Fieldwork and Family Life in Phnom Penh, Laura Beckwith, PhD Candidate, University of Ottawa

I defended my research proposal in June 2017 and six weeks later gave birth to my son. There is a cliché that goes: doing a PhD is akin to having a child. That is, the research becomes your “baby,” so doing both simultaneously could create either great synergy or great conflict. I wasn’t sure which. I received mixed reactions to the idea of taking an infant to Southeast Asia to do field work. While those close to me were supportive, I encountered other reactions ranging from condescension to horror from both Canadians and Cambodians. I was told flat out on more than one occasion: You can’t do field work with a baby.

But eight months in, our time as a family in Phnom Penh has been delightful. With apologies for the generalization: Cambodians love babies. When we walk past construction sites, men stop working to shout and wave at my son in his carrier. We’ve been chased by a police officer who wanted to touch his toes and pinch his cheeks. He’s been picked up and cuddled by countless stranger. Although I struggled to learn the Khmer language, before I had even learned to ask for directions, I had learned to answer two basic questions: boy or girl? And how old? We arrived in Cambodia when my son was 10 weeks old and so, my field work was also my maternity leave. I kept a relaxed pace, fitting in interviews around naps and playdates and learning to be a parent, at the same time as learning to be a researcher.

My field work site is a small village in a peri-urban area not far from my apartment where the residents are mostly urban farmers. They grow aquatic vegetables in small plots on the surface of a lake and sell them in the local markets. Some families have been in the area since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but for many it’s a second attempt to make a living after their rural rice farms failed due to successive years of drought. In the city, their livelihoods are again threatened – both by environmental changes and the expansion of the city into their farmlands. All of the evidence collected so far indicate that it is only a matter of time before urban agriculture in this area is no longer viable; either the water will become too contaminated, the unpredictability of the weather will mean crop losses become too high or the area will simply be paved over and turned into condos. The question really is:¬¬ which will happen first?

The farmers are well aware that time is running out. I have been asking people what they plan to do once they can no longer farm, in an effort to explore the slippery concept of “resilience” in the context of rapid urban development. I have found that parents with young children, even those with strong and recent ties to the rural areas, are deeply committed to staying in the city to be near schools where their children can get a good education. Their strategy for pursuing the resilience of the family unit stretches across generations, which is a dimension not often considered when we talk about building resilience.

This is a gamble that requires immense sacrifice from parents. Unfortunately, it is uncertain whether it will result in the next generation being any better equipped to deal with the situation than the present. In the face of an increasingly globalized city with rising land prices, deteriorating ecosystems and increasing inequality, families are struggling against systemic forces that are continuously reinforcing their marginalization, despite their efforts to resist.

I had expected motherhood to influence my positionality as a researcher. I had thought it would bring a sense of shared experience with my research participants who were also parents. Instead, it has reinforced the reality of my own privilege. My nationality and socio-economic status insulate me and my family from the immediate effects of climate change and globalization. My child will not carry the weight of responsibility for our future on his shoulders on his first day of school. I can, in fact, easily do field work with a baby. Instead of bringing me closer to my respondents, I am acutely aware of the gap created by the chance of fate that made me a middle class Canadian. Raising a baby in Cambodia has been a beautiful experience, but the ease and comfort of my life is not a reality that is accessible to all of Phnom Penh’s parents. I hope my research can illuminate the uncertain future of some of the city’s marginalized residents to ensure their struggle does not go unrecognized.

Field work for this research was carried out with the aid of grants from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa Canada, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (UCRSEA) Partnership.