Reflections on the Ethics Process and My Research Experience Thus Far
Things don't always go to plan, and in the first few weeks of my research, I have learnt some important lessons on what do do when that happens.
As I sit here writing this, I am almost halfway through my planned summer research period without having conducted much research at all. For a number of reasons, I have not been able to receive my ethical approval yet, and as such, I am not allowed to begin the interview process that is central to my research into English-language voluntourism in East Africa.
Whilst research resilience and managing adversity have been key themes in my cohort’s Laidlaw experience as the first one to apply with awareness of the pandemic, I did not expect to face a challenge before I even started. However, this has been an immensely valuable learning experience on a number of levels, and I would like to share some of my key takeaways from my research experience so far.
Firstly, as cliché as it may sound, I have realized that planning ahead and accounting for potential delays is essential when planning any kind of a project. For many of us, as undergraduate scholars, this is one of the first times I have had a chance to do primarily self-directed research, and the lack of a structure or looming deadlines can be intimidating. However, during our leadership week ahead of the research period, Venetia Chan delivered a wonderful session on project management which not only helped me plan my six weeks research using a variety of tools such as GANTT charts and RACI matrices, but also helped me consider and plan for potential risks. Going forward in my research, and thinking about my leadership project next summer too, this has helped me realize that self-leadership and planning will be central to everything I do.
Moreover, the delayed start of my research has given me the time to learn the importance of communication, not only for the sake of my research, but also for my mental peace and health, especially during a pandemic! On the one hand, updating my supervisor and the Laidlaw team about my ethics application status and stressors allowed them to guide me through the process and what I can do in the meanwhile. While I was not too familiar with the role of ethical approval in Social Anthropology and what is feasible within the time period and pandemic restrictions, initially, weekly meetings with my supervisor have been immensely helpful in focusing my research and planning for when I (hopefully) receive my ethical approval.
On the other hand, talking with other scholars from both cohorts has made me aware that my situation is neither unique, nor particularly unpleasant. Throughout our summer research period, scholars at St Andrews participate in Action Learning Sets where a mixed group from both cohorts comes together to work through the challenges we are facing in our research, and I am particularly thankful to the people in my group for sharing their experiences and potential solutions, as well as prompting me to think about compensation and incentives for participating in my research. It has been a wonderful opportunity to put everything we learnt about mentoring and problem-solving during the leadership week into practice, as well as to feel less alone while I was quarantined and working from my bedroom thousands of miles from St Andrews!
Finally, I would like to reflect on the importance of taking this setback as an opportunity to reflect on my positionality and my research. The added time has allowed me to read around the topic of English-language voluntourism further, and I have discovered, rather shockingly for me, that there is not only a stark absence of African voices in the literature on the subject, but that researchers from the Global South and people of colour in the broadest sense are not well represented at all. Whilst there may be a variety of likely reasons for that, and I may simply need to continue searching, it has opened up a space for me to think about my position as a brown, South Asian person who falls on neither side of the rather simplified binary of black and white. Positionality is an important consideration in anthropology, particularly when keeping in mind the risk-benefit balance of any research, and I am grateful for the ethics process for prompting me to think about it.
The ethics process is an integral part of research, particularly within the discipline of Social Anthropology, and I certainly appreciate why that is. As someone who is curious about an academic career, it is likely that my first ethics application will not be my last, and experiencing the various stages and substantial timescale of the process will surely be invaluable in the future.
I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Dr. Stan Frankland, for bearing with me and offering guidance whilst I stressed over the ethics process, Alex and the Laidlaw team for their support in managing the delay and making the Laidlaw experience amazing even as I am not in St Andrews, my fellow scholars for sharing their experiences and helping out, and Lord Laidlaw for his generosity in funding the scholarship program.