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‘Field Notes’: The Noise Within

Photo: SCMP

By Neha Basnet 

Everything is in motion around me: buzzing, huzzing, and fuzzing. In the middle of everyday ruckus, I am static, in a deep silence. But there is a noise within. The noise telling me to leave, run, escape. Something is slipping away; something is dying. Catch it, hold it and clutch it.

There is so much going on and I can do nothing about it, except for taking a deep breath.

I enjoy the life of a researcher, but sometimes it makes me angry, sometimes restless, bored, even vulnerable. There are times when I feel helpless. Let’s be honest. You are often caught in the mayhem of the system and sometimes with the participants as well. Have you ever felt that ever? I have worked as a consultant in various research projects for more than two years. However, my PhD research fieldwork in Kathmandu gave me a very different experience. The one year research data collection enabled me to live all the emotions. My research method involved life-history interviews and this gave me an opportunity to live the funniest moments of their lives, the savory moments, and their moments of sufferings. It burned me out. There were times when they made me frustrated and angry.

As I listened to the stories of my research participants, my heart became full, forcing me to carry the weight of these stories. The scholarly works tell us to detach ourselves from the lives of research participants and focus on the research aims – our role as a researcher. Is this even possible? How can one not become attached to people when one is intellectually, emotionally, and physically involved in the work, in the subject that incites us? I am not sure if these experiences of ‘while-in-the-fieldwork’ have any role to play in the work itself or it is even acknowledged in my research journey. I did not imagine that this journey would be so difficult, so powerful that it would stir an emotional blizzard. The one year of the research journey was not only about my research challenges but it was also about facing emotional and personal challenges.

I have often heard people say that fieldwork is very difficult and overwhelming. However, this difficulty doesn’t often get into those formal spaces where conversation about fieldwork takes place. Most of the sharing happens either in the informal or private conversations. Coming from a so-called ‘privileged’ Nepali background, it was not easy to just get to the field. There were times when I felt I was not one of ‘those’ who could probably do a ‘PhD’ because my appearance was not really a ‘PhD type’. Most of the times I felt that as a young woman my research wasn’t worthy enough to create an impact on the society.

At the beginning of my research, I had felt very confident because my proposal looked great and my research method sounded exciting. I felt incredibly prepared because I would be researching about the young in urban Kathmandu for a year. I felt that I had thought through all the possible issues that might come up, but I had not anticipated what it was going to be like, as I had a false sense of knowing and getting things done easily in urban Kathmandu. For example, when I was trying to get information on the number of call centres in Kathmandu, there were people who were willing to help me out to map the information, whereas the research participants who were working at the call centres were not really interested in talking to me. Not even for a tiny second I had thought of this possibility. I had the assumption that since it was an urban area it would be easy for me to talk to people, especially the young ones.

In the beginning of my fieldwork, I was not expecting a lot of rejections in the sense that people would not want to engage at all. When I finally got hold of them, there were not a lot of things that they wanted to talk about, e.g. what was really going on or what happened in their lives, their experiences, etc. At times, I felt frustrated for their non-cooperative attitude or for simply lying to me. At that moment I realized that I was expecting them to say things that my research aims to look into. However much I tried to refrain from tailoring their answers to my research, I finally came to understand the pressure I was putting myself under to find answers for my questions.

I could feel that the participants were clearly skipping the parts which were personal or emotional. I did not want to force them to share it, while at the same time I wanted them to share it. This was because there was a lot of shame and stigma in sharing one’s personal stories to someone one didn’t know. One could expect mature people to be fully candid about it but to get young people to open up was extremely difficult. I felt as if I lived the life of those people who shared with me their stories; I felt great to have the opportunity to live their lives through their words. The fieldwork that I did had a strong effect on my brain, and my heart. At times it was easy in the sense that I had to only be a good listener, because I had to let the research participants take me through their life without me directing them. Once I started having the conversation I was seen by them as one of them, in the way they accepted me. For example, most of the female participants asked me about my age because they could not believe that a young woman was pursuing a PhD, as they had only seen people with salt and pepper hair doing PhD. At times the participants thought either I was lying about my PhD or my age. But I felt it was valuable in the sense that it made them comfortable to have a conversation with someone who just looked like one of them.

Not only my age, my facial features got the attention, too. Although I am from an Aryan-looking race, I look more like a mongoloid. This created confusion among the research participants and I got a surprise look from them very often. These were the times when I was tested for being genuine, reliable, and worthy of given the time and place to experience their journey. Of course, as a researcher one has only a partial understanding of what makes the young move to labour market. As I started talking to them, we came a little bit closer and this helped the people open up. It is s empathy that works and helps a researcher build that relationship with the people.

There was a participant who had a very troubled childhood and this affected his teenage life as well. This participant was raised by a single mother, and he had no clue who his father was. He faced bullying in school. As a result, he left the school and started indulging in bad habits. Ultimately, he ended up supplying small amounts of drug, while he was also working in the night shift at the call centre. His life-history was filled with stories of people abusing and exploiting him and somehow making him feel that he was not worthy. As a researcher I felt helpless and hopeless at this point. Would my research make his life better in any way? Would it be able to reverse the time and make things right for this kid? These questions just tore me apart. This was a nightmare; a depressive feeling hovered around me. I started to doubt what I was doing. Witnessing the pretense of development work in Nepal, I was angry with myself and him at the same time.

The second time when I met this kid, he was more comfortable to have a conversation with me; he was happier to have met me and shared his feelings. I realized how very small things like listening, being a confidant of someone, showing love and care were just as much of a help in itself as anything else that we might do. Would these emotional attachments towards stories and people make my data less valid? Or would they make my analysis biased?

Bio:
Neha
 Basnet is a PhD candidate at the Groningen University, The Netherlands. Her research focuses on middle-class migrant (rural-urban) education-to-work transition in Nepal.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Writing in Academia”, edited by Anannya Dasgupta, Krea University and Madhura Lohokare, O. P. Jindal Global University, India.

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