Negotiating Boundaries and Borders: Volume 8

Cover of Negotiating Boundaries and Borders

Table of contents

(13 chapters)

The previous seven volumes of Studies in Qualitative Methodology have brought together papers focusing on particular themes within the conduct, analysis and representation of qualitative research. Throughout, the emphasis has been on foregrounding new ideas, approaches and challenges to qualitative enquiry. In Vol. 8 while the general objective of high quality, innovative and critical contributions remains constant, our emphasis has shifted slightly. In this volume the chapters focus on one topic, that is the application of qualitative approaches to research within the field of Development.

The spatial and often binary orderings of development discussed above have underpinned the dominant formations of development knowledge and the configuration of whose authority counts in development decisions and debates. Since these orderings of knowledge, authority and space are a pivotal feature of development, it is important that qualitative researchers engage with and challenge them. The contributions by Humble and Smith and by Yanacopulos challenge the construction of development research along North/South lines. Exploring what counts as development research, Humble and Smith note a geographical orientation towards research in the South to the exclusion of other approaches, informed by the historical influence of colonialism, the anthropological tradition and an increasing de-politicisation of development. This spatial filtering privileges certain sets of development knowledge and hence conceptions of what development is or should be. Drawing on their experiences of research with NGOs and in UK schools the authors make the case for critical engagement with the meanings of development in the North, challenging the traditional boundaries of what counts as development research. Yanacopulos, in Chapter 3, also takes up this challenge, but in this case arguing that we need to “think about the ways that development actors, structures and dynamics operate at a global level” (p. 35). Focusing on the rise of Transnational Advocacy Networks (TANs) and their roles in development, Yanacopulos explores the methodological challenges of researching a potentially fluid formation across national boundaries. But in doing so, she also demonstrates the important role qualitative methodologies can play in generating new understandings which challenge the North/South boundaries of development.

This chapter explores what counts as research on development and argues for a challenge to conceptions which continue to define it geographically rather than systemically. It is argued that, despite an apparent openness and fluidity, qualitative research on development tends to be understood as referring to ‘field research’ in the South.1 This can constrain the boundaries of development research, what is understood to be development and also the critical capacity of qualitative approaches to development. Challenging the traditional definitions and boundaries of development research will open spaces for critical analysis and research, which can reshape development theory. It also allows for engagement with the widening set of practices, policies and social relations which have a bearing on development, but which have so far been largely excluded from qualitative research on development. However, for qualitative research to play a critical role in challenging these boundaries, we need to acknowledge the roles qualitative research on development already plays and has played, and the ways this is shaped by the contemporary and historical contexts, traditions and preoccupations of development research.

Development has always been a global project. Since its inception, the construction of the development industry has been a project of ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds, the ‘developed’ and the ‘under-developed’, the ‘north’ and the ‘south’ – one defined against the other. As Crush (1995, p. 5) states, “this industry is itself implicated in the operation of networks of power and domination that, in the twentieth century, have come to encompass the entire globe”. As development is a global project, it is necessary for us to think about the ways in which development actors, structures and dynamics operate at a global level. One of the more remarkable aspects of the development industry is the rise of networks in general, and of transnational advocacy networks (TANs) in particular. Networks have altered the development industry landscape, with development agencies and organisations utilising the network form.

What is discussed in this chapter is work-in-progress, an opportunity for reflection upon elements of an on-going research project examining the lives of street children in Accra, Ghana. Street children have received much research in recent years but our project is, we believe, distinctive in two respects. The first of these is that access to reliable data on the growing presence of children on the streets of African cities is often problematic. Available research is often diffuse and hard to access, it is more often than not driven by the short-term requirements of specific programmes and interventions and as a consequence can be lacking in depth, rigour and innovation. Without the means to provide a sufficiently self-conscious and critical engagement with accepted understandings of the lives of street children, consideration of the experience of street children in Africa continues to rely heavily on the more capacious and better disseminated research from the Americas (e.g., Mickelson, 2000). At the very least, Africa's specific experience of large population displacements, diversity of family forms, rapid urbanisation, vigorous structural adjustment and internal conflict raise important questions about the appropriateness of such ready generalisations. Judith Ennew (2003, p. 4) is clear that caution is needed in an uncritical endorsement of the “globalisation of the street child based on Latin American work”. She is equally mindful, however, that as far as Africa is concerned the absence of reliable evidence continues to hinder debate.

When I began to think about this chapter, and to consider the impact of negotiating boundaries in my recent PhD research, there were a number of pertinent issues which could be understood in terms of ‘boundaries’. This chapter therefore considers the negotiation of multiple boundaries, in both the research process and the outcomes of development research. Using the case study example of research with a group of grassroots women health promoters, I explore the ways that adopting a qualitative feminist methodological approach served to unsettle boundaries within development research and development practice. As a feminist researcher, one of my key preoccupations has been negotiating and making visible issues of power and positionality in the research process, conceptualised here in terms of a series of boundaries. As this is something with which feminist researchers have struggled for over 20 years (see, e.g., Oakley, 1981; Acker, Barry, & Esseveld, 1983), I do not claim to offer any solutions to these issues, but rather this chapter will provide a discussion of how these dynamics and dilemmas were played out in the context of my own fieldwork. England (1994) highlights the importance of reflecting on the position of the researcher, and her role in the research process, as an integral part of producing qualitative research, and Rose (1997) suggests that this reflexivity should lookboth ‘inward’ to the identity of the researcher, and ‘outward’ in her relation to her research and what is described as ‘the wider world’. (Rose, 1997, p. 309)

Anyone attempting to write anything on the subject of development has to immediately confront the inherently contested and normative nature of the concept. Such have been the conceptual, theoretical, methodological and substantive debates over development that it has been seen as a concept, and indeed field of studies, in crisis: its aims, agents and unit of development have been questioned and challenged (Pieterse, 2001, Chapter 1). Development is ‘an idea, an objective and an activity’ (Kothari & Minogue, 2002, p. 12) that consequently gives rise to debates over theory, policies and aims. As Pieterse and Kothari and Minogue go on to argue, such debates cannot be separated from relationships of power and the different paradigms and ideologies that shape intellectual discussion, stakeholder perspectives and decisions in policy-making institutions.

[L]ife has become increasingly dangerous in the erratically moving river. The relatively closed circles of development agents may turn into dangerous vortices. Promises are empty, concrete practices of implementation lose their meaning. All of a sudden everything seems to be in a mess, and any kind of order seems to have been lost. (Quarles van Ufford, 1999, p. 292)

I stood in a pile of putrefying rubbish refusing to move until somebody called the dog off. At the same time, trying (quickly) to decide on the ethical issues of throwing rocks at a research participant's dog. These, for me, are the practical realities of fieldwork. It's dusty, it's hot, it's Lima, Peru, and we have spent all afternoon climbing through the gravel hills of San Gabrielle, Villa Maria looking for people willing to participate in my research. The accents are from all over Peru and for some Spanish is as much their second language as it is mine. Some people have been busy, some asleep, all the people have been women – and there have been a lot of angry dogs. I feel a long way from the neat methodology written back in England, which certainly did not make any mention of aggressive dogs, let alone the ethics of dealing with them.

Change is integral to the concept of development. Research in the development process is therefore implicitly, if not explicitly, directed to achieving change. What is important is how far development researchers see themselves as agents of change. In some cases they are helped by methodologies such as action research and participatory action research (PAR) that have change as integral to the research design. However for qualitative research methods in general there is no necessary connection with change. In fact, for many qualitative methods the aim of the researcher is to have as little impact on the research process and the people being researched as possible. In much ethnographic work, the research scene is to be represented in as “natural” a way as possible. This is very different from the development context where a process of change is assumed to be ongoing, or is encouraged to be so. The role of the researcher in relation to change has become even more marked with the advent of more participatory approaches to development. Research participants are no longer seen as passive objects of research but as active agents in creating their own knowledge and action.

Development organisations today are faced with a new set of challenges around the use of research. They are charged with generating credible knowledge, moving it around, using it in policy, and acting on it in partnership with others. Several Northern and Southern development NGOs are attempting to shift from being “service providers” to “knowledge brokers”, for example, in the quest to find new roles and relevance for themselves (Lewis & Wallace, 2000). There has thus been a lot of focus recently on the relationship between research, policy, and practice. Many questions within this field centre on how development organisations can use research in practice, in their work. In this chapter, however, I wish to turn the question around and ask: how does the research fare when it is done on development organisations themselves? And what is the relationship between research and practice in that situation?

The challenge of dealing with qualitative data is becoming ever more important for development organisations, as they strive to reflect critically on both their own practice and the work of others. They are under growing pressure to account for their actions to donors, to demonstrate their impact and to provide evidence as the basis for their policy decisions. This pressure arises from donors, states, the media and from the communities among whom they work.

Cover of Negotiating Boundaries and Borders
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Studies in Qualitative Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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