Development Studies cannot become an apology for the status quo

Development Studies cannot become an apology for the status quo

Development Studies must always be critical, or it becomes just an apology for the status quo, for exploitation, for the reproduction of inequality within and between nations, and for the ...

From Awareness to Action: World Heritage in Young Hands

From Awareness to Action: World Heritage in Young Hands

At a workshop in Bulange, Uganda, held in August 2021 the focus was on how to engage youth in protecting, preserving, and promoting World Heritage. The goal was to sensitise ...

Transformative Methodologies | Thinking Transformative Methodologies Collectively

For research to be called socially transformative, the production of scientific knowledge with the aim of addressing a societal problem is not enough. Research processes themselves must also be socially just, which calls for critical self-examination by researchers of how they do research. A project led by ISS researchers seeks to conceptualise a transformative research methodology that underlines a radically different and morally responsible way of conducting research by identifying and challenging assumptions that perpetuate social injustices in research processes. This post introduces the project and its core premises.


The veneration in the academe of a singular ‘expert’ knowledge produced by persons and groups based in academic institutions in the Global North, preferably with white bodies, and the failure to create knowledge with communities who are supposed to benefit from it are perhaps the two central obstacles preventing development research from realising its transformative potential. Knowledge produced without the involvement of those it is supposed to serve is not making the impact that it could – and should.

In response to this significant challenge, critical scholars have called for the development of transformative research methodologies based on the collectively identified aim of enacting social justice through research processes themselves. In our understanding, some of the key questions that arise in this context include:

  • What is the purpose of scientific research?
  • Who benefits from such research?
  • How can transformative social change be achieved?
  • Who enacts such change?
  • What are the intersectional implications of such change?

Asking such critical questions makes it clear that power relations that continue to play a central part in the production of knowledge need to be changed so that research itself can be truly transformative. In particular, the gap between ‘the researcher’ and ‘the researched’ sustained through current research methodologies must be addressed by recognising those we work with to produce scientific knowledge as primary actors in the research process.

Many researchers at the ISS and beyond are already adhering to the core principles of such methodologies through their work, which led us to seek to synthesise the different approaches and methods at the ISS in a bid to create a framework for transformative research. And so, in late 2020, a group of researchers from the Civic Innovation (CI) Research Group put their heads together to explore the possibility of taking initial discussions on transformative methodologies further. Such discussions had taken place frequently over the past few years within the CI group in recognition of the need to increase the societal impact of research through the inclusion of those we work with and serve through our research in the research process.

We agreed that the research methodology researchers employ to guide the research process matters. The research process itself shapes the extent to which the knowledge that is produced makes a lasting and transformative impact. Thus, we developed a project that would explore different transformative elements of our research and bring them together to form the basis of a transformative research methodology. Our point of departure is to critically engage with possibilities for communities that are commonly depicted as benefactors of produced knowledge to become part of the process as experts and co-producers of knowledge.

Our main activity was to organise a workshop in which we could explore transformative methodologies researchers at the ISS have employed. This synthesis of experiences and techniques, we hoped, could inspire other researchers to do the same. But the workshop was also meant to be a space to discuss issues related to transformative methodologies, including things such as our own biases and assumptions, financial and legal constraints, and hazardous fieldwork sites.

Here are some of the things that emerged from the inspiring discussions we had during the workshop:

  1. Coloniality plays a role in perpetuating untransformative research methodologies; to address this, knowledge production processes need to be decolonised. Delphin Ntanyoma, a PhD researcher, proposed that in the light of dominant colonial writings and research and for responsible knowledge production to occur, “researchers need to look backwards and forwards a hundred years”, by which he meant that they need to consider both the historical politics of knowledge production and its long-term consequences for social justice. He gave an example of his own community, the Banyamulenge in DRC: the violent conflicts that affect the Banyamulenge in eastern DRC to date are rooted in constructions of a ‘local’ versus ‘immigrant’ identity that dates back to colonial writings.
  2. A focus on individual achievement in the academe, related in part to the well-known ‘publish or perish’ adage, has come to overshadow the notion of collective responsibility that is a crucial premise of a truly transformative methodology. These structures in academia focusing on performance and prestige rather than impact catalyse ‘(extr)activist’ development research that instrumentalises marginalised communities for the benefit of furthering academic careers. Knowledge is extracted from research communities, never to be seen again.
  3. Things might have been different if researchers were to be considered responsible for the impact of their research, including how it is used, and indeed for the effect of the research methodology itself on the research communities they engage with. One workshop participant highlighted how researchers from the Global North have made careers out of writing about the contradictions within indigenous communities in India – a process that has exacerbated prejudices against these already heavily marginalised communities.
  4. For researchers who see themselves as scholar activists and whose deep connection with a specific group of people directs their research, responsibility and commitments in research would also be something to learn from and develop together with the community. During the workshop, Silke Heumann and Karin Astrid Siegmann for instance explained how their collaboration with sex worker groups taught them that the framing of sex work matters: ‘whore stigma’ has been used to justify sex workers’ exclusion from relevant policy discourses, such as those on human trafficking and labour rights. Such and similar relationships to marginalised communities constantly remind researchers to rethink the meaning of what counts as valid knowledge and who is regarded and respected as a knower. This reflective process has been understood as getting closer to ‘strong objectivity’ by feminist theorists like Harding.
  1. Engaged scholarship carries risks that may threaten the ability of methodologies to be transformative. For instance, allying with the LGBTI+ movement has led to serious threats to both researchers and research participants. Workshop participants, including Cathy Wilcock and Natalia Lozano Arevalo, shared how they have used art-based research methods and humour to try to provide a safe space for those actors they work with to share their experiences without the fear of being prosecuted or stigmatised. These forms of data collection can also be seen as more engaging alternatives to conventional forms of doing and communicating research.
  2. An important, yet, difficult step to move forward in the conversation on transformative research is to critically interrogate the role of our research institutions in shaping how we do academic research. Besides assumptions about who can be identified and respected as a knower, coloniality shapes how authorship and budgets are distributed between development researchers in Northern universities and their collaborators in the Global South. In this context, it is extremely important to implement and guarantee a clear ethical, respectful, and responsible no-harm policy.

Keeping these humbling experiences in mind, researchers’ moves out of the individualistic academic ivory tower towards a collective of researchers and activists that shape research and its outcomes together may still be a crucial first step towards transformative research. To be able to engage with transformative methodologies in research and discuss challenges such as those mentioned above, it is important to attempt to create a collective space where instead of individualism and competitive careerism, a meaningful relationship between collective research and activism is promoted. While giving space to issues of intersectionality, identity, and diversity within academia, it is equally relevant to prioritise larger structural issues that threaten the existence of collective communities.

There is still a long way to go to in the dialogue towards evolving scientific research methodologies that would help us maximise their transformative potential. This project on transformative methodologies is one picture that we hope can form part of what will hopefully become a collage of meaningful engagement informing research practice and making it truly transformative.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Sreerekha Sathi is assistant professor at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Richard Toppo is external PhD candidate at International Institute of Social Studies.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Studying the aspirations of youth can tell us a lot more about their worlds

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Aspiration is an implicit element of development that inspires action for change. Yet there are increasing concerns about the individualised and instrumental use of aspirations in development practice. In a ...

Covid-19 | How moving (academic) conferences online could help address social injustices

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Disasters, Dilemmas and Decisions: Notes from a monsoon fieldwork in Assam, India

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.

Map of Assam
Figure 1: Map of Assam, India

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.

Stranded animals Assam
Figure 2: Stranded animals on islands of submerged paddy fields (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

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.

Auto Rickshaw in monsoon in Assam
Figure 3: Our auto-rickshaw returning towards the highway (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

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.

Mausumi ChetiaAbout 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.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.