Entanglements of Positionality – Reflections on development research practice

Talk given at the Early Career Researchers Plenary, Development Studies Association Conference, 28 June 2018, Manchester

by Julia Schöneberg

I was enthusiastic to embark on my PhD field research. Ready to observe and to research, to analyse and to understand. The proposal was fully elaborated, I was well into the literature review and the flight tickets for Port-au-Prince, Haiti were booked. I was ready.

And then – my little fluffy idealistic bubble burst just like that.

I was sitting in a PhD seminar, a room full of colleagues from various countries of the Global South, when the lecturer asked me, the only German in the room – and for that matter – the only person not to research in her home country, why a white, privileged, Western European girl like me should be able to contribute meaningfully to knowledge production in and about Haiti. I was stunned.

I did not have a response to that question then, but it prompted intense reflections on the entanglements of relationality and positionality, on questions of knowledge and knowledge production and the authority of different knowledges especially in a context dominated by funding guidelines and financial imbalances. And it gave me many sleepless nights, stretching well after the final submission of my PhD.

The day I arrived Port-au-Prince was particularly hot. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the city was covered in a cloud of dust, heat and the fumes of burning garbage. I stepped out from arrivals and was overwhelmed. And I was instantly convinced: There was nothing I would be able to contribute. What was I doing here?

I went through several phases in due course. The first was believing I could make myself invisible, to just be there and be a neutral observer, to observe and try to understand. I failed spectacularly. “Hey Blan!” I was addressed as soon as I stepped out to the streets. Everyday I was continuously reminded of my position as the “Self” in sharp contrast to “the Other”, to speak with Stuart Hall, of my white privilege, of me being part of “the West” that has intervened “the Rest” in so many destructive and unjust ways. Blan in Kreyol means white person, and foreigner, but it is not just a description as a matter of fact. It carries with it all the baggage of violent white supremacy and a binary worldview, of Haitian history and present, of colonialism and development interventions, of projects to civilize the unzivilised and to develop the underdeveloped. My visibility as blan was ever present, no matter how much I tried to be invisible.

Going native was my second attempt. I helped preparing the food and doing the laundry, I swept the courtyard, fetched water from the river and did little messenger tasks around the community. We sat down and chatted about our families, about parents, worries and joys of life. People started to respect me as a person, beyond my role as a blan, but still it was clear that I would always remain one. And it was clear that even through trying to blend in, to adjust to day-to-day life, I would never be able to fully understand but was moving rather too close to a cultural relativist analysis of everything I experienced.

After these two phases I was still struggling with the legitimacy of my presence. Regardless of what I would make of my experiences, in the end, most likely there would be a PhD for me, but what would be the benefit of my whole endeavor for the people who so readily shared their lives and time with me? What would I be able to give back?

So, what was the answer, the way out? Aligning with James Ferguson I decided to “take as […] primary object not the people to be “developed”, but the apparatus that is to do the “developing.” Arturo Escobar has further described this apparatus as a complex set of structures, institutions and “experts”, planers and economists set out to produce knowledge about “the Other” and legitimize a continued colonial project.

Still there was the question of how to go about. I realized that three aspects are at the core of my research: positionality, relationality and reciprocity. Development research cannot be legitimate if one of them is neglected.

Shawn Wilson, a Cree researcher from Canada, in trying to articulate an indigenous research paradigm writes about “research as ceremony” to emphasize the centrality of relationships in the research process. In his vision, a ceremony involves all participants on equal level. From this entanglement of relationality, the specific duty of accountability of the researcher arises. The researched are no passive participants, but co-researchers. Knowledge can never be produced neutrally and detached from the positionality of the researcher and the researched and their interactions.
Research becomes a collective process. Relational accountability requires, according to Linda Smith asking the following questions at the outset of every research process:

“Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?”

How did I do?
Did I fail? Certainly!
I failed those I promised to come back and spend more time with. I failed those who I didn’t keep in touch with once they started asking me about money and projects and visa. I failed those who expected some practical benefit, some concern – to speak with Christine Sylvester – of whether the subaltern is eating, and not just an analysis of discourses, of representations, of positions of power and knowledge.
I was the one who wrote it up, I made the analysis. And the only translation of parts of my work to Haitian Kreyol was published in the journal of the Université l’Etat in Port-au-Prince, where none of the people from the provinces, those I am accountable to, will ever have the chance to read it. Let alone the fact that most of them are not literate.

Did I succeed? Yes, maybe, in parts. Although I had come up with research questions back at home, they fundamentally changed once I started to research the apparatus and look at the machinery, rather than at the people to be developed. It required to shift my mindset to seeing people as co-researchers rather than as respondents, and although I had prepared topics and questions for my interviews this fundamentally changed once my co-researchers gave me insights in their understandings and world views. It required moving away from the Western positivist traditions of knowledge production and accepting story-telling, songs and proverbs as valid and scientific methods for knowing and understanding. And quite often, whenever I attempted a formal interview the situation quickly shifted to people asking me questions rather than vice versa.

And finally, despite all the failings, what gave me this little glimpse of legitimacy after years of doubt was when a non-governmental international organization, one part of the apparatus I had researched, approached me to let me know that after reading my analysis of them they were finally ready to fundamentally change their strategy, to rethink their “intervention”, to reconsider their consultants roles and their positioning in the “apparatus”.

Before I close – I guess you noticed, how many “I” there were in my talk?
I counted: There are 73 in total.
Just recently I had a controversial discussion about this with a colleague. She said: How can you assume it is necessary to put yourself so much in the focus. Aren’t you privileged enough? I had to disagree. I believe that I am not putting myself in the centre to point out my importance, my intelligence, my status. Rather I am putting all the baggage I am carrying with me to “the field”. The big suitcase full of white privilege, my Western education, my protected middle-class upbringing and my gender. Either way, even if I don’t do that, all of that stands in the room like a white elephant. But when I bring my suitcase, and open it, there is the chance to unpack it. To critically scrutinize its contents, discard some items and unfold and refold other pieces.

So if I look back to my 24 year old self ready to embark on field research, I just wish I could tell her all of this. And that’s why I believe that in every PhD programme, right at the start, there should be reflection on: Who am I? Why am I doing this? With what intention and from which position? Back then, the focus of my PhD programme, with that one lecturer’s exception, was to do research aiming to “fix” development, not to contest the concept, the apparatus and the positions of people involved. We were encouraged to improve instruments, not abandon them.
But what is the actual purpose of doing development research?

Development is never neutral. It is full of entanglements of positionality and of privilege in which we are inevitably caught up. The reason why we are researching development should be to question the structures that produce and implement inequalities and injustices, the apparatus that is “doing the developing” and the historical traces on which it is built.

Icaza and Vasquez have proposed the “decolonial option”. An option that is rather not a new grand theory of thinking about and doing development, but a call to question the structures and institutions, the coloniality of power that is inherent in development to try to break the structures of epistemic injustices by listening to voices beyond established realms, to acknowledge their contestations and resistances, to acknowledge the continuations of colonial structures until present, of which, I, as a researcher, far from being neutral, I am part, whether I like it or not.

Julia Schöneberg is Research Fellow at the Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies at Kassel University. Other than writing about things that excite, bother or upset her, she also tweets them @J_Schoeneberg.

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