Silently in the background

Doing qualitative research in a cross-cultural setting oftentimes requires the support and help of one or several research assistants. However, the appreciation of the commitment and work of research assistants often come missed out.

Lunch break at 3056 m a.s.l.
Lunch break at 3056 m a.s.l.
Lunch break at 3056 m a.s.l. with Urmila and our guide on a multi-day trek to the next field site, Tanting village (Photo S. Speck, 2017)

We are back from our research trips, have analyzed our data and written one or more scientific papers. However, we quickly forget what immensely important role the research assistants played in enabling our work. We practically rarely reflect and even less write about the research assistant's perspectives, interpretations and experiences during fieldwork. In the majority of cases, the assistants do not dare to express their thoughts and concerns during fieldwork "to not interrupt the researcher's work".

A crucial role for everyday life during fieldwork

Not only for the collection or processing of data research assistants play a crucial role for us researchers but as well for the everyday life during fieldwork. In the majority of cases, fieldwork happens in a totally foreign environment that one firstly needs to get familiar with, and adapt to socio-cultural customs. 

High social competence and negotiation skills

I think it is almost needless to mention the many many times I dropped a brick during the days and months I spent in Nepal for data collection of my PhD project dealing with older people's lives in remote mountain villages. I could count numerous times on the particularly high social competence and negotiation skills of my field assistant Urmila who bailed me out a few times from uncomfortable - but at times also fun - moments I definitely do not want to miss. 

During its 125-year history, the Department of Geography probably has hired a myriad of field assistants all around the globe who were involved in enabling our research. Hence, with this slightly different side note, I want to call out to reflect on all those 'silenced research assistants' for their tireless commitments. Local contributions are hardly recognized beyond a simple footnote, a sentence in the methods chapter, or the listing of a name in the acknowledgements, and largely remain silently in the background.