“We trust you, don’t you trust us?”: Reflections on ethics and positionality in fieldwork in India

This paper seeks to contribute to the debates (Coffey 1999; Gupta 2002; Henry 2003; Smith 2014) about the complexities of fieldwork and the need to adopt multiple identities in particular social and cultural contexts. The paper is a reflective account of the student’s fieldwork conducted in the Ludhiana district of Punjab State in India, as part of her Education Doctorate (EdD) thesis. In particular it explores the tensions between the requirements of a UK university Ethics Committee and their applicability to the socio-cultural context of India where the mandatory (UK) process of acquiring written consent may not only be viewed as unnecessary paperwork but also a rebuttal of a
local culture where verbal consent is considered ‘binding’. We explore the dilemmas faced by an international research student in striking a balance between complying with her University’s ethical guidelines and navigating complex socio-cultural dynamics in the field. An engagement with notions of positionality and reflexivity are necessary in order to critically reflect on how the student gained access to field sites, relying on her family name or personal contacts to negotiate agreement with gatekeepers. The account demonstrates the student’s negotiations with multiple identities at the same time dealing with the conflicting perception of ‘insider and outsider’ from her own community. The paper aims to share with other academics the implications of cross cultural research and highlight the way in which UK university guidelines may need to be developed to more adequately engage with the broader ethical issues raised in international research.