Methodology, Reflexivity and Decolonizing Refugee Research: Reflections from the Field, by Dina Taha
Methodology, Reflexivity and Decolonizing Refugee Research: Reflections from the Field, by Dina Taha
During the summer of 2017, I was conducting fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in Egypt. I interviewed thirty-five Syrian refugee women who, after escaping the conflict in Syria, settled in Egypt and then married Egyptian men. Initially my aim was to compare Syrian refugee women’s narratives with the pervasive, and often unquestioned discourses in social media and humanitarian blogs which “explained away” these women’s marriages to Egyptian nationals as coercion, exploitation, and at times forced marriage. It took a while, but I soon came to realize that the stories and reasons of the “Syrian refugee brides” were much more complex that either discourses allowed.
Throughout the planning phase, and as a self-proclaimed anti-colonial researcher, I was consumed by the idea of the crisis of representation: the gap between the author’s (often colonized) text and the lived experiences of the researched population. In addition to my empirical interest in the stories behind the “Syrian refugee brides,” I was also interested in theoretical and methodological questions such as how do hegemonic ideas affect academic research? Which narratives and ideas, and whose narratives and ideas, are more privileged? How do the researcher’s social location, ideological motivations, and theoretical convictions determine how the message is going to be received? How do factors such as academic privilege implicate knowledge production? How do the varying cultural, social, and intellectual references between the researcher and the researched contribute to the loss of meanings?
Like any researcher in a Western academic institution, I had to start with a clear hypothesis about how the fieldwork “fits” within previous literature and dominate theories. My initial/official interest was to explore how Syrian women interpret their decision to marry Egyptian men: How did they use marriage as a survival tool? And how do elements such as agency, exploitation, and patriarchy affect this decision? However, as I arrived to the field, my concern about the academic privileged and countering hegemonic ideas about non-Western contexts started to dominate my approach. I was slowly letting go of my initial questions and cautiously letting my respondents’ narratives lead the way and explore more interesting avenues and dimensions of their stories. What I have come to realize is that in addition to exploring how the concept of marriage has been used creatively and flexibly to promote the woman’s interest, another emerging question was how those women’s forced migration experiences have (re)shaped their perception to the meaning, purpose, and nature of marriage. In other words, how do their stories impose challenges to what is hegemonically considered to be morally correct? How do we –and who gets to, define notions such as human rights, human dignity and victimhood? What constitutes an agentive act and what constitutes an act of exploitation?
Here I want to propose reflexivity, or asking “how one’s self and one’s methods are implicated in the knowledge one produces” (Bischoping & Gazso, 2016, 43), as a tool/ strategy that should be central not just as a rigorous methodological and empirical practices but as means to decolonizing research. Reflexivityas a tool to ensure that the message conveyed about what the participants ‘tell us’ about their interpretations of their experiences and subjectivities is as close as possible to their ‘actual’ interpretations of these experiences. Moreover, it allows the researcher to reflect on how their position and positionality have impacted their interpretations and the final outcome. Many researchers have addressed some issues that required them to apply reflexivity at different stages of their research projects. For instance, Halai (2007) reflected on her concerns regarding the accuracy of transcribing and translating bilingual interviews from Urdu to English. Since the issue has not been addressed enough in literature she had to come up with her own customized (but consistent) guiding rules to make sure her participants stories are conveyed correctly. Clarke (2003) has also reflected on some of the strategies she has employed to “overcome ambivalence” from her respondents and pursue higher authenticity in their accounts. Strategies such as building rapport, managing her alternating position between the insider and the outsider wisely and paying attention to the location in which the interview is conducted were some of her attempts to ensure rigor and proper representation of her respondents’ experiences. Another example is Anim-Addo & Gunaratnam (2013) who reflected on the limits of oral history and tried to detangle the relationship between facts and fiction in their respondents’ accounts in a systematic way. Hence, while exercising reflexivity in my own field work, I started posing the question of how we can use reflexivity to decolonize research? The question has soon evolved to: how can we decolonize reflexivity?
Now I want to refer to one example during my fieldwork. Just a few months after arrival, a family friend introduced Nouran, my 25-year-old Syrian respondent, to an Egyptian man who is married with kids but was searching for a Syrian widow. As she explained, his reason for searching for a Syrian who is particularly a widow had to do with his interpretation of a moral and a religious value which awarded those who provide shelter, livelihood support and protection for widows and divorced women. Historically, this has taken place often through marriage, a practice that is referred to as Sotra marriage. They had the religious marriage three weeks after they first met only to separate three months after. Despite her negative experience, Nouran was actually pleased with her ex-husband’s interest in applying Sotra to a widow and her orphaned children. As a researcher who is a product of a Western institutions, I was astonished from the fact that she would be happy that someone is marrying her almost out of charity at least in the apparent. She clarified that she appreciated his honesty and noble intention and she was convinced that love, an important factor still, is a gradual process that will come later. When I reflected back on my encounter with Nouran and my astonishment from her rationale, I could trace elements of a colonized understanding of intimate relations that are often explained through convictions about the nuclear family as well as individualized perceptions, commercialized romantic expressions and monopolized affections. Moreover, by reminding myself again and again during the interview and throughout the analysis that Nouran is the expert on her situation, the trajectory of the interview has taken a more conversational path which allowed for a deeper narrative that portrayed Nouran as a narrator who demonstrated a clear and coherent rationale behind this marriage. For her, other solutions such as working, as a hairdresser, which was her job before she married her first husband, would keep her away from her daughter and expose her to a relatively foreign culture hence making her prone to exploitation and “degradation” as she described it. For her, marriage was the “safe” or “decent”, if not the obvious option in her situation, especially given that her child was her priority.
Here, I want to borrow from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s notable work: “Decolonizing Methodologies” (1999) where she, as a Maoiri scholar, drew the qualitative researcher’s attention to the fact that the word “research” itself is Western and might seem as a dirty word to many indigenous cultures who were sick of and suffered from previous fieldwork. At the core of her work are two overarching principles that were echoed in pursuing an anti-colonial approach to qualitative research. The first is reciprocity. Reciprocity in anti-colonial research is regarded as a defining factor in the relationship between the researcher and the researched. An anticolonial understanding extends beyond intense trust and mutuality to include accountability to the researched group through seeking guidance and feedback from them. The objective is to pursue a more egalitarian research experience which ensures that our interpretations are not made in isolation from the research participants. Egalitarianism here links back to the idea of viewing the participants as experts and constantly striving to minimize positions of inequality between the researcher and the researched. That said, in an anti-colonial approach, the principle of reciprocity should be complemented by a second principle which is embracing Other(ed) ways of knowing.
By embracing other(ed) ways of knowing, I am not only referring to respecting or recognizing the participant’s or the Other’s –to borrow Edward Said’s language in Orientalism (1978)– underprivileged discourse. Rather, an anti-colonial approach will require expanding the researcher’s imagination to include other theoretical explanations and methodological tools that could help us understand the Other’s experience. This approach extends beyond ‘reporting back’ to the participants to include adopting their worldviews and ways of knowing in understanding and defining the research problem, conceptualizing the theoretical and methodological notions we are using, designing the project, and analyzing the finding. By reflecting on my own shortcoming as a product of a colonized and Western-centric environment and by actively seeking to rebalance the power relation between me and my respondent through reframing the questions to be directed to an “expert” not a mere witness or a victim, I was able to push the boundaries of my project towards rethinking central notions such as liberal v. moral agency, victimhood v. vulnerability and malleable and non-Western embodiments of marriage. Decolonizing reflexivity, thus, extends beyond one’s position and positionality to include how their approach is replicating or reinforcing colonial assumptions. Questions such as: Is my research grounded in binaries? Is my research promoting a polarized (either/or) and a stereotyped perception of the other (as opposed to the self)? And above all, is my research contributing to social justice and attempting to offer a platform for the (indigenous or subaltern) participants from which they can speak? All these questions, I propose, are central to a decolonizing approach and should guide our ongoing reflexivity during the fieldwork, throughout the research project, and particularly during the writing and interpretation phases.
Anim-Addo, J., & Gunaratnam, Y. (2013). Secrets and Lies: Narrative Methods at the Limits of Research. Journal of Writing in Creative Practice 5(3): 383-396.
Bischoping, K., & Gazso, A. (2016). Analyzing Talk in the Social Sciences: Narrative, Conversation & Discourse Strategies. Thousand Oaks: Sage
Clarke, L. H. (2003). Overcoming Ambivalence: The Challenges of Exploring Socially Charged Issues. Qualitative Health Research 13(5): 718-735.
Halai, N. (2007). Making Use of Bilingual Interview Data: Some Experiences from the Field. The Qualitative Report 12(3): 344-355.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism: Western representations of the Orient. New York: Pantheon.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Vauxhall: Zed books.
Spivak, G.C. (1998). Can the Subaltern Speak?, in Nelson, C. & Grossberg, L. (eds.). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
 Dina Taha is a doctoral student in the department of Sociology and a graduate affiliate with the Center for Refugee Studies at York University. Her research interests include Critical Forced Migration and Refugee discourses, Critical methodologies, Gender in the Middle East, Victimhood and victimization, agency and survival strategies.
 Unregistered marriage