Being Feeble: On Portrayals of Competence and Control in the Recounting of Fieldwork*

Liberty Chee
Liberty Chee
Published in
9 min readAug 1, 2019

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Addition, Subtraction

Perhaps it was the way in which I had described my experiences writing my dissertation, from the moment of conception, to carrying out fieldwork all the way to the write-up. Specific to fieldwork, a reader made numerous comments about how I was supposed to write and what I needed to omit. I was not to portray myself as ‘feeble’, referring to what I wrote about not being able to go to a site because I did not have enough money to sustain both me and my interpreter at the same time. I was not to state that I thought some of my respondents had lied[1]. I was to remove what was ‘superfluous’ and was not ‘suitable’ for academic work. Of course there are many other things I had not included in my methodology chapter.

For example, I did not mention the fact that I cut short my fieldwork in Malaysia because I was not feeling safe in the apartment I had rented, that I felt under threat from the person who had sublet it to me. That we got into a shouting match. Or the fact that I chose to forgo accompanying a respondent from site A to site B because the way in which the invitation was made did not feel right. That is, it implied a level of intimacy which may have also compromised my safety. All of these decisions which I had to make while in the field obviously impacted on research outcomes — what kind of data I could have co-generated but did not, and the options that made themselves available to me while in the field which I could not have anticipated, and obviously could not plan for. And yet I was to remove these events from the narrative which described how I came by my data, in ways that illustrated that I was not occupying that Archimedean point or ‘god position’, from which I could safely observe reality unfolding, preferably with the clear light of reason. I was rather a vulnerable participant in a world I sought to describe, a being to be acted upon by other knowing subjects. I was not the competent inquisitor demanding truth from my respondents, but a body that tired of getting lost in the industrial suburbs of Jakarta, who ran out of money, and was occasionally cowed by fear.

What gets left in and what is written out of scholarly work is not only a matter of disciplinary convention or taken-for granted norms (themselves contested), but directly speak to what counts as and who gets to produce ‘knowledge.’ References to the author in the text, that is to put the author in the text, would mean acknowledging that she can be acted upon. The social science convention of disembodied writing is of course the by-product of the norm of objectivity, where to be objective means making the Cartesian cut between the thing known from the knower (Wendt, 2005). Maintaining this divide becomes increasingly tenuous when the methods employed in knowledge production mean putting the researcher in the middle of the reality she is seeking to describe. And when access to data relies in part on who she is and what she does in relation to built environments, immaterial objects (e.g. borders) and other people.

This essay asks, what might be gained from incorporating the author in the text? And further, to acknowledge that the author may be positioned, persuaded and perhaps even coerced? What could we better understand if we acknowledge that the conduct of research takes place within logistical limits — i.e. funding, institutional access, and time? Or indeed to acknowledge that the researcher must conduct research within sociological milieus — that her access to the field must necessarily be mediated by the limits of what is permissible and doable given social norms, structures and peculiarities of her identity? While IR has in recent decades become more welcoming of the role of reflexivity in knowledge production (Hamati-Ataya, 2012), there is little by way of understanding how this matters specifically in data generation, in this case while doing fieldwork. To be sure, our biographies impact on what kind of research draws us, and certainly shape how we arrive at our questions (Brigg & Bleiker, 2010). To be sure, acknowledging that we make mistakes helps future researchers (Mutlu, 2015). It is one thing to argue that respondents invent stories (i.e. lie) as meta-data (Fujii, 2010), but what if the latter not only shapes respondents’ narratives but also impact on the researcher herself[2]? How do we grapple with knowledge that is ‘compromised’ (i.e. not objective) by a researcher whose gender, class, and ethnicity (among other identity markers) render her penetrable, malleable, even weak? That is, what if her body, in actual physical space, is unable to grant her the subject position (sight, experience, thoughts) of the typical knowledge producer of the modern age — i.e. more likely male, more likely white?

I had only thought about my identity instrumentally when I had written my methodology chapter, a permanent feature of myself that I needed to ‘tweak’ every time I was faced with different sets of people. I described how being female worked in my favour in some aspects, but not in others. I also understood that I had to perform significant emotional labour to get to the data in the first place, and I knew that the power asymmetry was almost always in favour of my respondents, rarely mine. Unwittingly, the chapter may have highlighted my own precarity. My experience was not novel, as peers who were also young female migration scholars, found themselves in similar situations while doing fieldwork. I believe there are inherent risks in doing migration research, since the migrant experience typically unfolds at the margins of society — to which we must follow. These are liminal spaces that are not normally secure, away from governmental gaze. The limits of my identity also meant that I had not the protection of, say, a British or an American passport, and all that entailed. In contrast, my passport communicated in-built structural disadvantages — that being a lone Filipino female traveller could mean a few different things to border regimes — that I could be undocumented, that I could be a drug mule, that I could be a sex worker or a domestic worker, that I could be trafficked, or any combination of the above. All of these fed into my fieldwork experience, and the accounts that came out of that. And if it had not so unsettled one of my readers, I would not have realised that I had violated an academic norm. I thought that I was simply being honest.

In Vulnerable Subject, Beattie and Schick critique Enlightenment rationality which seeks to do away with vulnerability, casting it as a problem to be solved rather than a permanent feature of being human. And while normative theory seeks to better the plight of those who are oppressed, it does so from a position of strength, in which expert rationality knows what is best for those who are weak. Curiously then, the authors claim that the refusal to acknowledge vulnerability, even among the powerful (who could never do wrong), serves to perpetuate structures of oppression, if only because those who are actually suffering do not have legitimacy to express truth claims, even about themselves. Invulnerability distinguishes between those who are expert and knowledgeable and those who are incapable and maybe even ‘stupid.’ Beattie and Schick argue that to be vulnerable is to be accountable. To admit that our own common human frailty means being responsible — to ourselves and the others we seek to represent. Doing so opens up the possibility to another world, and to change:

Against the individualism of rationalist accounts of global politics, therefore, an agonistic approach develops a relational ontology that emphasises a purposive existence for community. This purpose goes beyond increased awareness of vulnerability; it insists that increased recognition of self and other be accompanied by a commitment to political action to redress the sources of injustice (Beattie & Schick, 2013, p. 13).

I take this to mean that to speak of our own vulnerability means not only admitting that our knowledge claims could be wrong (or indeed to be able to anticipate the ways we could be wrong), but that doing so entails admitting that scholarship, specifically writing, is not only the doing of representation. That is, a mere mirroring of what we find or discover to be the truth ‘out there’ because this means we as authors can separate ourselves (knowers) from the reality we experienced (known). Writing, especially about fieldwork experience, is also about bodily engagement with other people and within physical environments. In other words, the production of knowledge must come from some where, some one at some time. And that person’s relations with others and the world. To admit vulnerability and to accept accountability (Dauphinee, 2010), means not only that we are responsible for the claims we make, but that the activity of writing, and of scholarship, also make claims on us. And that erasing the fact that an able body, occupying space, time, institutions, in relationships, and real-world constraints, travelled across borders, consumed food, drank coffee, packed bags, made calls, took trains, spent money, walked and occasionally stopped in exhaustion means that the business of knowledge production, like any human activity, is shaped and sustained by the mundane at the best of times and the exceptional at the worst. In other words, the scholar does not stand apart from the world. She is of it. The question now is so what?

For one, we acknowledge that upholding the norms of positivist science, which means we cannot be researchers and admit to be being ‘feeble’ at the same time, normalizes the dominant experience of conventional knowledge producers and keeps the academy a hyper-elite enterprise. Second, inscribing ourselves in the world we seek to describe shows how knowledge production is fraught with compromise — with ourselves, our methods, our respondents, and yes our ‘data.’ What counts as science then is not the extent to which we are accurate or sure, or how we can control for X, Y, or Z, but the extent to which we have attempted to do science despite the very real limits described previously. I think this is what Beattie and Schick mean by being accountable and responsible. To deny the contingency of the processes of scholarship, I would suggest, is exactly the opposite of the authors aim for. To be ‘agonistic’ is to relentlessly question how and in which ways we compromise and are compromised by the fact that the conduct of research takes place within human relationships, among others.

To conclude, the same disciplining normality that values dispassion, disinterestedness and ‘objectivity’ means that to show emotion during academic performances is frowned upon. And as a young researcher you learn quickly that you must suppress the same feeling ‘instruments’ that allow you to empathize with respondents, or generally figure out how you relate to other sensing subjects while in the field. In academic settings, to show sorrow or anger somehow also means being compromised. To acknowledge that I experienced sorrow while doing fieldwork, where I witnessed or heard of stories of exploitation or abuse, and then somehow manage to not express being sorrowful while presenting my work seems peculiar. Is knowing not feeling at the same time? To take seriously that a researcher turns herself into the primary instrument in fieldwork surely means to acknowledge that it is not a mind that explores the ‘field’ but a body. One that may be acted upon, that is local, that is sexed, that has limits, and that can, indeed, be ‘feeble.’ To deny the latter would be to erase that which was constitutive of the fieldwork experience in the first place.

[1] I was to rephrase the sentence so as not to make the tone accusatory — as though respondents never actually lied.

[2] For example, a respondent may spread a lie about the researcher, affecting on how she maintains access to the field.

  • This essay was written for the EISA ECR Workshop ‘On the importance of failure: Living and Knowing in the filed’. September 11, 2018, Prague.

References

Beattie, A., & Schick, K. (2013). The Vulnerable Subject: Beyond Rationalism in International Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brigg, M., & Bleiker, R. (2010). Autoethnographic International Relations: exploring the self as a source of knowledge. Review of International Studies, 36(03), 779–798.

Dauphinee, E. (2010). The ethics of autoethnography. Review of International Studies, 36(03), 799–818.

Fujii, L. A. (2010). Shades of truth and lies: Interpreting testimonies of war and violence. Journal of Peace Research, 47(2), 231–241.

Hamati-Ataya, I. (2012). Reflectivity, Reflexivity, Reflexivism: ir’s “Reflexive Turn” — and Beyond. European Journal of International Relations, 249–250.

Mutlu, C. E. (2015). How (Not) to Disappear Completely: Pedagogical Potential of Research Methods in International Relations. Millennium — Journal of International Studies, 43(3), 931–941.

Wendt, A. (2005). Social Theory as Cartesian science: An auto-critique from a quantum perspective. In Constructivism and International Relations: Alexander Wendt and his Critics (pp. 178–216).

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