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        Reflections on Positionalities in Social Science Fieldwork in Northern Botswana: A Call for Decolonizing Research
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In this article, two white, Western female researchers reflect on the methodological, ethical, and practical dilemmas experienced while conducting social science fieldwork in Botswana for their doctoral degrees. In addition, their shared research assistant examines her role as a social and cultural interlocutor, which was essential to the researchers’ successful navigation in their various field sites. Drawing on distinct but common experiences conducting research in northern and western regions of rural Botswana, the authors reflexively consider a series of interwoven issues tied to their positionalities: the disparity in benefits and return on research investment between the researcher and research participants; the nature of commodified or transactional relations, especially in an impoverished region highly dependent on foreign tourists; the complex nature of researcher–research assistant relationships; and the contradictory dynamics of being female researchers in a patriarchal society while also embodying privileges of whiteness and Western nationality. Building on these reflections, the authors engage with current debates in the social sciences to argue that researcher reflexivity is not an adequate end point and should result in engagement with ethical and epistemological questions regarding the decolonization of research practices more broadly.

In this article, we consider the complexity of research positionality in social science fieldwork, through reflection on our combined experiences as doctoral students and research assistant working in rural Botswana. The article explores the implications of our specific positionalities— with particular attention to race, class, and gender—to obtain broader insights for decolonizing research praxis. LaRocco conducted 10 months of fieldwork in 2013–2014 on the nature of the postcolonial state-building process from the vantage point of Botswana's rural conservation spaces. Shinn conducted 9 months of fieldwork in 2012–2013 on how social vulnerabilities related to gender and ethnicity result in differential adaptive capacities for people impacted by recent flooding changes in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Madise worked on both projects. Although these projects are completely distinct from one another, striking parallels in the research experiences of LaRocco and Shinn prompted this reflection. These parallels include attempting to navigate the race and gender inequalities in Botswana as white, Western female researchers; careful attention to the unequal relationships between the researcher and research participants; and the complex bonds between the researcher and research assistants. We situate our experiences within the broader literatures on positionality and fieldwork, as well as within the specific context of race and gender inequalities in Botswana. We then turn to our shared reflections on our three distinct fieldwork experiences to highlight the complex practical, theoretical, ethical, and methodological implications of researcher positionality in social science fieldwork, as well as their implications for broader efforts to decolonize research praxis.


The ‘field’ occupies an important space of empirical and critical engagement in the social sciences (Amit 2004; Coleman and Collins 2006). Critical scholars across disciplines have been rightly wary of the entire concept of ‘the field’ with its latent connotations of otherness, which “carries colonial baggage in terms of denoting ‘backwardness’ and conflictual practices, as well as legitimizing the need for intervention” on the part of both researchers and policy actors (Richmond, Kappler, and Björksahl 2015, 25). Recognizing the historical and contemporary complicity of academic practice in constructing and maintaining power binaries and hierarchies, we reject the notion that the researcher is separate from or liminal to the field. Rather, we engage with our own positionality to acknowledge that research is “an intersubjective process where both the researcher and researched are subjects with agency whose subject positions are constantly negotiated and where the politics of the broader context are played out at a micro scale” (Richmond, Kappler, and Björksahl 2015, 41). This recognition that research is intersubjective calls upon scholars in the social sciences to view data collection and knowledge production as relational and socially situated (Denzin 2009). Moreover, positionality is concerned with situatedness, a mindfulness of the connectivity between oneself, one's surroundings, and the people with whom one engages (Haraway 1988; Neumann and Neumann 2016). We approach this project from the perspective that awareness of the positionality of oneself as a researcher can invigorate empirical analysis (Neumann and Neumann 2016, 801).

Across the social sciences there is a robust literature regarding research positionality, dating back to the reflexive turn in anthropology (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and feminist geography. In fact, feminist geography has been at the forefront of methodological analyses of identity, reflexivity, and intersubjectivity in fieldwork (Chacko 2004; England 1994; Kobayashi 1994; Mandel 2003; McDowell 1992; Nast 1994; Rose 1997). Although less commonplace in political science (perhaps due to fewer scholars engaging in fieldwork), even here there has been sustained engagement with the role of the researcher in the field, especially among critical scholars of politics (Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015; Schatz 2009).

Another commonality in works focused on research reflexivity is an attention to gender, especially the gendered dangers of fieldwork that may be unique to female researchers. Scholars, particularly early career female researchers, have highlighted that one cannot always assume, contrary to much of the early reflexive literature, that the researcher is privileged in any given interaction, especially when taking into account gendered contexts (Caretta and Jokinen 2016; Johansson 2015; Kloß 2016; Miller 2015). This poses difficulty for many scholars like ourselves, in that there is a general failure to take into account the specific gendered issues of fieldwork preparation and praxis, especially in the pre-fieldwork training of doctoral students (Caretta and Jokinen 2016; Clark and Grant 2015). Nonetheless, there is a growing recognition among early career researchers that candid, honest, and reflexive discussion of the somewhat awkward, sometimes embarrassing particularities of being a female fieldworker (e.g., frequent marriage proposals) not only would benefit doctoral candidates in training but also would allow for a more analytically rich understanding of our own data collection experiences (MacDougall 2015; Moser 2008).

However, in this vein, much of the existing scholarship, especially in anthropology, is focused on the limitations, opportunities, and potential dangers to which the “lone female researcher” is susceptible (Kloß 2016). Some elements of this scholarship are highly relevant to our research experiences, particularly the way in which our embodied positionalities related to gender and race impact our investigatory endeavors. However, an important caveat must be acknowledged in our cases. Although LaRocco and Shinn were always lone female researchers from an institutional standpoint (conducting our doctoral work separate from a larger study or research group), we both relied heavily on our research assistants, including Madise, not just for research support but also as invaluable social, emotional, and quasifamilial support systems in the field (Thapar-Björkert and Henry 2004). Indeed, research interactions with assistants are often complex and rich. Simultaneously, they are employment opportunities, mutually transactional, and deep cross-cultural friendships (Heuser 2012; Molony and Hammett 2007; Turner 2010).

The complexity of these interactions are well highlighted by Mitchell's (2013) analysis of benefit gaps and extractive relations. The benefit gap represents the gulf between what research participants and the researcher can be expected to gain from their data collection interactions.

The benefit gap is tied to the concept of extractive relations in field research when the “unidirectional flow of information” stands to benefit the researcher to a far greater extent than her informants (Mitchell 2013, 1258). As discussed below, these concerns resonate with our own experiences as field researchers. First, we detail the race and gender dynamics that shape our specific positionalities in Botswana.


The racial dimension of our positionalities in Botswana is strongly connected to the role of the tourism industry in the country, including how it shapes perceptions of whiteness. Botswana contains a wealth of beautiful landscapes that support some of the healthiest wildlife populations in sub-Saharan Africa, making it a popular destination for safari tourism. The political economy of this tourism creates a particular context in which we conduct our research projects. Tourism is the second largest contributor to Botswana's economy, after diamond mining (World Factbook, 2017). Given the economic importance of tourism in Botswana, it is not surprising that nearly 40% of land in the country is managed for purposes of conservation and tourism development: 17% of Botswana's land is designated as a national park or game reserve and an additional 22% is set aside in Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) (Mbaiwa 2005a). Much of this protected land is located in the regions where we did our fieldwork.

Although tourist operations often occur in close vicinity to rural communities, the extent to which it benefits these communities is questionable (Mbaiwa 2003). Botswana promotes a high-cost–low-volume form of tourism, which is meant to generate high revenue with low environmental impact (Mbaiwa 2003). This promotes what is known as enclave tourism, characterized by foreign-owned operations and high prices that are unaffordable to most community members (Mbaiwa 2003). A 2005 study found that 79% of tourism facilities in the Okavango Delta were either foreign owned or co-owed between foreigners and citizens (Mbaiwa 2005b). Furthermore, more than 70% of tourism revenue in Botswana is repatriated outside of the country (ibid.). Although tourism certainly generates jobs in Botswana, Batswana tend to hold low-paying manual labor jobs, including as cleaners, cooks, and watchmen (Mbaiwa 2003, 2008). Also, when Batswana hold more advanced jobs, such as managers and professional safari guides, they are paid less than their expatriate counterparts (Mbaiwa 2003).

The racial aspect of these disparities is clear; most higher-paid expatriate employees are white, and virtually all lower-paid Batswana employees are black. Furthermore, the tourists who participate in photographic safaris are almost always foreign and are often white. Perhaps not surprisingly, one study also found high levels of racism within tourist operations; 53.3% of surveyed managers and 73.1% of workers in lodges confirmed racism between the black populations and white tour operators (Mbaiwa 2003). This racism was related to the failure to hire Batswana into top management positions and unpleasant working conditions for those people hired in the camps (ibid.). Mbaiwa (2003) explains, “As a result of enclave tourism, the local people in the Okavango Delta are being economically and politically marginalized with respect not only to access to natural resources or tourism, but also to decision-making in natural resource management and conservation” (46). Thus, there is a general sense among Batswana that the government has decreased their access to natural resources as a result of efforts to promote conservation and tourism (Mbaiwa 2003; Shinn 2016).

Our field sites were located within this broader political economy that is heavily influenced by the tourism industry and its racialized characteristics. Even if community members we work with do not themselves directly engage in the tourism industry, the presence of the industry directly impacts how residents of these villages perceive and interact with foreigners. As a result, this context directly informed how each of us were viewed by the communities in which we worked—LaRocco and Shinn as Western, white social scientists in Botswana and Madise as a Motswana woman employed by them. Although we were careful to distinguish ourselves from those working in the tourism industry (or any activity related to wildlife and conservation), its deeply embedded presence in rural Botswana led to unavoidable perceptions based on our race and associated assumptions about our class.


In addition to race and class, our positionalities as social scientists in Botswana are further complicated by our gender. Despite Botswana's development-related successes, gender inequality remains pervasive within this patriarchal society. Women remain at significant disadvantage compared to men in terms of access to political power, education, employment opportunities, and land and natural resources (Hovorka 2012). Women have traditionally held very little political power at any scale, from national to local level politics, including in tribal institutions. Furthermore, the constitution of the country has been noted as lacking attention to gender equality (Bauer 2016), and the role of women in some political arenas appears to have decreased in recent decades (Bauer 2011). This change is illustrated by the decreasing percentages of women elected to the Botswana National Assembly. Whereas 15% of elected officials were women in 1999, the number fell to 7% in 2004 and then to only 3.5% in 2009 (Bauer 2011, 25). Bauer (2010) posits this in part due to Botswana's failure to adopt any type of electoral gender quota, as done by many African countries with higher levels of women's political participation, as well as a general lack of political openings for women in the country. At the same time, the role of women has increased in some arenas, most notably in their ability to serve as chiefs (dikgosi), including in Botswana's House of Chiefs (Ntlo ya Dikgosi), an advisory body to the National Assembly that determines legislation in the country (Bauer 2016). However, when the number of representatives in the House of Chiefs expanded in 2007, the percentage of women representatives did not keep pace, falling from 20% before 2007 to 11% after (Bauer 2016). Bauer notes that representation of women in the national legislature in Botswana is among the lowest in Africa (ibid.). Even so, Bauer (2016) suggests that the increased number of women chiefs has helped elevate women's issues in the countries and has had symbolic representation effects by altering broader ideas about the potential role of women in political and other leadership roles (ibid.).

Locally, although women do attend political meetings within their communities (kgotla meetings), they report feeling a lack of confidence to voice opinions in these important village settings (Cassidy 2001). Hovorka (2006) attributes the weak role of women in Botswana politics to broader issues of inequality and the overall “shortcomings in education and economic empowerment relevant for effective participation” (211). Deeply embedded patriarchal norms also tend to restrict the domain of women to household-related duties (Cassidy 2001; Hirtenfelder 2017), thereby limiting their livelihood options and increasing their labor burdens (Hovorka 2006). This is especially true in rural areas (Taylor 2003). Gender inequalities impact rural agrarian livelihoods in a number of ways, including the creation of differential gender roles and livelihood responsibilities and unequal access to productive resources (Hovorka 2005, 2006). Women in Botswana thus experience deeply rooted inequalities at all scales, and women in rural settings are at a particular disadvantage.

Our positionality as female researchers is not separate from the patriarchal context of Botswana and the unequal gender dynamics that exist there, particularly in the rural areas in which we conducted our fieldwork. It is impossible to know how our gender influenced our research experiences, but certainly there were impacts. Women living in the remote rural locations of our fieldwork sites are less likely to be educated or independent from male family members than their urban counterparts, likely making our gender even more noteworthy to community members than it would be in urban settings of Botswana. Possibly, this furthered perceptions of LaRocco and Shinn as outsiders and may have influenced the willingness of people to speak openly with us. It is also possible that our age and gender caused us to be dismissed more easily by those in positions of power, making it more difficult to access some viewpoints. At other times, it is possible that our identity as relatively young women was to our advantage, allowing us to appear nonthreatening and therefore making some people more willing to talk with us about contentious issues. This perception was likely furthered by the status of researchers 1 and 2 as unmarried women with no children, both of which are considered markers of adulthood for Batswana. Certainly, however, gender, combined with the complex dynamics of race and class discussed above, further complicated our own positionalities within our rural field sites and research projects.

Notably, although the experiences of LaRocco and Shinn have many parallels, including in relation to gender, age, race, and our then status as doctoral students, we recognize that other researchers, including other white Western females, occupy different positionalities and work in different contexts, in rural sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, our own positionalities have shifted as we have transitioned from students to faculty members. Regardless, the experiences we share herein can offer broad points of reflection for all researchers to consider, regardless of their particular identity. Below, we discuss our approaches to research in Botswana before turning to our reflections on these complex positionalities.


Research Ethics

LaRocco and Shinn approached our respective research endeavors with the aim of employing a variety of locally sensitive and ethnographically informed methodological strategies. These approaches included privileging the participants’ views as a central pillar of our empirical data collection, the interrogation and acceptance of multiple lifeworlds among interviewees, an evolving design, and self-reflexivity of our roles as researchers in the data collection process. These approaches, which are aimed at ethical sensitivity, are not only appropriate from a social justice perspective but are also crucial to addressing the types of questions our research asks (Berg 2001; Robson 2002). The nature of our enquiries necessitated a methodological focus on qualitative data. Our projects focused intensely on the perceptions, narratives, and imaginaries that constitute daily life and resource-use patterns in rural Botswana. As such, attention to interpretive, local-level data was paramount. Moreover, this kind of fieldwork requires the mutual construction and maintenance of trust between the researchers and our interview informants.

Research Methods

The methodological approach of both research projects centered on semistructured interviews. In both cases, fieldwork data were supplemented by document analysis of textual sources from government publications, state and private media, and grey literature. The core of LaRocco's data collection comprised numerous conversations with individuals living on or adjacent to protected areas. Her interview-based dataset consists of 284 interviews with 385 individuals in the capital city Gaborone, Northwest District, and Ghanzi District. Interviews were semistructured, flexible, and in depth in nature. Each interview had a potential rubric of topics to cover but encouraged the possibility of interviewees introducing other issues into the discussion. Typically, interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 1 hour, with some as short as 15 minutes and others as long as 2.5 hours. Interviewees included community members living in conservation areas, civil servants, elected officials, conservation practitioners, and tourism operators, among others. Respondents from rural communities were overwhelmingly non-Tswana ethnic minorities, due in part to the fact that conservation space consistently maps onto predominantly minority regions. In Ghanzi District, conservation-adjacent interviewees self-identified, for the most part, as San or Bakgalagadi, and in Northwest District, mostly as San and Bayei people.

Shinn took a mixed-methods approach to her research, with heavy emphasis on qualitative data analysis. The core of her data consists of 55 household interviews and 11 in-depth participant observation sessions of livelihood practices in the villages of Etsha 6 and Etsha 13, located in the Okavango Delta. These interviews were similar in character to LaRocco's, always covering certain topics but allowing for the interviewee to expand and interject additional points of conversation. They typically lasted between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours, and participant observation sessions lasted between several hours and multiple days. Shinn also conducted 185 structured surveys in both villages, covering approximately 20% of households in each. Twenty additional interviews were conducted with government and tribal officials. Similar to LaRocco's experiences, interview and survey respondents were primarily identified as one of two ethnic minority groups, Hambukushu or Bayei. Madise took part in both of these projects.

Appropriate government permits were secured through the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism (MEWT). LaRocco received an institutional affiliation with the University of Botswana's Department of Political and Administrative Studies. Shinn had institutional affiliation with the Okavango Research Institute of the University of Botswana. Both secured the approval of the local dikgosi or kgosana [headman] upon arrival in village research sites, and where appropriate the leader of the community trust or top civil servant in the village. Alerting the local elites was essential to securing freedom of movement throughout the community and ensured that our research stays were sanctioned by the traditional authorities.

Research Fatigue

An important phenomenon at work in Botswana's rural areas is research fatigue. Perhaps due to Botswana's reputation for longstanding stability, safety, and functioning bureaucracy, it is seen as a relatively easy and accessible research site. Combined with characteristics that make it appealing especially to natural scientists, like substantial wildlife populations and unique ecosystems, rural Botswana welcomes a steady stream of researchers. Some communities (most notably LaRocco's sites of New Xade in Ghanzi and Khwai in Northwest District) have decades-long experience with researchers from the natural and social sciences. Indeed, specific locations that attract researchers might have an iconic status in a discipline or might be of symbolic importance (Clark 2008; Neal et al. 2016). The things that draw generations of researchers to particular areas may also generate boredom and frustration on the part of respondents who see an endless stream of newcomers, often asking the same questions, with little change over the years (Clark 2008). This situation is compounded because communities that articulate feelings of being overresearched are often marginalized, inhabited by minority or indigenous groups, and may have experienced (or be experiencing) some form of crisis or disruption (Sukarieh and Tannock 2012). The focus on marginalized communities may reflect an impulse toward justice in much social science research, wherein scholars seek to understand the dynamics of state neglect or oppression of certain communities that have historically existed on the margins of society.

Conducting fieldwork in highly researched communities requires the researcher to be sensitive to these impulses, to pull back if the researcher's presence is creating tension, and to engage with respondents’ perspectives critically, with an eye to why they might be opting to participate. The questions that force scholars to center our research squarely on the needs, motives, perspectives, and interests of our informants make our analyses richer and more nuanced. As political agents with their own agendas, how respondents choose to engage and what they choose to emphasize or downplay, especially in frequently researched areas, are empirical data that help in the analysis of their political context.

One specific tactic used to address the concern of research fatigue was to employ villagers to help with the project. In Shinn's case, because she worked in neighboring villages, she was able to hire two local research assistants (including Madise) for the project's entirety. LaRocco enlisted the help of community members, in addition to long-term Batswana research assistants, who traveled with her. In each community, she employed a local resident as a guide and community liaison, accompanying her and Madise around the village. These people were not only helpful interlocutors vital to securing interviewees but also provided contextual background and insights they would have otherwise missed, and their inclusion was an attempt to navigate the sensitivities of well-researched communities.

The potential deleterious impacts of research fatigue necessitate the researchers' explicit disclosure about research outcomes, potential benefits (or lack thereof) for the participants, and their return to the field for the sharing of findings. As discussed in more depth below, this last point may require the shifting of funding structures and research budgets—especially for graduate students and early career researchers—to facilitate additional travel (Moseley 2007). In the summer of 2017, LaRocco returned to the field with Madise and conducted a series of dissemination workshops in her community research sites. In one of her village field sites in western Botswana, the headman noted that their visit was the first time since he took up his position in the 1990s that a researcher had returned with a work product and findings. In heavily researched areas, this is deeply problematic and clearly evidences why communities are rightfully skeptical. Moreover, it has significance for questions of positionality because researchers are not just embodying the power dynamics of their own identities but of every previous research interaction—positive or negative—experienced by these communities. The deleterious effects of research fatigue speak to the very hierarchies described in this article. Time and time again, communities give their time and knowledge to researchers, often with little to no substantive change.

However, Neal et al. (2016) suggest that the pervasiveness of research in certain communities may also yield positive results for the participants. Through what they call “research savvy,” they note that as certain communities develop an understanding of the endeavor of research, they can begin to shape the encounters in accord with their own interests. This kind of “informed agency” is less about giving researchers what they want and more about using their participation in beneficial ways (2016, 501). Some of the potential respondents in LaRocco's project chose immediately not to participate, whereas others sought to use it to articulate their own positions. Notably, people tended to be more interested in participation after learning LaRocco was not a wildlife researcher (as is more common in the region). This itself is a telling piece of data that reveals simmering tensions with regard to human–wildlife interactions, the politics of knowledge production, and how people see themselves represented (or not) within one of Botswana's iconic ecosystems.

During our research processes and the subsequent respective write-ups of our doctoral dissertations and related journal articles, we attempted to carve out space for these Batswana voices. Through the use of direct quotes from interviewees, we emphasize and privilege local perspectives. This approach had both ethical and analytical rationales. From an ethical perspective, it conveyed, to the best of each of our abilities as privileged outsiders, the perspectives and lifeworlds of our informants. LaRocco sought to address interview respondents’ nearly ubiquitous concerns that they were ‘not heard’ in issues concerning conservation. Similarly, in Shinn's case, this privileged the voices of community members in conversations about natural resource access and environmental governance, places where those voices are often missing. In both cases, this approach allowed for ethical anxieties to be addressed and intellectual goals to be met by foregrounding the lived realities of research participants to the best of our abilities.


The fieldwork took place at different times and in different disciplines (Shinn in human geography and LaRocco in political science), and required different logistical realities (Shinn was primarily based in two neighboring communities, whereas LaRocco's research occurred across two districts). However, we encountered numerous similarities. Very often, our research experiences mirrored each other's with respect to methodological, ethical, and practical dilemmas related to our positionality in the field. Reflecting upon the impact of our embodied identities on the research process we categorized four broad thematic issues: (a) the role of identification in the field, (b) the scope and impact of insider-outsider dynamics, (c) foreignness and its perceived relationship to the Botswana state, and (d) the methodological impact of interviewee agency and our own positionality. Each is detailed below.

(Mis)identification in the Field

Given the demographic profiles of the researchers as white, Western women, in the process of establishing a research rapport built on trust and mutual understanding, it was necessary to distinguish ourselves from other categories of actors with which we share numerous embodied signifiers, especially in terms of race, class, and nationality: notably foreign tourists, expatriate tourism workers, and wildlife researchers. Tourism-related individuals are not infrequent visitors to the rural areas of our field sites, but these interactions are often marked by skepticism, misidentification, and in some cases, transactions of an economic or sexual nature. A reflection from the early days of Shinn's doctoral research conveys the stickiness of these preconceived (mis)identifications in our research efforts.

In September of 2012, Shinn arrived in the village of Etsha 6 to conduct the primary period of her doctoral fieldwork. Having spent some time in the village conducting preliminary research the previous year, Shinn already knew two women, including Madise, who would work with her as research assistants. Thanks in large parts to their efforts, her project was up and running within a couple of weeks, and residents of Etsha 6 were getting used to seeing a lekgoa (white person) traipsing through their village, asking people seemingly odd questions about environmental governance and flooding patterns, and requesting to go with them to collect natural resources. One day a few weeks into fieldwork, Shinn and her assistants were walking along the dusty paths of Etsha 6 between interviews and she noticed they seemed to be ignoring a man yelling at them in Setswana.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“Oh,” they replied, “he's just asking if you'll marry him and take him back to America with you when you leave.”

Shinn asked why they had not translated that to her, and one of them responded casually, “We stopped translating marriage proposals a while ago.”

She asked, “Does that type of thing happen often?”

They looked at each other and knowingly laughed in response. Shinn was left to wonder in what other ways she might be oblivious to her new surroundings, and what her identity signified to those around her, despite her deepening embeddedness in the community.

Insider–Outsider Dynamics

The pervasiveness of this kind of misidentification gave way to a kind of paradoxical insider–outsider dynamic that informed every step of fieldwork. An illustrative example of this can be seen in our complex interactions between the researchers and our research assistants. Both LaRocco and Shinn count these women as friends and even sisters, but our relationships are marked by contradiction. We were at once the expert and the (sometimes oblivious) student, the boss and the friend, a family member and a foreigner, a researcher and an object of curiosity. No amount of methodological training, time in the field, or careful attention to ethnographic practice could change the fact that, especially with these two women so vital to our research, we are at once an insider and an outsider. No matter how much time we spent living in their village (and in the case of Shinn, together in the same household as one of her assistants and her family), and no matter how many times we return to Botswana, we always eventually leave again. And no matter how strongly they feel toward us as friends and sisters, we will also always be a potential employer and source of income. In this way, there is a power dynamic that cannot be escaped within these relationships, one that is directly tied to our positionalities as white Western researchers.

Furthermore, this liminal position was not limited to our interactions with our research assistants, with whom we developed deep and long-lasting bonds. This aspect of our positionality as foreign, white researchers illuminates the incredibly complex insider–outsider dynamics within Botswana more broadly, a country that houses a tourism industry that attracts more foreigners every year than there are Batswana citizens. Although LaRocco and Shinn were not tourists, we are educated, comparatively wealthy, white foreigners from the Global North. At the same time, although we are not citizens of Botswana, we also developed some firsthand knowledge about life in rural Botswana. As we developed a rapport with our informants, we became genuinely sympathetic to their issues. In the eyes of our respondents, our claims to both some insider knowledge and our privileged outsider status made them believe we stood a greater chance of being recognized and heard by the state. This idea further illustrates the extent of their perceived, and perhaps actual, marginality from the structures of authority under which they live.

As rural Batswana regard government policy as influenced to a greater extent by ‘foreigners,’ they begin to view this constituency, one to which we belong, as the one upon which to make claims, rather than their own government. Finding little success in the standard consultative process or the expression of grievances, the idea of bringing outsiders on board is viewed as potentially more fruitful avenue, as discussed in detail in the following section.

Foreign-ness and Perceived Relation to the Botswana State

A consistent theme in both research projects was the perception among informants that the researchers had privileged access or connection to the state by virtue of our positionalities of white Westerners. As noted above, in this region of Botswana, residents have become accustomed to seeing white Westerners as either luxury safari tourists, employees of that industry, or wildlife researchers and documentary filmmakers. In this way, white people are associated with wealth and status beyond that of the typical Motswana. For this reason, the color of our skin, not to mention our American nationality, allowed people to assume that our presence might benefit them in some way, including providing a conduit through which to speak to their government. Indeed, at the end of every interview, both researchers asked people if there is anything else they would like us to share in our writing. Sometimes they used the opportunity to tell us stories unrelated to the research topic but important to their well-being, including stories of social workers and government officials who promised to come to their villages but never did, or government food assistance they were promised but which never materialized.

Despite an atmosphere of enthusiasm around the possibility of telling their story, some respondents were skeptical or suspicious of research in general or frustrated with the likely futility of their participation in our studies in terms of tangible policy changes, as is typical in heavily researched areas. Yet, on more than one occasion, an individual who was originally reluctant to be interviewed would seek us out to express a grievance. This hesitation, but ultimate willingness, stemmed from the expectation that our embodied privileges (white, wealthy, Western) would make the researchers more well placed to communicate their grievances to the government. After several months of repeated interactions along these lines, we both concluded that community members tend to believe that foreigners, especially white foreigners, hold far greater sway in the ability to shape the state's involvement in the lives of rural Batswana compared to themselves. Although this provided an interesting empirical insight into the nature of the Botswana state, it also demonstrates the most substantial ethical dilemma of our fieldwork praxis.

We were honest and candid about our relative unimportance, and the limits of our power in swaying government policy, but we confirmed that a finished copy of our respective theses would be deposited with government authorities. LaRocco and Shinn, of course, made no guarantees, either that the government would hear their concerns or would use them in the ways in which they (and we) hope they would be used. That is to say, we never promised that our work would actually do any good in their lives. Ultimately, people rarely declined to talk to us, perhaps out of some hope that our position would give them greater access to the state. However, an honest assessment of the disconnect between the perceived scope of our power and our actual power vis-a-vis the central government (as relatively unknown early career researchers rather than influential expatriate tourism entrepreneurs or conservation activists) renders the question of this research exchange problematic.

Finally, our perceived privileged access to the state also highlighted the substantial marginalization felt by many who live in Botswana's rural districts. This sentiment was illustrated through a conversation LaRocco had with one interview participant in February 2014, a month after the official start of Botswana's sweeping and impactful hunting ban. The respondent, a man in his mid-thirties, wanted to know when she first heard about the hunting ban. Replying truthfully, she told him she became aware of the impending hunting ban in late November 2012, a full 14 months before its implementation, from a BBC news report. LaRocco disclosed that the structure of her doctoral project was built around the knowledge of the ban and that this information had been readily available to a particular set of actors for more than a year. Her response saddened this man. He reiterated that he had spent his whole life in rural Botswana, living among wildlife and adjacent to protected areas. He said that as a San man he felt a cultural affinity towards the practice of hunting. And yet, he only heard about the ban several weeks before its implementation through a broadcast on Radio Botswana. He said, “The makgoa always are more important. You knew before we did.” This confirmed all of his suspicions: a foreigner, a lekgoa, knew a year before he did that his lifestyle and livelihood would be fundamentally altered by his own government. This interaction was representative of sentiments often encountered during fieldwork.

Methodological Implications of Informant Agency and Researcher Positionality

Lastly, as alluded to above, our interviewees were not passive in these interactions. Rather, in many cases, researcher positionality was instrumentalized for their own goals. Our unique identity positions require us to consider confirmation bias in our research but also is part of what gives us access to the richness of our empirical data. The frank acknowledgement by Batswana of the state's apparent privileging of foreign perspectives produces a kind of participation on their part, wherein research is viewed as a potential vehicle of grievance with instrumental ends. An older Bayei man living in Sankuyo village spoke with LaRocco and insisted that foreigners held greater sway over the calculus of policy making and that as a Westerner, she had greater ability to influence decision-makers.

He noted: “Government will give you answers because of you being white. I plead with you to take our concerns to government; foreigners are [more] listened to than locals… Go tell your fellow nationals that the communities of Sankuyo, Mababe and Khwai are having it hard.”

Interview participants surmised that decisions are made, especially with regard to conservation and resource use, in response to the needs and desires of people who look and sound like LaRocco and Shinn, and who embody the same privileges that we do. They viewed us as a potential conduit to connect them to the halls of power. Many respondents viewed our conversations as acts of negotiation or resistance—a pragmatic means through which to assert a position and hopefully have that message conveyed to those in power. Our conversations became a mechanism through which rural residents believed they could communicate their opinions, perspectives, and needs to the state.

We recognize that our training as social scientists (Shinn as a human geographer and political ecologist and LaRocco as a political scientist) makes us attentive to questions of power and that this impacts the types of questions we ask and the answers we receive. We are trained to analyze issues of inequality and are predisposed to work that seeks to uncover injustice. In our quest for answers to our research questions in Botswana, we sought to understand the structural vulnerabilities that impacted our research participants. We sincerely hope that our research can not only highlight such inequalities, but that in so doing it can do some small part to help build a more just and fair world for some of these people. However, to do so we first had to find the injustices. Thus, we observed how power operated at all turns. We found abuse of power by the state and discriminatory tendencies of government officials toward rural populations, and we learned how gender operates within the Botswana patriarchy. That is to say, we uncovered the injustices we knew we were bound to find. This does not mean these things are not real, but we were looking especially for them because we had been trained to see them and to know that they exist, even when invisible. And over time, as people in Botswana came to know us and understand our research, it also impacted the types of answers we were given. We barely needed to ask the questions for them to start telling us their newest stories, because they already knew the type of information we were seeking. A good example occurred when Shinn returned for a follow-up trip to the field in 2014. One of her key informants became excited when she entered his compound. After a brief hello, he immediately said, “I have been waiting to tell you …” and launched into a description of how new regulations were impacting his livelihood in detrimental ways. This was just the type of thing Shinn had been wondering about; he knew she would be interested and had catalogued that away to tell her at their next meeting.

This does not make the findings less true. There is injustice. Vulnerability and marginalization are real. But it is worth asking how our identities impact the questions we ask, the answers we receive, and how we analyze and understand them. How might findings be different if we were Batswana? Men? Government officials? How would we understand power and vulnerability if we were not explicitly trying to find it? What if we were so focused on our own lenses, frames, and questions that we missed a far more important story, or what if we were not asking the questions that might actually have an impact on people's’ lives? We should note, we are extremely attentive to member-checking findings, triangulation, contextualization and to dissemination efforts, but nothing is unbiased or neutral. There is no such thing as an objective researcher. Yet we believe these stories need to be told, in Botswana and elsewhere.


Although LaRocco and Shinn have noted the impactful nature of our research assistants in our projects, we wanted to make room for the voice and perspective of Madise, to share her important perspective and to tease out further the ways in which her experiences inhere in what Temple and Edwards (2002) call the “triple subjectivity” of research—researcher, participant, and assistant. Like other scholars thinking reflexively, we seek to move our experiences from obscured to articulated (Caretta 2015; Turner 2010).

In written reflections, Madise commented on the many benefits of working as a research assistant on various projects. Overall, she found it to be an enjoyable job because it allowed her to meet different people and learn new things every day. As a result of this work, she learned a lot about her own country, and she now feels more confident explaining to people topics related to the research projects on which she has worked. Although she naturally speaks softly, working as a research assistant built her confidence to speak in public without fear, even the first time she is meeting individuals. This has been a valuable skill in her personal and professional life, and with great relevance to her positionality as a young Motswana woman. She is now sought out for her experiences and expertise developed during various research projects. When there are volunteer jobs with house-to-house visits involved, village authorities contact her because they know she has worked with different people from different races and identities. The research also broadened her perspectives and made her feel friendly toward everyone, regardless of color or race or family background. Madise has found that she prefers to work with researchers from the United States because they are friendly, and she has found they do not have pride regarding their social and educational background.

Madise also reflected on some of the challenges of working as a research assistant. As a translator, you are supposed to think fast. It is challenging work to stay attentive during interviews and to remain focused enough to translate immediately after the interviewee finishes answering. To be a good translator or interpreter, you are supposed to be stress free so that you can focus well during the interviews. If you live with stress, your mind will be clouded during interviews, which leads you to lose concentration and you might not interpret well. There are also other challenges, including having to communicate with people who have no interest in the projects, or who are short-tempered with questionnaires that take a long time to be completed, or who demand money as a reward for participating, especially when seeing white people.

However, it is important to tell the truth and to explain what a researcher is and what you do. Madise also learned that working with researchers from a different country and culture can sometimes be challenging because you have to tell them how things are done in your culture, which may lead to an argument. For example, you have to instruct them that it is good behavior in Tswana culture to greet everyone you meet regardless of age or race, as doing so shows that you respect other people. Telling your employer how to behave can be awkward.

LaRocco and Shinn found that our complex positionalities and the relationships we developed within our field sites are further illuminated through the written reflections and related conversations we have had with Madise. She understood her job as requiring particular kinds of special skills, not limited to multiple language proficiencies but tied deeply to the question of how to handle our positionalities in research. Mayorga-Gallo and Hordge-Freeman (2017) describe how positionalities shape two factors that impact the feasibility of research—credibility and approachability of the researcher. Our research assistant enhanced both of these in ways likely impossible without her presence and expertise. In fact, much of her work consisted of acting as a translator or intermediary. Her presence was a kind of embodied authentication, vouching for our presence in our daily interactions and putting people at ease with answering the questions of strangers. She recognized the ever-presence of this cultural and positional interaction when she noted the difficulty of explaining Tswana cultural customs to us. We were surprised by Madise's preference for working with foreign researchers, particularly Americans, as opposed to other Batswana. This introduces an additional layer to the question of positionality. Madise found that Batswana researchers were more dismissive of her rural background and educational credentials. She recounted that interactions with Batswana researchers (or government officials tasked with conducting interventions in her region) tended to disregard her skills and knowledge base, whereas foreign researchers valued the very aspects of her identity, especially her insider knowledge of rural communities, typically dismissed by her compatriots. Thus, positionality within the context of Batswana society also matters here. In a country with substantial levels of rural–urban inequality, which often translates into vastly different educational attainment and economic wealth, being outsiders to complex intrasocietal tensions allowed us to come to our relationship with our research assistant without certain kinds of positional baggage.

Beyond our status as outsiders, our identity as white women influenced the dynamics of her role as a social interlocutor and cultural translator. Notably, our race (and implicitly our class) was the most obvious element of our identity to impact research interactions. Madise noted that our whiteness was read by potential respondents as a sign of wealth and that some expected monetary compensation for participation in our research. As noted from the identity interaction described above, Madise characterized the clarification process as one of the most important aspects of her job. Madise noted that she often used the example of census enumerators, who are familiar to many in Botswana's rural areas, to try and explain what researchers are—people coming to the community to generate information. Nonetheless, the undeniable positionality of our race informed our research interactions and many potential informants still demanded cash for participation.

The other inescapable aspect of our identity is our gender. On one hand, Madise argued that our identities as women allowed us privileged access to the perspectives and lifeworlds of women in Botswana, a group, as noted earlier, often marginalized throughout the country. On the other hand, our position as women created an additional burden of work for Madise, who often had to deal with a variety of field proposals and propositions from Batswana men directed at us. In this, Madise engaged in yet another form of social navigation and gatekeeping. In her position as a Motswana woman, she was seen by Batswana men as an intermediary guarding ‘access’ to us, and who pursued us through her, with the requests coming almost exclusively in Setswana. Men viewed her as the social interlocutor through which to channel their desires to become close with us (which is connected not only to our gender, but also to our race and class, as white women are perceived as wealthy potential partners). These interactions created additional burdens and a substantial increase in workload for Madise. She dealt with this in a very pragmatic, if an uncomfortable, way for our personal politics. She urged us to tell potential suitors that we were married, even if that was not the case, to dissuade further pursuit from Batswana men. This was, of course, troubling for us, as we believed rejection of a suitor should be recognized because of our wishes and not because a man had ‘claimed’ us. Nonetheless, this was a pragmatic and efficient way for Madise to cope with an onslaught of proposals that she handled on our behalf.

All work is transactional. We recognize despite developing a deep and long-lasting relationship with Madise, that this genuine friendship was based on a foundation of exchange. We have grappled with the disparity of benefits that accrued to us after our research in Botswana. Both LaRocco and Shinn have received doctoral degrees and now work in academic positions in the United States. However, it would be inaccurate to discount the ways in which her work with us generated material benefits for Madise, even after we left the field. In her role working for us, Madise was able to cultivate a reputation in her community as an individual with a unique skill set in interpersonal interactions, and her experience conducting interviews led to subsequent employment on short-term projects like acting in community outreach about malaria prevention on a Botswana Ministry of Health project. Her reputation in the community, especially with the village kgosi, was one of having substantial experience talking with a broad swath of people, and doing so effectively.

Beyond these material benefits, Madise articulated how she found her work with us personally fulfilling and empowering, allowing her to develop a sense of authoritativeness and confidence in public settings that is often uncommon for Batswana women. She expressed a kind of personal satisfaction with her role, and like us, she is glad for the opportunity to have developed skills and personal friendships that lasted beyond our fieldwork together.

Concluding Thoughts: Positionality-Sensitive Fieldwork in an Age of Decolonization Reflecting upon our own research experiences in Botswana has been edifying and productive as we envision our future careers as fully fledged academic researchers. Since the 1999 clarion call of Linda Tuhiwai Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Smith 1999) was published, a rich literature has developed in the social sciences around efforts to conduct more equitable and plural research. Indigenous scholars and scholars from the Global South have clearly articulated the history of Western research obscuring and erasing alternative ontologies and epistemologies, and they have suggested ways to reinvigorate the academy with these practices (Asselin and Basile 2018; Brown and Strega 2005; Chilisa 2012, 2017; Datta 2018; Mutua and Swadener 2004). Although it has been ongoing for decades, this scholarship now intersects with a burgeoning political movement demanding decolonizing methodologies, as well as the academy more broadly.

With the present article, we aim to bring these two tracks of literature, positionality and decoloniality, together. In our case, decoloniality is the logical, outward-facing next step from our grappling with positionality. It is possible and likely that not everyone's exploration of positionality will lead necessarily to questions of decoloniality (though we believe its highly relevant for scholars with similar identities to ours), but ours does and must.

One last anecdote from the field captures the necessity to move from positionality to decoloniality. When LaRocco was working in Ghanzi District in western Botswana, she frequently visited the local kgotla to interview the traditional authorities, schedule meetings, or collect paperwork. One day she received a phone call from a woman who worked there. The woman asked whether LaRocco would mind stopping by the office the next day to help her. She was completing a university correspondence course and was having some difficulty. A colleague suggested that she contact “the white woman doing the research” for assistance. LaRocco's positionality drew her into the interaction. The next day at the kgotla, the woman explained that her assignment for the course was to conduct an evaluation of how community members interfaced with the office of the traditional authorities and that she was to use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. But there were elements of the instructions and assigned readings that were unclear and confusing to her. What was, she asked LaRocco, “snowball sampling”? She understood what a snowball was, despite never having seen snow, but she could not figure out what a snowball had to do with gaining interview respondents. For her, it was irrelevant and confusing. The very language of research, the material provided by the course to instruct her in interview and sampling techniques, had not been decolonized. The analogic framework used to introduce new students to concepts was based entirely on Western cultural and lexical experiences.

Feminist scholars have long called for reflexivity and positionality-sensitive research, with more recent calls extending to intersectionality and decoloniality. The next step of reflexivity in our research, for us specifically as white women committed to socially just research endeavors, is decoloniality. In many ways, positionality is an inward-looking exercise in which we demand of ourselves an examination of our constructed cognitive frameworks, a consideration of the role of empathy in research, and an analysis of interpersonal (often cross-cultural) relationships in scholarship. However, once we have undertaken this exercise in reflexivity, it is necessary to frankly situate the personal in the broader realm of the political. For us, discussions of positionality are for naught without then moving to the next crucial question of decoloniality.

Feminist work is concerned with challenging hierarchies, and in this has common cause with decolonization, but this requires the substantial work of taking seriously our own positionality in the critique of research praxis. Like feminist and other positionality-sensitive research traditions, the call to decolonize is a challenge to an academy based on positivist notions of objective research. Decolonization can be liberating for a wide variety of scholars, not just those who personally identify as Indigenous because it opens larger vistas of methodological plurality. In this respect, it has much epistemic overlap with feminist scholarship.

Specifically for doctoral students and early career researchers, this call for decolonization can be difficult and contains risks on our part. In our efforts to include coproducers of knowledge in our writing and to stretch our already meager research budgets to bring them to conferences, we might jeopardize our own institutional position in departments, which are reluctant to take on decolonization as a political project. In this context, positionality is relevant again—where we sit in the academy impacts our efforts at meaningful decolonization, a political project to which we both feel committed. In the back (or front) of our minds linger many questions. For example, if we include our research assistant as a coauthor, how will that impact my tenure review? Will the committee view the research contribution less favorably? These are valid questions to ask, but they do not constitute excuses to not engage in these decolonizing efforts.

We do not, and cannot, claim to have the answer for how to decolonize research practice. However, the recognition of the privileges embodied by our identities necessitates that we address the hierarchical inequalities from which we have benefitted, and we bear a responsibility to create space for those whose labors are erased. The reflective consideration of the impact of our positionality as Western, white women conducting doctoral research in a postcolonial context highlighted lacunae in our own training and in our current institutions. Like Medie and Kang's (2018) recent work on the unequal power relations of race and nationality at top feminist journals, which elicits specific recommendations for the decolonization of academic publishing, we seek to outline a few potential avenues for the decolonization of research practice.

First, we urge the incorporation of decolonizing approaches and literatures to graduate methodological training, research question development at the doctoral level and within institutional review board processes prior to fieldwork. It is imperative that doctoral students and their committees take into account not only how positionality may impact ethics, but they must also question whether is it possible to be ethical without also being decolonial. Explicit attention to positionality, privilege, and decolonization in doctoral training, especially at the pre-fieldwork stage must be as essential as other hallmarks of pre-fieldwork preparation. This also necessitates meaningful discussion of the institutional context of the academy, which in many cases has served the colonial impulse, rather than the opposite (Branch 2018; Rhodes Must Fall Movement 2018). Second, meaningful financial resources for decolonization need to be included in budgeting for research and dissemination practices, especially in doctoral funding and grants. These resources can include PhD stipends required to pay for return field visits after completion, thus mandating feedback to informant communities in an effort to disrupt the dynamics of one-time, extractive research. Additionally, large disciplinary conferences that already offer funding for doctoral students or scholars from the Global South can open up these opportunities to research assistants to facilitate their participation in research dissemination processes. These interactions could be potentially valuable networking opportunities for future employment or further study on the part of research assistants, but would also enliven the perspectives and debates at these scholarly forums. This could help address the imbalance in representation at important venues of knowledge production and bring more sustainable returns for essential co-producers of knowledge. In both regards, institutional support for doctoral students, postdocs, and junior scholars is essential. From our own research we have seen how past research interactions can shape the experiences and outcomes for research and participants on a generational scale. Thus it is imperative to empower young scholars to adopt decolonial approaches from their earliest training and at each stage in their career. Beyond financial support, this means institutions must begin to recognize alternative publishing and dissemination strategies in promotion and tenure processes. This means valuing collaborative research, welcoming coauthored papers, and positively recognizing intellectual endeavors aimed at decolonization in portfolio evaluation. Markers of career success that typically privilege exclusionary high impact journals should be widened to include an acceptance of open access mechanisms that would allow for greater feedback between researchers and the populations in the Global South with whom we engage in our fieldwork. This requires buy-in from across all levels of academic hierarchies, especially from senior scholars. Finally, at a personal level, scholars must be explicit about what elements of their positionality opens doors based on their position within the political and economic hierarchies of historical and contemporary empire, and be willing to sacrifice that privilege to create a more just and decolonized academy.


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