Gearing Up, Furqan Asif (PhD Candidate)

One of the things that people who’ve gone through it themselves tend to mention before you venture off to do fieldwork is how things will often progress at a certain ‘organic’ pace and that there will be challenges associated with waiting on things that you can’t control (such as organizing meetings). But it remains somewhat opaque and abstract, that is, until you get to ‘the field’.

A woman prepares a new fishing net at a coastal village in Cambodia while her young son demands her attention. Photograph by F. Asif. Permission was obtained before taking this photograph.

That is where I found myself these past two weeks as I dealt with frustration that started to boil as I faced internet connectivity issues at my house and – at first – not getting traction on finding research assistant candidates. After contacting the people and networks that I did know, I decided, for the sake of hedging my bets, to also find and contact the countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Cambodia and elicit their help in either connecting me with people or forwarding my message along within their networks. Neither of these yielded the response that I was hoping for.

Another idea which turned out to be the most impactful (thanks to my friend Pelle who suggested this) was to advertise the position as job positing on the Cambodia Daily web site (the Daily is one of a couple of English language national news outlets). So, by way of a suggestion to other grad students who may be reading this: find out what English language news outlets are in the country/city/community that you are in, reach out and advertise there. At first, Cambodia Daily thought I wanted a print ad and told me it would cost $120 but when I explained that I was a grad student on a budget and was only interested in having it posted online, they obliged (I have no idea if they normally charge even for posting on their online job board).

I ended receiving the majority of the seven applications mostly as a result of posting on the Daily and was more than pleased with the quality and potential of the candidates. So, in the end, my frustration in my second and third weeks here in Cambodia melted away and I was faced with the opposite problem –the difficult choice of choosing the right person who would make the best research assistant!

One area that receives little attention is the importance of the dynamics between the researcher and the research assistant and how the positionality of the assistant affects and makes a mark on the research (arguably as much as the researcher him/herself!). This is especially important in cases where the researcher has little to no knowledge of the language (not to mention cultural norms, etc.) and is relying on the assistant for translation/interpretation. Sarah Turner shines light on this in a chapter (‘The Silenced Research Assistant Speaks Her Mind’) within the book that co-edits – Red Stamps and Gold Stars: Fieldwork Dilemmas in Upland Socialist Asia. The chapter (and the book in general for those doing work in Laos/Viet Nam) should be required reading for any graduate student embarking on finding a research assistant.

After reading the chapter, I attempted to incorporate the insights and points raised in Sarah’s chapter into my interviews by asking the candidates what challenges they have faced and what has made them frustrated in their experiences as assistants/translators. Curiously, one candidate mentioned that when they were working in a fishing village in Tonle Sap during the rainy season, the biggest challenge faced was finding a toilet! The same person also mentioned that they found, similar to the assistants profiled in Red Stamps and Gold Stars that they had to rephrase questions on occasions to get the correct meaning across. In the end, the insights that I had gained from Sarah’s chapter were incorporated into the questions I asked my research assistant candidates and ultimately helped me in getting a better idea of who would be the best fit for me.

Lastly, there was one quote from the chapter (itself a quote from the book Postgraduate Fieldwork in Developing Areas: A Rough Guide) that I want to end with because I think it serves as a humbling reminder to all of us in the various stages of academia (grad student, seasoned professor, etc.):

“it is common for the researcher on entering the research environment to find him/herself in the role of naive idiot.”

Furqan Asif is a UCRSEA student researcher and a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on understanding migration, amidst increasing urbanization and regionalization, and its effects on the resilience and wellbeing of coastal fishing communities in Cambodia.

Click here to access a PDF version of Furqan’s article.