A known researcher or an unknown stranger

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It is been more than two months since I arrived in Hyderabad for conducting research in the Connectors Study. For the past two months, I have had several interactions with a range of people about everyday life in the city, particularly childhood in Hyderabad, starting from field experts to lay people that I meet on a daily basis. My reflections on the journey so far posed one intriguing question. That is, as Indian origin anthropologist Narayan asks, to what extent a native researcher is native. In fact, this is the topic that has been discussed in ethnography for a while; yet, I found this question fascinating and worth rehashing once again.

The issue of native ethnography has stemmed from the postcolonial perspective in which people questioned the positionality of the foreign researcher who generally viewed the locals as ‘others’ and vice versa. The term ‘native’ is being used in old ethnographic literature in association with the claim the researcher’s make about their findings or the authenticity of the research. However, this issue has now taken a different twist. Through reflexive practices ethnographers now tend to question the legitimation of researchers’ claims, the representation of research participants and finally the process of doing research itself.

I lived all my life in India sans the last few years. I have previously worked and conducted research on almost similar topic with children. Therefore, at times I tended to think that I have some knowledge and understanding about the cultural history of the country and also about childhoods in India. However, the interactions that I had with people given me a rather a different impression about my claim of a ‘native’ researcher on three fronts that (1) to what extent as a native researcher I am familiar with local culture and knowledge (2) to what extent I am a native in the research when I speak a different language from my study participants and (3) to what extent my identity is conceived as native by local people.

Firstly, in a country like India where there is so much of socio-political diversity it is not possible to know every aspect of life across the country. But, I wasn’t even aware of the historical fact that Hyderabad was ruled by Nizams, not by British, until my encounters with people in the research site. That made me realise how ignorant I was about the cultural history of the city. There were certain characteristics of Hyderabad, which made me feel that I am a known researcher in the field, at the same time, there were certain specificities, especially the religious and cultural aspect of life, which made me to feel that I am a stranger to the city.

Secondly, though I am a foreigner to Telugu (local language) I was able to communicate with locals with my broken Hindi (as most of the people in the city speak Hindi as well) and sometimes with the help of known or unknown voluntary translators. As the literature suggest the advantage of doing native ethnography is the accuracy of empirical data that it generates, that is, whether we got the data with what the participants really meant and have we captured the respondent’s verbal and non-verbal communication without much distortion. I knew that doing research in a somewhat new place with an interpreter has its own advantages and disadvantages. Nevertheless, I am not fully confident to what extent I can claim myself as native researcher as I do not speak the same language as my research participants.

Finally, the experience so far in the research site indicated that the tag ‘native’ works at different layers. At times, my identity of being an Indian helped me to develop relationships with people right away without any qualms, whereas at other times I myself felt like a foreigner/outsider in the research setting when I needed an interpreter to interact with people. Interestingly, when I approached schools for potential sample recruitment my local colleague insisted that I should emphasise my foreign researcher identity to gain some favour in acceptance. This substantiates, as the literature notes, identities that are constructed through social encounters in which individuals define and redefine their position and status. Although I am a native researcher, a part of me, for instance, my linguistic and occupational identities were perceived as foreign by local people. This suggests that parts of our identities are always on a threshold and it travels in liminal space as ‘outsider’ who wants to familiarise the unfamiliar.

Certainly, doing ethnography at home, or an indigenous ethnography as it’s sometimes referred to, has some advantages. For example, I can say that I am somewhat familiar with the culture, politics and social systems of the research context. To some extent, this would be helpful to go under the skin of the research topic straightaway. But these advantages are limited in my case because of my lack of Telugu language skills. Furthermore, in a multicultural society, no one can claim that any culture and identity is unique. As a researcher I possess multiple identities, as did the respondents, and my theoretical perspectives as well as my own experiential knowledge shape the way I think about the social world. Therefore, in a complex research setting like this and a country like India, I was left wondering to what extent I can claim myself as native in the research. I know that this is not a simple question to be answered but the one that I definitely want to reflect on throughout this research journey.

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