Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Culture of average continued: Farming out research tasks

One of the most fundamental tenets of CCA is I believe the authenticity of the researcher in his/her relationship with the field site, which is tied to the fundamental premise that one needs to spend extensive amounts of time in the field, getting to know the field and making herself/himself vulnerable to participants and their stories, interacting with participants with an openness to listening to their stories, and co-creating theoretical and pragmatic entry points with cultural participants through their stories. For us as CCA researchers to co-script stories of change with participants, we need to be extensively devoted to our field sites, taking up the challenges of intense field work and sometimes when needed, placing our selves at risk so that entry points to change can be co-created with cultural participants at the margins (granted our taking up of these risks are minuscule when compared to the everydayness of the risks and threats that communities at the margins live under). When I think of the work of Mahuya Pal with the displaced farmers of Singur, I am reminded of the intense violence that had ensued in Singur at the time when she was doing this work. When Induk Kim wrote her CCA dissertation on activist organizing among farmers, she spent extensive amounts of time in the field, working among farmer activists and travelling with them to global sites of resistance. Most recently, when Uttaran Dutta travelled from the forested areas of the Sunderbans in West Bengal to the inaccessible mountains in Northern Bengal, traveling through hilly terrains, walking through difficult pathways, and wading in neck deep water, he depicts the fundamental commitment of the CCA reseacher/worker to his work, to hopefully making a difference by working on fostering solidarity with those who have been silenced and marginalized. What this translates into is that the researcher/author has to have close, intimate, engaged relationships with his/her participants, communities, and the data that are generated from the fieldwork, locating his presence in the field. In this sense then, getting to know the participants and the field site are crucial to any CCA process.

The idea then with CCA is very simple, that the researcher spend substantive amount of time in the field, and this is the entry point for someone doing CCA work. I say this is just the beginning because I am not sure that there is a yardstick for solidarity or authenticity which one can use to measure exactly how authentic they have been in their fieldwork. Even beyond the amount of time spent in the field, as I have noted in my work elsewhere, it is vital that the researcher work on developing relationships of solidarity with community members through long-term commitments to their participants and field sites. CCA therefore is skeptical of the sort of academic tourism where researchers go in, gather data, and come out. CCA is perhaps even more vigilant of projects where researchers pay locals to gather the data, transcribe it, and then supply the researchers with the cleaned up data to work on. It interrogates projects with the question: How much real contact has the researcher had with the participants?

Research tasks in CCA therefore can't be farmed out to research firms, data gathering teams, or transcription companies, at least if we as researchers are vigilant of our commitment and authenticity to both our field sites as well as our participants. It is from this entry point of commitment that I always insist on transcribing my own data; furthermore, I require that graduate student advisees transcribe their own data, and in cases of large projects, the data transcription is taken up by the research team. What messages do we communicate about our spirit of commitment and authenticity to our community partners if we don't commit ourselves to respecting the stories that participants have shared with us? Essential to this respect then is the idea that I will need to work very hard and be committed to working hard in my interactions with the stories that participants have shared with me.

Farming out data transcription not only interrupts the quality of the transcription, but also fundamentally takes the researcher away from the nitty gritty of the field site. The authenticity of CCA calls for us to reject our bureacratic urges of professional treatment of data through hiring of some other person to do our job for us. Furthermore, the ethical aspects of research compliance and data protection put into question the several levels at which research ethics codes might be violated if audio files are sent out to outside stakeholders for the purposes of transcription without proper human subjects training and approval.

What then do I hope from someone who comes to work with me and apply CCA? Our early stages of career are amazing moments for learning to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, the professionalization of graduate education often turns these moments of learning into contracts to be carried out, transcripts to be analyzed hastily, and research tasks to be shipped out to unemployed workers in the Third World who would do the transcription for "dirt cheap." Unfortunately, the professionalization of research processes sometimes leaves us and our students incapable of understanding the basic inequities and oppressions we partake in when we go hunting for dirt cheap transcribers in Bangladesh or Nepal. Inherent in this process of farming out research transcription then is the basic exploitation of Third World bodies within sites of neoliberal economies; we as researchers build our research careers as our third world transcription workers remain hidden beneath the texts that they have transcribed for us. To take this even further, in instances where researchers have someone else run their data analysis for them, the basic crux of research integrity and commitment are missing, also raising much more important questions about research integrity and lack thereof.

In summary then, I am comfortable fostering a policy among my advisees, research assistants, and collaborators that we have to do our transcriptions and analysis ourselves as CCA researchers; I am also comfortable noting that the first step of analysis has to always always be done by hand in the old fashioned way, and not through some technology that immediately takes over the task of organizing the data into categories. And I myself have led this by example, by working hour-after-hour painstakingly transcribing interviews. The pain in these instances of the transcription is also the joy of getting to know the participants some more through the conversations with their stories.

So isn't this somewhat of a stringent strategy that adds additional burdens on researchers? Here, as a mentor and an advisor I want to note that I am not interested in making the jobs of my students and advisees "easier." I don't believe that's why I am here as their teacher/advisor/mentor, or for that matter, making the lives of our graduate students easier should be the motto of a mentor. I care deeply about our relationships as entry points to solidarity, to making a difference; and what this caring means for me is that I push them to work harder, to excel, and to fundamentally be committed to the social change agendas they identify as important. Solidarity to me is not about being "nice"; it goes much much deeper than that. I am comfortable working with them through these moments of struggle with the hope that these moments of struggle teach us the value of humility, vulnerability, hard work, and the commitment to our co-conscriptors of stories.

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