Photo/Stories from the field: Ethics and place

Ethics and place

In Hyderabad, we usually go on a spree of doing fieldwork in hot summer, as that’s the time schools shut down for long vacation. On a day the temperature was running as high as 45’c in the afternoon, we were up for a visit to Bhavana, one of our research participants that lives in a deprived neighbourhood in the midst of the city. While travelling by taxi, my colleague Madhavi and I realised that even an air-conditioned car was not good enough to withstand the heat. It was terribly hot outside. We reached Bhavana’s house at around 2 pm. The appointment was fixed few days back in consent with Bhavana and her father, so we were hoping that the family might be waiting for us to arrive. To our surprise, we have seen the entire family sleeping on the floor when we reached Bhavana’s house. The door was not closed and there was no curtain too, so the family members sleeping inside the house were visible from outside. The family lives in a tiny, unfinished, asbestos covered concrete house that is partitioned into two door-free rooms out of which a room is converted for multi-utility: living cum bedroom and also a place to run a home-based petty shop. So, one can imagine how congested that place would be for a family of six to sleep.

We called Bhavana’s name mildly. Hearing our voice, her father and mother got up in hastiness and then by seeing us they hurried waking up their children too. Apparently, Bhavana’s two elder brothers appeared to be annoyed with them (I was sure they might be irritated by our untimely presence too) and they slowly made a move out of sight in ire. I don’t know where they had gone but they just left home half sleep. Bhavana’s father said the family attended a wedding previous day so the entire family was awake till late night. He was on a self-explanatory mode on describing why they were taking a nap after lunch. Bhavana didn’t even look at us and she went out straightway to wash her face. I don’t remember where her mother had gone. The situation was very embarrassing for us and I felt very bad for affecting the rhythm of their family life.

This is not the only family or this is not a one-off event with this family that we encountered such an awkward moment in our 18 months of fieldwork. In fact, we have seen on other occasions the television being switched off with some discontentment midway through watching a movie; the people resting in the room had been cleared off; siblings of our respondents had been told to sit quiet or get of out of home in order to give some private moments for us with our research child. From what we observed, it’s obvious that our presence has created some discomfort to the entire family members and they had been subtly forced to adjust their routines so as to accommodate us in their lives. Even with the best of our efforts, we couldn’t avoid such uncomfortable situations.

It’s common knowledge that doing research requires some sort of privacy to comply with various methodological and ethical frameworks. In contrast, rather than working with the child alone, as expected, most of the times we ended up working with the entire family and/or with siblings, mainly because the physical space was the constraint for some families in Hyderabad. Privacy, a prerequisite for confidentiality, was always looked like a challenge in some settings especially where the living space for the entire family was minuscule or the social bond in the community was very high that the members of the community don’t bother to walk-in to others’ place without appointment or approval. In her fieldwork with young childless mothers in Kerala, India, Riessman (2005) illustrates how she struggled to convince local people about privacy in conducting interviews and eventually her expectation of confidentiality was forsaken.

Much of the literature on research ethics in social sciences, especially childhood research, engages with issues around access, gatekeepers, consent/assent, privacy, anonymity, confidentiality, risk, harm, recognition, ownership/authorship and so on, and those topics are discussed mainly at the individual level. But, what we had experienced in our fieldwork is our continued on-going negotiation of access in terms of physical space with the group, i.e. the entire family – the child, siblings, parents and others if it was an extended/joint family. The practical problems posed in reality suggest that the ethical issues we faced in the field are far from the ‘ideal’, especially when the ethical frameworks are exported.

Such ethical complexities also instigates us to think about doing research from the utilitarian point of view – why the entire family needed to be troubled just for the sake of doing research with a member of the family? At the time of sampling recruitment, we negotiated our access only with our participants and then with their parents as gatekeepers but not with others in the family. So, it’s obvious that as researchers we are wielding power over the family in a surreptitious way. We not only enter into the life of a child but also to the domain of the family life to some extent.

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