I arrived in Oxford 2013 to do a DPhil in International Development with a focus on street-associated youth in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. For several years prior, I had worked with NGOs and universities at the nexus of public health, migration, and children’s issues in the global south. My experience had been largely with quantitative research methods, so my decision to use ethnographic methods would provide a new challenge for me. In the past, I had spent several months in my proposed field site, and I had built relationships with a few community-based organizations who might help me to get started with the research.
Prior to departure, I did many of the things that I do when travelling to a number of locations. I sought the advice of a travel clinic as well as reading the US Centers for Disease Control’s website, check the US Department of State and UK FCO for any travel advisories, stocked up on items that may not be readily available in my field site (e.g. sun screen or mosquito repellent). My field site is also disaster prone, specifically it is at the foot of an active volcano and has had several devastating earthquakes in the recent past. Filling out my departmental risk assessment was helpful in reflecting on how I might respond such natural disasters, and also made me realize how poorly prepared I had been in previous visits
A large part of my preparation also pertained to ethics of my research. Working with youth between the ages of 15 and 24, many of whom are in highly vulnerable situations, brings up a number of ethical questions. Both writing my transfer of status paper and submitting my CUREC 2 ethics application proved very useful for these issue. In particular, the Social Sciences and Humanities Inter-Divisional Research Ethics Committee (SSH IDREC) had several thoughtful comments and questions that helped me develop contingencies for situations in which there may not be sufficient NGO or government services. These discussions prepared me well for when questions about young people’s vulnerabilities came up in my Indonesian permit interview.
Thorough consideration of the complexities of informed consent with vulnerable young people not only provided an ethical grounding for the research, but ended up facilitating a methodological approach that yielded better data. In short, I chose to use a slow, patient, iterative process for informed consent, which in the short term of the research was frustrating because the early periods of my research did not yield much data. However, over the long term, the approach led me to build very strong rapport and trust with my respondents that that may not have been established had I rushed to research in more depth. Moreover, this process helped to build community consent to my presence. Many older people in the community did not initially know what to think of me and my work, but slow, methodical time spent led to good relationships, and was also seen as culturally normal.
During the research, I found that regular contact with supervisor, as well as in country expert colleague originally from the city in which I was working, buoyed me in times where I was methodologically or ethically challenged. When working with people who were homeless, the inconsistency of being able to reach them proved to be logistical challenge. Learning how and when to be patient, and how and when to pursue an interview at a different time took some time. My local expert colleague was invaluable in learning the nuances of this.
Once in the field, I also found that I felt the desire to expand on the notion of reciprocity that I had expressed in my research plans and ethics paperwork. Several of the young people shared very personal experiences, aspirations, and challenges of their life with me, and I wanted to make sure that I was adequately compensating them properly. Two routes that I could implement after the research had concluded emerged. First, was linking some respondents to organizations with which I have relationships that could help them achieve the aspirations that they had articulated to me during my research. The other, also after the research concluded, involved interfacing with local policy makers in a more meaningful way about the perspectives of my research respondents. The research put me on the radar of several government and NGO actors in the area, and so after the research concluded, I asked several of my respondents to tell me things that they wish a policy maker would consider. Before giving this information to a policy maker, I would first always consider if and how such feedback may affect the lives of my respondents, even if provided anonymously. If the feedbacks seemed not to present a threat to the research population, it was shared at the appropriate time with policy makers. Additionally, as a requirement of my research permit in Indonesia, I am meant to provide additional feedback for use in the national development plan. So, this aspect will feature more significantly than I had anticipated at the beginning of the work.
Finally, upon my return to Oxford, I was coping some reverse culture shock, as well as stress from the process of helping my partner live abroad for the first time in her life. It was a stressful few months, so I spoke with my GP about checking in with a counsellor to “get ahead” of any anxiety before it became problematic. He referred me to the university counselling service. The University Counselling Service provided an excellent service, first with a robust assessment and then tailoring support to my needs. I ended up only visiting them twice, but my conversations with them helped remind me of the skills and resources that I have to anticipate, manage, and cope with anxiety related to fieldwork or my studies in general. Moreover, it was a comfort to know that such a service was available should I need it in a more acute manner.
I also learned that the Counselling Service offers online counselling for students who are not currently resident in Oxford. Had I known this while on fieldwork, I may very well have used it. Also, for those who may be more directly exploring traumatic experiences, there is a course on secondary trauma. In short, there is a wealth or resources for people going out to do challenging fieldwork. For me, much of the “required paperwork” proved to be useful opportunities to more thoroughly consider my research and had I known about all the opportunities available for psychologically preparing for fieldwork I would have taken full advantage.
- Preparing for natural disasters
- Logistics, timing, and patience when working with hard-to-reach people
- Informed consent and reciprocity in working with vulnerable populations
- Stress upon return to Oxford
PLANNING - risk assessment
- Develop contingencies for natural disasters if you are travelling to a region that is prone to them
- If working with vulnerable populations, be particularly thoughtful about the preparation of your CUREC application. By engaging in a thorough process and having my supervisor and other experts readily accessible, I was well prepared when I encountered ethics challenges.
- Ensure that you are properly prepared to engage in self-care, take breaks, know the resources you have available to you.
- Be thorough about building trust and rapport with respondents
- Budget lots of time and be patient when working with young people with unstable housing or work.
- The risk assessment was a useful opportunity to reflect on safety, health, and well-being in a context that I regarded as known. It was a useful planning tool for the practice of research.
- Relationships with local experts, as well as your colleagues back in Oxford, can be invaluable for providing additional insight about methodological, ethical, or practical challenges. Build your network and USE it.
- Plan and take breaks. Making sure to take time to decompress from intensive fieldwork is not only good practice for self-care, but can help to provide analytical distance that can meaningfully inform subsequent periods of fieldwork.
- There are substantial resources available from the University for mental health and well-being before, during, and after fieldwork including the secondary trauma course and counselling services.
 Please submit details of any changes to your project that raise ethical issues not covered in your original application to the SSH IDREC (and your Departmental Research Ethics Committee, if applicable) before you implement any changes. Please see the CUREC FAQs on this.