Blog post by Jae Hyun Park, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This post is part of the blog series on feminist theory in refugee law.

Research involving refugee participants inherently has implications of power. Researchers are mostly based in the global North, seldom are refugees, and often work with refugees as aid workers or government officers where there is a pre-existing power relationship. It is therefore critical that the methodological approaches in carrying out research with refugees understand the nature of the power relations and address how they influence the research process. Methodology, or the underlying logic behind research, guides what questions we ask to whom in which context, how we ask the questions, and make sense of the answers. In this piece, I present the feminist methodology I adopted for my research with Burmese refugee returnees and methods chosen on that basis: positionality and reflexivity, and life story method.

Researching with Burmese refugee returnees as a Korean government officer

In my PhD research on how Burmese refugees who have returned to Myanmar from South Korea contribute to development in Myanmar, I was as conscious of my methodological choices as the theoretical basis for the study. At the time of research, I was a Korean government officer on study leave. The Ministry of Justice, where I had been based, was responsible for national refugee policy and the legal recognition of refugees. I had previously known some of the refugee participants in person. Those I did not know personally I knew through their refugee cases where I had taken part in the refugee status decision making process.

I initially planned a participatory approach in an aim to shift power from the researcher to the research participants. This was not only because of my dual identity as a researcher and a government officer, but because I aimed to centre refugees’ life experiences instead of government interests in discussions on their return and development. After starting fieldwork, I realised it would be difficult to engage in fully participatory work as the refugee participants found it difficult to commit time, busy with their careers and personal lives. It was also challenging to do group work due to changes in their relationship dynamics. Instead, I opted for a critical engagement with my positionality, reflexivity and the life story method, which was inspired by feminist methodology.

A feminist methodology?

Feminist methodology originated from being critical of existing ways of knowledge production that were masculine and claimed to be scientific or neutral. Methodology refers to the underlying logic behind research and is distinguished from methods, the ways of data collection and analysis. Although there is no consensus on what feminist methodology is or whether it even exists, it is informed by ideas in feminism, which concerns gender, questions existing power and privileges, and aims for social change. Feminist research acknowledges that the world is unequal and hierarchical, and therefore aims to make diverse voices and experiences heard. Because it interrogates power in knowledge production, the researcher is seen not as an objective or external being, but a part of the research.

When it comes to the choice of research methods, that is, specific tools to collect and analyse data, it is debatable that there are inherently feminist methods; rather, feminist perspectives could be applied to any existing methods and benefit every stage of the research. Thus, as Harding emphasised, the researcher and their beliefs, behaviour, and assumptions on gender, race or class are viewed as critically as the research themes. The following are methods inspired by feminist approaches used in my research.

Reflexivity and positionality

As researchers are not objective, our positionality matters. It is how our race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, whether we are an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider,’ and other factors, influence research. Such influence ranges from the choice of questions, the context, to how we ask questions, make sense of the answers, and share results. ‘Reflexivity’ shows awareness of this, and as Doucet and Mauthner highlight, “reflexivity also means actively reflecting on personal, interpersonal, institutional, pragmatic, emotional, theoretical, epistemological, and ontological influences on our research and interpretive process.”

Ghorashi used her own experience as an Iranian woman in exile in her questioning surrounding issues such as home, identity and belonging in Iranian women refugees. Lokot reflected on how her race, gender, and age as a minority-ethnicity researcher with a refugee policy background shaped her research with Syrian refugees in Jordan and how this evolved over time. I was also a minority-ethnicity researcher with a refugee policy background, although my understanding of positionality and its influence changed over time.

My positioning as a government officer preoccupied me initially. On one hand, I assumed that many refugees would not want to speak to someone from the government being reminded of the challenges they experienced in accessing asylum, getting recognised and the overall lack of support. On the other hand, I was conscious that they would agree to participate in the research in expectation of immigration-related “favours.” Personally, I carried emotional baggage of guilt and regrets of not having done better in my work.

During the research, however, other positionings became more prominent such as my gender, age, nationality, educational or professional backgrounds. My South Korean background influenced my conceptualisations of development, critical of its economic growth-led development path. At the same time, my assumptions about the positive aspects of development, which was a shorthand for non-legal and longer-term solutions, came from a Western-based education and a UN career. Further, I reflected whether my gender influenced my choice to work on refugee issues as I noticed how the civil society, UN and academic circles working on refugee issues seem to have a majority women.

In the research design I reserved time for periodic reflection where I used methods such as writing reflective memos into fieldnotes, journaling, discussing with and receiving feedback from PhD supervisors, mentors, researcher colleagues, or the practitioner community. I wrote not only thoughts but feelings, particularly discomforts. Writing on discomforts was not only therapeutic but was an important means to identify my own biases and assumptions. This helped to understand my participants’ ideas and values without judgement when they did not necessarily align with mine.

Life story interview method

The life story interview method was chosen to incorporate feminist and participatory methodological approaches. As the method enables participants to narrate the story of their lives the way they remember with minimal engagement by the researcher, it worked with my aim to address the power imbalance by allowing refugee participants to determine what they find to be important. In Ghorashi’s work on Iranian women refugees, she refers to life story methods as dialogical, interactive, and boundary-shifting, giving room for participants to express themselves in a more equal setting with the researcher, providing a space to reflect past experiences. This is in line with the politics of listening suggested by Diane Otto as a feminist method in international law referred to in Kate Ogg’s piece. Horst uses life histories in researching with refugees to “challenge dominant discourses that function to oppress or control” and reflect on the role of researchers that often contribute to these discourses.

The life stories of my refugee participants included their experience in Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interviews. I reflected on my own experience in conducting RSDs, an interview that stands in stark contrast to life story interviews. In RSDs the interviewer has the power in deciding the legal status of the refugees, often set in a sterile interview room (including detention centres), with limited time, pressured to ask and fill out detailed information while taking notes and checking consistency and accuracy for follow up questions, at the same time needing to appear impartial, objective, and unemotional.

I felt that in my life story interviews I was revisiting this experience with the participants, with my multiple positioning as a government officer and a researcher, but this time with more empathy, openness, solidarity, and even a chance to provide personal rather than official opinions. It reminded me of psychotherapy sessions where you have the chance to revisit and make peace with a negative experience. My participants’ openness to discuss issues often critical towards the government or the range and depth of emotions and personal experience they shared with me suggested they might have felt the same.

Feminist research as action

In the beginning of this piece, I mentioned how researchers of refugee issues may have multiple backgrounds as practitioners or policy makers. Where this is the case, it enables research to be more grounded in action with an aim to make social change, a key aspect of feminist research. In my research, the change I envisioned was to centre refugees’ voices and agencies in creating solutions. Taking part in the RLI Working Group on Feminist Theory, Refugees and Displacement to present methodological issues in my research, reflect on feminist approaches and sharing experiences in this blog have been my small steps in taking action to change our research, our disciplines and ourselves, particularly for practitioners and policy makers engaging in research. It gave an opportunity to think about the importance of considering methodology in our research on refugee issues and to ask ourselves why we work in this field, what we are doing about it and how we are doing it, ultimately with an aim to change the lives of refugees, and in the process, ourselves, for the better.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.