Of Sardines and Stamps, Ethics and Risk

International Sardines

I have been waiting a while to talk about my fieldwork through the prism of the sardine can. It started the day I went to visit my flat for the second time and decided to rent it. I broke one of the main two anti-risk rules, not of the ethics committee, but of my Mum. Number one is ‘don’t go in the park after dark’, and it was the second one that got broken: ‘never get in a car with strangers’. I’ve known these rules since I could talk. They pre-date the commitments I made on the Bristol University risk assessment form by about 28 years.

Now technically, it wasn’t me that broke the rule. I was being taken to ‘Thursday’ by an older lady from a charitable association who was helping a local nursery. We were waiting for a taxi and a car drove up – as often happens – and offered to give us a lift for free. Now if I’m on my own, I always say no. I wasn’t on my own though and it was the lady who knew the area well, who decided that the driver was a totally trustworthy individual. So maybe he genuinely did drive up that way once a week and always offer lifts to people going his way, or maybe he wanted to practice his language skills with the foreigner.

In any case, we didn’t get kidnapped, we got free sardines. It turns out that sardines are the global supply chain next door. In the next city along from me there are sardine canning factories and in one of these this multi-lingual middle-manager takes on about 600 women a year. You might have noticed, these sardines speak our language, in fact they say they are from those well-trusted local shops, Sainsbury’s and Tescos. But I don’t have them because I love sardines so much that I brought them here in my suitcase. And thankfully, Tescos hasn’t arrived in Morocco yet. They actually came from the car boot of this complimentary taxi.

There weren’t just sardines packed up and ready for Sainsbury’s and Tescos, there were also some for French supermarkets too. In the local shop I also saw some speaking what looked like Polish and German. So Sainsbury’s might imply that the sardines are theirs, whipped out of a global store cupboard by them, but they weren’t. They were fished out of African waters and packed by Moroccan women. I’m not trying to inspire guilt here, as far as I know sardines are a relatively plentiful fish and not on any blacklists for overfishing as yet. It gives me an opportunity though to think about what things say on the tin. Slight change of topic coming up.

We give a lot of importance in the UK to getting the paperwork in order and the stamps in the right place. I’m part of that. I want to be an ethical researcher and have all the paperwork in order to prove it. These last two weeks I’ve spent a lot of time chasing paper. It’s taken me on an interesting journey of offices, and past flags, in which I donned my suit jacket and got rid of any scarfs at the entrance. I’ve been kindly asked by people willing to help in these offices “Do you have a problem?”. I say, “Well no, not really, I’d just like to know that you are happy that I’m here doing research”. The response is, “you are welcome here, good luck”. So, if in person there seems to be no problem, how much paper is necessary? We decided, on the 10th floor of a government office, that a stamp would be a good start. So I have travelled for 18 hours this week and returned triumphantly with a very small government stamp on my piece of paper marked 12th October 2016.

Where are sardines from? Probably the most truthful answer would be to say ‘the sea’. But in our paper and classification hungry society, I, with my letters and requests, want to brand my work just like Sainsbury’s and Tescos.¹

In reality, the guarantees given by these labels and stamps often end up deceptive or meaningless. The treasured pieces of paper I would really like are not the guarantee of my research being ethical or not. The sardines are, and aren’t, really Sainsbury’s. In the same way, the commitments to ethical procedures and risk aversion are only the beginning of a negotiation of risks and ethics.² Occasionally, not getting in a car with ‘strangers’ isn’t necessarily going to reduce my risk (although I avoid it wherever possible!). Perhaps what we need to develop is the ability to believe or seriously consider what we see and feel and what we are told and experience face to face. Fish really do come from the sea, and in most cases, so long as I keep doing my best to be a good, and ethically aware guest, I really am welcome in Morocco.

Notes

Sorry some photos are stuck on my phone and it isn’t wifi or data connected.

¹ If this were an academic essay rather than a blog, I’d reference Scott, and his argument that we simplify and harm complex realities when we try to ‘see like a state’. JAMES C. SCOTT, Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale University Press 1998)

² I read that my approach here is of ethical relativism. This book is really helping me work through dilemmas and practicalities, for anyone about to do fieldwork I recommend it: REGINA SCHEYVENS & DONOVAN STOREY, Development fieldwork: a practical guide. 2nd Edition (Sage 2014).

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