Family and fieldwork: on longing and commitment in knowledge production

May Ngo is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Her research focuses on the nexus between religion and development, in particular on the case study of Catholic nuns and their work of accompaniment and solidarity with factory workers in Cambodia in the garment export industry. She is interested in examining transnational religious actors whose activities particularly addresses the question of how we respond to the ‘other’ who is a stranger, particularly within the context of global inequalities.

Her other research interests include theology, migration, diaspora and literature. She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a novel.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.

This article was first published in ARI News on March 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission.


Photo by May Ngo

Photo by May Ngo

They were waiting for me at Phnom Penh airport with a handwritten sign with my name on it.

We had never met before as adults, but one of my cousins said he recognised me straight away from the photo my Dad had sent him. My aunt said I looked exactly like my mother.

I stayed with this aunt and her two sons for a month in Cambodia, in a tiny apartment above their mobile phone repair shop on a bustling boulevard in the capital Phnom Penh. Having only two rooms, they vacated the larger room above the shop for me while the three of them slept in the smaller room downstairs.

I had come to Cambodia to do a fieldwork phase at the start of a new research project.

Born in Cambodia but having grown up in Australia, my time there raised the question for me about what it means not only to return to the “motherland” to do research, but to do it with family. Not research specifically on my family, but with them in the sense of their presence being part of the quotidian landscape of my fieldwork, and consequently providing a personal entry into the everyday spaces and rhythms of life in Phnom Penh.

The month I spent with them was at various times intense, excruciating, enlightening and revelatory.

During my time there, I struggled with an abiding sense of failure — failure to manage my relationships with others, failure to manage my research, failure to manage myself. One of my first mistakes was to think I could be the same person here that I was elsewhere. I had to navigate how my extended family saw me, as simultaneously a “rich” foreign-raised other and yet one of the family. How they perceived me as a lone foreign woman visiting the country affected everything from whether I was able to go out by myself, expectations of how I would pay for everything, and what I wore, to their judgement of my lack of cooking skills.

A central dynamic of our relationship was the agony of simultaneously pushing against expectations that I did not completely understand, yet at the same time feeling that these people were indefinably a part of me. In this sense, I would say that our relationship was marked by an “agonistic intimacy” (Singh 2011). Agonistic in this sense comes from the Greek work agon, or “contest”, and portrays the ambivalence of a relationship that is at once intimate and foreign.

I had returned to the motherland and it was alien to me. Yet my “Western” sense of self could not hold up in that context either. Fundamental ideas that were like the air that I breathed such as the individual, choice and autonomy, were blasted apart in an embodied, affective way in the ordinary day to day living with my extended family. I experienced identity and a rigid sense of self as something temporary, permeable and largely outside of my control— in a word, an illusion. Once the conditions were no longer there to support a particular identity, there was emptiness, a gap between what or who I thought I was and the present reality. I did not expect to be in the field struggling with questions of “who am I”. It was a lonely place to be.

Much later, I wondered, can being in this gap be a productive place for research? How does it contribute to producing knowledge?

Inhabiting the liminal space where previously solid categories break down, where they continually fail us, although painful, is also a place of intense longing. A longing to belong, yes, but also a longing that produces a desire to know, to understand, even as the enormity of the paradoxes are paralysing. I contend that it is this desire, this restless longing filled with ambivalence, which is the condition for a continual engagement and commitment to research.

A profound, unfulfilled yearning can spur a desire to understand that provides the necessary commitment to endure over time, through difficult challenges, and across cultural, language and economic differences. And why is commitment on the part of the researcher important? I believe commitment changes what we can see, what can be revealed to us in research, if only because it commits us to staying rather than pulling away when we are overwhelmed. And the commitment is above all to relationship. In the people that we meet, the access that we gain, the conversations we have, that is our data.

Relationships are at the foundation of what and how we know. But collecting this “data” requires commitment because relationships cannot be determined beforehand — neither its form nor changing nature — because the other, just like myself, is dynamic and unpredictable. If a commitment is made, what responsibility do we have towards those we meet in research?

We are already always connected to the “Third World” — from the clothes we wear, the technology we use, the interconnected economies through which we make our living. But these connections, although we are aware of them, are mostly invisible to us. My personal relationship with extended family members in Cambodia highlighted these connections for me.

In this context, I’m unable to pull away from the “other” in research (as I have been able to in the past), to see them just as interlocutors or social categories, unable to forget that I could be one of them, that a part of me is actually one of them. Unable to pull away from the difficult questions of uneven life chances and opportunities, of what do we owe the other, of our own sense of entitlement. I feel the weight of family obligations in Cambodia but I see that there is a correlation between the personal obligations I feel and wider obligations (on the “political” level, if you will). What are the political (and hence ethical and moral) obligations to those we work with in a context of deep social and economic disparities?

It is a question that we as researchers, particularly of the “developing” world in Asia, have to face: the question of how we relate to the other who is the basis of our knowledge production. Relationships in research are often marked by an “agonistic intimacy” that requires a commitment of some kind on the part of the researcher. But it also raises another question: what kind of knowledge is produced that doesn’t rest on this commitment? That is not plagued by these kinds of questions or able to pretend to stand apart? That believes that it is able to impose clear boundaries between researcher and researched, personal and professional, private and public? Does this affect not only how data is collected, but how it is interpreted and analysed? And how it is then presented and disseminated as knowledge within and outside of academia?

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