As I prepared to present my Indian work at the Relational Landscapes of Urbanisation Conference at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, I reflected on interactions with research participants. I visited Bangalore in January to scope out community gardens for future fieldwork. With a research assistant I visited several communities of gardeners who were very eager to share their thoughts and show us around. Their enthusiasm made me think about what it means to be an outsider as a researcher and about how to be considerate in an unfamiliar environment.
My work in Bangalore had a smooth start. It was fairly easy to get in touch with gardeners and they were very willing to invest time in my research project. They enjoyed that I showed interest in what they do and they seemed to enjoy telling me about their gardens and practices.
The people I met went out of their way to fit my visit into their busy lives, and to pick us up and drop us off in Bangalore’s congested and time consuming traffic conditions. Some even took time off work to show us around. Apart from a joint interest in gardens and gardening some people seemed very interested in us as visitors as well. People seemed to really enjoy having us over and being seen with is.
We were invited to many home cooked breakfasts, lunches, dinner parties and wedding celebrations where we were introduced to family members and friends. This made me wonder what difference it made that we were strangers. I wonder if they would have invited us into their lives and homes the way they did if we were not such obvious outsiders. Being a stranger was an advantage in gaining access to field sites.
This advantage went further than the initial access. ‘Show me your garden’ chats would quite easily slide into casual talk and I spent many leisurely hours with gardeners while driving through the city and while sharing meals. These occasions gave me opportunities to ask questions about their lives and about life in the city and the country in general that added a lot of depth to my understanding of what I encountered on site.
A challenge that came with being an outsider is that at times I was unsure with how to react to invitations. The matter became most poignant when a couple of friendly gardeners suggested that we stayed with them rather than at the hotel. It became clear at this stage that one cannot remain an outsider as one gets friendlier with a community and more familiar with a situation. Questions arose as to where to draw the boundaries of professionalism, of a reasonable distance and of friendship? How much time can I as a researcher reasonably take up? How much food and how many favours are okay to accept? And how to communicate the answers to these questions in a way that does not offend or disappoint and that keeps people excited to be engaged in the project.
These thoughts and considerations are by no means new to the field of cultural geography or qualitative research in general. The insider versus outsider debate has led to refusal of the idea of a researcher that remains at an adequate distance from subjects involved in the project (see Schuermans and Newtown 2012). Instead of a dichotomous outsider versus insider understanding of positionality, qualitative researchers are challenged to work creatively with the tension created by the debate and to find ways to be both insider and outsider, to position oneself in the space between (Acker 2000).
The quest for balance between trying to be a responsible researcher and maintaining access to communities has been debated for example by Bondy (2012). He describes gaining access to a community as ‘striking a bargain’, and says that researchers have to ‘continue to strike multiple bargains throughout the research process in order to maintain access. As research continues the researcher negotiates this bargain based on an understanding of expectations of behaviour within the research site’ (2012: 582).
Looking back on my first experience of conducting fieldwork in Bangalore I think it is safe to say that I did strike a bargain by meeting very engaging and welcoming gardeners. As the research proceeds though, how am I to continue to strike bargains in a cultural context in which I have a limited understanding of expectations of behaviour? As I think through resuming fieldwork in Bangalore, I try to figure out creative ways of being both insider and outsider in Bangalore’s gardening communities.
Acker, S. (2001). In/out/side: Positioning the researcher in feminist qualitative research. Resources for
Feminist Research, 28 (3/4), 153-172
Bondy, C. (2012) How did I get here? The social process of accessing field sites. Qualitative Research, 13 (5), 578-590
Schuermans, N. and Newton, C. (2012) Being a young and foreign researcher in South Africa: Towards a postcolonial dialogue. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 33 (3), 295-300 [Special focus: Geographies of the discipline: Experiences of young human geographers researching South Africa]
Ellen van Holstein is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. You can follow her on twitter @ellenvan_h. Her last post was The AAG jostle: last thoughts from the bar.