Research for Good: Doing Research with NGOs in the Global South

Categories: Focus Series, Impact, Social Issues

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Focus Research Social GoodResearch for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. We are delving into this broad topic with guest posts, interviews, and links to articles or instructional resources.

This guest post is by Dr. Emanuela Girei. After Management Learningreading her article, “Decolonising management knowledge: A reflexive journey as practitioner and researcher in Uganda” I asked Emanuela to tell us more. The article is available open access until January 5, 2019.

Emanuela EG My research focuses on management and organisatinal issues in non-profit organisations, looking specifically at International Development. My research and practice develop from and through an interpretative and critical approach and take shape through an iterative process of hands-on immersion as a practitioner and of reflexive inquiry as a theoretical researcher. While my research and practices is generally inspired by critical action research, a key principle that shapes my methodology is the adoption of a broad, open-ended stance. This means freeing the research from rigid design or methods, to minimise the risk of imposing categories and of constraining thinking and actions. I therefore interpreted ‘Action Research’ loosely, valuing negotiation of meaning and practice over adherence to a specific design. This is an informed choice resulting from my attempts to answer some epistemological and ethical dilemmas which I explored in a recent article, “Decolonising management knowledge: A reflexive journey as practitioner and researcher in Uganda.”


Janet Salmons JS Did you feel constrained by existing theories, methodologies, methods? If so, how did you work with or work around them?

Emanuela EG Yes, this is something I have experienced often and I think that there are some overarching issues that are particularly important for researchers engaged in/with the Global South.

In particular, we should not neglect the fact that knowledge about the Global South is largely produced by scholars and institutions located in high-income countries. In Management and Organisation studies the great majority of research is developed in and for North America and the United Kingdom, largely ignoring other parts of the world. This can be understood as a form of ‘epistemic violence’, which approaches organisations located outside the West through a comparative lens, enlightening how they differ/resemble the western model. This in turn nurtures and reinforces historically rooted assumptions regarding the superiority and universality of the western standard. In this sense, the commitment toward decolonise management knowledge, which I share with many colleagues, aims to develop new forms of knowledge and research practices, which are not only responsive to the contexts where the research takes place, but also careful not to reproduce wider asymmetries in the research process and practice.


Janet Salmons JS Did you face ethical dilemmas or concerns and how have you dealt with them?

Emanuela EG When you do critical and participatory research in the Global South it is virtually impossible not to engage with ethical dilemmas. Who is my research serving? Whose voices I am including and whose voices I am excluding? How are my identities and positionalities impacting on the research process?

Beginning with an acknowledgment of my active role throughout the research process, it has been crucial for me to turn the investigative gaze on myself, with regard to both my practice and my analysis. Self-reflexive practice for me entails a continuous critical analysis of the assumptions, values and interests underpinning and guiding my actions and thinking, implying not only self-awareness about them, but also a readiness to question them. This critical analysis does not aim to reach a neutral perspective, disengaged and detached from my own subjectivity; rather it signals a commitment to minimise the manipulative intents and effects implied in any research and to strengthen opportunities for a genuine engagement with the diversity of voices and perspectives that I encounter, including those not aligned with my positions and perspectives.


Janet Salmons JS What advice or recommendations do you have for social researchers interested in social good?

Emanuela EG Each research project is different and it is very difficult to identify universal rules or best practices. However on the basis of my research experience, I have identified five key factors which might be helpful also for colleagues

Reflexivity. Decolonising knowledge requires researchers to recognise that knowledge cannot be neutral: it is necessarily interwoven with ethical and political threads. Requirements for objectivity and neutrality often obscure the political and ethical dimensions of research. It is thus important for researchers to continuously investigate who and what specific research choices and actions they are serving, which truths and worldviews they sustain and their impact on the lives of those involved in the research, as well as the impact of their identities and positionalities in knowledge production.

Open-ended orientation. This means freeing the research from rigid design or methods, to minimise the risk of imposing categories and of constraining thinking and actions, An open-ended orientation with regard to both empirical investigation and theoretical analysis helps in widening perspectives, learning from the persons involved in the research and avoiding, as much as possible, constraining the variety and unpredictability embedded in human actions and social phenomena.

Unfolding whiteness and other asymmetries. My own experience supports the argument about the persistence of assumptions regarding the entanglement of knowledge, expertise and race – and it is clear to me that this is partly outside my agency, that is, beyond my stance, choices and acts. Such rooted asymmetries can be changed, but only by engaging with them, rather than deleting them from the research practice agenda, as is too often the case.

Radical contextuality. Paying simultaneous attention to both the historical and the emergent dimensions of the context in which research takes place can help address some of the limits of comparative, decontextualised and ahistorical approaches that have detrimentally impacted on knowledge about the global South. This also invites for a committed engagement with indigenous scholarship.

Micro/meso/macro. The commitment to engaging with local meanings and practices on one hand, and on the other with the wider (academic, political, cultural and economic) context where the research takes place can be sustained by a research strategy that moves back and forth from the macro level (where, for instance, policies are decided) to the meso and micro levels. Continuously switching lenses among these levels might help address some of the main gaps identified with MOS – existing also in other sectors – such as its abstract stance, its epistemic violence in silencing alternative perspectives, and its complicity in sustaining broader inequalities.


More about Emanuela
EmanuelaDr. Emanuela Girei is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield Management School. Her main research interest is around management, politics and social change, focusing in particular on whether and how development management theory and practice can contribute to making organisations, institutions and societies more just, equitable and sustainable. She is also interested in researching about qualitative and critical research methodologies.


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