Undertaking research as PhD students in geographical studies of water: Reflexions on Positionality

This in the works blog post brings reflexions together on how to integrate issues of positionality when undertaking geographical research in water issues. This initiative stems from our experiences as young water researchers sharing field work experiences; we question how our (missed) encounters may affect the processes and outcomes of our research and explore the realm of our diverse backgrounds and field sites. Many experiences are shared between researchers on field sites, but rarely make it into papers or reports. We intend this post to encourage an open conversation with young researchers like us seeking to reflect on the impacts of positionalities on research. As qualitative researchers, we explore situations in which our positionalities have first affected access to respondents; how our positionalities affected the types of information we manage to retrieve; if our positionalities affect the way we understand collected data; overall, how would results have differed if the data were collected by a different individual?

Geography is probably not the least self-aware among the disciplines of the methodological and ethical trappings of power relations between the researcher-researched as well as the importance of acknowledging the researcher’s positionality in the field. Feminist Geographers deserve much of the credit for putting the ethical implications of the method in conducting research front and centre. Debates have been given space in journals that explore if a certain form of research, let’s say collaborative ethnography, fosters a less exploitative relation with the informant than quantitative survey-taking (McDowell, 1992; Pile, 1992). Feminist ethnographers, in sharing their intimate experiences of research, problematize this assumption and have highlighted how methodologies committed to a non-hierarchical engagement and the co-production of knowledge can still produce dependency and feelings of betrayal especially as the initial positions of power and privilege can be hard to surmount; as well as sympathetic engagements, be misconstrued as a promise of intervention (Stacey, 1988; Patai, 1991). Different research topics and audiences bring forth different and unique challenges that are beyond the scope of an encompassing methodological or ethical standpoint. Initial power relations in a research can be skewed either ways: Sallie Westwood’s  (1984) research on everyday work lives of female workers in a Midlands hosiery factory is an example among countless others of a privileged researcher position, but Llerena Searle’s (2016) anthropological investigation of the practices and worldviews of international real estate consultants in Gurgaon where her informants were foreign MBA-educated Indian and white males with pay-checks several times higher than her research stipend constitutes an inverted position of power, which is not very uncommon in research. The positionality of the researcher in relation to the informant influences not only her level and ease of access to gaining information, but also strategies and unconscious practices of leveraging privilege. The contradiction within these strategies may burst forth in the open at moments exposing the workings, innocent or manipulative, of actual research practice. An experience from Ananya Roy’s book Calcutta: A Requiem (2002) illustrates such a moment which we present before narrating experiences from our own work.

To the settlement where she had already completed six months of fieldwork in, one day she accompanied a high-ranking party worker going on his rounds. The party worker was with Roy in her chauffeur-driven Ambassador car, a facility that Roy would always park a distance away and hide the fact from her subjects during her fieldwork. The party worker however insisted that they drive in the car to the heart of the settlement. When the crowds gathered around the worker, he introduced Roy: “She is a visitor from America, the richest country in the world, a country on whose aid the entire world survives. She owns a house here in Calcutta and a car. We came here today in her car.” Ananya Roy mentions her mortification given that her ethnographic performance had always been of a shabbily-dressed middle-class Calcutta girl, studying in America but hiding the fact of her hefty research grant. Her experience of feeling like deceiving her subjects ties in with some of the contradictions of our own methodologies, our positionalities and our apprehensions of appropriate conduct against the striving for information for our project.

We share our experiences below and would like to receive other experiences from junior and senior researchers in geography.



My research focuses on Water (Resources) Users Associations in the Great Ruaha river in Tanzania and the Mara river in Kenya. My methods included inter alia participative observation and semi-structured interviews with a very wide range of people, who were socio-economically and culturally diverse. I am a junior white European researcher, who was often accompanied by British and local partners from an international environmental NGO in the field. I first describe a situation in which I felt underpowered due to my youth and being a female, and then contrast this experience by a second scenario where I felt overpowered as a European person, part of the “donor” community.

The spark to dig this conversation emerged from discussions between white British PhD students and post-docs in Tanzania, realising that targeted interviewees were often the same people in the water sector. This is certainly to be expected for elite interviews with professionals in the water sector holding key positions, and eminent local experts/researchers. The intrigue started when I – as a young female PhD student – realised I was not accessing the “elites” my connections/friends were easily interviewing. These connections and friends were also PhD and post-doc students, new to the Tanzanian context, but male. There could be a myriad of reasons for which this situation occurred, some of them coming from the potential interviewer and some of them coming from the potential interviewee. Whatever the reason may be, and whether systematic or not, I started to question myself on how my research would be impacted by not having access to these key interviewees. Is it enough to recognise my positionality and failure to access perspectives offered by these elites? Is this recognition of importance for methodology, or is it a factor to take into account when discussing limitations to my findings? The elite interviews my connections and friends had allowed them to access hydrological data which was not offered to me upon polite, official and subsequently unofficial requests. My connection had described to me the “buddying” he had with one of the academics, based on having drinks at the local pub near the campus. As a young woman, I had come to the pub as well but such “buddying” with a senior male researcher would have been culturally inappropriate. (I had an experience trying to listen to beer hole conversations between pastoralists on the cow market day and gradually realised that all men left, as I was unwelcomed in this space reserved to men).

How can I assess the effects of the bias created by my positionality? The outcome in my case is that I did not access flow and rainfall data for my study basin. This type of experience repeated itself when I requested to hold interviews with the basin water officer and the director of water resources at the ministry of water and irrigation; these were not granted to me, contrarily to my connections. I was finally successful in holding a conversation with the basin water officer when I was in the company of senior male colleagues my partner NGO.

The second power relation trap I found myself in were the expectations from interviewees for a certain type of compensation for the time spent helping me with my research. Having myself been an interviewee in other student’s research projects or professional research, I knew a gesture was always appreciated (usually in the form of a coffee or drink during the interview). However, as I started my research as a participant observer at the NGO’s programme deployments, I got to understand the per diem culture. Those accustomed to working with foreign organisations, and those working within the foreign organisations (in local branches for example) will expect per diems for taking part in workshops, round tables and activities; I realised there was even an informal monetary scale, and some employees factor these per diems in in their family’s budgets. It became increasingly apparent that I would have to follow these codes when undertaking my own research, particularly if I were to involve participants who were used to the NGO I was working with. Slightly before setting off for my independent field work (without the partner NGO), I shared these thoughts with my translator who was a young man having previously translated for other western women undertaking their PhD research. He confirmed that the practice was to give a small contribution to each person we would interview (TZS 2’000). Himself and other Tanzanian friends confirmed that this was a common practice that they would also follow, were they to ask for help or information from people they do not know. I definitely can follow the logic: I was taking time off people’s daily activities, and it seemed fair to show appreciation for the information I need so dearly for my PhD. It seemed a little less logical to do so with government employees for whom I expected this type of activity to be set as a job task (and so I usually did not make a gesture of this kind). The questions which came up from these practices were whether the monetary transaction which was often expected, and taking place, was impacting the interviewees I was reaching, and the answers I was retrieving. Were those who knew there would be a monetary transaction keener? Would this mean I interviewed those who were already familiar with working with NGOs? Did I receive responses formulated specifically considering my linkage with the NGO? If so, what did I miss out on? I considered these issues and tried to overcome some gatekeepers in order to access marginalised people, who were not regularly involved with donor programmes.


My PhD research is on the political ecology of water flows in the drinking and wastewater canals that exist to serve cities but also flow across many peri-urban and rural villages along their course. The field site is Gurgaon, a major city of North India adjoining Delhi. I look at how farmers in the villages located along the canals of Gurgaon are affected and negotiate the water flows especially for irrigation, and a complementary part of that research is looking at the bureaucracy of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department who manage the canal’s structure and oversee its flow. I am an Indian upper-caste/ class male who is not from the region (I am from East India) but hardly find my position disadvantageous. I am often asked my full name during interviews, and my surname which is a sure indication of my caste fits in with the identity of a researcher. The counter-factual of how a less- privileged positionality might have influenced my research is difficult to draw out, but I rather here dwell on a personal account of a research engagement. It is illustrative of how asserting your position of privilege is often a useful though uncomfortable component of research. Here I leverage my class and educational privilege in a way that went against my notion of research ethics while being unaware, at most times, how my caste and gender privilege are part of my everyday toolkit in accessing research sites and individuals.

I am outside the Irrigation Asst. Superintendent Engineer’s office, having just returned from the field. In my case, calling it the field was appropriate because hours ago, I was standing upon harvested wheat fields of jutting stalks, standing remnants from what was an ordinary harvest that year. I interview farmers and study their practices and institutions of water use from canals. It’s been a hot day and I was sweating through my shirt, lugging around my backpack, basically being in an unpresentable manner. That never hindered me in the farms though, I would like to think it was an advantage. I looked ordinary, possibly pitiable, to them and farmers would be generous with their time and food and often invited me into their homes for extended discussions on arrangements of water sharing in the village. In the Bureaucrat’s office I was a pestilence upon their time. After a few hours of being redirected around and waiting on closed doors with meetings, I would be turned away with polite excuses and asked to arrive on a later day. Though I might have scheduled appointments over the phone, a meeting or other would come up and someone would be warmly welcomed as if an act of God had occurred against my purpose. This continued for a few days and I slowly frustrated of my interest in studying the bureaucracy. I did manage some interviews but not nearly enough.

I took advice from a senior whose research involved interviewing the bureaucrats of a different departments in a different state. My mistake soon became apparent. The next time I went, I dressed up, took an Uber instead of a bus to the Irrigation office and had a new decent self-made business card announcing my involvement in a research project covering 3 sites across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and funded by the Netherland’s Scientific Research Organization NWO. I actively projected the airs of a person whose time was valuable, switching to English in my introductions rather than the colloquial Hindi that served me very well in my research with farmers. It was a temperament of haughtiness that I wasn’t used to at all, and goes against, I think, the general ethos of academic research. It did predictably serve me well though. The Superintendent Engineer bestowed his grace upon me and soon I managed to do all my interviews, as well as got permission to join junior engineers in their patrol ride along the canals.

This episode highlights nothing especially shocking. It’s common sense that a well-dressed person is received better. But one should also consider that the dealings of the irrigation department is overwhelmingly with farmers and contractors/ labourers, and so being well-dressed or important should not be a requirement. I just remember being uncomfortable and keenly aware of my own role in shifting the power relations and exercising my privilege so blatantly. Especially when I was talking to the Superintendent Engineer for the greater part of an hour while farmers who had travelled a distance had to wait outside for their turn in voicing their grievances.


If you would like to continue this conversation or provide any feedback, please get in touch directly with Nathalie (Nathalie.richards@kcl.ac.uk) and Pratik (Pratik.mishra@kcl.ac.uk)



McDowell, L. (1992). Doing Gender: Feminism, Feminists and Research Methods in Human Geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 17 (4): 399-416

Patai, D. (1991) US academics and Third World women: is ethical research possible?, in Gluck, S. B. and Patai,  D. (eds) Women’s words: the feminist practice of oral history. Routledge, London. pp 13

Pile, S. (1991) Practising interpretative geography. Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, 16: 458-69

Roy, A. (2003). City requiem, Calcutta: gender and the politics of poverty. Univ of Minnesota Press.

Searle, L. G. (2016). Landscapes of accumulation: Real estate and the neoliberal imagination in contemporary India. University of Chicago Press.

Stacey, J. (1988) Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum, 11: 21-7

Westwood, S. (1984). All day, every day. Pluto. London