9. Relationships with people

Building and maintaining relationships with people in the field involves building trust, respect, and practicing accountability to people that we engage with in the field.

Exercising an ethics of care and respect for your field and the people in it is central to the praxis of feminist urban studies.  Maintaining good relationships with people in the field is part of the ethical obligations you owe to individual participants who are directly involved in your research, but also to the community or communities in which you are conducting your research.

Building and maintaining good relationships with people in the field is also central for ensuring that you achieve your research goals.

One way to think about the social relationships that constitute your field and your place in it is to attend to the ‘microgeographies’ (Ellwood and Martin 2000) of the sites where you’re conducting your fieldwork – or the social relationships between people and places in the field .

As Ellwood and Martin highlight: “microgeographies can offer a rich source of data about social geographies of the research situation and enable researchers to enrich their understanding of explanations offered by participants” (2000, p. 252). They can also “situate a participantwith respect to other actors and to his or her own multiple identities and roles, affecting information that is communicated in the interview as well as power dynamics of the interview itself” (2000, p. 253).

The presence of researchers in the field also impacts on the microgeographies of a particular site. Being attentive to microgeogaphies can be a central way in which researcher’s come to learn about how they are themselves located in the field, and how they are connected with the other people situated in the field.

Case Studies:

(a) The nature of ethical obligations that guide relationships between researchers and people in the field may be specific to the cultural context they find themselves in.

In the context of research with Maori communities in New Zealand, the Maori scholar and activist, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku identified a set of ethical principles rooted in Maori cultural approaches to respectful engagement and behavior:

  1. Aroha kit te tangata (a respect for people).
  2. Kanohi kitea (the seen face, that is present yourself to people face to face).
  3. Titiro, whakarongo… korero (look, listen…speak).
  4. Kia tupato (be cautious).
  5. Kaua e takahia te mana o te tangata (do not trample over the mana of people).
  6. Kia mahaki (don’t flaunt your knowledge) (Tuhiwai-Smith 2012, p. 124).

(b) The experience of Palestinian-American anthropologist, Lila Abu-Lughod, illustrated how researchers learn about the microgeographies operating in a particular site through the process of conducting fieldwork. Abu-Lughod embarked on her fieldwork in the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin community in the Western Desert of Egypt in 1978 assuming that her part Arab heritage and childhood experiences of living and visiting the Arab world would enable her to situate herself in her field. However, she reflects that her father insisted on accompanying her into the field:

“Only after living with the Bedouins for a long time did I begin to comprehend some of what had underlain my father’s quiet but firm insistence. 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 travelling alone on uncertain business was an anomaly. She would have been suspect and would have had a hard time persuading people of her respectability. What I had not considered was that respectability was reckoned not just in terms of behaviour in interpersonal interactions but also in the relationship to the larger social world” (1999, pp. 11-12, cited in Davis and Craven 2016, p. 82).

In order to understand the microgeographies of her field location Abu-Lughod had to be brought to an awareness of her own location in that field through the exercise of reflexivity about her positionality.

(c) In the context of feminist research that is committed to an ethics of transformation through collaboration and alliance-building, Richa Nagar highlights the complex nature of the relationships that need to be built with women in the field:

“Committed alliance work is about building multifaceted relationships through trust; it is about how and where we stand with one another when it comes to co-authoring ideas and struggles; it is about how we engage difference, disagreements, mistakes, and dissonance – what I have called ‘wounds and fissures’ that mark the collective ‘we’” (2012, p. 8).

She points to the need for feminist scholars to practice a ‘methodology of accountability’ to those in the field that one is collaborating with (2012, p. 12). Nagar explains that:

“…co-authoring stories in alliance work demands radical vulnerability from those who inhabit different communities of meaning, whether academia, activism, or elsewhere. If feminist alliance work is to realize its transformative possibilities, collaborators must recognize each other as co-authors joined in relations of affect, trust, imagination, and critique, ever open to interrogation by one another, and willing to forego the putative superiority of their protocols of understanding and sites of knowledge making” (Nagar 2012, p. 13).


Davis, D and Craven, C., 2016. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking Through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. Latham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Elwood, S. A. and. Martin, D. G., 2000. “Placing” Interviews: Location and Scales of Power in Qualitative Research. Professional Geographer, 52(4), pp.649-657.

Nagar, R. 2012. Storytelling and co-authorship in feminist alliance work: reflections from a journey. Gender, Place & Culture, 20 (1), pp. 1-18.

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, London, New York.