Distraction Free Reading

Girls, Gadgets, and Gatekeepers: What is Ethical Feminist Fieldwork When Working with Children?

There is no Institutional Review Board (IRB) or equivalent body in India. The ethics of research are left to the purview of researchers, their supervisors, and departments. Therefore, as an international PhD student, I first encountered the IRB when planning my MA project at UC Irvine, where I investigated the intersectional effects of gender and class within the family, and how they shape differential access to mobile phones for adolescents in urban India.

I focused my fieldwork on 9th-standard students aged 13-15, looking specifically at the experiences of adolescent girls. My field sites were 8 municipal (low-income) schools and international (high-income) schools across Mumbai[1]. I conducted repeated, in-depth group interviews with 59 girls as well as paper surveys with 278 adolescents (both boys and girls). In this essay, I draw primarily on my experiences in low-income or municipal schools.

The IRB viewed this project as triply implicated because 1) my fieldwork would be in an international, Global South site, 2) I would be working with children, and 3) I requested to replace written with oral consent (knowing that in this context, a signature gave no guarantee of the study information being understood). Consequently, in evaluating my project, the IRB employed a well-oiled colonial gaze (Sabati 2019).

While a lot has been written about how the IRB is set up to protect the university rather than research respondents, my essay speaks only tangentially to this body of literature (Swauger 2009; Grady 2010; Fost & Levine 2007). In this essay, I dig out some uncomfortable tensions, guilty moments, and unresolved questions that arose during my fieldwork, and use them to complicate the idea of what ethical and feminist fieldwork with children looks like, but also to show that these looks can be deceptive. I offer these provocations through a selection of three field vignettes.

Pictured some female school students, seemingly in Indian public school uniform, in blue colored clothes. The girl in front is holding up a paper and looking to her left.

Stock photo of Indian municipal school students

Field Vignette #1: When Consent Doesn’t Mean Anything:
What does informed consent mean within a disciplinary space that strips respondents of agency?

In the very first classroom I stepped into, I started by explaining the project and procedure of consent, and let all the students know they had a couple of days to think about it, discuss the study with their parents, and make up their mind about participating. But everyone shouted “yes ma’am” before I’d even finished my piece, almost as a matter of habit. This unanimous agreement was particularly pronounced whenever teachers tried to make my announcement for me. In addition, students were intensely excited at the prospect of any extra-curricular activity, especially one that allowed them to miss class, and didn’t care what I was doing, as long as they could participate and skip class – I read this as agency and strategy, and made no attempt to counter it.

Families and schools in India take seriously the project of disciplining children, especially girls, into following appropriate social norms. Schools are inherently disciplinary spaces that socialize students into constantly performing meek obedience, rote learning, and deference (though students equally push back and reclaim this site in a variety of ways). I found that in such a space, informed consent, whether oral or written, meant very little in practice because students were programmed to say ‘yes’ to every adult who asked them to do something, and ‘no’ was not an option that came without punishment.

What does ‘informed consent’ mean in such a context? Throughout my fieldwork, to assuage my own concerns about intangible unethical consent, I repeatedly reiterated to my respondents that they didn’t have to answer anything unless they wanted to, could leave anytime, and so on – however, students clearly did not believe me, and for good reason, given their everyday experiences of constantly being tricked and disciplined.

I technically followed IRB fieldwork protocol on ethically collecting informed consent. But even in the presence of ‘enthusiastic yes’s’ from my respondents, I have shown above how consent was a fraught endeavor in this site.

A feminist approach to fieldwork would pay attention to these fractures and attempt to engage with their implications (perhaps by strategizing within the site, challenging institutional norms, or directly collaborating with respondents?).  

Field Vignette #2: When Credit Clashes with Anonymity:
What happens when IRB requirements and top-down ideas about protection-through-anonymity, clash with respondents’ demand for credit?

When conducting paper surveys, I stayed in each classroom until everyone finished filling the surveys, to make sure that there were no identifying details on any of them, following IRB protocol. In India, students write their names on top of sheets as a matter of habit so I often had to remind them to thoroughly erase their names. Several students seemed puzzled but did not ask further.

In one classroom, however, I spotted yet another student who had written his name on top, requested him to remove it and explained why. “Not add my name?” he repeated uncertainly, puzzled, as this was a first. “Yes, I have to make sure the surveys are anonymous so that your replies are protected. My university is really strict about this,” I replied. This reasoning did not make sense to him, and he asked, “If I don’t write my name, how will you know which one is mine?” He meant, “How will you know which responses to attribute to me?” Until then, I hadn’t at all considered the idea of credit (that is, attributing personal credit to my respondents for their participation and ideas), assuming, in a very benevolent-patriarchal way, that anonymity was more important than anything else.

Is it ethical to erase identity against the wishes of a respondent, here, a child respondent, who is already treated without adequate dignity and respect? How does the imperative of protecting identity weigh up against the imperative for rightful credit? What happens when respondents wish to be credited with their responses and participation? Many of my respondents felt very proud to participate in this study and were quite thrilled to be discussing the themes I brought forward, without censure. During the group interviews, some respondents wanted to share feminist demands with the public through my study. I hadn’t recorded any of their names. A year later, having written up my paper, I think I regret this the most. I was over-zealous in my “protection”, and have absolutely no record of any of my respondents’ names. They would have loved to see their names on the paper, and I would have loved to share it with them.

Erasing identity and withholding credit is a decidedly un-feminist practice, as feminist approaches to history so poignantly show. We need to develop ways to think through and challenge the IRB’s blanket consideration of protection-through-anonymity, by pivoting to center respondents’ views and desires around credit and representation, rather than centering ourselves or the IRB (Bradley 2007). This would be feminist practice. 

Field Vignette #3: When Using Data Comes at the Cost of Breaking Implicit Trust:
What happens when data is being collected with consent and knowledge, but incidents being shared emerge from moments of absolute intimacy and secrecy?

By the last day of my fieldwork with each group, I found that we had established a much higher level of trust. In most groups, the girls had developed a sense of group membership, privacy, and specialness and took pride in ensuring that nobody barged in during our interview discussions. I broached the most personal topics in my interview guide (to do with mobile phones and romantic relationships, sexual harassment, moral policing, etc.), and for most of my respondents, this was the first time they were encountering a safe space to discuss such topics with an adult. They insisted on spending more time than was allotted to the session, to fully share their stories, ask questions, and discuss ensuing concerns in detail.

In multiple instances, respondents shared some extremely personal details and stories which would have been very rich material for a paper. Though my recorder was on, and the respondents in question clearly knew this as they were speaking (they glanced towards it once in a while), they did not request me to stop and go off the record. Therefore, the data was ostensibly collected with full knowledge and consent. However, qualitatively, intuitively, emotionally, it was very clear to me that these incidents were imparted in moments of complete trust, with implicit faith that I would not repeat these details outside that room. We have all experienced moments where we end up imparting too much of ourselves, in spaces where we feel heard and seen.

Technically, I am in the clear for using these incidents as data. However, I asked myself, how would my respondent feel seeing her story be used in this way for a paper? How would *I* feel if I were in her position? It was immediately clear that using this personal story to make an argument (for the ultimate purpose of advancing my research career) was not the right thing to do.

I finally wrote my MA without using these fraught data. But I sometimes wonder if there are any ways to ethically use these instances in my work. Yes, a feminist approach to fieldwork would allow us to honor such intimacies and moments, while also providing space to develop collaborative practices through which to share them. However, sometimes the feminist method is to simply withhold – stop – leave things out[2].  

Concluding Note

In many ways, fieldwork is a form of intimacy – with your site, with your respondents, and even with yourself – and fraught situations are often private situations, which you may or may not share with the world. One of the biggest (but ultimately rewarding) frustrations of carrying out qualitative research is choosing which parts to leave out. It can be very easy to make your decisions and actions appear ethical, pre-meditated, reflexive; all number of methodological virtues can be found in carefully writing up and glossing over our experiences in the field. When reading ethnographies, I often wonder what field experiences have been left out. Only the researcher and their respondents, who create, shape, and experience each moment together, have a clear sense of their interaction, including the capacity to immediately recognize the guilty moments, unethical instances, and moments of reckoning and questioning therein.

A feminist approach to fieldwork would pay attention to and lay bare, these fluid, transient, malleable moments and their aftereffects. The work of engaging with these moments fully, and centering the needs and experiences of our respondents, especially when our respondents are children, reflects a labor of care and a feminist ethic. This work also involves paying attention to what looks like feminist fieldwork but isn’t. The process of thinking through and engaging with these experiential questions before, during, and after fieldwork make for feminist field practice.

The academy (which is capitalistic and Eurocentric) and the IRB (a colonial and Global North entity) are not equipped to preside over or evaluate the kinds of ethical dilemmas raised in this essay. Together, they foster a culture where it is more profitable to hide such instances rather than expose them. However, I argue that engaging with these moments is essential, in all research but especially when working with children. This is not just to fulfill stated commitments to protecting vulnerable populations but also to interrupt and question the conceptual and ontological violence continually inflicted on children by adults and on the Global South by the Global North, not just in physical interaction but also in representation, writing, and social theory.

I hope the provocations offered in this essay inspire further conversation, thinking, and reflection about our field experiences, about what looks like feminist fieldwork but isn’t, and how to cultivate an honest exchange with our research respondents, especially when our respondents are children, which can take into accounts their needs, what our projects can do for them, and how to best honor their contributions, even when it means going against the ethics rules put forward by review boards.


Footnotes

[1]  As research on urban India overwhelmingly focuses on the middle-class (perhaps as this is the location of most Indian researchers), I decided to omit this group from the study. It also tends to completely elide caste. While I could not access caste directly in my field site, I took the view of gender and class as deeply inflected with caste.

[2] An idea and method for which I’d like to credit my classmate Sydney Leigh Martin, and the class we developed it in: Gendered Understandings in Law and Legal Theory, taught by Prof. Swethaa Ballakrishnen, at UC Irvine.

References

Bradley, M. (2007). Silenced for their own protection: How the IRB marginalizes those it feigns to protect. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(3), 339-349.

Grady, C. (2010). Do IRBs protect human research participants? Jama, 304 (10), 1122-1123.

Fost, N., & Levine, R. J. (2007). The dysregulation of human subjects research. Jama, 298 (18), 2196-2198.

Sabati, S. (2019). Upholding “colonial unknowing” through the IRB: Reframing institutional research ethics. Qualitative Inquiry, 25 (9-10), 1056-1064.

Swauger, M. (2009). No kids allowed!!!: How IRB ethics undermine qualitative researchers from achieving socially responsible ethical standards. Race, Gender & Class, 16 (1/2 (2009), 63-81.

 

5 Comments

  • Rishit says:

    Great insights! Definitely going to make a mental note of these questions in future… And share with other researchers too…

    • Isha Bhallamudi says:

      Thank you so much, Rishit! And so nice to see you here! Super appreciate your comments.

  • Viswajith V says:

    Thanks, Isha, for articulating this so clearly! I love how thoughtful you are about all your interactions with the children you worked with, and how willing you are to challenge established/institutionalized notions of ethics.

    • Isha Bhallamudi says:

      Hi Viswa! 😀 Thank you so much for reading the essay, I am really happy you liked it! Thank you for the kind words, means a lot <3

  • B.S. Murty says:

    I am not a social scientist although I am very much interested in sociology and anthropology. I really liked this article. It brings out some very important and subtle issues regarding our interactions with others while doing our research. I sincerely hope this article reaches very many researchers. I appreciate your sensitivity during your interactions.

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