subjectivity in research

Thoughts on subjectivity and assumption

At one class, one PhD candidate student had a presentation of her research. Her research took place in DRC in regard to anthropology of technology. She is, according to her words, white girl coming from the ex-colonial country, as anthropologists writing ethnography should be aware of their positions in relation to how others perceive them while they conduct their research. She went on with pictures from her research and tidbits from her experiences. At one point, she explained the fact that there were other expatriates near her research site “with all their privileges.” I paused and thought what she meant by privilege. It wasn’t too difficult to assume that she meant it the way that white expatriates typically have more material wealth compared to the local Congolese population. I will not argue about that, although I strongly believe that she won’t call rich Congolese people highly privileged as easily as she did for white expats. But is material wealth a privilege in every society and for everyone? And assuming whites are not worth “studying” or noticing, is it truly being objective, or patronising non-white people? This effort somehow seems like whenever white people have to talk about white people—and why does it have to be so common?—they put their white fellows behind the curtain out of embarrassment so that no one can see them, but everyone knows whites are behind the curtain, which sounds kind of worse somehow. Having grown up in a completely different country with different histories and education, I won’t know for sure what made them behave in a certain ways. It may not be simply embarrassment or collective guilt. Of course it’s not.

I must admit that I’ve never said the word “white” or “the West” this much within a couple of months in my life. It was never necessary. But it seems that those words are overflowing in my academic environment. It sort of makes sense because I’m studying in Europe especially ex-coloniser country, which lays the context. Is it creating balance to having to say “black” much for a long time? Or is it creating binary out of complicated situations with actors with diverse interests? People often use the term white guilt for describing what the PhD student was doing. Often assume whiteness as privilege and perpetrator. I often feel I’m excluded from this West versus South development discussion dealt in anthropology of development here. South often means Africa and the West means parts of Europe. I don’t belong anywhere in this binary relation, not that it matters, and this dynamic almost makes me think that development is just all about colonialism. It also makes me wonder what “other white” people who don’t belong to this dichotomy might think in this kind of discussion when whites are blaming things on whites. Would they also feel excluded?

The presenter also made me question about the subjectivity or positionality in ethnographic work. Defining oneself as “other” person’s view, is it subjectivity? Or is it assuming what the others might be seeing me based on MY perspective, in a way that I’m representing their view? It’s difficult. More so difficult because my position can change depending on those others’ previous experience, direct or indirect. Somehow “white and ex-coloniser” is such an easy answer it seems. When I first started working in the country side of Malawi, There wasn’t much presence of mzungu(white person). I believe only the Korean organisation I worked for had bunch of mzungu in that area probably. My colleagues and people I worked with —teachers, chiefs, TA, and others—knew me as a Korean. But many of them already had bad views of Korean workers. They all come, make new projects, and leave soon. In the mean time they don’t listen, people said. So when I first got there, I was that. Someone who will make new things and then leave. My colleagues probably had different types of views from villagers since they go through different relationships with Korean expats. At my first meeting with teachers, they read a statement in front of me. They were angry at me already, although I just got there. That’s because I was Korean. In their view, there is just the continuum of Korean when people come and go. I wasn’t a new person for them, then. That was my position and I had to break it because they wouldn’t allow another Korean to do silly things.

So, that was my subjectivity with the teachers. But now I wonder, I can’t just say that was my position the whole time. It changes as the relationship changes. Later on, they saw me as a person who can actually connect the fund to their school because it has been difficult with the organisation. Some of them would drop by in our office to talk about changes and demand, which they didn’t do previously. With my team, I was just another young Korean telling them what to do and trying to look interested in their thing when I first got there, perhaps. Later, the relationship changed and things I can access and give also have changed. That’s why it’s so important to keep track of my subjectivity. I might get stuck with my first assumption about my position and maybe I won’t realise whether it was wrong without keeping the log. While preparing for my leaving, my team members and I went to a tea room a lot, more than usual which we did a lot as well. And to come to think of it, talking about work in a casual place was a great opportunity to learn my perceived position of when I first got there and afterwards. It changes and it also changes them. How I talk, ask, and behave, everything changes the way they react, respond, and behave.

We live in a time where truth, knowledge, and objectivity that were thought of as absolute value are being questioned with suspicion. Objectivity, at least in ethnography, is relative to a given perspective from where we come from. In research, I am made to question who I am, where I come from, what pre-understanding I have, and how the community or the person will see me. Turns out it’s more complex than being reflexive and it can make me a really crappy researcher. When I first learned about subjectivity, I thought it wasn’t difficult at all. I’m a quite reflexive person, I thought. But using my perspective to judge others’ perspective on me and my background seems awfully limiting. Of course, subjectivity isn’t just about this. Knowing what I’m doing and understanding my motivation, background, previous knowledge, everything involved in forming my views and decisions is subjectivity. How do I nail this in my ethnography?


Photo by Red Morley Hewitt on Unsplash

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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