Summing up my Summer Research/Experience

Summer is over.  I am back at school with a full plate of work, classes, homework, obligations, and inter-library loans…. And so how best to summarize my summer in the field?

First of all, my research went hardly according to plan.  This, however, was not a negative experience; it made me understand the realities of working in the field, just as I had hoped it would.  I began with the intention of interviewing unwed mothers in specifically Rabat, Morocco, while volunteering at local NGOs in the same city.  I intended to continue my cultural immersion through friends (of all generations) I had made during my semester abroad.  This continuation of cultural exchange did continue and was one of the most informative (and helpful) aspects of my summer research.

I quickly encountered just how important mastery of the language is for the effectiveness of research in a way I had not experienced as a study abroad student.  There is not simply a correlation between language and success, but instead success depends on the ability to access and utilize language.  Of the many obstacles I encountered this was most pertinent.

An issue I expected to find trouble with…. well, did in fact, cause trouble.  This was the fact that unwed mothers and sexual relations out of marriage (and all issues surrounding it) in Morocco is a very taboo subject.  I knew this to be true and was not surprised that it was so.   I was surprised, however, by the willingness and honesty of unwed mothers to speak about their experiences.

The importance of the role of NGOs in these women’s life was made very clear, as well as the inactivity of the Moroccan government on this issue.  The mistakes or lack of sensitivity of researchers before me was also made clear.  Entry into NGOs (especially as I am not a native Moroccan Arabic speaker or speak French) was difficult not only given my language deficit, non-Moroccan citizenship, but also by the damage done by researchers before me.  Gaining access to NGOs required documentation I had not expected as well as the support of a Moroccan citizen.  I was very fortunate in finding a Moroccan friend that could not only help me gain access to the NGOs by assuaging their feelings of distrust but also act as a translator.  We interviewed at two different NGOs at completely opposite ends of the country and visited another multiple times.

In this I also learned another valuable lesson: there is no such thing as “the lone researcher”.  I was incredibly depended upon those I met in Morocco to move within and around Moroccan society.  This extended into my research and my personal life.  Research simply would not have been possible without them and I am of the belief that my comparatively comfortable life as I knew it would not have been possibly either.

Research was often confusing and frustrating especially when I felt like I could or should be doing more (residual Classic William and Mary Student Syndrome I believe).  I slowly came to the realization (perhaps I should have let go sooner) that I would not be able to volunteer at any NGOs and access to these NGOs was out of my control beyond my best efforts.  So I concentrated in asking anyone and everyone about everything, absorbing the culture, observing, and gaining a deeper understanding.  I also read. A lot.  At the end of the summer I was beginning to feel like I had failed somehow…. And then I remembered to look at my goals from the beginning of the summer.

I came with the intention of interviewing 6 single mothers.  I left with 10 interviews, not including all the informal stories and experiences of unwed mothers I collected.   I intended to interview 2 experts.  I left with 3 interviews including the director of an NGO focusing solely on unwed mothers.   This also does not include informal conversations.  I also made contacts with several scholars and anthropologists in the field studying these same social issues.  Despite best efforts, plans for deeper conversations have been moved to this semester rather than having taken place in country.  But the basic steps were made.  Instead of gaining an understanding of the experiences of unwed mothers in one specific city, I was forced (to my benefit) to gain an understanding of this issue in a wider country/region wide context.  Furthermore, it led to a deepening of my belief that in order to understand each woman’s experience, I must understand the contexts within which they live.  In many ways I was more fortunate than some researchers in this area.  I was basically adopted by several Moroccan families and also formed deep, long-lasting friendships which opened (and will continue to open) my world to an understanding of Moroccan culture, thought, and world view that I never expected or would have otherwise been privilege to.  I also have been forced to reanalyze my role as a researcher and how I can fit into Morocco’s progress and model of change.  I am continuing to find ways to contribute my knowledge and efforts to ensure the betterment of unwed mothers.

So, yes, my research did not go exactly according to plan.  But as I learned, and will most definitely keep in mind in the future, is this idea that research is fluid and messy.  I read it in methodology books, heard it from professors, but I never experienced it.  This summer I did and it will shape how I plan future research, how I understand the field of anthropology and social change/advocacy, and how I will continue this research and commitment to improving the lives of Moroccan unwed mothers long after this honors thesis has been completed.  Now I enter into a stage of evaluation, analysis, more reading, and a great deal of writing.  But I am certain the passions, skills, and knowledge I gained this summer will continue and persist throughout my personal and professional life.

Happy Researching.