Of all the minor mysteries one might encounter in life, the question of ‘what type of toilet do you have?’ does not typically number among them. It is generally quite visible, for a start, be it a flush toilet, a pit latrine or just a bush out back. And no one gets through the day without using it. So whence the confusion?
And yet. It was 2009, and I was looking through the results of a survey of middle-class residents of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), feeling confused about toilets. The survey was at the behest of an international microfinance bank, which wanted to know if their loans were making their clients better off. So, they hired me as a research consultant, and I hired a team of surveyors, and we spent our days visiting clients in their homes and shops across the city. We asked them if they had more money to spend on the essentials: school fees, adequate food, and home improvements such as metal roofs or improved toilets.
Thus the mystery. The bank’s clients were doing better than the average person but they were still just barely getting by. In interviews, they used the phrase that makes up the unofficial 15th article of the Congolese constitution: se débrouiller, meaning to take care of oneself somehow, with difficulty, and without hope of support from the state. They had metal roofs but not always enough food. They sent two children to school but not the third. They had water sometimes but electricity rarely. And, according to our data, a large number of them also had modern indoor toilets with expensive septic tank systems. It was all the more puzzling because I had used the toilet at many clients’ homes during the long days of surveying, and was often directed to a bucket, which was emptied into the open sewer in the street.
The error, as it turned out, lay in the French translation of ‘septic tank’, which is fosse septique. Fosse is a multivalent word which can mean ‘pit’ or ‘ditch’ as well as ‘tank.’ It turned out that the survey team wasn’t familiar with septic tanks, since most people in the city could not afford them. Consequently, they thought this was a question about any pit used to dispose of waste, like the open sewers. The error was ultimately my fault, for assuming that this type of technical term could be translated across country contexts as well as languages without additional explanation. Fortunately, it was easy enough to delete all of the mysterious ghost toilets from our data.
I called my manager in Washington, D.C. to let her know that we would be making this change. At the end of the conversation, she commented on how useful it was to have someone ‘in the field’ to catch the error. Someone (I translated to myself) out there at the periphery, generating new knowledge and sending it back to the centre of power.
‘The Field’: Encoding Power Dynamics
‘The field’ is an interesting concept. It only makes sense if we understand that there is also another place, which is ‘not-the-field.’ That might be ‘headquarters,’ or ‘the city,’ or even simply ‘home.’ It is possible to think of this as a purely neutral descriptor. But the common use of ‘the field’ suggests that it is shorthand for power relations as well as geography.
In the social sciences, the idea of ‘the field’ is said to originate with the early twentieth-century Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. He recommended that researchers eschew ‘armchair Anthropology’ in university libraries in favour of prolonged immersion in the cultures they were studying. A century later, the 2014 book Field Research in Political Science, written by and for American scholars, opens on the same note: ‘field research – leaving one’s home institution in order to acquire data, information, or insights that significantly inform one’s research – remains indispensable, even in a digitally networked era’. When I began my PhD in political science at the University of California, Berkeley in 2013, the stock question of departmental happy hours was about when my classmates and I were ‘going to the field’.
This use of ‘the field’ cannot be separated out from the many hierarchies that structure power within academic research. For example, academic knowledge production is still dominated by universities in the global North, which are in turn still plagued by issues of sexism, racism, and classism. Nor are universities in African countries free from all of these issues. The upshot is that academics in many countries frequently have various types of privilege, which their research participants may not share. (This is also true for non-profit or corporate research, like the type that I was doing in Kinshasa).
In this context, ‘going to the field’ typically means stepping into a less-privileged environment. But beyond this, there’s often a whiff of danger that accompanies the phrase. Field Research in Political Science warns of culture shock, caused by ‘cultural differences of many types, [including] the weather, sanitation options, food, social behaviour, gender relations, etc’. ‘The field’ is constructed here as a place of isolation, discomfort, and scarcity. These hardships may even be used to justify the site’s interest as a location for research. But the term itself remains pejorative.
Kinshasa’s Centre of Gravity
It’s difficult to feel isolated in Kinshasa. Combined with Brazzaville, its sister city across the Congo River, the greater Kinshasa metropolitan area is the third-largest city in Africa. It comes in only behind Cairo and Lagos, with a population estimated at 12 – 13 million people. I felt like at least a quarter of those residents were trying to push onto the taxi-bus with me on my way home from work every night. On the weekends, I’d sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers and friends, listening to soukous hits in crowded bars.
The economic centrality of the city also showed up in our survey data. We met clients who had emigrated across the country, often thousands of kilometres on terrible roads, in search of work and education in the capital. Pausing to re-translate the survey into another of the DRC’s five national languages in order to speak with these émigrés became a regular occurrence. The city also draws immigrants from farther afield, including a sizeable Lebanese population who fled their own civil war, and now dominate the local trade in construction materials.
Kinshasa is a waypoint for global flows of products and ideas as well as people. I used to spend hours at the market browsing wax print fabrics, and learning about the differences between the patterns favoured by local producers and Nigerian exporters. There was a memorable interview with a banking client whose shop specialized in prosthetic legs imported from China. And then there were the long conversations with my colleagues as we drove between interviews, discussing everything from the growth of non-agricultural employment in the United States to the differences between Congolese and Ethiopian secessionist movements to the pan-African political legacy of Patrice Lumumba.
Of course, this is not to discount the challenges of life in Kinshasa. The bank’s clients lived with them every day. As a privileged white foreigner, I was insulated from the worst of them, and even the difficulties that I could not escape, like daily requests for bribes from the traffic police, were irritations rather than threats to my livelihood. However, to construct such difficulty as inherently ‘other’ or ‘foreign’ in comparison to a place like my home country of the U.S. is still incorrect. As the 2015 book $2.00 A Day notes, millions of Americans are living just as far below the global poverty line as people in Kinshasa. While the causes of such poverty in a wealthy nation are surely not the same as those in a very poor one, the point remains that life in Kinshasa is not somehow unusual in its difficulties. It is not fundamentally separate from everywhere else.
De-Centring ‘The Field’
Changing the way that researchers speak about ‘the field’ is one small step towards correcting broader imbalances of power that shape knowledge production about Africa. Of course, as the Liberian academic Robtel Neajai Pailey notes, this is not a substitute for addressing the material exclusion of African scholars from access to resources. But if we as researchers continue to use language that paints the places we study as sites of otherness and isolation, we are doing a disservice to both our research participants and to the process of knowledge generation more broadly.
The American anthropologist James Ferguson writes about the dangers of viewing your research site primarily in terms of its differences from your home. As he observes, if you start off with a belief that ‘[you] know how countries ought to be organized … you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to [an] impoverished understanding’. The solution, he believes, is approaching your research location with curiosity, humility, and an awareness of the limits of your own knowledge.
I find specificity useful as well. When asked about my PhD research, which is located across the DRC, Ghana, and Indonesia, I try to name the places I am going and the types of people I am interviewing, rather than using the shorthand of ‘the field’ or ‘my research participants’. Doing so de-centres my experience as the researcher, and instead emphasizes that these are places and people with their own full lives outside of my project. It also highlights that I am still dependent on these busy people being gracious enough to take the time to speak to me. These are not isolated, parochial individuals with nothing better to do than talk to a visiting researcher. They are, like everyone else, living at the centre of their own worlds⎈