How can I, a non-Roma American, possibly offer a reliable representation of the experiences of Eastern European Roma migrants in the UK?
My research into the experiences of Roma migrants in the UK doubtless occupies a place in the fraught politics of identity and representation. After all, it does often seem that I grew up worlds apart from the participants in my research. Most of the people I met during my fieldwork in Roma communities in London lived much of their early lives in communist Eastern Europe, sometimes in extreme poverty, and in all cases as members of an ethnic group that often draws immediate ire from the majority populations. One participant in my research told stories of passers-by throwing rocks at her house, simply because they knew that a Roma family lived there; another described how, when she was giving birth, a doctor told her that she cannot feel pain because she is Roma.
How can I possibly understand how it feels to have these experiences? And what gives me the authority to represent these experiences on a public stage?
Social power and representation of minority voices
This is one of the key contentions in social research with disadvantaged groups, as researchers in many cases come from a position of greater social power, and even the most sympathetic analytical reading of a marginalised group's experience has the potential to fundamentally misrepresent individuals' perceptions of their own lives. There is a danger of perpetuating a narrative of poverty and oppression, which, by presenting research subjects simply as victims of society, can effectively disempower them and close off potential avenues for change and reform. Although I cannot claim the ultimate authority of being from the Roma community myself, I made a point of incorporating strong individual voices into the write-up of my analysis, thereby presenting participants' experiences in their own words.
The results chapters of my thesis focus on individual stories, including long segments of interview text that reflect how participants make sense of past life events. Then my voice as the researcher comes in to clarify, to offer context and to point out nuances in the participants' accounts. In this way the analysis becomes less an imposition of my interpretations of participants' experiences, and more a conversation between the participants and myself. Participants determine the direction of the narrative, and I, as an involved outsider, reflect on the areas of novelty in their accounts and seek to understand the linkages across a range of individual stories.
Understanding my role in telling others' stories
This brings me finally to the concept of 'reflexivity,' which refers to the way that I present myself as a researcher, the way that my presence influences my engagement with participants and the way that I interpret my involvement in the field. When I approached participants, they seemed to overwhelmingly perceive me as a young, unmarried woman, alone in a foreign country. This perception doubtless influenced which people would talk to me and which details of their lives they would divulge, and as such, I must understand my findings not as a 'full' or a 'true' story, but rather as the snippets of life that participants allowed me to see. Women, for example, were far more likely to speak with me than men, and when they did, their personal stories alternated between the factual and the emotional, between the things that they thought would be interesting to me as a researcher and the things they wanted me to know as a fellow woman.
There remain many aspects of life in Roma communities that I will never personally understand, and I cannot lay claim to an authoritative representation of the Roma migrant experience in the UK. What my research can reveal, though, are the stories participants choose to tell, their reasons for telling these stories in a particular time and place, and the ways in which my personal background and experience shape the data I am able to collect and the way that I understand this data. Fundamentally I see myself as an immigrant, writing about fellow immigrants; and although there are countless differences in our individual backgrounds, our shared identity in being from somewhere else anchors my analysis in personal experience. This discovery of commonality across social differences provides, perhaps, a means of lessening the divide between the researcher and the research participant, thus setting the stage for a more equitable portrayal of disadvantaged communities.