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  • Writer's pictureSarah Zawacki

Why do you study that?

I attended a conference in the second year of my PhD, just as I was beginning my fieldwork. This conference wasn’t your standard academic gathering; instead, the attendees were social workers, health professionals and public service administrators. Normally I wouldn’t have gained entrance to such a meeting, though as a freshly minted volunteer of the Roma Support Group, I’d gotten a special invitation. When we did our introductions, I explained that I was a PhD student looking at Roma health and that I had partnered with Roma Support Group to help build my networks of contact within Roma communities.

I hadn’t imagined that this would inspire disapproval, yet as I would come to find at numerous times during the PhD adventure, my topic proved polarising. Towards the end of the session, a social worker approached me. She asked me how I expected to get Roma people to talk to me, when I wasn’t Roma myself. I rattled off a stock response about building rapport through long-term health advocacy volunteering. She still wasn’t convinced, telling me that to be successful in this field, I would have to “live it.” It struck me as odd, as I had just explained that my whole fieldwork strategy was based on immersion, yet I wasn’t in the mood to debate strategies for conducting research with marginalised groups.

Her comment has stuck with me, though, even after successfully completing 28 interviews with Roma people, even after finishing my thesis. It wasn’t that she doubted my methods; it was that she doubted me, my wherewithal, my adaptability to new environments. I get the implication: a girl like me couldn’t possibly do this kind of work.

It’s not uncommon for me to encounter a degree of scepticism when I describe my academic/professional trajectory. Often this comes in the form of the question: “Why did you study that?” I reply that I was interested, plain and simple. Yet somehow this isn’t enough. My questioners study my face for some trace of Roma ancestry; they parse my surname, trying to determine whether its Eastern European origins hold some clue as to my interest in the Roma. It must seem unconscionable that someone who isn’t Roma could choose to work with Roma people. I must be in it for some personal gain, must have seen it as the niche from which I could carve out an illustrious academic career.

One person’s suffering should never be the making of another’s career, yet I know that Roma-related research has become “trendy” of late. It’s a hot topic for people who want to gain some quick attention to their research, and I can see how a new entrant into the field can be met with some suspicion. My research, after all, looks at people’s real lives. It touches upon poverty and closed-off opportunities, and I know how quickly crass hands can twist this into a debate over individual “deservingness.” I see why people would doubt whether a white girl from Michigan, a PhD student, possibly understand what it means to live with a stigmatised identity. And the thing is, I can’t – at least not in the way that Roma people understand it. I know that I have the privilege to be able to close the door on my research for the day, to move through the world without judgment.

Yet at the same time, I would never say that lacking the personal experience of marginalisation invalidates my observations from my work with Roma communities. Instead of talking about why I started working with Roma, I’d rather talk about how I approached my research. I’d rather talk about the years I spent working with Roma community organisations, the people I met, the stories I heard, and how these experiences shaped my perception of what it means to be from a group that is so commonly misrepresented. Any cause needs allies, and to use personal background as a means of delineating who has the right to speak could silence some potentially compelling voices.

I was reading Amartya Sen recently, and his concept of plural identities made me think of my predicament:

“The intricacies of plural groups and multiple loyalties are obliterated by seeing each person as firmly embedded in exactly one affiliation, replacing the richness of leading an abundant life with the formulaic narrowness of insisting that any person is ‘situated’ in just one organic pack.”

When I describe my work to someone new, they always fixate on the origin of my interest in the Roma, as though this holds the key to my legitimacy. Granted, I may have started out knowing nothing of the Roma, yet the next four years changed all that, and changed my own identity in the process. It all came down to keeping an open mind and challenging my own assumptions. It wasn’t about entering the field already knowing everything about the Roma; it was about being open to opportunities to learn something new. Sometimes in the world of research, we become so consumed with our supposed status as “authorities” that we forget that research is, fundamentally, about acknowledging – and appreciating – how little we know. It’s about learning something new.

The social worker at the conference was right: I did have to involve myself deeply in field. Yet she missed the mark in assuming that being an outsider would invalidate my research. Quite the contrary. By entering the field as a blank slate, by acknowledging my own lack of authority, I could (as much as possible) approach my research without preconception or judgment. And when working with communities who have suffered so much under the stigmatisation of their identities, isn’t this what we really need?


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