Blog: Setting up the NGOST project team. Considering collaborative research

October 30, 2020

By Abel Beremenyi

Today, NGOST team has been reinforced by two research assistants on the Spanish fieldwork. Working with two well prepared, and widely informed Roma colleagues will undoubtedly enrich the research process of problem definition, data collection and data analysis. Moreover, it will help us better and more convincingly communicate findings towards the local Roma communities and public administration. Noemí, a lawyer, and Esther, a BA candidate in Sociology, both work for the largest regional Roma federation. Beyond their personal involvement as young Roma women, they have long experience in our central research topic: school-to-work transition among Roma young people. We have already worked together in different earlier research projects, but now, inconveniences emerging from COVID-19, raise new forms of collaboration.

COVID-19 makes it almost impossible to launch a participatory process, as it was foreseen, on a territory where no previous contact with the community was made. Even if we achieved to contact young people and conduct long and fascinating life-course interviews – always wearing masks and keeping 2m distance –, it is by no means the way we originally aimed to do fieldwork. Community activities have all been suspended, Evangelical church went online, and young people, just like their parents are reluctant to mix with unknown people. I believe that working in a team with new colleagues will add a collaborative perspective to our challenged efforts. However, beyond its numerous merits, collaborative research also conveys a series of traps, which are often avoided to speak about. On the first team meeting we spoke about realistic expectations and idealised imaginations respecting collaborative research (Lassiter, 2005).

We all three agree on that collaboration of a non-Roma researcher with Roma co-researchers of the same geographical area of the fieldwork helps democratise the investigation, it adds gender and ethnic sensibility to problem definition, data collection and analysis, and it opens the possibility to let Roma women hear their voice throughout the process. It may also mean a humble step towards balancing the traditional hierarchic relationship between researcher/expert and the researched; and we are sensible to mutual learning character of this process. Literature also mentions that collaborative or participative research relies more on local knowledge and other local resources and assets, and its focus is not on extraction (knowledge, resources), but contribution (to local solutions).

Bearing in mind all the wide range of possibilities, the NGOST team also discussed the criticism related to “participative discourses”. To mention but a few:

  • Working together and sharing opinions, points of view will not necessary and automatically change the course of the research, due to structural limitations (short timeframe, funding, individual intentions, group dynamics).
  • One should not expect empowerment / emancipation of Roma collaborators just because they gain access to the knowledge production and research agenda modification. As Perkins and Zimmerman (1995) reminded us 25 years ago “we need to be more precise about the construct and research of [empowerment…] or it will forever remain a warm and fuzzy, one-size-fits-all, concept with no clear or consistent meaning". We would like to avoid this error.
  • Power sharing must be a continuous negotiation, it is not a question of delegation. Highly valuable outputs for the community may be less important for researcher in his academic career. Nevertheless, it is an ethical requirement.
  • Although young Roma co-researchers may achieve further empowerment through the research, it does not necessarily mean that the researched community becomes more empowered. Community is a complex concept with its heterogeneity, diversity and constant changes within it (Morely et al. 1983). Interventions often reaffirm existing power relations and inequalities in a community (Málovics et al., 2019).
  • For ethnic activism, “strategic essentialism” (Spivak 1980) is a key tool. Consequently, social analysis and activism should negotiate the ways results are communicated to selected target groups. It may lead to uncomfortable mismatch of roles and commitments.

Bearing in mind, and continuously reflecting on the wide range of challenges with respect to any participatory process (Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Hickey & Mohan, 2004) the NGOST team begins its collaboration hoping that it may give way to a longer-term process in the domain of Roma young people’s school-to-work transition beyond the particular outcomes of the NGOST project.

References

Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (2001). Participation: The new tyranny? (B. Cooke & U. Kothari, Eds.). London - New York: Zed Books.

Hickey, S., & Mohan, G. (Eds.). (2004). Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development. London: Zed books.

Lassiter, L. E. (2005). Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 46(1), 83–106.

Málovics, G., Juhász, J., Méreiné Berki, B., Mihók, B., Szentistványi, I., Pataki, G., … Tóth, J. (2019). Confronting espoused theories with theories-in-use: Challenges of participatory action research with marginalized communities in contributing to social change and theory building. Action Research, online fir, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1476750318774389

Perkins, D. D., & Zimmermann, M. A. (1995). Empowerment Theory, Research, and Application. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 569–579.

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