PhD fieldwork in developing countries – The issue of time

Howes, Andrew; Grimes, Peter; Lopez, Ana Luisa; Esteban, Prudencia Gutiérrez; Shohel, M. Mahruf C.; Neff, Daniel and Ramsden, Adrian (2006). PhD fieldwork in developing countries – The issue of time. In: BAICE Conference 2006: Diversity and Inclusion, 8-10 Sep 2006, Queen's University, Belfast.



Educational field research in developing country contexts often exposes the fragility of mutual understanding and the tensions of diversity between researchers and those with whom they are researching. Postgraduate researchers face particular challenges arising from their lack of experience, and from the focused, individual nature of their enquiry. Logistical, emotional and ethical issues present themselves, even for researchers studying their cultures of origin. This paper seeks to learn some lessons from the experiences of a group of researchers doing fieldwork in developing countries for the first time, as part of their PhD.
A review of the literature around fieldwork reveals substantially conflicting guidance for field researchers. Practical tips (Robson et al, 1991; Nash, 2000) contrast with the writings of anthropologists such as Geertz (1988), Rosaldo (1993) or Scheper-Hughes (1992), suggesting unavoidable complexities in terms of ethics, the building and maintenance of relationships, and the perceptions of both the researcher and those with whom he or she is researching.
The experiences of a group of individual PhD field researchers form the central section of the paper, making use of a framework in which each sets out to explore examples of the relationships between the person of the researcher; the activities of the research, and a central but easily-overlooked feature of the field: the issue of time. These relationships are seen to impact on the nature of the main and often contentious object of academic research, data: its nature, its validity and reliability; or more broadly, on the development of a deeper understanding of individuals and institutions. Part of the power of these examples lies in the range of contexts and individuals represented. Activity theory is used as a basic framework through which to interrogate these experiences.
Finally, the arguments of literature are challenged and developed in relation to these experiences, leading to some propositions but also exploring some critical questions, to form a useful basis for further discussion. The experiences of the authors might be of interest to other researchers doing fieldwork in the developing world.

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