“Why are you not doing research in your home country?” – The complexities of being from and doing research in the Global South

“Why are you not doing research in your home country?” – The complexities of being from and doing research in the Global South

Reflecting on their experiences of being researchers from the Global South working on the Global South from institutions in the Global North, Ilaha Abasli and Ahmed Elassal discuss how established research methods and training need to take account of more dynamic and situated researcher identities.

“Why are you not doing research in your home country?”, we have lost count of how often we have been asked this question. A question directed at us – PhD researchers from non-western backgrounds, albeit working in a European university, inquiring why we have chosen to do our PhD research in other countries of the Global South, but not our homelands. Taking this question seriously, we felt it was time to open a discussion on the eligibility of researchers from the Global South for conducting research in the Global South, particularly in development studies, and the suitability of current research training and ethics.

Representation of Global South researchers

Amarante et al note that only 16% of development research is generated and disseminated by Global South researchers, with most of their work centering on their countries or regions of origin. Similarly, Chelwa’s 2020 study, found research with an African focus was mostly authored by US and EU-based researchers. It goes without saying that examples of Global South researchers conducting fieldwork in the Global North are rarer still. This is apparent in the recent debate sparked when the Journal of African Cultural Studies published a satirical scenario about a Tanzanian researcher undertaking fieldwork on the sexual practices of academics in North Oxford.

researchers from the Global South are questioned for their choice of conducting ‘fieldwork’ in the Global South, if not their ‘home’ countries.

The debate touched on a wider bias, in which researchers from the Global South are questioned for their choice of conducting ‘fieldwork’ in the Global South, if not their ‘home’ countries. In contrast, Western researchers’ inquiry for ‘the other’ in the Global South is often presumed to be a matter of ‘scholarly’ choice. This expectation placed upon researchers from the Global South centres on their countries of origin, where they are encouraged to leverage their localised expertise and to provide ‘rational explanations’ for why these geographies ‘deviate’ from presumed norms.

Insider outsider

Discussions of positionality often refer to a researcher’s position as either an insider who conducts research at ‘home’ or as an outsider. From our experience, this dichotomy misrepresents the variety of positionalities researchers carry in the field. Global South positionality is complex; it is dynamic and subject to various contextual factors: ‘home’, ‘familiarity’, and ‘other spaces’ can be interchangeable and highly dependent on biography and the social relations researchers craft in those spaces. Factors such as, age, ethnicity, race, gender and social status can also either impede or facilitate access, and perception of the researcher during research.

For example, our positionality in research undertaken in Kenya and Uganda was perceived as both an outsider and an insider. As an outsider, we were representative of ‘Western academia’, but as an insider, we were perceived as ‘a developing country researcher who understands and shares similar values’. To illustrate, the first author’s experience as a female (white looking) affiliated with Western academia led to a perception of them as a Western outsider (referred to locally as “Muzungu”). However, in some areas of Kenya, her access and credibility were influenced by aspects such as their name origin (Arabic), or the fact that she comes from a post-Soviet background. This interplay of identities, ‘white’, ‘female’, ‘Muslim name’, ‘socialist background’, ‘growing up in a developing country’, whether one is viewed as an “insider” or an “outsider,” significantly affects the level of access, trust and honesty granted.

For the second author, being from Egypt, conducting data collection in Uganda came with a complex set of positionalities. Due to the dominant Arab identity that characterises most North African countries, there has been a growing divide between the northern and southern parts of the continent. Although the researcher defines himself as an African citizen and researcher, these tensions remain present during fieldwork. While he is not a western researcher, he is based at a western university, and while he defines himself as African, he might still not be perceived as fully African. Yet, despite these differences, a recurring conversation between the researcher and research participants in Kampala often started with a discussion about the Nile River and the need for the researcher to visit Jinja, the source of the Nile. Building on this common symbol of identity, has been a gate opener for genuine conversations on various fronts. In contrast, the researcher’s experience significantly differed when conducting other data collection activities in Northern Uganda where he was perceived as an outsider by local communities who doesn’t speak the local language and who looks like a “Mzungu”.

Adequate Training?

While much is written on research ethics, reflexivity, positionality, and power relations in the field, the discussion on non-western researcher’s positionality in the Global South is less well covered. From experience, we know that current training programs for fieldwork and data collection in the Global North do not necessarily reflect the complex positionalities of Global South researchers. Most literature and training programs are designed from a Western perspective that neglects multifaceted researcher identities. Ultimately, who we are and where we come from directly affect how we are perceived in the field and the opportunities we acquire to interact with our research participants, manoeuvre research gatekeepers, and access required information. This prioritisation of Global North researchers’ needs to conduct research in the Global South, instead of a comprehensive and genuine discussion that captures the diversity of academia, (re)enforces the notion that Global North academics are a baseline standard for conducting research anywhere in the world.

Building equitable partnerships during fieldwork

Whilst formal training is important, issues of positionality are largely worked out in the field. Partnerships with local universities or research institutions are often vital to structuring fieldwork. For outsider researchers they provide knowledge about gatekeepers, safety, and ethical viewpoints. Additionally, being supervised in the field by embedded scholars gives valuable insights and guidance to identify relevant stakeholders. These relationships provide an important sounding board of the ‘outsider’ researcher to navigate the complexity and surprises of fieldwork activities. However, these partnerships need to be based on equal partnership agreements.

Addressing this complexity necessitates genuine dialogue and reflection undertaken by both Global South and Western scholars

During the second author’s secondment at Makerere University in Kampala, as part of a joint EU universities research project, a formal partnership agreement was signed with his home institution. In addition, the researcher agreed with the fieldwork supervisor to design and deliver a lecture as part of a postgraduate degree offered by the host university, where he provided comparative perspectives on his research topic from various African countries’ experience including Egypt (his own country) and Uganda (his research context). Enabling this comparative exchange was an important reciprocal outcome from research that might otherwise have been purely extractive and provides an example of how shared understandings around research projects can be developed in collaboration.

Our fieldwork experiences reveal the complexity of the answer to the question ‘why we are not doing research in our home countries’. Addressing this complexity necessitates genuine dialogue and reflection undertaken by both Global South and Western scholars; to create academic spaces to appreciate diverse and multi-layered insider and outsider experiences, to design epistemically just doctoral training programs without imposing singular positionalities, and to build equitable partnerships with the Global South knowledge institutions that might transcend to increasing Global South researchers studying the Global South.


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