As a researcher in the social sciences, my work is often centred around conversations about the dignity of others. However, it is rare that as researchers we turn this lens onto ourselves and interrogate how we respect the value of each other’s work. In this sector, where the general norm is that of overworked, underpaid, and unnamed junior researchers, encouraging stories are few and far between.
My story is positive, drawing on my experience in the Indian development sector as a research associate in a Non-Government Organisation (NGO). The NGO’s research wing was a collaborator on projects with universities outside India, Indian universities, and other private and public organisations. I was involved in various stages of the research process on these multiple projects and studied issues including women’s collective action, migration and citizenship, dietary diversity, indigenous knowledge, rural development, and social policy.
After a month of joining the wing and working on a new research study, I was invited by the project’s co-PI, who led the research wing, to co-author a paper for a prestigious journal. The paper’s authorship included a tenured senior professor, our lead researcher and experienced development professional, a development practitioner based in the field at the time, a post-doctoral researcher, and me. The equal footing that all of us involved in the research process were given as writers and contributors to this study made me realise how empowering it is to have your labour valued. The respect for my work and career aspirations made me feel my dignity was recognised.
This was not just an unsaid practice in our team but the subject of many conversations we had as we navigated our role in Global North and South academic collaborations. My colleagues were always ready to have ‘uncomfortable’ conversations about acknowledging the contributions of all researchers to the project. One way this was done was by having project meetings with all project actors involved. This allowed Western collaborators analysing data to meet data collectors in the field and receive their feedback on the analysis. While these tensions often persisted, having open discussions and engaging with dissenting views, irrespective of a researcher’s rank, was another example of dignity for me.
A second important learning was the importance of recognising wellbeing as part of dignity. The rigours of research were heightened during the pandemic, which was when I joined the wing. Work often overlapped with the weekend, and hearing about the experiences of such vulnerable communities also took a toll on our mental health. Soon, a colleague and senior researcher took out extra time from her schedule to plan online sessions for us that were entirely focused on individual health and connection. This taught me another lesson about dignity – apart from strong mentorship and growth opportunities for your career, creating a supportive environment for your co-workers makes them feel more dignified.
Working with this team taught me several practical lessons about dignity in research. One of the biggest takeaways was recognising how as researchers, we are always building on the work and knowledge of others. Using data respectfully and giving credit where it is due is an essential practice. For instance, my colleagues never failed to acknowledge my contributions, even on papers or conference presentations where I had played a small role in data collection or analysis.
My experience working with this team has left me with a much more expansive notion of dignity. Dignity for me goes beyond the recognition of invested time and labour. Dignity means supporting and mentoring someone through their professional growth and, when needed, creating the space for personal growth.
Ayesha Pattnaik is a DPhil candidate at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. Drawing on her training as a sociologist, she is currently exploring rights governing citizenship, migration, and labour. Twitter: @ayeshapattnaik