Field Research in Africa

Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities published last month from James Currey, is an essential exploration of and guide to research ethics in the field. We thank the editors, An Ansoms, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka and Susan Thomson for this blog post where they provide further insight into their work.

Our just-released edited collection, titled Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities, is the product of almost five years of collaborative writing.  We had a dual vision. First, we wanted to bring African experiences of researching ‘at home’ to debates on research ethics as a way of knowing, rather than as a procedural checklist required to gain ethics clearance in many Western universities. Second, we wanted to support Africa-based scholars working in the French language to bring their ideas to the Anglosphere. Finally, we hoped to give leverage to deep reflections around the ethical and methodological challenges of scholars who study the social life of Africans in Algeria (Djelloul), Burundi (Nyenyezi), Central African Republic (Vlavonou), Democratic Republic of Congo (Mudinga, Nyenyezi), Rwanda (Ansoms, Thomson) and South Africa (Vuninga). 

As Elisio Macamo, Professor of African Studies and Director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland, wrote in the Preface to our collective, “More than simply gathering and analysing data, the research process is a deep ethical inquiry into our right to know, a right which was not given to us by those about whom we write, but rather by our own sense of intellectual entitlement.” As editors, we wanted to encourage our authors to share with a wider audience their ways of doing research, of knowing people and their places, of building research relationships, and of sharing what they found with us, the reader.  The result is a collection of essays that pulls back of the veil of what doing research entails.

For us, the ethical and the emotional cannot be separate, as researchers are also human. As such, we worked with each of our authors, and with each other, to encourage everyone to embrace the contradictory and complex humanity of those who participate in our sources, as well as our own lifeworlds, as central to ethical research practice.  Said otherwise, until the researcher can embrace their own humanity, to address their own strengths and weaknesses as researchers, they cannot reasonably negotiate the social relationships essential to research with participants. This self-awareness is at the heart of researcher vulnerabilities.

The overarching theme of Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities is how to balance the emotional effects of fieldwork – on the researched, researcher, assistants, intermediaries and gatekeepers, community members, and others – as a central element of ethical practice.  Each chapter engages with the challenge to recognise how and in what ways feelings differ from emotions, with each author providing insights into how their emotions have become a necessary part of their research process.  Each of our authors unpack what many field researchers know, but rarely discuss openly – that building relationships, doing participant observation, generating field notes, and write up are products of emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics. To turn these aspects of fieldwork into data, requires an ability to understand and explain the wider socio-political context, but also to engage with one’s own role and vulnerabilities within that broader context, as a person first and as a researcher second.

In foregrounding the emotions of the researcher, the researched and the many on-the-ground collaborators, our collection lays bare the process of grappling with one’s emotions. Our authors highlight how ‘feelings’ inform and shape our process of data collection, interpretation, write-up and dissemination. As such, our authors embrace an interpretivist dialectic in which feelings inform their analysis; while their analyses in turn give meaning to how they make sense of the people they study. The result is a collection of essays that reveal the ambiguities and inconsistencies that emerge at all stages of fieldwork—from design to dissemination. Each of the contributors thinks of fieldwork in broad terms rather than narrow ones, making our collection a great addition to graduate methods seminars and for introducing undergraduates to key debates in debates on research ethics.


This guest post was written by An Ansoms, Professor in Development Studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium); Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, Assistant Professor at the University of Mons, Belgium and Susan Thomson, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University.

Field Research in Africa
Edited by An Ansoms, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka and Susan Thomson
9781847012692, Paperback, £13 or $16.22