On 'reciprocity' and 'impact': Some reflections from a junior researcher

Published 19 March 2020 / By Domiziana Turcatti

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The Latin American Disabled People’s Project (LADPP) is the only organisation in London devoted to serving disabled people whose first language is Spanish or Portuguese. Between November 2018 and July 2019 I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at LADPP for my MPhil in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Together with Kiara Assaraf, who also carried out research at LADPP until July 2019, we wrote The Experiences of the Latin American Clients of LADPP: Identifying What Works & the Interventions Needed to Enhance the Wellbeing and Quality of Life of LADPP’s Clients.

This blog is not a summary of the results but instead I'd like to explain why I wrote the report and share some of the reflections that emerged in the process, in the hope they might be useful for other young students and scholars.

Not about impact

Today’s academic world is gripped by ‘impact’. This is evident in the increasing number of seminars proposing ways to make academic research relevant for those who do not have access to the ivory tower. Academia’s concerns with impact are also reflected in the way students at all levels are required to include in their introduction a few lines on why their research is socially relevant. Yet, the reason behind the report I wrote with Kiara was not based on a need for ‘impact’. Since my undergraduate studies began and even now that I am in my first year of doctoral studies, I have been asking myself: How is my research going to have an impact if I am just learning how to do research? More fundamentally, while conducting fieldwork at LADPP, I learned that it is the community workers who have an impact on people’s lives.

So, why write our report?

From ‘impact’ to ‘reciprocity’

The rationale behind the report had more to do with reciprocity. The online Collins dictionary defines reciprocity as ‘the exchange of something between people or groups of people when each person or group gives or allows something to the other’. The people I encountered while doing fieldwork shared with me their stories and knowledge. Returning their knowledge in a form the NGO could use for its own purpose  (turns out the report was shared with the local authority!) became not only my way of saying thank you, but also the way in which I attempted to move beyond a model of ethnographic research where the researcher ‘extracts and leaves’, a model heavily criticised, and rightly so, for its colonial character.

Reciprocity: Shaking off feelings of entitlement

It is important to specify that the report was not the result of me being magnanimous, but rather was the explicit requirement the NGO set if I wanted to conduct research in fulfillment of my MPhil degree. It went as follows: ‘you can do your research for your thesis here, as long as you give us something back’. At the beginning, what I could give back remained intentionally unspecified, as we had to figure out how my skills and capacity could match what the NGO needed and wanted. Regardless, the fact that the NGO demanded something in exchange for me doing the research continuously reminded me through the fieldwork how I was not entitled to people’s knowledge, time, and stories – something that is rarely stressed enough in some university methodology courses.

Reciprocity: More than giving back

In the process of writing the report, I also discovered the power of reciprocity in making researchers accountable for what they write and the way they write it. Those in accordance with postmodernist ideas would agree that knowledge is inherently partial, and that representations of social life and people are acts of power that risk not only offending, but also subjugating people. Reporting on the experiences of the people who shared their knowledge became a way in which I tried to make myself accountable for how I conducted the research and represented people’s experiences. Furthermore, as Kiara and I started writing, I soon realised how the report became a means to gain further understanding of the issues at hand and spot misinterpretations and oversights. Indeed, by working at the NGO, Kiara could see things that were invisible to me.

A final note on the many roads to reciprocity and their beauty

Hopefully, this blog gave you an idea of why I wrote the report for the NGO where I conducted fieldwork. I also hope I convinced some of you on the importance of reciprocity and what it can teach researchers. In this respect, I would like to conclude by recognising how there are many roads to reciprocity that may match young researchers’ time constraints and capacity. As my mentor taught me during my undergraduate studies at Amsterdam University College, one might present research findings to the people that took part in the study; share an executive summary with the people who honoured them with their stories; or throw a small party where food is shared. My mentor used to say that these are the truly beautiful moments of research, as it is in these moments that friendships and long-lasting bonds are created. She was right.

This blog originally appeared on the Research to Action website on 19 March 2020.

About the author: Domiziana Turcatti is a DPhil Student in Migration Studies investigating how families shape and are shaped by onward migration.