Time, “. . . On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told."
Stockett's sentiment has been rolling around in my head as I have been compiling notes for a literature review I am building out around some of the work I did in Indonesia this summer. I keep coming back to this feeling, not with just my Indonesia project but with my work more generally, that my writing about someone else's life experiences for the purpose of highlighting larger abuses of power, structural violence, and injustice in some ways undermine the very goals- equity of opportunity, safety, dignity- that drive me to pursue the type of research I conduct. Is it really possible to say that you are writing about the abuses inflicted on another for the ostensible purpose of changing the social and institutional structures that led to their subjugation without appropriating their voice, undermining their agency, in the process? Is it possible to say that you are telling someone's story because they lack the access, privilege and resources to do so, without girding and reenforcing the social systems that denied them access in the first place? Is it equitable in any way shape or form that my gathering 'data' about women facing horrific violence results in my getting funded to continue to do similar research, while they have no benefit beyond the small trinkets I give to their children after we chat?
In the bigger sense, I do think that it is vital to provide accurate information about abuses of power to those that can change the state of play; policy makers, international funding agencies, political leaders. But I also think that researchers must proceed with EXTREME caution in doing so- I know that I have been too quick to jump to conclusions in a million different ways, some with messy, messy personal consequences, others, thankfully, that I have kept in my own head and had my assumptions uprooted by further investigation before putting pen to paper. No matter how 'accurate' the data (quotes because I think a decent debate could be had about the subjectivity of one's experiences- accurate is open to interpretation), no matter how meticulous you are in your field notes, no matter your level of expertise with the language, no matter your cultural fluency, no matter how much you 'situate' your knowledge (Haraway 1987), the most perilous danger I think those of us who claim to engage in feminist research face is that of appropriating the voices of those who we are seeking to give voice to.
Feminist researchers have debated and discussed this extensively (some of the most influential on my thinking include Patai 1991, Rose 1997, and Nagar & Geiger 2007), and their words, along with Stockett's discussions on her feelings about writing a book in the voice of her family's maid, have given me a lot of pause for thought as I begin to put pen to paper about some of the work I did in Indonesia. I agree with Stockett- I do want this story told- but I want to make sure that I am not undermining the agency of the women who were generous enough to give me insight and access to their world in the process of my trying to be a vehicle to help improve that world.