A reflection on research relationships

It has been more than a year that I’ve conducted the last interview and the more the fieldwork moves into the past, the more the relationships with my research participants fade away. This was bound to happen of course, but it makes me think about the particular nature of these relationships.

It was clear from the very start that this research would only last for a limited period of time. I also knew from my experience as a social worker with unaccompanied minors that the relationships with them are very transient and impermanent. Besides, it is not easy to follow up a group of almost 80 youngsters and remember everybody’s story in detail (even putting names to faces can be a challenge). At the same time, the very purpose of the research was to get to know them as well as possible, build up a close and trustful relationship, and have conversations about personal and sometimes quite intimate things. Even though we strived to design the interviews in a positive way, with resource-oriented questions and a focus on well-being, and even though our research hopefully contributes to an improvement of the situation of unaccompanied minors in general, the goal of the engagement with the individual research participants is ultimately to “extract information”. From the caregiving mindset of the social worker and psychologist that I was used to, I put on my researcher hat and adopted a more inquisitive attitude.

Looking back, I think I was aware of this ambiguity from the beginning as I often felt that I needed to restrain myself, that I was reluctant to really bond with them because I knew I would eventually leave again. I felt a kind of double-bind as I wanted and needed to connect, both as a researcher and as a human being, but simultaneously I was painfully aware that I wouldn’t be able to sustain these relationships and that I wouldn’t always be able to answer the need for support and companionship that I often saw. I don’t mean to pretend that all of them were hungry for my attention, that they all depended on my benevolent care as a generous saviour. Our research shows that they are strong, resilient, independent and resourceful. But I want to acknowledge the dilemma that I am faced with as a researcher when engaging with these youth. Naturally, I am touched by the suffering I am confronted with. I strive to alleviate it on a structural level, and structural change is desperately needed. Yet, the relationships with my participants are basically a means to an end and can feel kind of artificial at times.

Every once in a while I still chat with one of them, or I see a status update on Facebook. As I hear about how their lives continue to unfold, about family reunifications, struggles with legal documents, Corona-related challenges, and even marriages and newborn babies I feel both happiness and regret. But above all, I feel a lot of gratitude. Thank you, dear participants, for opening up, for sharing your stories, and for letting me in on your lives, even if it was just for a while!