Respectful Engagement During Fieldwork

Shoveling snow on property of research participants. Photo Courtesy of PhD candidate, Deondre Smiles

As I approach the end of my doctoral journey, I’ve found ample time to reflect on some of the lessons that I’ve learned through my research and scholarship. I’m a firm believer that we never really stop learning even after our formal schooling is finished, and that it becomes much easier to face future learning opportunities with the knowledge of previous experiences. One example of such knowledge that will hopefully pay dividends in future research endeavors is learning how to build relationships with the people and communities that I’ve worked with during my dissertation fieldwork.

It is common sense of course that such relationships need to be built upon a foundation of ethics and trust. The history of our discipline, and of academia as a whole is littered with instances of unethical behavior with marginalized communities, especially Indigenous communities, communities of color, and LGBTQ communities. Speaking from my own experiences as an Indigenous researcher, this has left a legacy of distrust of academic structures that is not entirely undeserved. Understanding this history and positioning ourselves as being committed to ethical, non-extractive fieldwork is the bare minimum that we must do when out ‘in the field’.

Trust is built through communicating and listening. Trust—and allyship may not be automatically forthcoming—we need to earn it. This can be a distressing experience-we are training to be the ‘experts’ in our field, but we are entering spaces where we can not and should not be ‘experts’—that distinction is for the people in the communities who are living the very things we are studying. But, this distress is necessary–we must be willing to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of listening and being fully receptive to the needs and desires of the communities we work within. We must listen, not for the sake of simply listening, but actually hearing what communities have to say about our research—the possibilities for collaboration, the sensitivities communities may have—and be willing to shift our thinking or even the aims of our research to meet those needs. We always possess the risk of unintentionally doing great harm—but knowing that, and knowing how to avoid it means that we can focus on what we truly want to do—produce work that is beneficial to us and communities. In my experience with Indigenous communities, this has meant being sensitive to protected tribal knowledges, to acknowledging tribal ownership of data, and to accepting that there is an accountability that I have to tribal communities that will last beyond my dissertation. Relationships and lines of communication borne out of my work must endure—I cannot simply abandon them or disappear once my research is done. As an Indigenous academic, these are just some of the ways that I work to decolonize my field and the way that I engage with people. The parameters of what ethical research looks like may look different for other researchers in other contexts, but the framework remains the same—respect, listening, and active engagement.

Trust and respect can lead to extremely fulfilling relationships borne out of our research. Early on in my fieldwork, I began communicating with a independent historian who had extensively written about the history of an area that I was researching. A series of visits and conversations evolved into a unique partnership—she would share her research with me in exchange for my assistance with various tasks on her property. This was reciprocal exchange at the most basic level—I provided labor, she provided knowledge that I needed to conduct my research. I spent time pulling weeds and shoveling snow away from buildings on her property—the cost of knowledge was truly physical! But, because of this exchange and communication, the independent researcher also became a friend. Respect for anonymity precludes me from sharing even more stories of friendships and collaborations with tribal communities that has come from my research, but they are also dear and important to me, and have opened doors for future research that has the possibility of benefiting these communities.

I will undoubtedly conduct more fieldwork in my time as an academic. My hope is that the lessons that I’ve learned about respectful engagement in the field will serve me well going forward in my career. Taking the time to step back, listen, and place the needs of the communities that we do fieldwork with at the core of our research agendas ultimately is something that can lead to more sustained and ethical relationships. This, in my mind is truly what can make for engaged fieldwork with people and communities.


Deondre Smiles

Department of Geography,

The Ohio State University