Research Reflections from an Outsider, cum Insider, during Field work in Uganda

By Eunice Akullo (Phd Candidate, University of Southampton). 


(Visual art image by Rolands Tibirusya)

This article presents a narrative of my July and September 2016 data collection experience for research exploring the integration of children born in captivity in three sub-regions of Uganda. Following the end of the research, I was puzzled about my identity/position as a young, female researcher and decided to reflect upon the process. The narrative below provides an account of the research experience and explains the complex nature of my identity as crosscutting between insider and outsider. It also explains how gatekeepers were vital in accessing some of the respondents and in providing guidance on how to conduct the research.

The quotation below, captured in my diary, represents my thoughts after one of the weeks of the fieldwork. My PhD research explores the integration of children born in captivity to females abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Community members received me with pre-conceived expectations. I remember one elderly male voluntarily offering me advice as I embarked on my field travels. He advised me to mind what I said, what I wore and how I behaved among the fieldwork communities to avoid being misunderstood. I enjoyed dressing up in long skirts and long dresses, and interacting with participants according to culturally expected norms. Having grown up this way, not much was surprising though. What concerned me was the feedback. Some respondents appeared surprised by my gestures. Others clutched on to their high cultural standards! The idea that a number of highly educated women around here despised folks in their community also took me by surprise!

Captured thoughts such as these following a week of research activity, reflect more than simply a memory of my fieldwork experience. They allow me as a researcher, in hindsight, to consider the power relationships and unforeseen moments during fieldwork. These form part of what reflexivity involves.

There are various scholarly definitions of reflexivity. Some of the appropriate ones in my research context include; Mullings (1999), for whom reflexivity applies to data collection processes and power relationships during research. Feminists focus on “power distribution between the researcher and participants” (Finlay: 2002b). These relationships may position the researcher as either ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ (Mullings: 1999). An “outsider” denotes a person conducting fieldwork in a community they do not belong.

Furthermore, young female researchers may experience power relations working in both directions while doing research in an overtly patriarchal field context (Sultana; 2007:380). While institutional ethical clearances aim at minimising harm, the positionality of the researcher (gender, class and ethnicity) shapes the nature of investigation (Dwyer and Buckle: 2009).

I embarked on fieldwork after obtaining institutional ethics approval both at the University and in Uganda.  Semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and notes in a reflexive diary were sources of data. Gatekeeper role in research of this nature was very vital in enabling data collection from some key informants and the focus group participants. I discuss how my positionality (gender and social status) did not neatly fit within the dichotomy between ‘insider’ and ’outsider’. I concur with Etherington (2004) that reflexivity helps to bridge the gap between institutional ethics approval and the actual fieldwork.

My positionality: Insider? Outsider? Both?

Questions like, ‘why are you interested in this study?’ ‘Is this a topic of your choice or the University’s?’ ‘How will the children benefit?’ came up during data collection.

I was neither a complete ‘insider’ nor ‘outsider’, and if the concepts of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ were located on a continuum, I occupied a middle ground. Dwyer and Buckle (2009:60) refer to the middle ground as the hyphen position, one characterised by “paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence, as well as conjunction and disjunction”. As a tribes mate in one of the research areas, some participants considered me an ‘insider’. I was an ‘insider’ prior to the fieldwork, given that I had lived and worked in Uganda, and had over time gained knowledge of the culture and context.

My need for gatekeepers (folks I had made contact with during my professional experience) for data collection however started to affect my perception of how much of an ‘insider’ I was. I was researching among communities where I had not lived while growing up. Sometimes, I felt like an ‘outsider’ among communities where I could not speak/ understand the native language. Given that I was a researcher from a university abroad, respondents asked what the interest of the University was in such a topic. Explaining that abduction in my village indirectly affected me was helpful, yet I still did not pass for a complete ‘insider’ because I never lived there during war. The explanations were however important for building trust.

The influence of my positionality as a researcher

As a female, I met social and moral discussions surrounding females in leadership roles, within politics and academia. Conflicting opinions regarding how some women in politics and academia defied culturally expected norms is prevalent in Ugandan society.

Some of my peers expressed similar sentiments, and wondered which side of the debate I would fall after the PhD. Unknown to me, these kinds of social discourse shaped the ‘silent expectations’ some respondents had from me as an unmarried female researcher from a university in a developed country. A fact I discovered later. It became common before, during or after some interview sessions, to receive advice on the expected role of a woman in marriage, despite her career achievements. During such moments, I would listen to the advice, and find ways of steering the discussion back to the research. The various encounters with advice of this nature, more than ever, shaped my awareness of the impact that the socio-cultural construction of marriage and expected gender norms have on inter-personal interactions like research.

My helpful gatekeepers

My Gatekeepers with whom I had been in touch for about 6-12 months prior to fieldwork, helped build trust among research participants, mobilised for focus group discussions, and offered guidance on security measures to consider while conducting research on sensitive topics among communities recovering from war trauma. They offered advice on the necessary precautions and actions in light of my personal security and that of my participants.

Gatekeepers were helpful in recruiting participants for ‘seeded focus group’ discussions- the ‘seeded focus group’ approach previously used in HIV/AIDS research (Busza et al., 2009)[1], allows for the inclusion of the perspectives of vulnerable people. While recruiting participants, I requested them to ensure a few people related to, or living in homesteads with children born in captivity, participated. I did not know who the seed was during focus group discussions. The intention was to allow them to participate freely.

Taking stock of my fieldwork experience, I agree that reflexivity helps to explore “ethically important moments” in fieldwork and responses to the same (Guillemin and Gillam: 2004). However, since qualitative research is a subjective process, I recognise that another researcher conducting the same research would have a different experience of the fieldwork. However, some issues raised herein, may be relevant to researchers who adopt a ‘seeded focus group’ approach for a research on children born in captivity without being a ‘complete insider’. In addition, researchers involved in any socially, ethnically and politically sensitive research could find these insights useful.