Ethics & Engagement across the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes

Reflections on researching and teaching ethics, anthropology and ethnography in South Africa

Hi all, 

I know I'm long overdue to post a blog piece up here. Sorry about that! Despite my silence, we have actually been making progress (finally!) with the data collection on this project since July of this year, and are planning to wrap up this first project phase in January. With the help of two new research assistants, we've managed to do a series of observations, focus groups and in-depth interviews with community engagement officers, Centre field staff, and members of both the old and new Community Advisory Boards. With somewhat inexperienced field staff, both fieldwork training and transcription and translation have taken much longer than expected, and thus we had to scale back somewhat from our initial targets in terms of interviews. We’ve thus decided to focus only on those who work as frontline staff or representatives of the Centre (fieldworkers, CEU officers, and CAB members), and not to do interviews with other community members at this stage of the project. Nonetheless, the insights gained from our work with these individuals have been quite valuable, and we still anticipate other larger studies emerging from our findings on this preliminary bursary. In my next blog post, I'll try to share with you guys some preliminary insights/findings from the data itself. In this post, I'm going to focus more on the practical challenges of doing the researchitself.

One of the key lessons I've learned through this project has been how much more difficult it is to manage ethnographic data collection when not physically present full time at the study site. As an anthropologist, having other do ethnographic data collection for me has been a somewhat new experience for me, but one that I know will become more and more necessary for me as I move on in my academic career and have more responsibilities that keep me tied to the university/office more of the time. Thus, I've been thinking a lot lately about the practical, epistemological, and ethical implications of this kind of ethnographic/qualitative research, where fieldworkers are asked to do data collection for researchers based elsewhere. I know this is standard in other disciplines, but it still feels uncomfortable for me to be so far removed from the process, to being doing what some might call 'extractive' data collection. I worry that this model of managing research from afar makes it much harder to do effective capacity-building work, something I am strongly committed to. I've also found it quite challenging practically to figure out how to train fieldworkers (who often have little to no experience in anthropology/social science) to do this kind of in-depth, iterative data collection work effectively. I've done my best to try to resolve these challenges by running reading groups with interested staff and training sessions when I'm at Africa Centre and have skype check-in meetings. I'd be interested to hear from others in the group how they have thought about or dealt with these challenges.

On a related note, I've recently been asked to run a one-week ethnographic research methods training for 30 social science staff working on a large-scale clinical trial in which I am involved. The group ranges in education level from matric (high school diploma) to PhD, and have very different levels of experience/comfort with ethnographic or social science research. This is an opportunity for me to help shape the data collection in ways that will be useful to myself and other researchers later on, but it's quite hard to figure out how to design a training in such a short time that caters to this diverse group. If anyone in this group has had experience with such trainings, I'd appreciate any suggestions for activities, approaches or references that might be helpful.


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Comment by Dina Rippon on December 14, 2015 at 9:51

Thanks for such a great update, Lindsey! Congratulations on having accomplished so much, despite all the challenges. The ethnographic research methods training course you've been asked to run sounds very interesting, and I will post your question to the GHBN listserv, as I'm sure other members of our Network can provide you with some advice. Good luck with everything, and it will be really interesting to hear how the training goes, as well as the rest of your data collection!

Comment by Rodrick Sambakunsi on December 16, 2015 at 6:19

Thanks Lindsey for the update, it appears you have lots of challenges but you are managing them well, sometimes it is easy to think that what you are doing in dealing with such challenges is not sufficient but I can assure you that the strategies that you are employing are helpful and I sincerely hope that you will realize how effective these strategies have been at the end of your project. Most of us might not have faced similar challenges but I can assure you that in most cases the challenges that come along projects present great learning opportunities for all of us. I hope there will be someone who can share similar challenges. Wishing you all the best in the rest of your project. 

Comment by Elvis Moyo on December 16, 2015 at 8:41

I like your point that Fieldworkers are assigned to collect data on behalf of researchers who are not fully involved, i guess it might really be challenging for the fieldworkers  to try to understand  the study very well. Ethnographic studies are more  demanding especially when it comes to data collection but seems you are trying your best to be on top of everything you are doing. 

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