The importance of self-reflection in research

Alongside a group of my fellow study colleagues at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences I, Gabrielle Tillberg, was given the opportunity, thanks to the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI), to attend the Nordic Africa Days 2016 held in Uppsala, Sweden. Nordic Africa Days is a biannual conference organized by the Nordic Africa Institute which attracts researchers and scholars from every corner of the world. This year the theme of the conference was “Gender and change: global challenges for Africa.”

So how was it to attend such a global and far-reaching conference as a first-time visitor? Well, to put it short – extremely inspiring. The conference consisted of multiple panel discussions taking place simultaneously covering a wide range of topics. In addition, two exceptional keynote speeches were given. The four panels I attended were; “African Spring?”; “Agrarian questions and large-scale land investments: lessons for SDGs”; “We must all be feminists: Confronting feminisms from African points of view” and “Legitimacy, family and political power in East Africa, ca 1800 to present”.

Photo credit: ~Morgin~ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Interesting as they all turned out to be, I want to recap one of the keynote speeches, given by Maria Eriksson Baaz. She gave a captivating and engaging speech about how scholars within gender studies are themselves sometimes subject to their own assumptions and desires about gender and what it should be, which in turn influence the choice of research participants and subsequently whose voice is given credit. Maria Eriksson Baaz is a senior researcher and associate professor at the Nordic Africa Institute since 2010 and her research areas cover conflict and post-conflict. She has an impressive track record of publications and over the recent years her research has focused on sexual violence in conflicts, primarily in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In her introduction, Baaz explained how she set out to give a slightly different speech this time by not focusing on research results but rather on researchers themselves. She revealed how she experienced “buying into” a story of an interviewee while investigating masculinities of armed soldiers when the story turned out to be somewhat inaccurate in retrospect. This man, from DRC, who had been fighting in the armed conflict, claimed he had been forced into military service. He painted a picture of himself as a victim being forced into armed service. Later on Baaz learn that he, in fact, had voluntarily signed up for it. This led her to reflect upon how and why her own assumptions and desires made her uncritically trust the witness story.

What Baaz emphasized in part, was how witness stories are “performances informed by various interests”. She argued that not problematizing around testimonies of victimacy, i.e. interviewing victims of violence, might in part be due to her own agenda and ideas as a post-colonial scholar. She recognized this lead her to be less critical of the testimonies she was hearing. She explained how there are some self-evident “truths” in some branches of gender studies, e.g. women’s violence in conflict and men as victims, which can drive a wish to find evidence in accordance with these “truths”. As a result this might lead scholars to hold an uncritical view of men’s stories about victimhood, e.g. having been forced into armed conflicts. This had been the case in her own research. She explained how “it fitted so well with what we wanted to see”. The gist of Baaz’s keynote speech was to highlight how various gender assumptions and desires shape whose voice scholars pay attention to. This creates a divide between what scholars want to hear and what they don’t want to hear. Most importantly she pointed out how this insight is rarely acknowledged and even less so discussed amongst scholars themselves.

I was intrigued to be presented this reflection of how research methods are shaped by personal agendas and preconceived ideas. It can play a central part in directing the evidence. Of course, one can argue that it is common knowledge that researchers are “regular” people and hence can never be truly objective in their work, but Baaz went beyond the surface of this consensus. She shared a deeper reflection on the importance of problematizing testimonies in field research. Even if researchers are aware of their innate biases as human beings, the awareness itself it is not always sufficient in practice – they can still end up being subject to them if they do not carefully scrutinize and question their methods.

Of course, I cannot escape thinking how this also relates to researchers in adjacent fields and particularly within agriculture and food security. What preconceived ideas about food security and agriculture for development play into researchers work of finding evidence and discussing solutions to global issues of starvation and malnutrition? According to the World Bank, three out of four poor people living in low-income countries reside in rural areas and largely depend on agriculture as their livelihood. Hence, a self-reflective approach suggests that researchers ought to be careful not to generalize about how to deal with such issues and challenges. Otherwise, it might lead to research findings that are more in line with researchers’ own subconscious agenda, as Baaz put it, rather than what furthers the work of combating global challenges.

Photo credit: Stuart via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

I believe we could all benefit from every once in a while, questioning what we do, how we do it and why we run ashore with a particular consensus. It is a refreshing insight and more importantly a constructive one. Thank you, Maria, for raising questions I will contemplate for a long time ahead.

To all of you who did not get the opportunity to hear Maria’s speech– do not despair – it was recorded and is available on the Nordic Africa Institute's YouTube channel and at the end of this blog. Do yourselves a favor and watch it. Lastly, I want to thank SIANI for giving me the opportunity to attend Nordic Africa Days 2016.

Gabrielle is currently an intern at the Africa Department at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs working with West Africa and Horn of Africa. She is a former student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and holds a bachelor degree in Business and Economics from the Stockholm School of Economics with a major in economics. In 2015 she conducted a field study in Tanzania investigating how financial literacy affects repayment among microcredit clients.

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