Reflections from AC4 Grad Research Fellow in Nigeria
I love doing research because it gives me an excuse to get to know people in a way that I would never have known them otherwise. As a child, I used to dream of being able to meet every single person in the world, hearing their stories, understanding their dreams and struggles. I soon realized that not only is this impossible, but by the time I finished so many others would already have been born!
I have instead found solace in building friendships and just generally getting to hear others’ stories whenever I get the chance. Research, particularly my research in Nigeria, allows me to do this in a different context with a specific purpose, specific questions and specific research sites, yet this more rigid structure directing many research projects does not limit the sheer adventure and beautiful opportunity to interact with people. In fact, research to me goes beyond the interviews, surveys, and the participants officially delineated in the research proposal. Research is so much more than that….or it can be….maybe it even should be. Part of research is delving into the place where you are…..and I’ve learned that the best way to do that is to say YES! and enjoy the ride.
I have had people present their research experiences to me as a bit of a drag filled with difficulties and inconveniences. But how can any good research be born out of such drudgery?
To me, it’s all about perspective. I once read an article that talked about being “playful” as a key to success in one’s job. For myself, I’ve noticed that when I’m “playful” about something, I’m also more open to new information and experiences that actually enhance my performance and findings. I have tried to take the “playful” approach more often in many aspects of my life. On this trip for example, my big plans were to finish all my interview transcriptions before I left the field (i.e., type them as I went along) but when it came to times where I found myself hesitating to say YES! to a new experience because of these transcriptions, I decided it was time to break all the chains.
I realized that these experiences are just as integral a part of the research as the transcriptions and interviews. Especially with this being a pilot study for my dissertation research next year, I knew that I needed to expand my perspective of the society in which I am working and living – Nigeria. After all, those participating in my study are not my “subjects” as some like to believe; instead, they are people with whom I’m grateful to share and from whom I’m learning. There is so much more about them that I seek to understand beyond the confines of an interview.
I realize that I cannot necessarily hang out with the students outside of the school grounds nor do I want to taint my research findings by building too personal of a relationship with them. I am not trying to say that we should fail to take care of the kind of relationships in which we engage. Many must remain entirely professional, but we can eliminate much of the rigidity.
If someone invites you to sit for a coffee, say yes. If you are invited to a wedding, say yes. To dinner, say yes. Even those who are not directly a part of your research proposal can teach you and with them you can build more informal relationships and friendships. Some of my any experiences include a friend taking me into her home to teach me how to cook plantains, one of my favorite West African sides.
Another was an art gallery curator who is a big fan of Fela and Femi Kuti (iconic Nigerian musicians and political icons) and who took me to Femi’s concert rehearsal.
Oh yes, and the time that I sang on stage with a Nigerian band. That was pretty amazing.
By sharing and enjoying, we can organically learn about the inter-workings of a society beyond what a theory or book could tell us. I am not even talking about ethnographic work although some might say that this is equivalent. I’m simply arguing that research should be enriched with lived, playful experiences and perspectives that allow us to open our own understanding even amidst our rigid methodologies, which have their own benefits.
We need to rethink research in the social sciences, especially, but in all areas as well. Let’s put the “playful” back into research and let that expand our relationships and perspectives, which will, after all, enrich our research, discoveries and just general enjoyment of the process. But more importantly, it allows us to better share with and learn from our fellow human beings, and isn’t that the whole point of research to begin with?
Author: Marlana Salmon-Letelier is currently conducting research on youth’s perspectives in Nigeria on the intersections of education, religion and conflict, as part of her doctorate studies in the International Educational Development Program at Teachers College.
Editor: Meredith Smith
Images: photos from fieldwork, provided by author.