Fieldwork in the Favelas

My fieldwork experience

For most of the 2013-2014 academic year, I conducted fieldwork in Brazil, working primarily in favela communities in the Northeast of the country. Through surveys and interviews with beneficiary families, I looked at the country’s flagship antipoverty programme, particularly the impacts for young beneficiaries and the possibilities the programme holds for facilitating long-term poverty reduction. The experience was both very rewarding and very challenging, but I ultimately learned a great deal about conducting research in difficult environments, project and team management, and of course about my research topic itself.

Brazil, and especially favela communities, is not a particularly easy environment in which to conduct research. The issues of poverty and inequality are highly politicised and working in poor communities poses a great deal of challenges. Accessing these communities can be difficult because of poor transportation links (or the inaccessibility of some parts to cars and buses) and because of the security situation in some favelas. Establishing what the local challenges and dangers were and then drawing on local knowledge as much as possible – from local news to contacts – was crucial to assessing what was both feasible and advisable in conducting my research.  Conditions could change quickly; therefore it was important to keep up on local developments. For example, during my fieldwork the police went on strike which resulted in the city shutting down within a couple of hours as everyone closes shop and returns home. Given that the strike lasted multiple days, and during that time, no businesses, shops, supermarkets etc. opened, having even an hour’s warning from local sources was crucial in handling the situation. Some key considerations of security in conducting fieldwork in favelas included: knowledge of the ways in which to negotiate access; distinguishing myself (and my research assistants) clearly as researchers (e.g., with name tags on lanyards that are typically used by researchers in Brazil); having the name of a local that we were meeting; ensuring appropriate dress, including avoiding colours associated with political parties; keeping only a small amount of money in a wallet to use for paying for bus fares etc. (that would not be a problem if lost/stolen); having emergency cash on hand, usually stashed in a separate place than a wallet (e.g., in the sole of a shoe); knowing the public transit system and having a list of trusted taxi drivers on hand to contact if public transportation was not feasible; only working during daylight hours; and leaving a record of where I was going, who I was meeting, what I was doing etc. with a family member or friend. When taking an unfamiliar taxi, I kept my phone tucked in my bag but with Google Maps open to track the taxi’s route, and mentioned something specific about the route to suggest I knew where I was going. A key element of staying safe is knowing the local culture. For example I didn’t take any photos in the favela’s as this would not have been well received and would have presented a risk to my personal safety (the photos are stock images of similar favelas).

While I had spent a considerable amount of time studying, researching, living and travelling in Brazil prior to my DPhil fieldwork and I was sufficiently proficient in Portuguese to conduct all my research in the language without the help of translators, working with local research assistants was tremendously helpful for both their local knowledge and the credibility they lent to the research. Working with research assistants meant I needed to think through the health and safety, ethical, and practical issues in fieldwork not only for myself but also for those working with me and for whom I was responsible. I made sure they had different SIM cards that they could use for fieldwork than their own (particularly as were contacting participants by phone) and had sufficient cash and emergency cash at all times; they also needed to adjust to the environment culturally even though they were Brazilian-the conditions and culture in favelas was very different from what they were used to.

Working with research assistants also brought additional challenges related to team management and data management, and the complexities of navigating the employer-employee relationship in a setting that involved different requirements and power dynamics than a typical professional relationship.  

Prior to going to Brazil I obtained health advice on vaccinations and health precautions not only for travel to Brazil but also for work in the favela environment. Mosquito bite avoidance measures were particularly important to guard against dengue (and of course zika virus is now a risk).

In all of these challenges, regular contact with both my supervisors and fellow DPhils doing fieldwork in other parts of the world was tremendously helpful. The intensity of working and living in a foreign environment, constantly functioning in a foreign language, and often with limited support systems can be thrilling but also exhausting. Taking a break every 3-4 months was particularly helpful in allowing myself the space both to step back to properly think through my research and data collection and make any necessary adjustments going forward, as well as to mentally and emotionally decompress from being in the field.

Fieldwork can be both exciting and daunting at various times, but with good preparation, the flexibility to adapt and continually assess the risks you and others (research assistants, research participants, or others) face in fieldwork, and a good support network (either in the field or accessible via skype/email etc.), it also provides innumerable opportunities to learn and to develop a range of skills and experiences that will be invaluable in the future, whether within or outside academia.

CHALLENGES

  • difficult and sometimes dangerous areas in which to conduct research
  • managing research assistants
  • needing to conduct research in a foreign language

PLANNING - risk assessment

  • local knowledge sources (contacts, news etc.); research local culture, transport systems, unsafe areas, have local contacts you trust and a list of trusted drivers
  • talk to local academics/researchers about standard practices; invest time in training; establish clear parameters and expectations around professional relationship and responsibilities; ensure an ongoing process of learning and feedback
  • language training; if proficient but not fully fluent, working with research assistants who can fill in small gaps in your language capacities; if not proficient, working with a translator

LESSONS LEARNED

  • With regard to personal safety, having a clear plan of where you are going, what you are doing, who you are seeing and leaving a record of that plan; actively manage your personal safety and avoid complacency.
  • As part of your risk assessment consider the safety of research assistants (or other employees). Be aware of the challenges they may face in their emotional responses and their perceptions of their own positionality as researchers but also as locals.
  • Think through how your research participants will perceive your research/questions/interviews etc., how to account for this, and how you can provide something in return, even if not tangible or of monetary value (e.g., sometimes having someone to listen to their life experiences can mean a lot for some research participants).
  • Taking time to let yourself mentally and emotionally process your fieldwork experiences and accept that this is not always a quick process.

FURTHER INFORMATION

A fact sheet on coping with secondary trauma, which includes reference to further training and resources, is available from the Social Sciences fieldwork pages. The student counselling service also offer an on line service for students away from Oxford.

Individual travel health advice can be obtained from  the University Travel Clinic. Country specific health advice can be obtained from Fit For Travel.

List of site pages