Humanizing Research –
Reflections about being a human(e) researcher
Humanizing Research –
Reflections about being a human(e) researcher
18 April 2022, by Carlotta Ehrenzeller
Photo by lilartsy
“Our feelings are the most genuine path to knowledge” – Audre Lorde
As a young researcher working in the field, I feel that pivotal moments of understanding often go hand in hand with dislocation, internal struggle and moving outside my comfort zone, both as a researcher and as a human. I sometimes think of myself as having different headbands: the researcher headband, the me-as-Carlotta headband that comes with my previous experiences, the teacher in me, the co-learner and the friend-headband. Yet, traditional research trainings rarely address the skills and humanness needed to encounter such moments, nor how to work with the various headbands to further inquiry. Navigating the dynamic wearing of one or multiple headbands with limited experience, left me feel baffled in various moments as I felt I was missing the tools on how to navigate the challenges of how to humanize research.
Humanness in ethnographic fieldwork
Between September and December 2021, I conducted my fieldwork for four months in a public forest-Montessori school on the outskirts of a large German city. Being in a new location to conduct research, made me somewhat dependent on relationships in the setting. Furthermore, conducting ethnographic fieldwork, the nature of my relationships determines the process and outcome of my research. As a half German, it was strange living for the first time in my life in Germany and feeling like a stranger despite my family-ties to the country, my familiarity with its political system, customs and ways of schooling. It definitely did not feel like a ‘back to the roots’ experience, but much more like having to establish a more profound understanding of the context I thought I knew. For the design of my research, I felt strongly about starting my fieldwork from a point of mutual trust. I designed my fieldwork in a way in which I had one month to just observe and be part of the school community, before generating any data with the participants through interviews, focus group discussions and arts-based projects.
For me, as an ethnographic researcher, one of the central challenges is around creating relationships and switching between the fluid roles of researcher, human and in the context of this research as a carer and adult facilitator. I was aware from the beginning that there is a fine line between building a strong relationship and a rapport of trust and between guarding a healthy distance, so that when the time comes for me to leave, it will be a natural transition (Hammersley, 2018; Hammersley & Atkinson, 2002; Torres & Nyaga, 2021). I have felt multiple moments of feeling torn between different roles throughout my experiences as a researcher. Hence, I decided to share with you a small moment about two girls from grade two having an ordinary quarrel, to which I find myself frequently thinking back.
Being torn between different roles – wearing multiple headbands at once:
Ahma and Ria are fighting. Ahma brought a special stick from the forest, and now Ria is playing with it. “I found this stick over here, it’s mine. I swear I didn’t take the one that you found”, Ria says. Ahma is sure and certain that the stick Ria is playing with looks exactly like the one she had found in the forest. They ask me for support to resolve their quarrel. My mind races as I walk over to the sandbox where Ria is playing with her stick and Ahma is looking close to tears. Do I step in? I turn around myself. All teachers seem busy. Manu is talking to two girls on his ‘peace-negotiation table’, trying to resolve their quarrel about lost snail eggs. Susan and Kaya are planning the activities for the afternoon, being interrupted constantly by a child pulling on their sleeve wanting some kind of assistance, attention, or a hug. I turn back to the girls, looking at me expectantly. I should not get involved. Should not change the environment for these first few weeks but am simply here to watch, learn, understand.
The following thoughts went through my head in the next few instances:
As a researcher:
I am here to research and observe, not to change what is already there
I am not sure yet how the teachers resolve quarrels
I know that there is a strong discourse around the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world, and there is a general conversation going on at the moment trying to help children understand that sticks and trees and leaves and “garden areas” do not belong to any of us, but that we have the privilege to enjoy them and the duty to take care of them
I should not intervene in the environment but observe what ‘already is’
Researching around the students’ conceptualization of peace, this moment and how the children resolve it is really interesting to observe from a researcher’s point of view
As a human:
There are two children who are both upset and are approaching me for help: how can I support them?
The situation reminds me a lot of fights with my own younger sister, where I often relied on the support of others to help resolve quarrels
How do I bracket my feelings of having observed one of the children in similar disputes before?
I do not know what exactly happened here. All the adults are busy. I want to be present and take the request for support from these two girls seriously.
Within these few moments, I turn around to see that all adults are busy. The girls are both looking at me expectantly. I let the two girls narrate their version of the story. I ask Ria and Ahma what ideas they have to resolve this: Is there any way they could play together with the stick? The “this is mine… this is mine…” continues. I tell them to wait until the ‘peace negotiation table’ is free to discuss this properly with one of the teachers, and until then to play something else. They both walk away…
I sit back on my bench, on the corner of the white tent, pulling my scarf a little higher into my face. It suddenly feels really cold and the cold air is getting into my bones. I wonder. I make myself a cup of coffee, sit there with my black notebook and write down the incident. What did the girls really say? What was their body language like? Their looks? What do I know so far about their usual reactions in those situations? It reminds me a lot of fighting with my own sister when we were younger. The subtle manipulation from one girl towards the other. The triumph that was for one girl keeping the stick and the frustration and helplessness of the other girl deciding to step away. Am I mixing my own experience with what has actually just happened in front of me? Did I support these two girls in resolving their quarrel? Did my involvement change the environment where it should not have? Did I miss an opportunity to see how the children would have solved this quarrel independently? What could I have done differently? Does it even matter? Am I making a big deal out of a small moment?
This incident occurred at the beginning of my time at the school. Later I realised that these discourses around ‘mine/yours’, especially linked to elements from the natural world, repeatedly surfaced. Between students, between boys and girls, and between friendship groups each trying to protect ‘their gardens’ (the area where they were playing and constructing within the school garden). In the last few weeks of my field research, we conducted a small puppet play. The children developed their own storyline: two squirrels fighting about a golden acorn. The two squirrels don’t know how to solve their quarrel, they ask ‘little peace’ (an imaginary puppet in form of a colourful, lit lantern) for help. In the end, the two squirrels realise that what is much more important than the golden acorn, is to be happy inside and to continue to be friends with each other. This story was made up collectively by a group of children. I actually only realised the parallel to Ria and Ahma, as I am writing this blog post.
Who benefits from our research? – CPERG meets RinA
With these questions in mind about how to humanize research, Anna Lena Hahn from the Research in Action community and I decided to share these questions with both the Research in Action and the CPERG research communities during an interactive event in March 2022. Based on reading Post-Abyssal Ethics (Cremin et al., 2021) and Withdrawing to the Always Already There (Russi et al., 2021), we had a hunch that both research groups interpedently from each other have developed ways of accompanying researchers during these human struggles we are faced with. We discussed how we can move away from ethics as serving the institution towards embodied ethics and relationships on a metalevel. We questioned who benefits from research, that the resistances we meet during research are perhaps the pivotal moments of research itself, and whether we can use our intuition as a guiding light, as well as use our analytic reasoning in a second step. The conversation was open, vulnerable and I felt a genuine sense of connection to this global group of researchers all grappling with questions around how we can truly humanize our research, and see humanness as a strength and an asset, rather than a limitation.
I do not have the answer to these questions, however they made me reflect in new ways. For me, then, some important questions remain that I want to share with you for your own reflection:
1. How can relational research be ethical?
2. On the other hand, how can ethnographic research be ethical without grounding it in relationships?
3. What does ‘making ethical decisions’ within embodied research really mean?
4. How do we react when being confronted with our own positionality and when urged to break out of our comfort zone?
5. What are the consequences if we impose our own value systems to research?
6. How can we as researchers navigate situations when torn between various roles?
Cremin, H., Aryoubi, H., Hajir, B., Kurian, N., & Salem, H. (2021). Post‐abyssal ethics in education research in settings of conflict and crisis: Stories from the field. British Educational Research Journal, berj.3712. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3712
Hammersley, M. (2018). What is ethnography? Can it survive? Should it? Ethnography and Education, 13(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/17457823.2017.1298458
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2002). Ethnography: Principles in Practice. Routledge.
Russi, L., Shaw, P., & Daly, M. (2021). Withdrawal to the ‘always already there’. Research-in-Action Community. https://doi.org/10.21428/d2eb3cdf.00290fb5
Torres, R. A., & Nyaga, D. (Eds.). (2021). Critical research methodologies: Ethics and responsibilities. Brill.