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Researcher, Alternating Hats in the Fieldwork

Updated: Jun 10

by Yasmine Hafez, PhD Candidate at SOAS, University of London

What are your privileges as a researcher? How do you expect these privileges to affect your research outcomes? To what extent do you anticipate their impression of you to influence communities, responses, and engagement in research discussions?


These questions are usually addressed to social science students as a part of university training to prepare them for fieldwork. Such training should prepare you to open your wardrobe and explore all the different hats you can wear and use in your research and relationships with the communities you will coexist with. Privileges allow you to own and assemble a larger number of hats, such as your ability to speak different languages, pursue higher education, and access people with power or authority within a society, along with your gender, religion, and social background that could play both either a powerful or an undermining role depending on the context.


This training forces you to confront your own choices or perks that were strong enough to put you in that place of studying another society, frees you from the excuses of these forces, and fortifies you with patience, courage, wisdom, and an understanding of the power of possession and its positioning in the research. It is also supposed to quip you with the necessary skills to protect yourself from potential dangers that may occur to you during travel and study, as well as to protect communities from the possibility of exploiting them, and, on the other hand, be a framework through which to read the results of your research.


Before I set out for fieldwork on communities living around lakes along the Nile, like any PhD researcher, I familiarised myself with the principles of research ethics. This formal process entailed passing multiple choice questions about ethical research practices with children or vulnerable individuals, followed by essay questions evaluating my knowledge and readiness to take fieldwork notes and analyse data. Passing this stage requires you to think about your privileges, power relations in the field, and your level of preparedness to collect and maintain data in a manner that keeps the anonymity of research participants.


I had previously done this when preparing for fieldwork in Ethiopia during my master’s studies in 2018 on the Renaissance Dam. My drive for research at this time came from my excitement to go beyond society's restrictions interviewing way to open a gateway to exploration and paradoxically, being a woman facilitated many things, such as interviews with officials in the Ministry of Water or Foreign Affairs officials. I only had some difficulties meeting with water engineers and convincing them of the significance of meeting with a social science researcher for discussing the dam.

However, I felt I was always the “Egyptian” asking about the dam, and thus, at the end of the day and after conducting the interviews, I would go to "Fendica", seeking refuge in listening to Azmari music (the art of improvisation). However, when I once mentioned I was Egyptian, the mood changed. I was met with an improvisational satire about how relations between the two countries would change after the dam and how Egyptians would have difficulty obtaining a visa to visit Ethiopia, as is the case when Ethiopians enter Egypt. Feeling unsettled by this unexpected turn, I turned to football, hoping to steer clear of political discussions within music. However, my bad luck persisted as I watched Egypt's loss to the Saudi team at a coffee shop in Addis Ababa, which turned the conversation back into relations between the two countries.


My trip to Ethiopia at the end of June 2018 coincided with the day of the assassination attempt on the new Prime Minster at the time, Abiy Ahmed. This period was marked by active participation and "open" political momentum, so it was difficult to escape talking about politics or doing fieldwork at any time of the day, whether during active fieldwork hours in the morning or personal moments in the evenings. It raised the question: Did the fieldwork end after morning interviews, or did the entire experience constitute fieldwork?

Although researching water issues in Ethiopia posed challenges, I encountered no significant problems daily. However, I later realized that I had overlooked the complexities of field research with communities, as opposed to interviewing officials and elites, when preparing to go to Lake Victoria in Uganda and Kenya, then Lake Mariout, Idku, and Burullus in Egypt, for my PhD study in 2020.


I assumed that the experience would be similar to that of a distance from an Egyptian working on the Nile. I also had the belief that my age and experience since my fieldwork in Addis for my master’s have equipped me with the wisdom to complete the "data collection task" with ease.


However, things took a drastic turn when I flew from London to Entebbe Airport in Uganda at the start of fieldwork in 2022. In England, I was accustomed to being perceived as a brown-skinned girl with Arab features, which often led to assumptions about my nationality, typically guessing a ‘third world’ country such as Egypt, India, Palestine, Iran, and so on. Yet, upon arrival in Uganda, people I met began to ask if I came from America or Belgium. Suddenly, my ‘hat’ became white, and I became called " Mzungu," a name with colonial origins usually given to white foreigners.


Seeking solace, I turned to football again, this time watching games with the Egyptian expatriates in Uganda. When we lost, I found them apprehensive about the next day's game because they met a lot of taunts for not being considered to be Africans.


Sure enough, the next day, one of the drivers questioned Egypt's entitlement to win the match and the African Cup. When I jokingly argued with him, feigning enthusiasm for football again, he replied: How can you be African if you speak Arabic and have white skin? Introducing myself to others as an African consumed my thoughts until a friend comforted me by defining that being an African means being close to the land and the conflict of natural resources. However, can I apply this to how society does not see how I look like I belong to the continent?


While working in Uganda, I tried to understand the literal meaning of the name " Mzungu.” I found that its meaning varied widely depending on the speaker and the context. In some situations, it was called out loudly, seemingly to intimidate me as a presumed ‘white woman’. My perception of my colour and privileges has changed. I was surprised to find myself telling stories about my false husband to evade the perception of a woman travelling abroad alone, as Frédérique Fogel discusses the issue after her field research in Nubia during her doctoral studies. This perception changed my sense of body, feeling the weight of my body and what my skin colour reflects, filling me with fear and unease of feeling "visible”. A local civil society activist explained that other meaning of the word referred to a person who enjoys the freedom to travel and is "very mobile" like a zigzag.

The word "Mzungu" changed my understanding of my hats, which I thought I prepared more than once and memorised their places and appearances before going to fieldwork. I discovered during my fieldwork that I am not the one who determines my hats, but just a mirror of how society wants to perceive or position me, and that privileges are changing hats that change their shapes and sizes according to who is looking at them or putting them on.


I fear that my lack of awareness and ignorance of how I was perceived in the initial research phase made me ignorant of why people would like to share their opinions and sufferings with me. As interviews grew more challenging, it became evident that my status as a student was overshadowed by other factors such as my perceived identity, travel experience/mobility privilege, or foreign education. This perception sometimes led participants to expect more than my research, viewing me as a potential benefactor or a means of escape. This realization weighs heavily on me, especially when recalling the struggles shared by women, particularly concerning the widespread issue of "sex for fish" around Lake Victoria. Did they expect me to help them? Did they see that I was a woman like them and could feel their suffering, or did the power difference prevent this? Did it cause them pain when they told me about their suffering and remembered what they were going through? Or am I not to bear responsibility for this as a researcher?

Burdened with regret and a sense of fear of responsibility, I moved to Egypt to complete the fieldwork, believing it would be easy after gaining enough experience to pass this task easily. Settling around Lake Mariout, my Alexandrian roots provided a sense of familiarity. I started to get to know the Bedouins of "Awlad Ali" and introduced them to my family to facilitate my task as a "girl from a respectable family." I was trying to show that taking my family was optional and not forced because they were afraid. Although I live alone outside Egypt and in more difficult places, the question lingered: How would society perceive your presence and interactions if you were alone? Whenever doubts plague me, I remember researcher Lila Abu-Lughod, whose father also insisted on accompanying her to Lake Mariout at the beginning of her research at the end of the seventies. She understood his attitude and insistence on going with her after she spent time with the Bedouins. She expressed this while recounting her experience in her book "Veiled Feelings":

"As an Arab, although by no means a Bedouin, he knew his own culture and society well enough to know that a young, unmarried woman traveling alone on uncertain business was an anomaly. She would be suspect and would have a hard time persuading people of her respectability" (p 11)

The first time I went to Lake Mariout, the Bedouin who later became a dear friend asked me to drive in remote places, and despite my fear, I tried to show my calm and confidence. After some time, we arrived at a house, and when I entered, I found an old woman inside, which made my blood flow back into my veins. She greeted me and initiated the talk, insisting I was a foreigner. She was surprised that I am Egyptian, living abroad, revealing my hair, travelling, and driving a car! She asked me if I ate yoghurt for breakfast! I had difficulty understanding her Bedouin dialect, so she laughed and said I reminded her of this Libyan Bedouin poetry. In this poetry, the poet, a Libyan Bedouin, sarcastically recounts an encounter between a good, quiet young Bedouin who was educated in Europe and returned to his homeland, eating yoghurt as breakfast, reading books, and speaking foreign languages and another young Bedouin man who was full of evil. A great fight broke out between them, and the evil man triumphed at the end. The lady told the story and then looked at her nephew, telling him in a Bedouin dialect what it means to: "Take care of her; she appears to be kind"

I took this poetry as a sign and understanding of my position as a girl who grew up in Cairo and broke barriers to travel and study abroad, which caused her hats to differ and distance away from the traditions of Egyptian society, creating a distance between her and the society she studies, although being part of it. Despite my desire to research the field in defiance of society's constraints, I succumbed to pressure because I did not want to be so visible. This may have prevented me from mingling with society, especially since I study the fishermen's community, which is generally a masculine society. I found myself helping with housework during fieldwork, as Lila Abu-Lughod and Frédérique Fogel mentioned. I talked a lot about housework and even took my mother in my interviews with fishermen. This was when I noticed a shift in how the community dealt with me to help a good girl clear her homework. I became acquiesced to hearing fishermen talking to my mother and advising her who she should prevent me from meeting, the space I am allowed to be in, and their rush to her for my marriage and postponing my travel abroad.


During the fieldwork, I moved from one stage to another, from my awareness of my naivety towards understanding the goodness of societies as a dominant characteristic at the beginning and not expecting attempts of harassment or exploitation by some. Moving to challenging myself and proving my strength as an independent woman or testing my cohesion, as the Bedouin jokingly told me afterwards about our first encounter in Mariout, made me overlook the seriousness and challenges of some situations. Then, an attempt to shrink and strip away privileges to blend as a woman accepted by society, to regret and fear of responsibility towards society and sharing its fragile stories, to a clearer understanding and vision of the relationship between research and its changes and its repercussions on the researcher. You cannot expect to use your magnifying lens on the society you are studying without this lens reflecting on you, changing you, and forcing you to change your view of yourself and your position that you thought was fixed in the research experience that turned into a life experience. This is what appears in my field writing on the way back from Lake Mariout in December 2022:

The lake becomes nothing but a link and a meeting place for all aspects of different lifestyles. Human pressure keeps clouding, the lake shrinks, and the water fades until it has no memory.

However, memory lies in the social relations and connections formed because of this water; the focus should be on people and their composition and interaction with each other because of this water and the changes that occurred due to its shrinkage and disappearance.

I began to wonder how, in formulating the research in its early stages, I focused on the local cultural knowledge of the lake. Was I blind to the communities’ suffering and problems due to the economic and environmental pressures? Or was I unaware of their stories of struggle and misery? As an outsider to society, did I see their lives through a romantic lens that we use to study and understand the world so that we can overlook humans when understanding places?


But because of living by the lake, people don't feel its importance; they became distanced from the cultural significance of the water, and water only becomes essential when it is the primary economic source of life; otherwise, it fades into the background and becomes only the connecting tool, nothing more.  During the fieldwork, I witnessed the communities' representation of the lakes as their source of livelihood and survival. Thus, my questions about their cultural practices and songs were far from their current reality and struggle for survival. The situation deteriorated economically and environmentally so that the lake ceased to be culturally necessary for communities and became an area of intense competition among fishermen for bare survival. Communities redirected my research questions and priorities, challenging my position and desire to conduct that research. I remember the words of Reem Saad in the podcast "What to Do" when she talked about the nature of knowledge produced by ethnography; she said, "One can not only enter the fabric of society but the fabric of time and the fabric of the question itself. One reaches a moment of inspiration to know the question rather than the answer."


Studying exploitation around the lake was a rich experience full of personal lessons. Lessons about exploitation appeared to me in my personal and work life, and fieldwork became a complete life experience that I did not know if I wanted or chose. It was a life experience in which I felt anger, weakness, strength, sadness, and defeat. I wanted it to end immediately, but by its end, I felt the social connections and personality changes that took place.


After going through these experiences, I understood that initially, I needed more than theoretical training to understand the complexities of changes in my positioning with the changes of the societies I deal with and live with. The training reduces field research with life experiences, changing complexities, and positions of strength and weakness. Two sides of the same coin, derived from the same privileges, change as the situation changes. My gender role as a woman and my position as a researcher has changed in different fieldwork contexts, from Ethiopia to Uganda, Kenya, and Egypt.

Training on privileges and objectivity from communities is for everyone working with fragile communities in the field of the environment, not just PhD students in social sciences. Before going to fieldwork and when mentioning environmental studies, there are typical answers that society mentions (as Saker El-Nour always reminds us). After that, if you show serious interest, break the researcher-subject relationship, and go through the tests and challenges of societies, you see the complexities of reality and its repercussions. What is worrying in this field, and what I have seen many times, is that societies are considered as a "scoop," this training and these questions become an obstacle to the rapid production of knowledge in the information race and the competition for primacy. 


I read separate pages of fieldwork and am surprised at the personal and practical transformations in my approach to research and society. I tried to scramble in my analysis and writing, but I stumbled upon closing the page of fieldwork notes and seeing it haunt me with the weight of its feelings, stories, and physical and psychological effort. I blamed myself and my helplessness and feared that this would become a failure of the research work itself and its valuation of time, effort, and weight on societies. Until I found relief in the voice and words of Reem Saad in the podcast "What to do?" where she said:

“Really, the awe of the fieldwork is much more than anyone can imagine ... And this awe doesn't go away, and to a large extent, I never want to lose it. Because if this happens, I believe its magic will fade away.” Then she continues, "Fieldwork and ethnography are important not just for the issues of knowledge, but it is also one of the few outlets for us to rewrite our lives, to have an experience living in a different situation, trying to live a different life."

Next, I read the words of postdoctoral researcher Émilie Fort in her analysis of her experience, which lightened my heart and calmed my anxiety and regret:

"Then, guilt also played an important part. I was torn between my analytical “duty” and the confidence those people gave me. I felt I was failing to respect that confidence. Finally, I understood that it takes time to free one’s mind from fieldwork experiences and all the emotions it generates. It was a mistake to think that I would leave my bodily experience behind while leaving the field.

Within this academic perception of time where productivity becomes a necessity, fieldwork is about collecting data, analyzing it, and writing papers about our objects of research. When I came back from the field I didn’t take the time to assimilate all the implications my experiences had on my research and on me. I threw myself into analyzing and writing. I didn’t pay attention to the research/fieldwork temporality, which requires to take time to acknowledge both our vulnerability and the emotive relation we develop with other human beings in the field and with the site itself. It is a way to let the ongoing tensions between inescapable subjectivity and necessary distance ease.

Besides, acknowledging that fieldwork extends months after we return home allows us to create methodological tools to develop a systematic analysis of limits, bias and failures that pervade the whole research process. As field diaries participate in documenting and reflecting on our positioning and personal trajectories in the field, we might think of writing diaries – or what suits each of us the best – which detail the impact of both our positioning and the lasting effects of fieldwork emotions on the interpretations and analytical processes."


The piece was initially written in Arabic as a product of the write-shop co-organized by Greenish and Reseau Tanmo and funded by The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Cairo. I thank Shaza Elewa for translating the article to English. I Thank Nouran El-Marsafy for the positionality discussions in the workshop, Saker El-Nour for encouraging me to write this article and for the prolonged discussions on the research, Reem Saad for reading the draft and for all the space and tea she always provided me during the fieldwork—special thanks to doctors Sarah El Kazzaz, Amr Adly, and Peter Mollinga. I am grateful for their time and for helping me understand the weight and difficulties of fieldwork and its importance—especially thanks to Daniel Mulugetta, who revised the English version and offered thorough comments. Thanks to colleagues and friends who made the fieldwork and its post-reflections’ phase less lonely and more compassionate, particularly Shadi Khalil, Yousra Ali, Ingy Higazi, Yomna ElSharony and Islam Khafaja. And thanks to everyone I met from the communities who shared their food with me and allowed me to enter their world. I dedicate the article to my mother; may God keep her safe.

The end.


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