No one wants to be the “Global North”? On being a researcher across the North and South

In this blog post I would like to share my personal experiences of carrying out qualitative research in what contemporary scholars call the “Global South” (Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) and the “Global North” (Australia and the United Kingdom). To convey my message clearly, I adopt the classical political geography of “South” and “North” with the intention of neither confirming these narrow categories nor of universalizing my personal experiences but in order to work towards an honest sociology of knowledge through such peculiar experiences.

In particular, I discuss what I think are some of the emerging behavioral and ethical tendencies in today’s research economy and its main methodologies. On the one hand, the reluctance in the “Southern” environments in recognizing their own tendency to embrace predominant ways of producing knowledge. On the other, the reluctance of “Northern” research entities to acknowledge their own positionality within the global scenario – that is, accepting the fact of conducting research as outsiders and, above all, the sociological harm of pretending localism. The result of these two tendencies is, from my perspective, a globalized impoverished attention to factual awareness, which depends on the personal involvement of researchers in the context they study and the cultivation of the capability to build and rebuild a continual relationship with the subjects and the places studied beyond the duration of fieldwork research.

The “Southern” tendency to perceive the practice of producing research as antithetical or substantially different to the North consistently builds on the universal romanticization of the research produced in the Global South, cutting across the North and the South. Indeed, while the research and academic institutions that I worked for in the Global South tended to believe that their fieldwork quality standards were inherently higher, the fact of being at the mercy of external – and unstable – sources of funding often endangered their existence and alternative ways of working. In these circumstances, fieldwork mostly took place in relatively small timeframes and, likewise, theories needed to be quickly wrapped up, making it difficult to identify any effective counter-culture of knowledge production. Studies on publishing locally and perishing globally have importantly highlighted the material constraints of localizing research. While “Southern” knowledge is barely known and mentioned by North-produced researchers (although it often marks significantly several fields of studies), it is also important to add that, in my own experiences across the Arab world, large segments of upper and middle classes tend to receive their postgraduate education and establish their scholarship in Northern institutions, thereby being trained according to Northern criteria while trying to preserve their reputation of being local researchers. In similar ways, Southern institutions often delegate fieldwork to research assistants who struggle to receive intellectual acknowledgment. (The same acknowledgment that many “Southern” research institutions have been looking for in the international arena, still dominated by Global North’s epistemologies and funding sources). In this regard, I have seen no co-authorships offered to research assistants, who undergo processes of alienation similar to those recently discussed in the context of the institutions of the Global North. Likewise, I have witnessed similarly exploitative relationships which seek to build knowledge upon the anonymity and the belittling of an underpaid workforce, whatever the latter’s passport is.

Despite acknowledging the partially ethnic character of some of these power dynamics – such as European academics versus local researchers in the Arab Levant, mostly when the former lack the necessary linguistic skills and in-depth knowledge of the research settings – I would like to emphasize some nuances. While the global archetype of neoliberal academia certainly does not stem from Southern institutions, largely due to colonial legacies, in my experience I have identified hierarchical and alienating structures of research-making across different cultural patterns of knowledge production.

Dauntingly, ethical research and decolonial methodologies are becoming tokenistic worldwide, turning into a further disenfranchisement of diversely vulnerable researched subjects, such as refugees. In this scenario, the Global North currently promotes itself as a pioneer advocate of ethical research – a phenomenon which has led to a proliferation of publications on the topic, rather than finally aiming for a radical transformation of research and for the uprooting of the vulnerabilities of the researched.

With no intention to bury unequal historical relationships, the intrinsic “non-ethicness” of such structural deficiencies needs to be observed across Norths and Souths. To ethnographers, if quality fieldwork means collecting relevant data, it also needs to mean collecting what matters at a local level and in an appropriate way. Contextual relevance and cultural appropriateness inevitably require generous timeframes. Doing less but long-term research and paying under-explored forms of respect to the researched may be the way to go.

Moreover, a pressing question may center on the tyranny of grants and funding, which is said to dictate the design of today’s projects. To what extent is this the cause of such an unacknowledged sociology of failure in academic research? The present tendency is to design methods that involve an extremely large number of interviews and what I would call the “participatory approach fever”. The result of a misinterpretation of what “participation” should mean is subcontracting scientific evidence to researched subjects overburdened with theoretical expectations and over-theorizations, a tendency which seldom turns out to provide sound empirical evidence. In this vein, Northern-led research not only tends to romanticize the South, which would not be new in postcolonial scholarship, but increasingly invites the South to actively participate in its own romanticization. Affected by “participatory approach fever”, many scholars in the Global North feel urged to depict their work as local, while also missing the fact that sharing their own conscious positionality vis-à-vis the researched would instead be an invaluable point of departure in the effort to avoid ethical and scientific failure. Indeed, such a self-acknowledgment would finally contribute to nuancing the multiple cultures in which research design, data collection, writing, and knowledge production are embedded – cultures that are hardly definable within the categories of “North” and “South”.

In light of these considerations, I ask myself how ethnographic studies can survive without being sociologically relevant and, at times, even culturally appropriate. Subcontracting the production of knowledge either to local researchers or to the researched themselves is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. Yet it looks unfeasible for many researchers across the globe to dispose of proper time and funding to conduct research over a longer timeframe and develop a localized understanding of the contexts they wish to study. I identified a similar issue when I realized that some researchers who have a poor command of the local language shy away from hiring an interpreter due to a lack of material means or because they are in an environment that frowns upon social science researchers who lack contextual skills. While peacefully sharing one’s own limits and assets would potentiate empirical analysis overall, everyone wants to be the “voice of the Global South”. Instead, no one wants to be the Global North, impeding a honest sociology of knowledge. Thus, how do we decolonize sociological and anthropological knowledge and, at the same time, the sociology of knowledge, if the drivers of epistemological coloniality, across Norths and Souths, have managed to make themselves invisible?

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