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Session Overview
4-SP002 - 2/2: Emotionally Engaged: Reflecting Upon Researchers’ Positionality - 2/2
Tuesday, 06/July/2021:
3:30pm - 4:45pm

Session Chair: Prof. An Ansoms, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium

Session Abstract

Research interacts with and has an impact upon the field in which it is grounded. The literature engages with discussing ethical and epistemological dimensions of research. It also increasingly invites researchers to reflect upon their own positionality. However, social scientists are badly trained when it comes to talk about the emotionality that their research generates. When doing research on topics such as solidarity, peace and social justice (or the lack thereof), these emotional challenges may be all the more profound. We invite papers that reflect upon researchers’ positionality in relation to their research life, and the emotionality embedded within their trajectory. Contributions in the form of draft papers will reflect upon the ways in which researchers’ own emotionality interacts with their engagement as a scientist and – potentially – as an activist.

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Emotional Challenges of Teaching in Time of Global Ecological Crisis

Emmanuelle Piccoli

Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium

Our paper will address the emotional challenges for an educator in development studies when teaching about today’s ecological crisis. The severity of climate change (IPCC: 2014, 2018 and 2019a and b) and of the destruction of ecosystems (IPBES, 2019), coupled with the difficulties to address these issues globally, radically questions the ideology of progress, growth and development and forces us to face the possibility of global disasters (Latour, 2016).

Development studies have long been confronted with injustice and inequality, but the extent of the risk of collapse of the thermo-industrial society is unprecedented. Therefore, how to adapt our teaching methods, while taking into account the severity of the problem? At the same time, how to make sure that students will be able to cope with the negative emotions caused by the awakening? How to rethink the pedagogy of courses and programs that take up this challenge?

To do this, thinking about our own emotional challenges as educators is crucial. Indeed, the teacher can indeed himself be affected with eco-anxiety (Albrecht 2005, Bourque & Willox 2014, Doherty & Clayton 2011, Kelly 2019). Emotions related to the ecological crisis can be compared with a form of mourning. They may affect the core of our identity and the way in which we project our future. Furthermore, the educator has to equip him- or herself with the necessary skills to engage with students’ emotions, and the reactions they bring about. Hamilton and Sturt (2019) indicate that such emotions may entail three reactions: denial (denial of facts and emotions), maladaptive coping strategies (acceptance of certain facts, but negation of others for emotional comfort), and relevant coping strategies (able to cope with emotions and propose coherent responses).

In order to encourage our students to engage with relevant adaptation strategies, we need to adapt our teaching practices. In this presentation, I will offer an in-depth perspective how, in a general courses on developement, I engaged with this challenge. The course is oriented to Master Students in Developement Studies, bringing together a quite diverse public of nationalities.

Overall, my experience has shown that creating space for emotions within the classroom is a necessary precondition for their acceptance and transformation (Mikolajczak, 2014). Offering them scientific material concentrated on presenting the data of the ecological crisis is crucial, but has to be accompanied with a fundamental reflection on how to absorb and engage with this material. I explain how assignments with space for personal reflections, and collective class assignments using collective intelligence tools may further deepen the process of knowledge absorption. Furthermore – and in line with authors who suggest that concrete action is the best way to face the crisis and avoid depression (Macy & Johnstone 2012, Chapel, Servigne & Stevens, 2018) – I engage students in action-oriented activities. Part of the course sessions include fieldwork with people engaging with different forms of resilience, in a variety of perspectives. Collectively, we also engage with artistic expressions in order to offer a counter-narrative to modernization, without falling in a depressive collapsology. Oral tradition and artistic expressions may help to provide alternative narratives (Haraway, 2016, Tsing, 2017). They are important tools to approach reality in a new way at the time of global ecological and climate crises.

The Forgotten Dimension Of Research In Eastern Congo: The Psychological Impact On The Researcher

Alice Jandrain1, Fergus Oleary Simpson2

1University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies; 2University of Antwerp, Institute of Development Policy

As the Cold War came to an end and it seemed that the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1992) was within sight, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) descended into two of the most devastating wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2002) in Africa’s history. The initial ‘spark’ for these conflicts was ignited in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, and its impacts on the Kivu Provinces to the east of DRC. These Provinces continue to be affected by protracted instability, primarily due to the presence of numerous armed groups and bandits .

The Congolese state is considered by many commentators to be a failed state. Public services are virtually invisible, while insecurity has become an unavoidable facet of daily life. Other commentators highlight the predatory nature of the Congolese state: the way in which individuals accumulate economic rent from the country’s impressive natural resource base, yet with little redistribution back to the population (Berwouts 2017). As a result of these and other factors, the people of Congo exist in a state perpetual violence – physical violence, structural violence, and the slow violence of environmental change (Nixon, 2011).

Travelling and conducting research in such a context involves risks, the most obvious being those concerning physical security: kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, arrest, incarceration and worse still. Researchers also experience hazards of a more psychological nature: the ever present threat of violence, harassment, financial and emotional manipulation, and more traumatic shocks. This context of insecurity has caused both the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the British Foreign Office to list eastern Congo as a 'red zone' – that is, an area in which they discourage even essential travel.

Faced with this situation, European universities have responded in multiple ways. Some simply refuse to allow researchers to work in eastern Congo, while others choose not to issue insurance. In both our cases, we have been fortunate to have funding bodies, the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research and the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), that have allowed our research to proceed. However, this does not mean our work is free of risk; the opposite is true.

Despite the continued dangers of conducting research in North and South Kivu, we believe that the topic of ‘risk’ remains woefully underappreciated, let alone discussed, among many academics working in these areas. This attitude goes in stark contrast to how both humanitarian and military institutions now approach the context of eastern DRC. We believe that the silence among academics is partly a result of fear – fear that they will be denied access to the field if they admit to what really goes on there. In many cases this concern is a valid one. However, the only way for us to improve this situation – in terms of the objectivity of our data, our safety, the emotional impact of our work, the quality of our lives – is bring this conversation out into the open.

With the aim of empowering a more frank (yet emotionally engaged) discussion about risk, this presentation will address the psychological impacts of our field experiences. Acknowledging our positionality as Europeans, we will focus on the emotional consequences of moving from one setting to another: i.e., from a relatively secure environment to a violent environment. In addition, we will explore these challenges of the field on a relational level, regarding human relationships, trust and managing expectations about the impacts of our research. We will also consider how these challenges affect our ability to conduct objective research, as well as the impact this has on our data and analysis.

Stuck Inside: The Emotional Challenges Of Researchers In Conflict Zones

An Ansoms

Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium

This paper will be ‘researching the researcher’, to analyse the nature and intensity of ethical and emotional challenges that researchers face when working in conflict settings. (1) We illustrate how the literature on research ethics in conflict zones is currently largely dominated by a Eurocentric focus upon the ‘mainstream’ researcher. In adopting a reflexive view upon research ethics as a continuously negotiated process, we search for ways to de-moralise and de-colonise the field of research ethics by giving a voice to intensely-engaged researchers working in conflict zones whose struggles are not (sufficiently) considered in the mainstream literature on research ethics. (2) We shed light on the complex ways in which researchers’ emotionality is shaped by and interacts with ethical dilemmas; and analyse the role of emotionality in researchers’ navigation within personal and professional trajectories. (3) We place the field of research ethics and emotionality into the epistemological lens (together and in interaction with theoretical, conceptual and methodological choices) that determines the nature, direction, and validity of the process of knowledge production in conflict and post-conflict studies.

The paper will focus in particular upon the author's own experience with research in the Great Lakes Region in Africa, and upon interviews with other researchers working in this region.

Is The Personal Really Political?:Understanding Emotional Positionality

Nita Mishra

University College Cork, Ireland

This paper reflects upon my journey as a development studies’ researcher for more than two decades. While most of it was written as poetry others were jotted down in personal journals to be revisited. Giving it a form through writing for this panel provides the journal notes with a framework and is an important way of organising thoughts around the subject of emotional positionality of the researcher.

The stories are drawn from field-visits for different development projects such as literacy, child labour in the carpet industry, development-induced displacement of indigenous peoples, migration, women’s rights, poverty and others. The time-period is between mid-1990s to the present and covers my role as a researcher. The methods used for the various projects ranged from door-to-door survey, questionnaires, observations, to participatory observations and interviews (in-depth and open-ended). The methodology followed to write this paper is primarily content analysis of the journal notes and poems I have written and preserved over the two decades. I carefully selected verses and poems to re-situate myself in that context and reflect upon my own emotional positionality. I then linked it to the papers published, reports of the projects, workshops and conferences associated with the project to assess the impact on the output and outcome of the "emotionally positioned researcher" [i.e., myself]. In the conclusion I have discussed emerging concerns from the learnings of the process.

While the main challenges revolved around critiques of objectivity in the research including findings, the learnings from the research process were as follows:

  • These are my narratives. At every turn I found the need to situate myself in the field-context. It was imperative that I link with participants as a woman who understood their lives and wanted to be understood as well.
  • It has been a coping strategy one might say. A healing process others may reason. A story within a story perhaps. Whatever it was, or is, it had to be written. For myself. Because if I did not write it, I could not have dealt with it as a researcher or as a human.
  • This process led me to write poetry on the different subjects which have been published in peer-reviewed feminist and development journals and migrant reports.
  • I strongly feel this is an empowering process for both the researcher and the respondent engaged in the research process. It c is dynamic and can go unseen and absent otherwise.

As it was then for me, it is now for the wider discourse on development studies, stories which need to be told and shared.

Reflecting on the Emotions in Activism– The Challenge and Possibility of a Critically Engaged Activist Research

Yi-Chin Wu

Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom

This article emerges from my experiences and reflections while conducting ethnographic fieldwork with indigenous activists and communities in Southeast Asia. In a politically violent environment, the fear produced by violence and distrust fomented through rumours and propagandas profoundly shape everyday practices of the people in different levels. As a researcher, although direct confrontation or physical violence were seldom met in my experience, the pervasive sense of surveillance in daily life leads me to self-censor my research project and products to avoid potential risks to my informants and to myself. Emotions were created by different forms of violence and come into play as a powerful tool to obfuscate reality, as well as control and shape subjectivities perceived by the people and the researchers. Nevertheless, fear was not the only emotion produced by my encounter with state surveillance and violence, anger was also extensively triggered while facing violence and confrontation from the state force. In an environment where the researchers and research participants are both subject to violence, conducting a ‘critically engaged activist research’ is challenging as the anger pushed me into ‘taking side’ and, in my experience, engaging more in activism. Instead of critically examining the practices of activism, I shifted my focus into condemning and ‘fighting’ against the repressive authority. Hence, in this paper, I attempt to elaborate the challenges of conducting a ‘critically engaged activist research’ in a politically violent environment and discuss how the reflection of our emotions could possibly contribute in activism both theoretically and practically.

Emotions As Part Of The Research Process

Mariasole Pepa

University of Padua, Italy

“Whether we like it or not, researchers remain human beings complete with all the usual assembly of feelings, failings, and moods” (Stanley and Wise, 1993, 157). Conducting research is an ongoing process of learning, evaluation, failure and reconsideration. The role of researchers’ own emotionality is even bigger when the researcher directly confront to these who are researched. Ethnographic methodology such as fieldwork, case study, and participant observation allows to capture less visibly dynamic of the “everyday” life. However, this also expose the researcher with daily encounter with people that have their emotions, culture, values and conceptions. Much of what is happening while conducting fieldwork is not discussed in the academia. As a young researcher, I engaged with realities where my emotions and background shaped my perspectives. My positionality as a feminist critical geographer has been questioned and challenged. Researchers’ own involvement and emotionality is still something that supposedly can be avoid or at least should not happened. As a researcher on China-Africa agricultural cooperation, my research project led me around China and Tanzania and gave me the opportunity to conduct formalinformal interviews with a different range of people from farmers, students, academics, to governmental officials and ambassadors. Despite my academic knowledge about my area of research, I entered into the daily life of people and they entered into mine. For instance, while living in China I lived every day the struggles of millions of students like me that are competing in the University to then reach a good job position, and help their family back home. When I was younger, I did not have to experience many of their fears. At the University, I was free to choose wherever I like to study without any pressure. Many of my beliefs around sustainability, climate changes, and social justice have been questioned more than one time. I understood that my life as a researcher was not just simply relative to my research project, but many of the experiences changes my self behind my role as a researcher. This is to say that as a young researcher I suppose that there is an urgent need that we openly speak in our research not just about the ethics and findings but about the reality of our emotions. It is the time in the academia that involvement and emotion are aspects that do not have to be neglected but seriously reconsidered. This paper aimed to raise the importance of emotions as a part of the research process that should be openly debated instead of omitted. Emotions, involvement, and experiences are part of human being and as well of research life even more when it comes to themes related to solidarity or social (in)justice. Rethinking holistically about the researchers’s life means to make of emotions a present part of the research process. As a young researcher, I would argue that it comes the time to reconsider seriously the researchers’s emotionality and to give to experience and emotions the same relevance that we give to theory.

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