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Negotiating a double-sided positionality in research fieldwork in northern Ghana

Negotiating a double-sided positionality in research fieldwork in northern Ghana

by Balikisu Osman

Balikisu Osman

Some of the critical discussions in the rural development research literature highlight the desirability and liabilities of conducting fieldwork as an insider versus an outsider. The argument is that a researcher’s immerse familiarity with research setting by birth or personal ties (as an insider) permits ease access, understanding, empathy, and integration of cultural sensitivity throughout a research process. Being unfamiliar (an outsider) with a research setting, on the other hand, may provide space to detect patterns that insiders may overlook in their communities.

My doctoral research explores climate risks and households' responses to food (in)security in northern Ghana. I embarked on six-month intensive fieldwork from January-June 2021 in six carefully selected communities to collect household-level data using questionnaires and complementing that with interviews and focus groups discussions to give a deeper insight into the results. In all, I engaged with smallholder farmers and officials working on food and agricultural projects in the study communities.

As a native Ghanaian born and raised in the middle belt of Ghana until after my bachelor’s studies in 2014 when I left for postgraduate studies abroad, I identify as a researcher insider with lived experiences of agricultural livelihoods, climatic variation, seasonal food price hikes, and cultural diversities of Ghana. Also, introducing myself as a doctoral student and indicating my affiliation with the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Canada, identify me as an outsider.

With the community leader in Ghana

Before proceeding with the data collection, I planned a community entry and informed consent meeting with key informants and community leaders, mostly the chiefs, elders, and Assembly members. A popular welcome response I received at the end of my community entry meetings was that: “you are welcome, our sister; we will inform the community about your intentions.” In some cases, the community leaders expressed the duality of my position, saying, “We know you are from the south, but we are all one. So, feel free to do your work here”. This comment also came up during my questionnaire administration and informal interactions with the individual households. The community leaders imputed the insider status onto me because of my identity as a Ghana and portrayal of this identity through communication in Twi – the most spoken language in Ghana.

Despite the welcoming words I received from the communities, however, there were instances where some communities did not shy away from my outsider status. During my opening meeting with a group of households in Nimbasinia, for example, a young man asked: “Madam, you are here to gather your data and go, but we will still be here, it is our community. So, we want to know what this research will bring to us”.  To this young man, I am an outsider deserving of their time, information, and respect for engagement. Therefore, the outcome should be equally beneficial to the community and the participant households.

Community entry and informed consent meeting with key informants

Following the community entry meetings, I reflected on the dichotomous positions I occupy in the face of my research participants and the potential challenges of navigating the fluid boundaries. In the end, I had to explore my position as an insider-outsider and not as an insider or outsider. With this position, I introduced myself to the communities as an engaged academic and agrarian development enthusiast with lived experiences of poverty and food insecurity and ambitions to work for a just and sustainable future for vulnerable people. Navigating through this position enabled me to gain and maintain access to the participants, information, and trust throughout my fieldwork.

Balikisu Osman is a Vanier scholar and an international doctoral student in environmental studies at EUC. Before starting her PhD, she worked for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome, Italy, and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Myanmar, mainly on food security program implementation and agricultural risk management policy analysis, knowledge mobilization and dissemination. She holds a BA in Geography and Rural Development and two master’s degrees, one in International Development, Poverty, and Inequality, and the other in Sustainability Management. Professor Patricia Perkins  is mentoring and supervising Osman on her doctoral research.