Taking an ethnographic route to study disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves, too, writes Mausumi Chetia.
On a summer night eleven monsoons ago, sleep evaded me. Outside, the winds were growing stronger by the hour and the rain refused to stop pouring. My sleepless thoughts held the image of a family and an incessantly shaking, Kare Okum (chang-ghar in Assamese) or stilt houses built over a flowing channel of water. I was in Majuli, a densely populated island in the Brahmaputra river of Assam, my home state in northeast India. I was collecting data for my Master’s dissertation around the time the monsoons began, bringing the annual floods to our state.
A few days later, my then research supervisor pulled me out of the field site. With a calm, but commanding voice, she asked me to return to ‘safety’ at the earliest. With partially collected data, mixed emotions and a river that was continuously expanding (due to massive erosion of its banks), I left Majuli for my home’s ‘safety’.
Fast forward to fieldwork for my current research in Assam in 2019. I was faced once again with the ethical dilemma of applying a methodological approach focusing on people first and foremost vs prioritising my own safety as a researcher. They were the very puzzles I had left behind in Majuli when I left a decade ago. Research is a deeply political process, but it is a humanising journey, too, as I would come to see (and as Kikon 2019 explains).
The half-written story of a monsoon auto ride: taking a submerged path
My fieldwork in June 2019 took me to one of Assam’s severely flood-prone districts. The geographical location was chosen based on longstanding professional relationships and empirical familiarity with that region.
A local humanitarian organisation aided me in accessing the research site. I found an accommodation in the district town, about 45 kilometres away from the actual site of study. My research populations lived about 15 to 25 kilometres away from a national highway, on a rehabilitated government-owned piece of land situated along the banks of a river.
The initial fieldwork days were about establishing access and meeting key contacts. The weather was mostly cloudy with occasional showers. One day looked particularly promising, with the sun high up in a clear, blue morning sky. Predictably, the sky got dark in no time. Despite warnings of rising water levels, our auto-rickshaw driver decided to risk continuing the trip. Then the drizzling started.
I could see a blurring silver line across the trees. It was the water. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the last time I was in a heavily flooded river in a steamer boat, almost two monsoons past. Some thatched houses appeared inundated already. Buffaloes and cows were clutching at tiny islands that had formed in the paddy fields, which in turn resembled huge lakes on either side of the road.
Gradually, it felt like we were surrounded by a sea of water. There came a point where the road ahead looked completely submerged. Our auto-rickshaw came to a halt. A few vehicles had stopped ahead of us. The rain continued pouring. There was chaos and confusion. People needed to cross the submerged part of the road to reach their homes. But the prospect of crossing the waist-deep water with their luggage, infants and children delayed their decision. Three of my fellow passengers told me that they were indeed afraid of the water. Nonetheless, they had to cross it on foot. Devoid of alternatives, two women and a teenaged boy started marching ahead. Many, like them, were from villages as far ahead as 15 kilometres.
An ethical-methodological dilemma
I continued standing there next to our auto-rickshaw, almost in a stupor. A billion thoughts crossed my mind. And here was my dilemma. By design, understanding the ‘everydayness’ of the research population was at the heart of my research methodology. By that virtue, even the present situation of crossing a flooded area should theoretically have been something I would have had to prepare for. However, faced with the disaster first-hand, I was anything but prepared to encounter the ‘lived experiences’ of my research population. I found myself debating whether loyalty to my research methodology was more crucial than my personal safety or, more importantly, whether being an empathetic researcher and registering the real difficulties faced by the research population, in hosting me in their flooded homes, was the most important objective.
The first thing that was stopping me from stepping into the waters was not the fear of the water itself. We were witnessing people crossing the submerged road. And in all fairness, it was not an ‘alarming flood situation’ by any measure, while perhaps only moving towards that. My concern was one of return: my rapport with these families had not matured adequately to a point that I could stay unannounced in my interviewees’ homes. At the same time, if the rains continued (which was most likely), it would have been risky to return. The families were already struggling with minimal living spaces. Basic amenities like food, drinking water, public transport access, markets, hospitals, etc. were already limited and at far-off distances. With rising waters, it would be inappropriate to obligate them to accommodate an additional person, that person being myself.
I was tiptoeing ahead absent-mindedly with all these thoughts in my head when my auto-rickshaw driver called out, asking me to return to the vehicle. Along with a few passengers, he was planning to return to the main highway. He insisted that I must, too, as I looked like an ‘outsider’ and I wouldn’t be able to cross the road like the ‘locals’. With a sense of self-betrayal, I shut my umbrella and got back to the vehicle.
The next morning, we were informed that the entire road till the bank of the river (located at least 15 kms from where we had returned) had been submerged. Even steamer services to Majuli were shut down indefinitely. I realised my return to meet the families would have to wait. This reflected my limited role as an ethnographic researcher – to study the research population during disasters that very much defined the everydayness of their lives.
The ethnographic project is in itself embedded within power relations between the researcher and the researched (Behar, 1993: 31 cited in Prasad, 1998). Empirically speaking, the research population and I share our homeland (of Assam), culture and language, both literally and figuratively, to a considerable extent. Yet we are anything but parallel in the legitimacies of our respective lives. To begin with, for instance, my family or I have never encountered a disaster first-hand. Concurrently, in my research, it is I who determine the design, selection of site, population for study and methodology. This essentially puts me in a position of power and privilege over the research population I study who, in contrast, had no choice in choosing my research through which to share their everyday lives.
Given this inequality, the power (of the researcher) could end up being wielded against the best interests of the researched in ethnographic studies during or after disasters. The delicate balance between prioritising the research methodology and prioritising the research population then becomes crucial for us as disaster researchers. The power divide and our mandate to negotiate these nuances becomes much more apparent during our fieldwork. Critical reflection (Foley and Valenzuela 2005) at this juncture might prove to be a useful exercise.
My fieldwork experience has underlined that remaining empathetic and putting the interests of the research population facing disasters before our own research methodology is fundamental. The classic ethnographic training for young researchers is to become ‘one among them’ (the research population), given all other factors are in place. Thus, from the start, there silently remains a distinction between ‘them and us’. However, coming from the wider socio-cultural horizon of the researched, local researchers like myself must be trusting of one’s own understanding of issues and instincts for making decisions in the field, even if such decisions do not necessarily fit within the our methodological approaches that have been argued to be rooted in western thoughts. Engaging in other aspects of fieldwork then, for instance making contacts with local experts, especially with researchers based and working in the field site for sustained periods, could be fruitful.
Growing together with our research: prioritising researchers’ self-care
More than a year has passed since the field experience elaborated above. Since returning to safety that day, I keep wondering if the decision was methodologically ethical. My choice that morning reflects the power imbalance between the researcher and the researched very clearly. I call it a power imbalance because I had the choice to not move ahead to meet the research population, whereas they themselves had no choice to leave their flooded home and return on a sunnier, drier day. That is their life. These families continue living in similar conditions of high risk and vulnerability, even today.
I made my choice balancing the palpable risks of entering a flooded area and as an ostensibly empathetic researcher. That being said, it was also because I prioritised the safety of the self. Many of our decisions as disaster researchers get shaped by our relationship of accountability to our host organisations (if any) and towards our own families and loved ones. Ensuring our own safety is one such challenging decision.
From the dilemmas of my ethnographic fieldwork, I learnt to appreciate that our research is as much about us as human beings/researchers as they are about understanding research populations. As I examine their lives and they examine mine, we grow together. After all, ours is a social and not a controlled laboratory situation. What I seek to reiterate here is this: many aspects of fieldwork are beyond our control. What is in our capacity, however, is to take care of our own research, the research population we engage with and our own selves.
By self-care, I refer to not just the physical and mental/emotional health safety. Beyond such strictly defined medical aspects of health, I emphasise being self-empathetic throughout the period of research while referring to a researcher’s self-care. This is especially true if we engage with disaster-affected populations over long periods. Having and practising contingency plans for safety prior to the fieldwork and regular communication with supervisory teams and our support system is a must for disaster ethnographic researchers. That being said, a researcher’s self-care must be held dearly by none other than the researcher herself.
Traversing the ethnographic road to meet disaster-affected populations
Upon my return from the flooded area, I found that colleagues at my host organisation had been worried about me, as had been my friends and family. I am glad I retraced my steps, albeit guiltily. In hindsight, I question whether I should have changed my methodology considerably for smoother sailing or perhaps should have conducted fieldwork in areas with minimal probability for a disaster. In that case, how true would I remain to my research question and how ethical would that be? My original fieldnote from that day reads,
… this sight (of the flooded paddy fields all around me) is making me question whether my original study population is even living in the same place where I’d met them, or have they already had to move to avoid the rising river? What, then, does it reflect about the (mobile) lives that these (displaced?) families lead and about the credibility of the gaze I want/need to have for this research?
(‘Reflections’ – Fieldnotes of a missed interview, July 10th, 2019)
Such reflexivity helped me reshape aspects of my fieldwork’s methodology in tune with the dynamic external environment. Physical safety and mental health of aid workers are integral to the everyday conversations of the world of humanitarian aid. While discussing reflexivity in her auto-ethnography with disaster-affected communities of Aceh, Indonesia, Rosaria Indah (2018) shares that secondary traumatic stress (STS) could be one of the long-lasting impacts on disaster ethnographers. Thus, this conversation deserves to pick pace within the academic community too, especially for researchers engaging in long-term humanitarian contexts.
Taking an ethnographic road to disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves too.
This is an edited version of the article that was originally published on the LSE blog.
Foley, S. and Valenzuela, A. (2005) Critical ethnography: the politics of collaboration. In: N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, eds. The Sage handbook of qualitative research. 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, pp. 217–234.
Indah, R. (2018) Probing problems: Dilemmas of conducting an ethnographic study in a disaster-affected area. International journal of disaster risk reduction 31, pp.799-805.
Kikon, D. (2019) On methodology: research and fieldwork in Northeast India. The Highlander 1(1), pp. 37–40
Prasad, P. (1998) When the Ethnographic Subject Speaks Back: Reviewing Ruth Behar’s. Translated Woman. Journal of Management Inquiry 7(1), pp. 31-36.
About the author:
Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher with the ISS. Prior to joining academics, she was working as a development and humanitarian aid professional in India.
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