Dilemmas of fieldwork: some (personal) reflections on collecting data in Cambodia

Dr Natalia Szablewska
Southern Cross University (Australia)
Adjunct Professor at the Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law, English Language Based Bachelor of Law, Royal University of Law and Economics (Cambodia)

As a social scientist, I have been keen on field research because – to paraphrase Corbin and Strauss (2008) – it allows me ‘to step beyond the known and enter into the world of participants, to see the world from their perspective’. What I mean by ‘fieldwork’ is to collect data through face-to-face interactions with people in an environment close to their natural setting, which might involve in-depth or informal interviews, group discussions, participant observation, or a combination thereof.

Field research is predominantly associated with anthropological and cultural studies (as what they study has a perfect fit for this type of research) and was propagated by one the founding fathers of British social anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942). However, in more recent years, fieldwork has been gaining in popularity in other areas, including conflict management and peace studies. There is no denying that this research method is time-consuming and can be challenging (both professionally and personally), in addition to being potentially dangerous for the researcher and/or the study participants. Over the years, I have heard numerous stories from fellow fieldworkers, especially those working in conflict zones, of the perils of being involved in this type of research. It begs a question then, is it all worth it?

The answer depends on the context and the purpose of the research study; from my own experience, I would not encourage fieldwork just for the ‘sake of it’ or to make one’s research look more ‘scientific’. Not only that fieldwork requires considerable time, effort and resource commitment, but it also places significant responsibility on the researcher as it involves gaining trust of the study communities or groups and that can lead to certain expectations, including of impact and value of such research, beyond the typical ones placed on any researcher.

Moreover, working across cultures – in addition to the obvious expectations relating to how data is collected and then represented (ie post-fieldwork representation) – involves additional ethical considerations that need to be closely considered before embarking on this journey. This is particularly true when one researches vulnerable communities where the power imbalance (between researcher or academic community and researched) is more likely, which makes informed consent particularly relevant. In such situations, securing ‘consent’ at the start of the study is often not sufficient; rather, it should be an ongoing consideration throughout and upon finalising the research project to account for the complex power dynamics  (see also Miller & Bell, 2002).

Despite the challenges, I perceive fieldwork to be not only an important aspect of my socio-legal methodology, but also important for my professional development as a researcher. My research has involved fieldwork in various countries and with varied communities. I have learnt a lot from those I have encountered on these travels, and it has exposed many of my pre-existing assumptions, which I believe might have been left unchallenged if I conformed to desk research only. One such area of ongoing research has been in relation to sex workers, and sex-work in more general, in Cambodia.

I have been involved in a number of research projects in Cambodia for over four years now and each time I travel there I find it as fascinating and challenging as I did the first time. For the good or for the bad, fieldwork is a highly personal experience, making the separation of description from interpretation and judgment not always easy, even though it is crucial. As the validity of the findings and results depend on the researcher’s skill and guiding methodological framework, it is vital to gather different kinds of data (including secondary), as is also collecting information from different sources and perspectives.

One common criticism that is often raised in relation to an ‘outsider’ conducting research is just that: it is a significant barrier. It is true that an in-depth understanding of any culture is time consuming but, at the same time, it is not only limited to those who come from that culture (and I mean here both being non-Khmer and the subculture of sex-work). In fact, being from outside the system often allows us to see things that otherwise are taken for granted or remain unchallenged for being perceived to be part of that culture. Thus, I do not see it as a limitation but rather presenting a certain advantage that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and definitely not something that should discourage from undertaking cross-cultural or cross-country research.

The crux of fieldwork, however, is not merely about wanting to learn about the other, but about engaging in research to inform our knowledge, understanding and insight into certain phenomena; and that requires preparatory work and a clear research agenda. Firstly, any fieldwork must start by a thorough preparation (i.e. pre-fieldwork planning). This is not only in relation to organising how one travels and where one stays – which often can be more effortful and impactful on our research than initially envisaged ­– but predominantly in identifying informants and gaining access to them and the gatekeepers, which can be particularly challenging when there is a language barrier. In relation to my research in Cambodia, it is often believed that gaining access to sex workers is difficult and/or dangerous. This has not been my experience. In fact, many of these girls and women (and my research has been predominantly about female sex workers) are usually keen to talk, especially if that means, for example, practising their English-language skills; but one needs to respect the financial value of time.

To my knowledge, most human research ethics guidelines are clear that any work with human participants must benefit the researcher, the wider community but also the participants (see, e.g., Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, 2007). However, and despite the many benefits of researching sex-work, including the hardship, exploitation and abuse many of the sex workers experience, the direct benefits of academic research are relatively minuscule to this group. Thus, their involvement in a research study needs to be carefully considered before it is sought. Moreover, and irrespective of any potential benefits of the research, the cost of participation needs to be taken into account as well. Despite some general rules, context is relevant and thus it is not like, for example, in consumer marketing field research where participants are often rewarded with gift vouchers for their participation; interviewing sex workers in Cambodia hardly ever involves offering them vouchers to ‘Lucky’ (i.e. the biggest retailer in Cambodia) to recompense them for their time and effort. Therefore, their willingness to commit their time to our research, irrespective of how important or potentially beneficial it might be, should not be assumed or necessarily expected.

This leads to my next point, which is whether collecting primary data in forms of interviews (which is time and effort consuming for the participants) is always necessary. This decision is often not instigated by the research aims as such but rather by the fact that many academic journals require (directly or implied) that unless a submission contains findings based on some form of new primary data it is not of interest to them and their audiences. In that regard, I support the approach taken by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which requires that any need for primary data collection must be not only justified by the research agenda but it must also be shown that there is no already existing data that could be re-used for the purpose of that research (hence for ESRC-funded research, unless there are issues of confidentiality or security, metadata are made available for access by general public and re-use by other researchers).

There might be occasions when conducting more interviews with sex workers in Cambodia, or anywhere else for that matter, does not add substantively to our understanding or knowledge of the difficulties they face, their background or rationales for engaging in this type of work. The costs of collecting primary data thus become higher than the potential benefits, as it not only deviates their time with no direct financial or otherwise benefits to them, but also forces them to relive experiences that they may wish to suppress or silence. Qualitative research, especially empirical, seems to be frequently (overly) preoccupied with collecting ‘new’ primary data. But, and similarly as with quantitative studies where data are often re-used by different research teams and for various projects, I would argue that ‘re-using’ qualitative data can be as effective. It is the strength of the researcher’s interpretative skills that can make data see a new light without the need to engage the same groups in a similar type of research, which is of particular relevance when working with vulnerable communities. I do not advocate for not collecting primary data, on the contrary; but, and as I highlighted earlier, it must serve a particular purpose beyond simply the want to collect primary data.

Facing such an ethical dilemma during my last trip to Cambodia earlier this year, I decided to focus on observational methods and informal discussions with those that my research concerns instead, in an attempt to understand better the context within which sex-work and economic empowerment takes place in Cambodia today. I hope that by improving my own understanding of the context, my research can indeed represent better those it studies and their lives as ‘through travelling to other people’s “worlds” we discover that there are “worlds” in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects, lively beings, constructors of vision’ (Lugones, 1990, cited in Bradley & Szablewska, 2015).

Natalia Szablewska, with Clara Bradley, is a co-author of ‘Anti-Trafficking (Ill-)Efforts. The Legal Regulation of Women’s Bodies and Relationships in Cambodia’ (2015) 25(4) Social & Legal Studies 461-488.


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