that I encountered.

In a certain ‘activist’ group that I also work with, from a strictly non-academic position, there came some weeks ago a student that was doing her ethnographical work on grassroots leftist movements in Budapest. Participatory observation, of course, and she was always carrying her notebook with her. For some reason I felt uncomfortable with this presence. I felt that it was difficult for me to negotiate it, because while we working and discussing our ‘stuff’, she was silently taking her notes. It’s not only that I felt like a laboratory mouse, but I also felt like she could do something else instead, she could give us a hand, for example. When finally she did, she wrote all about it in the field-diary, and it was obvious that it would become a paragraph in her exam paper. I felt that there was some sort of artificiality about the whole thing, and immediately I related to my own field work attempts. No matter how hard I would have tried to learn the skills and help the people that I study, there would still be an element of role-playing: I am doing this now and here, but I’m actually working on a different level, and as soon as this is over I will translate my work into some academically-jargoned expose. And I’ll feel good about it, because it’s not armchair sociology.

And so the problem I wanted to emphasize is this: when we actually realize how it is to be ‘on the other side’ of the fieldwork notebook, our reflexivity becomes self-destructive. When we realize that our position as a participant observer is negotiated upon a very fragile edifice, and that our legitimacy for ‘being there’ may only exist in our minds, that we might actually pester the people we’re trying to help, then we may come to a startling conclusion: there is no actual ‘third space’ between academia and activism. It’s really ‘either/or’. The moment we try to carve that third space and inhabit it, we may realize how deceiving it is to pretend we’re doing something useful for the people we’re actually studying. And Routledge acknowledges this sometimes, when he admits that he had to interrupt his ‘activism’ for various academic chores. But it’s not only about not having time for both, but it’s about the moment you realize that the mask you have to wear is deceiving you as well as the people you’re trying to help.

This is why I am ok with researching vigilantism :))

Methods: Method 4: Situated knowledge

Tags: situatedness