From Aleppo to Aldi; Reflections on Conducting Ethnographic Fieldwork with Resettled Refugees.

Dylan Howel
Sunday 10 September 2017

We are all accustomed to the gruesome details of the Syrian civil war; the chemical weapons, political upheaval and mass displacement of populations sprawling over borders throughout the Middle-East and into Central Europe. The perpetual media coverage and echo chambers of Facebook paint lucid pictures in our minds of desperate refugees huddled in boats, clinging to life in cross-continental escapes, waiting for a glimpse of life in a new country. Political turmoil in the West has appropriated this ‘humanitarian’ crisis for the purpose of votes, fuelling the toxic ‘us and them’ narrative perpetuated by so many during recent political campaigns.

My research aimed to boil down these sweeping discourses into a humanist worldview that points to the ways in which issues of displacement transcend refugee experience, investigating the facets of resettlement that at one time or another any human on planet earth may face. In conducting the research I negotiated many obstacles concerning methodology and ethics, this brief blog posts aims to reflect on some of these experiences to assist future interns who are conducting fieldwork. I do not claim to have any authority; these are merely my experiences but they may offer some small insight into some of the ways in which fieldwork and its methodological accoutrements may be conducted.

To illustrate the ways in which issues of displacement transcend refugee experience I focussed my investigation on actors involved in the process of relocation who situated themselves at a grassroots level. Most prevalent of these groups was the work of volunteers who provided multiple services to newly resettled refugees; teaching English, providing social support, and engaging individuals in community during the preliminary stages of relocation.

By becoming a volunteer with an organisation offering support to refugees I was able to offer my services and conduct my research in an ethically sound manner while immersing myself in the quotidian experiences of those at the forefront of my investigation. Ethnographic inquiry is a relational process, as researchers we should strive for emotional reflexivity and situate ourselves within the field, these methodological choices will ultimately influence the depth of analysis we afford ourselves at the end of fieldwork. As Shore recognises ‘fieldwork is an emotional encounter as well as an intellectual exercise…’ (1999: 27-29). Thus, one piece of advice would be to situate yourself as close to your subject of study as possible, this allows the above to flourish and makes fieldwork less of a chore while giving you the opportunity to experience your research in a holistic sense, removed from books and journal articles.

Setting up a fieldsite and ultimately playing a role within an organisation is a daunting thought at the start of research. Through emails and phone calls I found I built up a confidence in relaying the aims of my research and distilling the objectives into bite size abstracts that could be understood by anyone I spoke to. This was also incredibly beneficial for me personally as it allowed me constantly hone in on what it actually was I aimed to find out –  a problem all students share throughout the process of research. These skills were particularly important as I was denied access for my initial fieldsite and had to find a new site that was consistent with my research proposal; focusing more thoroughly on one of my research aims allowed a much more interesting discussion to form from the rubble of my first attempt.

As my research progressed I identified a number of individuals who would become my key informants and through time would influence and inform my project to a large degree. These individuals were people I had built up a relationship with or had offered their help as they found out about the work I was doing. After gaining ethical approval from the organisation and the individuals themselves I begun to formulate questions stemming from ideas I had about the research. Conducting semi-structured open-ended interviews with volunteers was conducive to the informant-led approach to ethnography my research pertained to. As Malinowksi stated, the goal of ethnography is ‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world’ (1922:25). Although native is a bit strong in today’s ‘culturally sensitive’ Anthropology the point still holds firm; let the interviewee talk and do more listening than anything else, it is their story that you are there to capture.

By recording interviews on my phone, I was able to let the interviewee lead the conversation and move from topic to topic in an organic form, allowing pauses and un-related thoughts to pepper the interview was a great mechanism that put the individual at ease and also afforded supplementary information to be gained from the interviews. Recording also allowed me to reflect heavily on the interviews while spending a large amount of time transcribing, this is one thing to keep in mind – every 15 minutes of recording takes around 1 hour to transcribe.

Ethics play a crucial role within ethnographic field work; consent is the operative word. While conducting my research I found it natural to write down notes left, right and centre, believing that all these ideas and overheard conversations would fill my write up with intimate knowledge or never-before-heard insights into my subject area. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that much of the events and conversations you experience while conducting research will // should not make it into the final write up because the people you are quoting are unaware of your identity as a researcher. As a whole, covert research is deceptive and ethically un-sound, it does not give your informants the respect they deserve. Furthermore, it may undermine your whole project and blow any chances of re-visiting the fieldsite in the future. As arduous and mind-numbing it can be, to conduct research in a credible manner ethics applications must be observed and full consent given from your informants. If you respect this you will find, as I found, that people open up and trust you more fully knowing that the intentions behind the research are for the purpose of furthering knowledge and not pulling skeletons out the the closet. With my ethics cleared and consent forms signed I found it fulfilling to talk to people knowing that the data I gathered was solid and could be used in the write-up, while maintaining the relationships I had fostered in the field.

As this discussion illustrates ethnographic inquiry is messy work and involves a lot of flexibility, re-drawing of plans, and constant negotiations. However, at this late stage in the internship with my final piece and poster nearly finished, it is fulfilling to reflect on the journey I have been through. The skills I have learned on the ground – conducting interviews, writing notes, observing events with an analytical eye – and the confidence I have gained in the logistics of planning research – emails, phone calls and meetings – are things I would never have developed making coffee for corporate parrots in an office somewhere. I have also met a great bunch of individuals who are working hard to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people integrate into life in Scotland. While the personal relationships I formed with Syrians over the past few months are not temporary, they will last far beyond this internship. All in all, it’s been a privilege.


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