The messiness (and vulnerability) of field research

By Felicity Inns

We all know the importance of considering ethics when doing research and to consider the emotional effects of research on participants – in my case when delving into memory (Halbwachs, 1992) and remembrance (Marshall, 2004). I was presenting a lecture on basic social research methods for my students, focusing on ethics, and was talking through the importance of being aware of the effect of research on both the participants and the researcher. I had managed to separate the lecturer from the researcher until this moment when suddenly the penny dropped and I realised I was living my lecture.

How had I ever thought this lecture on ethics was just a necessary as part of the curriculum – something my students may or may not value at all and may have little or no impact? It did have an impact – but not on the intended students, on me. Seven months ago, when I began my own field research, I was happy in the knowledge that I knew exactly what I was looking for and what questions I was asking of my participants (many of you who are more experienced may now be laughing at my naivety); I have since been sent flying down other paths, notably that path of my own remembrance and family history.

My grandfather: Sergeant AG Hart

I had thought that I was safe from the vulnerability of my participants’ memories; I had in fact barely considered it a risk. After all, I was interviewing mostly men over the age of at least 70 about their participation in war and/or the Royal Navy, which was far removed from my own experience. But it was in one interview with a 98-year-old from World War II and his story of hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, and a resulting experience leading to his own personal reconciliation meeting with a German U-boat captain, that my own ‘impartial observer’ status was officially gone. All I have wanted to do since is research my own family history and their involvement in the war and/or remembrance. Now my ‘clear’ questions I was asking of participants have been irrevocably coloured by my personal journey.  I have reached a point where I cannot see any way to separate my own remembrance from that of my participants; until now I had not realised the potential extent of the impact of research on the researcher (Coffey, 1999; Ballamingie, 2011).

To my knowledge, my grandfather had never reached a point of reconciliation with the Italians who held him as a POW in WWII, something the Captain I interviewed managed to achieve some 40-50 years after the war. I wear a poppy every year in my grandfather’s memory, without knowing anything about his experience or what was important to him. Interviews with others have opened up the floodgates of urgency in wanting to understand what my grandfather felt: what did he remember or want to forget when he came home? I may never know in any definitive way but I am now surrounded by others, my participants, who probably do understand. This personal journey has brought me closer than ever to my participants and their stories. Showing the glimmer of (is it vulnerability?) has allowed me to feel less like an outsider and given me a sense of belonging I had not felt before.

My grandfather’s medals

Only two weeks ago, the daughter of a seaman from the Royal Navy, who served in the Falklands, came to me because she wanted to show me his medals that, after years of searching, she had finally tracked down and purchased back. The personal value of this piece of history for her was immeasurable (although a cost had been put on the medals). She now wants to see the medals of my grandfather and I have since discovered my great grandfather’s brother drove horse-drawn ambulances in WWI; I had a great uncle who served in the armed forces with his own set of medals and another great uncle who took his boat across the Channel to Dunkirk in WWII (my tenuous link to the Navy – a boat was involved after all). Now, seven months later, with a sudden sense of belonging to the organisation I am conducting my field research in, I have been asked if I want to join as a member (my tenuous link I mentioned may not be so tenuous) – as little as a month ago I felt I had no right to belong, but perhaps I am not the outsider I thought.  Suddenly the clear, objective questions I was asking and the impartial researcher status I thought I held are both more than a little fuzzy. The messiness of personal connection to the research has opened up new avenues and thoughts that were never considered by a naïve and ‘objective’ researcher.

Great Uncle Jack’s boat ‘Tiger’ on the River Adur


One thought on “The messiness (and vulnerability) of field research

  1. Lest we forget…and this is a reminder as to how we are all intertwined in the tapestry of history and events. Our research becomes our passion and the people there in become part of our story. Well put, Felicity!

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