By Kari Mariska Pries, July 2014
Building relationships with interview subjects during fieldwork is a process fraught with complications. Study subjects tend to exhibit at least a moderate amount of interest in the personal life of the researcher during the research process, especially as relationships deepen in the process of “gaining access” in our target area. How to answer these questions and deciding what to share is a challenge that has been hotly debated in the social sciences. All interactions are altered by what information we choose to share, affecting participant parties in uncontrollable and sometimes unexpected ways. As we researchers move between the field and the university setting at home, our perceptions also change; both of ourselves and with regards to the ongoing relationships we have on either end. For instance, Scheyvens and Nowak (2003) discuss the stress a researcher’s partner undergoes during fieldwork which can impact on the emotions and ability of the researcher to complete tasks. In many cultures, women researching on their own whilst (any potential) partner remains at home can also raise questions. Relationships and families can significantly alter the way an individual is perceived by their research subjects as well. Field researchers have sometimes commented that to bring their families into the field, whilst dangerous, can also humanise them to their research subjects (Cassell 1987). Scheyvens and Nowak explain that “For a woman, in particular, going into a fieldwork situation and leaving her family at home is something incomprehensible to people from many cultures” (2003, 112). Yet, here at the Researching Security Network, there have been several women who have ventured into the field to conduct research, not only leaving partners and loved ones behind, but doing so whilst expecting a child. As part of a special series, we would like to explore our experiences conducting research on violence and security across Latin America whilst undergoing this awe-inspiring and complicated familial change.
Contemplating Pregnancy whilst Researching Violence
I completed my first period of fieldwork in April 2012 and, after several months of writing and revising that initial data, planned to return in September 2012 for another 6 months. It was over this break that I discovered that I was pregnant. As soon as this was confirmed with a doctor and a potential due date plotted, I informed my supervisor. Unlike the typical joke warning of “don’t get pregnant during [PhD, fieldwork, school, etc.]”, she was very supportive and together we worked to make my remaining research requirements more fitting to a pregnancy timeframe. At this early stage we decided to modify my research project to alter the breadth of the scope. Whereas the project began as a multi-country comparative analysis, it became instead an in-depth single country approach; examining multi-level rather than multi-lateral policy development frameworks. This altered the nature of my study and shifted some of the relevant literature. Influencing this decision were several purely practical considerations. First, I was most familiar with one country in Central America and had an established support network there. The security of office space, a room in the house of a former colleague and regular transportation was important to assuring both partner and the University that risk controls were in place and mitigated the greatest variables of any typical research project. Second, given the restricted timeframe of the project by a birth and maternity leave, it seemed best to limit travel times between destinations and to focus on an area where interview subjects would be more concentrated. Finally, given a history of working in the country and building on a first period of fieldwork already completed, it seemed prudent to build on existing research relationships and use them to snowball interview subjects rather than spend more time re-establishing basic networks in a new country. I was lucky that my supervisor, and through her the School, did not have too many concerns about continuing fieldwork under reproduction conditions. It appeared unlikely that the pregnancy would alter my security or vulnerability to violence whilst in situ. Therefore, the only significant limits on my time and movements in the field were those imposed by my own abilities, the healthy progression of my pregnancy and by airlines who limit flights for advanced pregnancy.
Beginning Again: A burgeoning presence
I was unfortunate in that my pregnancy was visible almost from the outset so that, once I returned to the field, anyone who had met me previously was quickly aware of my changing situation. New interview subjects might have initially assumed that I had a naturally bulbous figure but there was little question of generally proceeding without acknowledgement of the change. Jones (1990, 786) calls on theorists to recognize women’s “embodied lives” and how our bodies as gendered entities influences life experiences. Our work and our activities are affected even without a second human taking up residence inside the first. Additionally, at one point or another, women researching violence and security are required to define themselves within these violent spaces and in relation to victims, perpetrators (victim/perpetrators) and geography. We are forever attempting to control for the influence of who we are or what we might represent on the data we collect through interviews and other forms of field activities including participant observations. In the previous period of fieldwork, I had been careful to dress up professionally, considering my primary interview subjects at that time were institutional and government officials. How much more difficult then, to maintain such an appearance when heat exhaustion, nausea and swollen body parts make you wish for a tent dress and a comfortable chair in an air conditioned office. Nonetheless, ensuring I was well presented became increasingly important both to maintain my sanity and self-respect (pregnant bodies are unwieldy at the best of times).
Researching security at the policy level is not always an easy topic for a woman to break into, especially with male-dominated police forces, military personnel and top level government officials. I was particularly worried that a gringa story phenomenon would be exacerbated by what I perceived as my burgeoning femininity and vulnerability due to increasingly limited mobility. The young innocent image turned out to be somewhat less of a problem during the second round although there were other embodied social reactions which took its place. In many of my interviews there was at least some reference made to the pregnancy, usually at the interview subject’s instigation. This occurred more frequent with women than with men; the latter were slightly more likely to ignore it all together. The main question I received from both men and women was how my husband felt about me being in a foreign country by myself. The explanation that he was supportive of the goals of the research and of me seemed to be confusing but usually ended that line of discussion. My sense in the sessions was that the pregnancy stopped some of the previous castaway remarks about my being young or too young to be conducting research on this subject and that discussions were straighter to the point. I was still there doing the job so perhaps it caused my efforts to be taken more seriously. Or perhaps pregnancy did, in some way, cause me to take myself more seriously, as well. However, it was definitely the case that I was sometimes less inclined to prolonged pleasantries and long descriptive discussions in favour of a dialogue which addressed the central questions, challenged the obvious pat narratives and moved quickly to the essentials. Chairs were hard and the heat not always pleasant.
Field visits were another set of challenges for the pregnant body. Given the level of my motion sickness, buses were out of the question even if security had not dictated the choice unwise. Transport to other regional departments in El Salvador had to be arranged well in advance so that a car and driver from the office in which I was based could be freed up to take me. In one or two instances my research could have benefitted from an additional site visit but I was unable to stomach the journey. Moving about during site visits also invited a different level of interaction of individuals with my pregnant body. During one particularly memorable occasion, a (female) PNC official accompanying a group of visitors through a local holding cell (bartolina) complex made a motion to touch my belly and stated that she knew for certain due to the shape of its roundness that I was to have a strong boy. The incongruity of the jail cell construction site with high level officials on one side and at least 30 youth locked up in a single cage on the other whilst this woman pronounced the future of my child through her finger tips was surreal. Equally memorable was the afternoon I spent in a municipality known for its violence. Because of a mix-up with transport, ready money and a dead mobile, I spent most of the afternoon on the front stoop of the small gang rehabilitation NGO resting in a truly pregnant recline. Despite the area’s reputation, the shining sun against the backdrop of the local church and the surprisingly clean streets provided the perfect foil for the comings and goings of youth as well as several tattooed older gentlemen who worked there. There was even cake. Gilligan (1982 in Ortbals and Rincker 2009, 316) discusses how a pregnant woman is more likely to feel the interconnected nature of humanity, a societal as well as a physical motherhood. I suppose these feelings may have been stronger during those tranquil moments but it was not until the next week, when one of those tattooed older persons, a former gang leader, was killed on that same stoop in a rain of bullets that researching violence and security in El Salvador felt a bit too interconnected to bear.
High riding emotions are a key stressor when conducting pregnant field research and can bring on complications. My flexible fieldworker’s diet of fruit, vegetables and street food had been pared down to sugar-rich fruit and grains in pregnancy because of food poisoning and bacteria worries and it impacted the way I was able to function. Stress was also a likely factor in increasing health vulnerabilities. What could have easily been controlled at home became one more guilt-inducing complication to manage in the field. Precise interview timings are also a relative rarity in this context and waiting became more than the usual trial as blood sugar levels bounced wildly, only partially mitigated by snacks secreted about my person. Further pregnancy restrictions on the use of sunscreen and mosquito repellant, outdoor movement was limited during sunlight hours and sleep proved elusive whilst debating between mosquito’s whine and sweltering covers as well as remembering which side of the body was allowed for safe sleep. If a more pressing health concern had emerged, however, I had places to turn. On several occasions during interviews with women who were also mothers, the discussion turned to the practicalities of being pregnant in El Salvador. In particular, I received recommendations for several doctors, places to undergo pre-natal scans and home phone numbers should I ever require help. There were good birthing stories and less comforting ones to be recounted. And there was a reminder that, if I did end up in hospital, to keep a tight grip on my suitcase. I was informed of one couple who had recently delivered a child and the case carrying the cash they required to pay the hospital had been robbed at gun-point in the parking lot.
Researching violence and security is a context already fraught with emotion and high passion even when approaching it from a policy perspective as I do. To add a pregnant body into the equation challenges some traditional fieldwork tenets in the sense of whom we expect a researcher to be but does not have to limit their ability to complete the terms of their fieldwork. There were some notable advantages to having that unborn child in the interview room as a silent but present witness. First, on a practical level, pregnancy did not reduce my ability to do my job but rather impacted on both energy and patience; it most certainly affected the manner in which I conducted some interviews. Second, it appeared to influence interview subject perceptions on the seriousness with which I was conducting this research. Pregnancy also appeared to influence the manner in which I connected with both subjects and geography. It also made me incredibly grateful for the colleagues and network that I had in El Salvador. Without a bed to sleep in, transportation when taxis or walking were insufficient, and friendly communications every date, the project would have been much more difficult. Finally, biology has a mean way of catching up with a woman but also provides that extra level of determination and drive to get what you need in order to go home and unbutton your belt. As Ortbals and Rincker (2009, 319) conclude “these so-called advantages ultimately stem from the embodied lives women cannot escape”.
Cassell, Joan (ed.). 1987. Children in the Field. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Jones, Kathleen. 1990. “Citizenship in a Woman-Friendly Polity.” Signs 15. pp. 780-812.
Ortbals, Candice and Meg Rincker. 2009. “Embodied Researchers: Gendered Bodies, Research Activity, and Pregnancy in the Field.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42. pp. 315-319.
Scheyvens, Henry and Barbara Nowak. 2003. “Personal Issues.” Regina Scheyvens and Donovan Storey (eds.). Development Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. London: Sage Publications Ltd. pp. 119-138.
 On several occasions, I received remarks as to how this was appreciated as a “sign of professional expectation” and deprecating comments sometimes followed about the dress of some researchers and activists in similar positions. A powerful topic for another time both in terms of how people feel able to comment freely on a woman’s personal presentation and clothing may influence the types of answers you receive in an interview or even the access you are able to obtain to specific interview subjects.
More information on Kari Mariska Pries’ academic and professional interests can be found here. A recent conferene presentation on “Transnational Security Challenges in National Context: El Salvador” (June 2014) can be accessed here.