Where is “the field”? Centering the periphery in Kinshasa

Downtown Kinshasa, showing a few fall buildings over surprisingly empty streets

Boulevard du 30 juin, Kinshasa (via Wikipedia)

I’ve got a new article up at The Republic about my time doing research in Kinshasa, and the idea of “the field” in social science research more broadly.  Come for the translation errors that led me to overcount nice toilets in my survey, stay for the reflections on power dynamics in academia and why we should stop referring to our research sites as “the field.”  A preview:

This use of ‘the field’ cannot be separated out from the many hierarchies that structure power within academic research. For example, academic knowledge production is still dominated by universities in the global North, which are in turn still plagued by issues of sexismracism, and classism. Nor are universities in African countries free from all of these issues. The upshot is that academics in many countries frequently have various types of privilege, which their research participants may not share. (This is also true for non-profit or corporate research, like the type that I was doing in Kinshasa).

In this context, ‘going to the field’ typically means stepping into a less-privileged environment. But beyond this, there’s often a whiff of danger that accompanies the phrase. Field Research in Political Science warns of culture shock, caused by ‘cultural differences of many types, [including] the weather, sanitation options, food, social behaviour, gender relations, etc’. ‘The field’ is constructed here as a place of isolation, discomfort, and scarcity. These hardships may even be used to justify the site’s interest as a location for research. But the term itself remains pejorative.