Looking back at ... TNOC-Masterclass "Challenges of Sensitive Fieldworks"
As part of the research programme Hidden Narratives on Transnational Organised Crime in West Africa a research training programme was organised on the theme: “Challenges of Fieldwork: Data Collection in Sensitive Situations”. A six days masterclass took place at the Nigerian Academy of Letters, University of Ibadan from September 13th to 19th, 2021.
Eight participants were selected (among an impressive cohort of candidates): Adegbenle Semiu, Aliyu Rilwan Abdullahi, Aremu Lateef Olalekan, Mahmoud Yusuf, Musbahu Ismail, Njoku Chukwudi Gbadebo, Ogbebor Ejemen, Ogundairo Abosede Janet. All of them are currently conducting a research work - as part of a Master or a PhD - that involves a risky, touchy and/or morally engaging fieldwork.
“Sensitive topics” or “sensitive locations” imply a situation in which the researcher has to be especially cautious and prepared. This may entail risks for the researcher and the studied populations, because of a dangerous or volatile environment and/or existing social/cultural taboos about the research topic.
Sensitive fieldwork may include research with participants who face particular vulnerabilities and should be approached with particular care and consideration. This can vary from engaging with participants who have a mental health condition, to those with a precarious legal status, or those engaged in criminal activity. Serious ethical challenges are also often part of this type of research.
The masterclass was thought to be a week of research training through research practice and a time for the researcher to take distance from their field and engage themselves in a reflexive process. Alternating theoretical and practical fieldworks sessions, participants and coordinators addressed collectively and individually the following questions: How to position oneself in a sensitive field? What are the consequences of the researcher's positionality on the production of data? What are the methodological challenges in sensitive situations and how to overcome them?
The group was divided in 2 research teams who conducted fieldworks on the following topics:
- Sexual Harassment Policies on University of Ibadan campus
- Cattle trade and inter-communities relationships in Akinyele Cattle Market (Ibadan).
These practical sessions aimed at confronting the participants to their positionality in a new field, and ultimately fostering their reflexivity on their own research. The risky, sensitive and/or “morally engaging” fieldworks/topics all participants were engaged in led to methodological but also ethical questions.
Outcomes of the Masterclass
Masterclass participants were encouraged to adopt a reflexive approach during the fieldwork, to interrogate their own positionality towards the topics, the actors, and the environment in which they were collecting data. They raised the challenges of being an insider or an outsider, the issues of power relationships as well as the peculiarity of being an African researcher, or a woman, while in the field.
Getting inspiration from a compilation of short papers published as The Bukavu Series , the coordinators asked all Masterclass participants to use their own research experience and write a short piece that would address a specific challenge they faced in order to reflect on what was at stake then.
The results of this exercise are not academic papers but short pieces that illustrate reflexivity and self-positioning.
This series of reflexive papers is available at the bottom of this page. Hopefully, these papers will help other researchers to develop their own reflexive approach.
Group picture with coordinators and participants.
Participants during theoritical session
Participants on the field in Akinyele Cattle Market.
Picture from the research group on sexual harrasment in University of Ibadan.
Reflexive papers of participants
Precious O. Diagboya, PhD
Senior Research Fellow, IFRA-Nigeria
TNOC Masterclass facilitator
Overcoming negative emotions and biases when researching religious spaces
In this piece I try to reflect on my research experience while I was working in the shrines of Benin City. A shrine is a traditional worship centre where specific dieties are consulted and appeased. Essentially, I was looking at the pivotal role shrines play in organized criminal networks of human trafficking. Shrines offer alternative justice in addition to official justice system. Studying this native justice system in Edo state required that I spent long hours observing rituals, temple proceedings and interacting with officials as well as clients at the shrines.
I realized that my positionality as a Christian could either make or mar the end results of my study at the shrines. This is because there is a clear cut antagonism between Christians and traditional worshipers; while true Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only saviour, traditional worshipper believe that there is salvation in the various dieties like; Ogun, Sango, Eziza, Orunmila, Ayelala and so on.
Being a woman also was another important part of my positionality which I took into consideration in doing this research. For instance, there is a taboo related to cleaniness in the shrines; women undergoing monthly menstruation were forbidden from entering the shrine for religious reasons. If this rule was flauted, it amounted to desecration and some rituals must be performed for cleansing. The patriarch distinction in the larger African society also played out in the shrine as women were not permitted to break kola nuts or say the opening prayers. I noticed that most women at the shrine played supporting roles like singing, clapping, dancing and playing musical instruments. As a researcher, my gender did not prohibit me from asking questions about asking questions about placement of items, legal judgments and proceedings. Interestingly, the temple officials were impressed that a female researcher was interested in learning about the native justice system in Benin city.
At the early stage of my research, I made a distinction between the intellectual virtues and vices that could be at play in knowledge production at the shrines. I noticed that other researchers, my family and friends projected emotions of fear, the possibility of spiritual harm, disgust, condemnation, indignation, and negative moral judgment towards my subject of study. For instance, a friend asked me: “what if the people at the shrine use juju on you? How much are you being paid to do such risky research?” Another researcher cautioned me saying: “what if you get initiated without your consent and knowledge at the shrine? You could be spiritually damaged you know?”. My cousin told me: “You say you are a Christian and you dare to step your feet in shrines in the name of research? you are just deceiving yourself; you are not a real Christian!”.
As opposed to these negative emotions, which could stifle a research of such a nature, I discerned that I did not need to fear the object of my research. If I did, how could I reflect on the daily proceedings at the shrine? If I become afraid of the object of my research, how could I process the knowledge I was accumulating on a daily basis? So, in order to have a rewarding and biased-free research, I had to rule out fear completely. Rather, I embraced the subject of my research with positive emotions like inquisitiveness, open mindedness towards new discovery, expectation and adventure.
This positive outlook helped me a lot in accessing and navigating my way through the temples. Temple activities were in such a way that all persons were required to participate by way of singing, bowing, clapping. The emotion of fear would have prevented me from participating and doing a rational as well as reflective research.
In retrospect, I now understand that there may have been some real or imagined risks associated with the research. However, focusing on the object of research with the aim of understanding the phenomenon and daily activities at the temple put me in a better position for appropriate knowledge production. Another thing that helped me overcome my Christian bias while studying another religion was the fact that I was able to humanize the daily activities in the temples. I saw the rituals and other proceedings as normal human activities. The ability to humanize activities at the temples helped me to get rid of any form of bias associated with my religion.
Semiu A. Adegbenle
PhD Candicate, Northwestern University
TNOC Masterclass participant
It is not always what it seems!
Sexual harassment on university campus is a delicate topic and researchers of this topic are confronted with difficulties accessing verifiable and credible data to work with. This is understandable as the mere association with sexual harassment subjects the victim to social stigmatisation while the affected institution has to deal with public relations nightmare. These factors have created a culture of silence that makes the researcher’s work more difficult. Yet in Nigerian universities, the presence of sexual harassment is not news but its media reportage is skewed towards certain universities perceived to be the epicentre of this problem. During the University of Bristol and IFRA Masterclass on researching sensitive topics, Lateef, Chukwudi, Ejemen and I explored why sexual scandals and sexual harassment has rarely made the news in the University of Ibadan. In our preliminary conversation before the fieldwork, it was agreed that the team should seek out victims, students, civil societies and official narratives of the sexual harassment on the university campus.
As a graduate student in the university, I was comfortable working on the campus as this clearly made me an insider. However, though I have been enrolled in the university since 2019, I have never lived on campus. This meant that I was not familiar with the campus routes, pattern of gender relations and sexual harassment on campus. Not ever living on campus meant that I was unable to profile the location of some of the actors that I was seeking. This clearly made me an outsider and by the time my team members began to reel out pattern of sexual harassment on campus and its hotspots, I realised that I was not going to be comfortable researching this emotion-laden topic. I thought I would have done better with the group researching cattle as this might require less emotional investment and the major challenge I could foresee was the language barrier which is surmountable with the presence of many Hausa speakers in that group. Since the masterclass was a training exercise, I contained my reservation and played along with the hope of learning new things on the field and from the two more experience members of the group who were actively involved sex-related research.
During the team's first visit to the field, we experienced less difficulty beyond the timing of our visits. By the time of our arrival, all our target respondents for that day had left office but we were still able to arrange appointments for the second day. We later met an associate of IFRA who also volunteers for an advocacy group known as War Against Rape (WAR). The WAR volunteer agreed to an informal interview and this was conducted within the confines of a library. Conducting this interview in a closed library made it easier for both the respondent and the interviewer to express themselves with less interruption from passerby or work colleagues. Yet, the touchy nature of the subject made it difficult for the respondent to fully go into details without necessarily indicting herself (for sustaining the silences) or some of the accused that she might be aware of. This pattern replayed itself in the other informal interviews arranged with official actors in the sexual harassment discourse on campus.
When I found out the identity of one of the respondents who heads a quasi-official unit of the university, I was particularly worried because I recently had a falling out with her and I thought this might affect how she reacted to my presence. It turned out that my fears were unfounded as she handled our questions like the other respondents. Overall, the age, gender, advocacy background and official capacity of the respondents reflect in their discussion. My own background as a historian and male also reflected in the questions that I asked as I posed questions, especially around the gender dynamics, access to documents and chronologies of the topic under discussion. It turned out that this question cannot be convincingly answered by the respondents or they were constrained by the formal setting of the informal discussion. It is likely that if this conversation had taken place between two social equals and one-on-one, the researcher may have been able to extract more information. In addition, it would have been worthwhile to talk to actors not in support of the mobilisation against sexual harassment on campus. This would have been an interesting conversation that may have revealed some unknown actors in this discourse. However, the brief time allocated for the fieldwork made this a difficult method to adopt as it would take more time and networking.
One other method adopted for the topic was the administration of questionnaires. Coming from a historical background, I was doubtful of the suitability of this method as I felt that it would “dehumanise” the subject and reduce them to a set of numbers. It turned out that the questionnaires were actually effective in answering some questions and particularly revealed an interesting but nuanced gender perspective of gender harassment. I must say that my suspicion of the questionnaire and uncomfortable feeling about the topic affected my performance on the field. Administering the questionnaires in the “Love Garden” beside the Administrative Building, I realised that I was less effective than my team mates. I felt that my presence was interfering with the activities of the respondents and I was weary of being regarded as a pest or the face of sexual harassment whenever this topic crosses my respondents’ mind. Left to me, a sensitive topic of this nature is best approached through negotiated access to the official documents that curates the accounts of the reported cases. This source can then be supplemented with first-hand oral sources and testimonies from victims as well as web ethnography. Obviously, this method has its inherent limitations and requires more time and resources, yet might prove more practical for the historian researching sensitive topics like sexual harassment.
I have to conclude that researching some sensitive topic requires some degree of emotional intelligence and a trusted insider who would facilitate access. In the course of our brief experimental fieldwork, our affiliation with IFRA and the presence of the masterclass facilitators opened doors and also ensured that the team was not confused for mischief-makers or investigative journalists. In conducting research of this nature, researchers must therefore look for trusted agents or persons who introduce the researcher, and then leave the scene for the researcher to take charge. As a male researcher, it also helps to have a female research assistant on topic like sexual harassment for the obvious reasons. Finally, the major task before the researcher of a sensitive topic is to disabuse their mind and to be prepared for surprises. Take for instance, whereas the primary objective of this fieldwork was to find out why there has not been no sexual scandal in the university, one major takeaway was that what constitute sexual harassment is contextual, and the researcher may have to define his variables when addressing contested topic like sexual harassment. Again, silence has its economies and both the perpetrators, victims and the institutions may surprisingly have a stake in maintaining the status quo. It is therefore the responsibility of the researcher to allay the fears and insecurities of these groups if he is to get quality information. With more time invested in trust-building, it is possible to get a more quality and nuanced perspective on the silences of sexual harassment on university campus.
Lateef Olalekan AREMU
PhD candidate, Department of Political Sciences, University of Ibadan
TNOC Masterclass participant
Data Collection in Sensitive Situations: What I thought, and what it is.
The aspiration of many young researchers is to conduct a “groundbreaking” research and explore new frontiers in research. Therefore, when such opportunity presents itself, there shouldn’t be any hesitation on the part of the researcher to jump on it. The master class “Challenges of Fieldwork: Data Collection in Sensitive Situations” presented the perfect opportunity to have an on the field experience of collecting data on sensitive topics. Just like every other participant in an academic research exercise, I had my expectations from the exercise; however my experience on the field turned out to be different from my expectations. It changed my mindset about conducting a field work on sensitive topic.
The kind of bias researchers have, plays a significant role in the kind of expectations they have for a research experience. Therefore I had expectation for the kind of encounters that should happen on the field while conducting the field work due to the sensitivity of the research topic. My expectation was that it is going to be an uncomfortable situation where the research team will be faced with a lot of frustrating moments and situations. I had prepared my mind for how to deal with hostile respondents, unnecessary bureaucratic bottlenecks, outright rejections, and in extreme situations, insults. This is due to my experience from living in the society where people rarely talk about sensitive issues like sexual harassment. Previous experience on talking about issues like sexual harassment as a community journalist in Ibadan where I live has shown that asking questions on sensitive issues like sexual harassment usually draws the ire of the respondents, and in the few occasions when you have people who are willing to talk to you, the answers they give to questions are usually vague and unhelpful. This is due to in some cases, the culture of shame that is prevalent in the society. However, the research process turned out to be more comfortable and easy in contrary to what I had envisaged.
Although my current research, which is on Urban Violence, Street gangs and Politics of Identity Formations in Ibadan, Nigeria entails making forays into spaces that are perceived to be “dangerous and sensitive”, I have never had the privilege of been part of a team researching a sensitive topic such as sexual harassment on a university campus. So the reaction to the topic of research was that how would it look like asking university professors and students if they have been sexually harassed in the context of the kind of the society we live in, where morality and moral judgment always takes the center stage. However, the apprehension disappeared after the first interview and I eventually realized that people will talk to you about anything if you ask nicely I most situation, except if the issue involves secrets that cannot be divulged. Maybe a crime or something related. However, a researcher must be careful not to get too carried away even when people are willing to talk. Then the question of how to ask nicely arose, do you use substitute words or you speak directly about the matter? The process of drafting the questionnaire with my team mates solved the problem; respondents will answer the questions more clearly when the terms are relatable, for example, using slang instead of formal expression like we used “Aro” in place of catcalling on our questionnaires put the students at ease and makes the term comfortable.
There are few research lessons to take away for me from the research experience:
- There is no single method to approach a research topic. I learnt that going forward; I should carefully consider all the options available and deploy the ones that best work for my research. My team planned to conduct interviews, but realities on the field led us to realize that survey (questionnaire) would work better for collection of data on sexual harassment on campus among undergraduate students.
- I learnt that using relatable terms in interviews with respondents makes the data collection process easy and less stressful. In the case of collecting data on sexual harassment on campus among undergraduate students in university of Ibadan, using student’ s vocabulary instead of formal terms made it easy for them to relate with the topic of the research and also gave them the room to give proper answer to the questions.
- Respondents can say a lot without saying anything. I observed this in the interviews conducted with university officials and senior academic staff. Therefore, it is important to always pay attention to the body language and the countenances of the respondents, especially when conducting field work on sensitive topics. In most cases, the body gestures of respondents says more than they are actually, and this can say a lot about the credibility of the information they have volunteered.
- People will talk to you about anything if you ask nicely. I learnt this important lesson on the field because I asked my respondents nicely and they talked to me.
- It is not a problem to feel emotional about a sensitive topic; however, it is pertinent for the researcher to ensure that emotions don’t affect the quality of data to be collected.
My experience collecting data on sexual harassment on the campus of University of Ibadan has opened my eyes and mind to more flexible methods of collecting data on sensitive topics. The new methods and techniques which I have acquired as a member of the team will prove invaluable to my research in the area of data collection. The opportunity to experiment the combined methods on field is really exciting, and something I would like to try on my research. Going forward, I will be applying the new techniques to my studies on street gang and urban violence in Ibadan metropolis.
PhD Candidate, University of Ibadan
TNOC Masterclass participant
“White Man has come, Money has come”: Personal Reflections of a Research Assistant Working in Rural Communities in Southwestern Nigeria
Foreign researchers, including white ones, are not uncommon to see in my home country, Nigeria. However due to factors of unfamiliarity with the study area and language barrier, amongst others, they often need the assistance of locals who serve as guides and translators, and in many cases they usually use graduate students. It was in this capacity of a translator that I was once engaged by a researcher who was looking at the political economy of some World Bank projects in selected states in Southwestern Nigeria. My role was to serve as translator between the researcher and stakeholders including kings, chiefs, youth leaders, market leaders and traders in communities we were meant to visit within three days. The team comprised a white European researcher, a Nigerian research assistant (me) and government officials from the two states visited. These state officials served as liaison persons with the communities, and they facilitated our meetings with stakeholders. A driver, hired by the consultant, also joined us on one of the days.
Due to some reasons, I was excited and looked forward to the fieldwork. That was my first experience of working directly with an European researcher on a field. Although prior to this I had had some experiences working with foreign researchers, it was as a part of a methodological training class. This time, I believed working as a RA for this very researcher would be knowledge producing because he is an established researcher and, as a bonus, he is working among the same population (the Fulani) that I was studying for my PhD. I am also an adventurous person who loves visiting new places, irrespective of the geographical location. I never envisaged any negative experience, save for the poor access to roads and the manifest poor standard of living of the rural dwellers, a situation that is exacerbated by their exclusion by the political leaders. I am also Yoruba and working in Yoruba communities is a walk over for me.
We visited different markets in the local government areas selected for the World Bank projects. Fortunately, my study location is located in one of the local government areas penciled earmarked by the public officials prior to the field work. The researcher, because we have same area of interest, also visited my study site to see one of my key informants. In this paper, I reflect on the experiences I had in all these places that we visited.
Members of the communities that we visited had interesting perception, expectations and opinions of me as a Nigerian working with a foreign researcher. Many of them saw me as influential and well-connected. I deduced this from the type of questions they asked me. They were curious to know how and where I met a “white man”. They wondered if I was working with the World Bank.
” He told us that you are a student of University of Ibadan, is that true?”, “If true, how were you, as a student and specifically a woman, able to get this connection?”, were some of the questions they asked aloud. I could also detect some unasked questions through stares and other forms of body languages. There was also the perception that I must be rich because of the erroneous presumption that the “white man” is paying me handsomely. A conversation with one of the government officials strengthened the perception that people working with World Bank are paid in foreign currency –dollars, therefore I, as an assistant, must be earning dollars too. This reflects the belief of most Nigerians that foreign nationals are rich and anyone interacting closely with them should be rich too.
These perceptions of me led them to expect some favours from me. The government officials specifically expected me to connect them to the researcher for better jobs while the community members requested for financial help from me. Furthermore, a couple of the community members, who had my contacts, reached out to me after the fieldwork requesting me and or “the white” man to help them follow up the projects. My inability to meet these diverse expectations triggered some reactions within myself and from the people in the field as well as after the fieldwork. While in the field, I was made to feel selfish because they felt I blocked them from connecting to the “white man”. There were subtle and sneaky attempts to get across to the researcher by trying to dislodge me from my translation role. I got to know this on the second day, when the driver told me about the conversations in Yoruba language, which he overheard, between some officials who thought he couldn’t speak Yoruba, due to his facial appearance.
I found the behaviors from the government officials quite disturbing and I pondered on them for days during and after the fieldwork. I was frustrated because, neither I nor the researcher could help the community members follow up and ensure the success of the World Bank projects because that was beyond our powers. The questions and reactions from the people got me unsettled for a while as I reflected on the experiences via their perceptions of, expectations from me and their reactions when I could not meet their expectations. I asked myself questions: “How do I look that made these people conclude that I have made money from the “white man”?” “Could it be that past experiences with foreign researchers and local assistants influenced people’s reactions?”
However, despite the disturbing experiences on and after the field, working with this researcher was beneficial to me. His visits to one of the Fulani settlements that I was studying helped in deepening my relationship with them, especially with one of my key informants. He confided in me that the visit of the consultant to him enhanced his reputation within the settlement. After the visit, this key informant became noticeably more accommodating and more open to me, and this enhanced my research work, and made it easier and more fascinating. The fieldwork experiences also made me to reflect on the dynamics and intricacies embedded in working with foreigners, especially white ones, and how to cope in such instances, with little or no hurt. The financial remuneration from the field work also helped a lot towards settling my school fees as a PhD student with no funding.
PhD Candidate History Department, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria
TNOC Masterclass participant
Disguising Research Questions in Sensitive Situation: Reflexivity in Fieldwork Data Collection
Conducting fieldwork characterized by sensitive situations, to my experience, requires much of reflexivity-oriented approach i.e. questioning the researcher’s research questions vis-à-vis the expected reactions/outcomes of the respondents. Sensitive questions may sometimes be asked straight away especially where mutual trust is built, however, reflexivity helps in desensitizing the research questions without deviating from the ‘sensitive issue’ (the substance or phenomenon) under investigation. While conducting fieldwork at Akinyele Cattle Market, Ibadan, Oyo state, I couldn’t find it comfortable to ask difficult (or rather complicated) questions straight away to respondents. This happens because of the growing tension and suspicion among individuals and groups in the market. It's a market where the suppliers of cattle are largely traders from various parts of the north—a region experiencing vast arrays of conflict particularly herder-farmer crises and associated criminality in the form of cattle rustling, banditry and kidnapping. In addition to the overlapping significance of the conflict and crises associated with export trade in cattle from the north to south, decades-old horrific memories keep reechoing and tensions growing higher in the market.
Because these issues are quite sensitive, navigating research questions for data collection requires an in-depth sense of reflexivity. Being reflexive in this sense, meant being careful not be overtaken by my personal sentiments/emotions that may dimwit my approaches, manners and the command of language used to direct research questions. The implication of reflexivity became extremely important in guiding my perception vis-à-vis the perception (understanding) of others upon myself—my identity— as well as how this may have direct influence on my perspective on the subject matter. The principle of reflexivity offers a unique way to navigate questions that will eventually lead to achieving desired results. Being a Hausa man, and by implication closer to the cattle traders, I did of course enjoy a good sense of belonging, however it seemed rather suspicious when asked about what I strongly presumed could have association with the cattle trade in the market: stolen cattle for instance. I might not have gotten it right had I stick to the more complicated, I therefore simply redirected the questions to match the sensitivity of the largely ‘Hausa/Fulani’ cattle traders in the Akinyele Market.
From my experience in the fieldwork, questions like the following exploit too much of the sensitivity of the population concerned and that recasting them should be considered to serve better alternatives. For instance, a question like “Do you have stolen cattle in the market”, perhaps creates an impression that the respondent is more-or-less a 'criminal' involves in illicit cattle dealings and, (or) sorts of. Convincingly of course, this assumption concurred with some of the respondents' reactions—a faint blush of unease in their face—expressing discontent, as well as implying their being disgraced and dishonoured.
Similarly, descending on respondents with stodgy questions like: “How many cattle found stolen in the market” not only have they responded with negative contractions (couldn't be, mustn't be, shouldn't be, and/or won't be) but that a question like this creates an unease in their way of thinking about the issue that I (the interviewer) eventually became suspicious—having lost my trust by the way! Is he a spy? —a question they would possibly be curious not spit out though!
Again, I realised I was forlorn being specific with ethnic terms/categories: ‘How’, I asked for example, the relationship between 'Yoruba' and 'Hausa/Fulani' ensures safety and security in the market. In what appeared like a normal Focus Group Discussion (FGD), I learnt that being more specific with this question seems not only generating emphatic responses from both sides but also waking up the ‘sleeping dog’ as eyes cast suspicions over each and another’s response. This seems to show that as part of their courage (the respondents) to keep with tensions and build peace, there are sensitive issues peculiar to each and everyone’s identity they rather felt not release to me. Though very hungry with information, I love their way after all because taking side on what the ‘Hausa/Fulani’ could have related to me (possibly less important and boring) may not only lead to parochial explanation but also drag me into representing the one-side-story of the issues.
Instead of accommodating the ineptitudes, I however substituted the questions hypothesized above respectively in the following ways:
Do you experience any challenge of 'lost-but-found' cattle in the market, admitting that the 'stolen' cattle in the market are presumably 'lost-but-found'. Responses from this question guaranteed more safety to both myself and the respondents and the data I collected about whether or not there are 'stolen cattle' in the market is not too far from my expectations.
My being strategic with the above question—sticking to its basic assumptions has also enabled me to infer how much of (or rather, how often) the 'lost-but-found' cattle got their way to the market which I was told ‘seldom occurs twice, sometimes thrice a year’! Secondly, instead of being specific with ethnic terms, I choose to remain consistent with alternative substitutes, indeed more safest terms like 'competing interests' especially in the study of market—competitions, conflicts and relations between (and) among groups.
We shall therefore be careful being selective with terms, our command of language free of suspicion and the identity of our research questions more so should be safety-bound. I conclude with the personal assumption that in every sensitivity there's conflict, and in every familiarity there's relative safety. Sensitivity doesn't only have to be visible with situations shaping relations among competing groups in markets but also in the psyche of a living human shaping his thoughts, his feelings and sentiment. Reflexivity should occupy an important space in our fieldwork research especially in the midst of sensitive situations such as the Akinyele market. We shall be careful how we tinge the identity of our questions not get in 'war' with the identity of the respondent, his feelings, emotions and sentiment—that may also upset the true conviction of his/her response. Disguising the complicated questions in this sense suggests more of thinking better alternatives.
Researcher, NatCen Social Research
TNOC Research Associate and Masterclass facilitator
As part of the TNOC Masterclass programme, I was placed in the position of ‘workshop facilitator’. The overall aim of the fieldwork research exercise designed as an aspect of the workshop was to encourage the practice of reflexivity on ethics and positionality, as researchers in the field, particularly within potentially hostile contexts. My separate position from the students on the programme notwithstanding, I was expected to participate with them, along with the other facilitators, in the performance of their allotted tasks. The fieldwork exercise aspect of this presented a unique experience for me. It provided me with an opportunity to observe others conducting fieldwork – a first for me – while also getting the opportunity to play an active part in the fieldwork process, as well.
The students on the programme were allotted into two separate groups. Each group had a different fieldwork research assignment that differed from that of the other group. Group A’s research was centred around the recent conflict between Yoruba traders and traders of Northern Nigerian ethnicity in Ibadan’s Shasha Market and the objective of investigating the factors responsible for the clashes. Group B’s research was centred around the issue of sexual harassment on university campuses in Nigeria, and had the objective of investigating the variance between frequent allegations of sexual harassment (and its being rampant) and its under-reporting. I joined Group A in the their initial fieldwork rounds, where I spent the majority of my time on the Masterclass fieldwork excursion, before switching to joining Group B in the concluding round of their fieldwork exercise.
The fieldwork exercise(s) and the spaces in which they were conducted provided the opportunity for me to make a number of reflections, which I will expand upon further below. Due to the fieldwork for both Group A and Group B taking place in Ibadan, I felt more than confident than I would usually have been, due to the linguistic familiarity of my fieldwork settings. As a native Yoruba speaker, I did not feel I would require a translator or have to worry about the issues that accompany being considered alien to one’s fieldwork setting. While I was correct about the advantages that my language and cultural skills would give me in the field, there were other pre-conceived notions and biases I held which I had to later reflect upon. An example of one of such was exposed during my outing with Group A at Shasha Market. The group met with various market traders, and I interacted with a number of interlocutors who trade within the market.
During the course of Group A’s interaction with the market traders, which I participated in (acting as a translator from Yoruba to English), I spoke with a number of traders who spoke fluent Yoruba. I assumed after some minutes that all of these individuals I was interacting with were ethnically Yoruba as a result of their fluency in the language and the fact that they were all dressed in traditional Yoruba garb in a similar fashion to the other market traders. I later realised that I had been mistaken in my conclusion – some of Group A’s interviewees were I fact ethnically of Northern Nigerian extraction (i.e. Hausa-Fulani). The primary lesson that I picked up from this incident was to not jump to conclusions or make assumptions about identity in the field because identity is dynamic and fluid. Due to this experience, I spent the remainder of my time during the TNOC Masterclass reflecting on my personal biases and pre-conceived notions, their meanings, and how to be more aware of them when conducting future research.
PhD Candidate, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan
TNOC Masterclass participant
Doing research on a sensitive topic or in a sensitive situation is not the same as doing sensitive research on a topic that has affected you directly. Both of these are difficult positions to be in. Nevertheless, if you were a victim of the phenomenon, it is difficult to disengage certain emotions elicited by such experiences. As an early-career scholar embarking on sensitive research, I found the masterclass on fieldwork’s challenges to be very insightful and practical, especially the approaches to conducting fieldwork.
This was achieved through the following trajectory; how to access data in a sensitive situation or on a sensitive topic, the ethical issues surrounding data collection, participatory objectivation, and a researcher’s positioning. Below is a reflection of my experience as a researcher on a sensitive topic. It also outlines how I approached a sensitive topic, my ideas about the research process, my thoughts on methods of data collection at the field; University of Ibadan campus, lastly, some of the lessons I learnt.
As I said earlier, I had no prior research experience on sensitive topics, so my fieldwork at the masterclass was a breaking point for me. During the training, my colleagues and I were divided into two groups. I was in a group that conducted fieldwork on sexual harassment at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. I must stress that at first, I wanted to join the ‘sexual harassment’ fieldwork team mainly because the topic close to my research interests. Surprisingly, as we embarked on the fieldwork, I had two fears. First, I was an insider (a student at the University). I feared how my respondents would perceive me during and after the fieldwork. Secondly, I am a female student who had encountered sexual harassment. I was worried that I would be too biased and emotional about the topic. In the long run, joining this team was eye opening and made me understand that even as an insider, there were other factors that could impede my data collection on one hand and, on the other hand, improve my data collection.
How I addressed a sensitive topic on sexual harassment on campus.
Though it was a teamwork, everyone was given a role to play and of course, we had different positions in the group. We had a road map of activities to do while on the field. Question like who our respondents were and what data collection would be appropriate were drafted. This made me understand that doing a pilot study of the chosen area and the data collection methods (whether focus group discussion, interviews, questionnaire or online materials, archival materials and reports) would be of help before commencing the actual research. I have learnt that how I approach my respondents is crucial.
Before the masterclass fieldwork, left to me I would have presumed to take the format of approaching my respondents by stating the title of my work, telling the respondents that my interaction with them would be confidential, sort the respondent’s permission and approval to document if need be; thereafter, go ask questions. Nonetheless, the class presentations from scholars who are very familiar with sensitive research, as well as the academic articles compiled in the reader, made me understand that an indirect approach towards interviewing or getting responses from participants is also relevant. This would help the researcher get more data. For instance, in a situation where respondents try to keep some information, speak indirectly or remain silent, such respondent(s) inform the researcher about the issue at stake.
This method worked well while my team interviewed some of the institutions that address issues related to sexual harassment on campus. We could understand, in a way, the culture of silence on the part of some respondents, how not recording made some of the respondents more open to speaking to us and how we opted to use subtle terms rather than the original names to make some of them comfortable with the interviews. This is because we now understand better what the politics of naming could do. In addition, we adhered to ethical consideration. We did not record without the respondent's consent. We did not lie on what we wanted to research on.
Due to the knowledge gained at the master class on how to engage sensitive issues and topics, I tried to stay unbiased and not get too emotional (confrontational or judgmental) while interviewing the institutions set aside for addressing issues relating to gender and sexual harassment on campus. For me who is an insider (familiar with the issue and the study area), I tried to manage my biases and emotions by not asking questions based on sentiments. I tried looking at every interviewee as a research respondent and not as a potential perpetrator. I ensured to avoid questions that would incite me to attack the respondents. I also understood that there is no uniform pattern of sexual harassment in the university, as it occurs in different forms, from and to different people. Hence, it is best to be open-minded. More especially, I managed my biases by detaching my emotions from the research and I asked questions based on the issue and not my previous ‘knowledge’ or personal experiences.
Data collection approach on the field at the University of Ibadan campus
Let me affirm that having a researcher do teamwork can be enriching. Team members could be of diverse educational or cultural backgrounds. In some cases, team members could be of different nationalities and, particularly, have different personal approaches towards data collection (like physical looks, manner of approach and more). Moreover, conducting team fieldwork can be challenging. This is because people have different reactions to the emotions generated while on the field. My team made use of two data collection methods, which are; questionnaires and interviews. I was comfortable with the topic because first, I am a student of the university and then I am a woman who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, I must reinstate that this somewhat made me disadvantaged, as I focused on looking at the issue of students as victims due to the power relation hierarchy on campus. The fact that I am female made male respondents feel a lot easier to fill the questionnaires.
On the contrary, I believe that using a questionnaire for the nature of the study made respondents not share their real experiences, as for some it was just to fill the questionnaire and get it done with. While I observed respondent(s)’s attitude towards filling the questionnaire, I noticed there was no reluctance or silence, which are some of the key ways of understanding a respondent’s position on an issue.
For the interviews, we only interviewed officials from the institutions put in place to tackle sexual harassment. Due to the short time we had on the field, we could not speak to the lecturers, service providers and the likes. More especially, we did not interview any male lecturers or staff, though we shared questionnaires with male students. As such, we could not generate a gender-balanced approach to addressing the phenomenon of the issue of sexual harassment on campus.
For some of the lessons I have gotten while embarking on fieldwork on sensitive issues, I have realized that the deeper a researcher goes into his or her research, the better he or she sees. In addition, the more he or she unravels interrelated components of the phenomenon been researched. Another lesson is that substantial research may not be achieved within a short time frame. More notably, the politics of naming (attachment of meanings to words is not just an expression, but identity politics) is of importance in doing research. For example, rather than saying prostitute, a better word is ‘sex worker’ Once a researcher understands the politics of naming, the better the researcher gets data from his or her respondents and understands the phenomenon.
Furthermore, getting familiar with your respondent(s) and ethical considerations on the part of the researcher would help respondents accept the researcher better. This would also enable researcher earn the respondents trust. Every researcher should have a critical assessment and be conscious of his/her self-positioning in the space of what he or she is researching.
In conclusion, it is crucial a researcher considers eschewing any form of preconceived ideas that does not allow him or her see the respondents and their culture as human. In doing research, that has affected you directly, it is imperative to try to detach emotions and biases from research.
TNOC Masterclass participant
Data collection in sensitive situations: Reflections from my field work on the pastoralists-farmers conflict in Benue and Taraba States.
The conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in Nigeria have become even more worrisome than before. Conflicts, violence and fatalities linked to the interactions between both groups have escalated and the scope of the incidents are expanding southerly, making the topic – which was hitherto a northern Nigeria or more specifically, a north central problem – a national issue. Expectedly, this led to an increase in the need for knowledge production in view of the conflicts; to produce baseline information, fill gaps in literature and support decision-making and policy formulation.
The need to carry out a Doctoral research that is relevant to decision making, policy formulation and impactful in creating positive change was at the forefront of my inspirations. This, among other factors inspired my choice of studying the pastoralists-farmers conflicts. I wanted to study the conflicts from a geographic perspective since there was a dearth of literature in that regard. I cannot as well underemphasize the fact that my passion for geographic exploration also sparked my interest in the research. This gave me the audacity to venture into a sensitive topic that required me to visit sensitive areas without fear of the apparent risks involved.
Being from the south of Nigeria, some colleagues and lecturers wondered if my proposed study at the time was not me reaching for the stars. They thought it would cost me too much money to achieve and that it would be too risky for me to venture into, considering the potential security risks which may be heightened for a southerner carrying out research in the north. I had spent some time in northern Nigeria so I basically had no problem with conducting a research that required me to visit, travel through and interact with people in northern communities. I can only manage a few pleasantries in Hausa but cannot speak the language or any other native dialects of the region. I was an outsider in the region and this influenced my fieldwork in different ways. I selected Benue and Taraba States which are located in the Mid-Benue trough for my fieldwork based on the high incidents of conflicts in both States.
In Nigeria’s south, there is a notion by some or many that the pastoralists who are mostly of the Fulani tribe have an invasion agenda to conquer the people, take over the lands and convert the Christian population to Islam. There is also an audible north-south divide in the country along ethnic and political lines. These dynamics heightened my outsider effect notwithstanding my familiarity with people and places in the north. While these may have unconsciously influenced my research, my nationalistic nature, having lived, spent time and built relationships in all regions of the country might have underwhelmed that tendency. I was also intentional about purging myself of popular social biases about both groups to create critical distance between me and my research.
As I prepared for fieldwork, it was obvious that I needed field assistants who were very familiar with my study area. The multi-ethnic nature of the conflict also meant that I needed a field assistant who could speak Fulani and another who could speak Tiv to support my interviews. I had thoughts of this while planning for my field work, but came to full revelation of this uniqueness while on the field. I contacted an old family friend who turned out very helpful during the entire trip and especially with interviewing Fulani respondents. He was a relative of a Traditional Ruler in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory and had valuable social capital in the north. I also had to contact a friend who linked me up with his friends in Makurdi that helped me with contacts within the farming groups.
I designed my survey tool which focused quite on Respondents’ perceptions on the role of climate and land use/ land cover (LULC) change in the occurrence and escalation of the conflicts. As I expected and hoped to achieve, the questions in my tool led to broader questions around other causes and impacts of the conflicts different from the possible ecological factors, which were my primary concerns. The tool for interviewing farmers was different from that of pastoralists and other stakeholders like traditional leaders. My prior knowledge that the farmers were blaming the pastoralists for their ordeals and vice versa no doubt influenced the structure of my questions. I systematically avoided including questions that would trigger the emotions of my respondents to avoid putting myself and my assistants in a situation of suspicion and danger. This may have influenced my findings in a way but I thought it was necessary.
I set out to the field in February 2020 and my first point of call was Benue State. I could not visit some communities that had recent history of conflicts either because it was too risky or obliterated, so I compensated for those by meeting victims from the conflicts who were mostly of Tiv ethnicity at an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Ababina, Makurdi. Some kilometers from this camp, on the other side of the Benue River was Agole, a Fulani settlement which I visited after establishing contacts with the community Chief in Makurdi. Meeting respondents of both groups was not overly challenging with the help of my assistants. A major setback however was the communication gap which meant that I could not ask the questions in my tool as I would have liked and could not maintain a flow that would have enabled me probe further on some issues. I also noticed my interpreters struggled with explaining concepts such as climate change and LULC change to the understanding of the respondents. They also probably oversimplified some of the sensitive questions which may have deprived me some of the depth I needed from their responses.
A general observation from the respondents (both pastoralists and farmers) in Benue State was that of poverty and livelihood deprivation. This was apparent from my observation and also evident from the feedback I got. Their responses were summarized in most cases with appeals for support with resettlement by the farmers who had lost their homes and reintegration by some of the pastoralists who had been stopped from grazing openly in the State. While I was sympathetic to their challenges, especially as they perceived that I could be a voice to their plight as a researcher and being an outsider, I endeavored to maintain the needed critical distance and managed their expectations. The expectations of the respondents pose an ethical problem of how a researcher can manage solicitations for help or how much help a researcher can provide when left with no other option.
In Taraba State, specifically at Gembu, a pastoralist I conversed with was very cooperative but pleaded anonymity. However, I met stonewalls from a few respondents in Ibi and particularly an obliterated community by the highway, some kilometers north of Wukari where violence occurred within the week. At the wrecked community, we were welcomed by a team of policemen at a checkpoint who refused to have a conversation about the event. This irresponsiveness were likely born from the lack of trust about our mission, even though I clearly explained I was a student. In these cases, I was as well with my assistant but I suppose the challenge was either that we were both perceived as outsiders to the respondent or due to the sensitive nature of the topic – where the violence had just occurred. The scenario of my encounter with traditional leaders such as the Emir of Gashaka was however quite welcoming and hospitable after a proper introduction by my assistant. The hospitability of the Emir, also one of my respondent, who housed me in his Palace for a few days however meant that I could only get so much from an interview with him as I could not ask questions that were quite sensitive or seemingly offensive.
In summary, my experience carrying out field work at sensitive places and on a sensitive topic about the conflict between pastoralists and farmers provided mixed reflections and results for me. For instance, because of the sensitivity of the topic, I had expectations of silence from respondents, which happened in some, but not most of the cases. Some of the respondents as well had ‘savior’ expectations which I could not address. I believe my position as an outsider was helpful, but not only after my assistants paved the way for me and got the trust of the respondents. I do not also think my position as a southerner studying a problem rooted in the north, which has led to ethnic stereotyping and blaming at a national scale influenced the feedback I got and the approach to my research. My perception of the problem, people and place, as well as the support from my research assistants positively influenced the outputs I got from my research.
Reflecting on my field work experience after my PhD and after a “Masterclass on Challenges of Fieldwork: Data Collection in Sensitive Situations” has brought to fore some of the things I would have done differently while planning and during my field work. For example, I may have consciously reflected more on my positionality in the research and study location and how it would influence my outcomes. I also may have designed and administered my survey tool even more effectively without influence from personal or popular bias. While there is no straight jacket to carrying out a research or field work in sensitive situations, it is key for the researcher to reflect on the role of positionality, moral judgement and popular biases on the research outcomes.