I did my PhD field research in Nairobi, Kenya, over the period of about nine months over 2019 and 2020. I was doing a qualitative study of strategies for wellbeing among Congolese refugees in the city and met some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, my time was also peppered with experiences of sexual harassment, particularly at the hands of two of my male informants. These men were both leaders in their respective communities and acted as ‘gatekeepers,’ controlling the level of access I had to large numbers of participants. Both men leveraged their social status and knowledge that I ‘needed’ them to wield their power and put me in extremely uncomfortable situations.
‘Leaving’ the field is not as easy as it once was. For many researchers, it used to be as simple as saying some goodbyes to field contacts and hopping on a plane. Today, the many social media platforms we all have on our phone keeps us in touch — an advantage, in some cases, allowing us to maintain contact with good friends for years to come. In other cases, a disadvantage, maintaining links with people who hurt us or made us feel endangered. People and memories we wish we could just leave behind when we boarded the plane.
I left Nairobi desperately wanting to leave the two men I mentioned behind, existing only in memories stained by feelings of discomfort, guilt, and fatigue. But to this day, they continue to make regular appearances. They do so through the pings I get on my phone, their faces popping up on Facebook and Instagram messages. Because of the time difference, I’ll awake to the glow of my phone alerting me that they are trying to reach me in the privacy of my own bedroom. Their messaging somehow felt even more intrusive and assaulting because their words were able to breach the safety of my own home. My phone is like another appendage of my body, always in my purse or pocket. As such, these two abusers are always with me, just a screen scroll away.
Why do I not just delete them from all accounts, erasing their presence from my life with the simple tap of a button? As is so often the case with abuser-victim relationships, it’s complicated. These two men were extremely involved in my research process. Both gave up much of their time and energy to assist me in data collection over the course of nearly a year. They put themselves at considerable risk as well, living in Nairobi with ambiguous legal status, in danger of being arrested or deported if their identity was to become known. All of this made me feel a sense of indebtedness and even a bit of protectiveness towards them. Like I said, it’s complicated. Lastly, the question of how — and when — to end relationships with research participants isn’t something I ever learned in class. There’s an ethical element to this for social researchers like myself — during the process of collecting consent from my key research participants I assured them that I’d share my final research findings with them, and that they would help share knowledge outputs with their wider communities. This requires me to maintain some degree of contact with them.
Their digital comments are mostly innocuous, asking how I am, telling me they miss me and wanting to know when I plan to return. Today, for the most part, I delay my response to their inquiries, or ignore them all together, and over time, their messaging has become less and less frequent. In the months immediately after leaving Nairobi, however, their messages, likes, shares, and comments were a constant stream through my phone and into my consciousness. This had a negative impact on my mental and emotional health, as the lines between my work and personal life became increasingly blurred. I would be brought back to my encounters with these men as I re-read my fieldnotes at my desk, then when I closed my computer at the end of the day, see their direct messages in my personal social media accounts. I felt a sense of residual trauma and stress, never able to leave it behind.
Having submitted my thesis for review just a few weeks ago, I feel a little more distanced from these men, and have made positive strides in mitigating the impact they have on my mind. I’ve become better at building and maintaining boundaries in social media and more jealously guarding my ‘down time.’ I still have a ways to go, and still have more questions than answers in terms of how to leave behind harmful contacts in an era of constant digital connectivity.
My experiences during and after field research were what largely inspired me to start BeDo with my colleague Daillen Culver. Over the years, we’ve had so many conversations with other Masters and PhD students who faced similar challenges, and felt unprepared and unsupported by their universities. Through BeDo we are able to hold space and time for field researchers to share their own experiences and insights so we can all learn to better care for ourselves and others. Daillen and I are also aware that the risk and impacts of sexual harassment — both in person and online — vary greatly between researchers depending on many intersecting variables, including age, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. When I talk about ‘leaving the field’ for example, what does it mean for the many researchers around the world who are from the place they study, and cannot put geographical space between themselves and difficult experiences/memories? Or what about for those whose ‘field’ is within the virtual space, such as digital ethnographers? How much greater of a risk of digital sexual abuse do they face?
These are all important questions that deserve further attention and care. I am hopeful, however, that going forward, researchers will increasingly share hold conversations about personal safety, like the one enabled through this blog series, and support one another to navigate the difficulties of the virtual world.
Originally from Canada, Megan is a PhD candidate in the International Development programme at the University of Edinburgh. Her research projects include an ethnographic study of urban refugees in Kenya, and analysis of mental wellness strategies among researchers in ‘fragile’ contexts. Megan is the co-founder of BeDo, a social business that provides emotional learning opportunities and wellbeing support tailored specifically to the needs of impact-driven professionals, such as researchers, social workers, and humanitarians.