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Reflecting Allowed

Reclaiming Words We Give Away

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 0 seconds

Did you ever find yourself scanning an article someone else wrote that reports on a survey or interview you participated in? Did you ever find yourself wondering if you were quoted? Was it anonymous/confidential, such that you couldn’t easily find yourself in there?

flickr photo shared by Thomas Hawk under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

When a survey is anonymous, you can’t go back and change your answers. What if I felt some way on a certain day, and then a week later I feel differently? Of course, that’s human nature and a limitation of any kind of human or social research… even biological/medical research.

Now here is another one.

What if someone interviews you, someone with whom you have a lot of rapport. You trust that person, and so you find yourself talking comfortably, secure that this person will use your data in ways that you would feel comfortable with. Now what if that person stops being a researcher on the team working on that project. Now your data is in some other person’s hands. Someone you don’t know or trust. Of course, you usually have the right to withdraw. But do the research team actually inform you of that change? No, because they don’t assume it makes a difference to the “researched”. Well, it does to me. It makes a difference to me who is using my words and my data for their research. It matters because social research is all about interpretation and as such depends heavily on the researcher’s worldview. You can say something and it can be completely taken out of context and misused. Not malignantly, but just so.

And another one.

This one will resonate with many academics, right? Someone like Edward Said wrote Orientalism. And then it became a “thing”. And then he felt like he’d been misunderstood (or he changed his mind, I can’t remember which) and wrote Culture and Imperialism. And yet, Orientalism remains the one most people read (the Spanish version of it is more widely cited than Culture and Imperialism – I can’t find citations for the English version on Google Scholar which is weird).

And a big one.

Recently I was in two different situations working with editors who felt they could liberally edit my work to the extent of inserting their own voice into my writing. Thankfully, both were understanding when I responded in anger that this felt like a violation of what I had been trying to say, and of my voice. However, I imagine if I were myself 10 years ago, or if I was just a less confident person, I would not have been able to speak up, or find the right words to express myself.


In all these situations, one feels disempowered. When our own utterances are in some other person’s hands to use as they please. Of course, every word that comes out of our mouths is an utterance another person can use to their own ends. Of course they can. And they do. But in research, it’s solidified. What if someone says something truly insightful in an interview I do with them and I include the quote in my paper and it’s powerful? The power of the quote comes not from me or my skill as a researcher, but from the person who said/wrote it, for their openness and eloquence to say it. And what of the interviewee who is unable to speak eloquently? Their story gets quoted less often. Their story gets paraphrased because we have no space and it’s not as attractive. And that same person? Their problem isn’t solved by a methodology like autoethnography because their ineloquence will continue to hinder their capacity to be heard. Let alone the issue of language. If you aren’t fluent in the dominant language, you lose your right to be heard on your own terms, and then if that language is not your native language, you are still expressing yourself on someone else’s terms.

Am I like, crazy? Or do other people feel the same way?

There’s a small thing I do, if I can’t do autoethnography, and if I can’t share my article with people who participated in the research in it (I do that when I can)… but what I will try to remember to do for every “survey” I do (and I don’t do too many)  – I will always give the respondent the choice to enter their name and to ask to be quoted by name. And still give them the right to remain anonymous if they so choose.

(inspired by a lot of things happening around me recently, including an article I am peer reviewing – it’s one of those things that influence you but you can’t really talk about because the article isn’t out)

9 thoughts on “Reclaiming Words We Give Away

  1. Thanks for writing this out so honestly (and eloquently), Maha. It’s a tricky field – taking people’s words/responses in interviews/surveys. Most surveys just make me frustrated because my answer doesn’t always fit neatly into the given reponses and their created degrees of agreement/disagreement. I’m also aware that I respond differently depending in lots of things – how long I dwelled on the questions, my state of mind, how I felt. Your situation is more frustrating. I appreciate being made aware of these frustrating details; it widens my outlook on these things and confirms my own skeptical attitude to survey data (which nobody I’ve spoken to agrees with).

    1. Thanks Tania – ur totally right about closed-ended questions on surveys. How do we know that everyone meant the same thing when they chose a particular thing? Even when you pilot test them and give people instructions on what you mean by each category – they still aren’t always what you mean them to be

  2. Thanks Maha – I love these conversations about these ideas. This comes up a lot when I talk to people with disabilities about research – they have lots of stories about how it’s a lot of work, people say they will report back and don’t, and it’s often not useful or accessible to them and comes out of a whole history of research being used to marginalise them. One of the fun things about my current research is that the advisory group of people with disabilities wanted it to incorporate ongoing opportunities to report back on our findings – in ways they understood, in places where they were. And they seem to feel okay about suddenly suggesting that it’s time for an update, whereas I might think there could be an update a year or so… it’s quite challenging and interesting.

    1. Thanks for bringing up vulnerable populations, Aaron. That takes these ideas to a whole new level of danger. Much more important to talk about it in that light and consider action.

  3. Thanks for this Maha. – I wonder if we were thinking of the same paper:) When I read your post, I thought about the hermeneutic circle that I read about in Lucas Intronas work eg 20 years ago. When we listen or read we all appropriate what is written or said into our own context – as he says all communication is ‘failed’. As you know, I have been working on research that included a survey with 4 open-ended questions and offered people the option of being anonymous. As I recall, only 2 respondents opted for being identified in quotes. I have had your experience of being unable to recall what I said in a survey and have wondered if survey software should make it easy for respondents to keep their own copy. I like mixed methods research that can give different perspectives.
    I was co-author on a paper published last month that attracted attention in the last few days after someone shared it on the latest Rhizo FB group and tagged me in the post. So I noticed the comments there and that it was also being commented in and then Simon Ensor wrote blog post commenting on the paper and its authors and I have seen his posted linked in other posts. So for some, what our paper said will be based on what Simon said rather than a reading of the paper and that’s the hermeneutic circle in action. I still value anonymous responses though – they can allow voices to survive loud circles of interpretation.

    1. Hi Frances. As you know, I had access to ur article a long time ago. This post wasn’t a response to your paper or Simon’s response at all 🙂 Or at least not specifically (in hindsight it might be related). It’s something I have had in my mind for a long time and was actually a response to something Bonnie said in my blogpost just before this one. I may read Intronas now 🙂 but maybe after DigPedCairo

  4. Thinking of copyright, ownership, voice, who’s zooming whom. Commented recently about annotation. Does anyone have the right to annotate any publicly posted blog? I had a single occasion in over ten years of blogging to ask someone not to comment on my blog so it’s a very isolated problem, but I wonder about how a female blogger might get flashmobbed using and not even know it. Maybe it is already happening. Personally, I might welcome the brawl, but that is just me. And I might want the capacity to have tighter control without losing the blog’s public face. Sorry, if this is a bit tangential, but it seemed to fit a bit.

    1. What u said about – i had thought the same. On ur personal blog u can moderate comments. On u can’t. Potential for abuse exists either way…

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