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Justin Freund

Justin Freund
Development Studies
Fakultet for samfunnsvitenskap
11. desember 2020

Field Research on the Impacts of Norwegian Aid in Northern Africa

This autumn I’ve had the opportunity to work as a student research assistant, transcribing interviews from Northern Africa about how small Scandinavian aid organizations were impacting receiving communities. While looking forward to writing my bachelor thesis next year, I knew this assignment would give me valuable insight into the elements of successful research methods, and also a critical perspective into my own field of study.

How exactly does a researcher collect information in a foreign field that is relevant, interesting, and drives their thesis forward? Being in the second year of a bachelor, I stand in between having taken classes that cover the theory of research methods behind, and a very real thesis project looming closer and closer ahead. Though the theories are helpful, reading through professional academic articles and seeing the amount of information scholars are able to retrieve from fieldwork has made me wonder if what I’ve learnt so far is enough to succeed at it myself.

Working on transcriptions for a research project has shown me that the theories are in fact only a starting point. This was my first real exposure to the interview methods of an experienced academic. I half expected to start the transcriptions and hear the researcher lay down some kinds of magical questions that draw the desired answers right out of the participants, as articles in the past I’d read had led me to assume field researchers are capable of doing. The reality of it was that these interviews were all unique, many quite messy, and often questions were taken as an invitation to explore new topics rather than as a request for a specific answer. It made me realize the complexity of the interview process – that much of the work takes place in the transcribing, the interpreting, and in sifting through the material to piece together the data.

There were moments that caught me off guard, though. In some cases, a neighbor or a coworker would briefly intrude on the interview and offer a joke or comment about the subject at hand. Before long the participant and the intruder would be engaged in a banter about a recent conflict, and like pleasant melodies the insights into the real lived experiences of the subjects of study would flow out of these off-hand conversations, giving more relevant information than 20 minutes of interviewing.

Later in my work, I began to take a step back and read through the interviews I’d transcribed. I began to see threads tying things together that were impossible to notice in the moment of listening. There were certain dynamics in the communities that participants would bring up, although never prompted by a specific question. There was a casualness with which most subjects spoke about certain government offices. There were certain people that no participant dared to criticize.

I’ve realized that field interviews are more art than science. You must go in with an idea of what you’re hoping to learn, while also being acutely aware that asking questions about it directly will likely not give you the insights you’re looking for. Research is about getting into someone else’s experience and seeing the world through their eyes. It is about opening spaces in between the questions and answers where participants have somewhere to tell their personal stories, their funny anecdotes, and their unheard frustrations. It seems to me that the greatest insights come from the most unexpected moments, and a true researcher is one who’s capable of fostering them.