Who Owns a Narrative?

When translating my field notes for a research report, I noticed something - there was staleness in how I was writing. I was referring to people by numbers, not names. Of course anonymity is required to protect sources, but even after instituting pseudonyms, the way I described people who had been interviewed for our research was robotic. The complicated stories detailing how they survived through war, dealt with the death & disappearances of loved ones, and continued to grapple with issues in the post-war aftermath became evidentiary support for our report’s claims. One person’s story illustrated how the upending of gender roles resulted in tension between men and women, while another’s highlighted the problems of debt in a context of unstable livelihoods. While these are important points to make, there is a danger in divorcing people from their stories and using them instrumentally. Part of this had to do with my novice as a researcher. I had, until then, never written about people I sat down with, had tea with; people who told me their story first-hand.

I don’t mean to speak for all researchers but I think it can be easy to fall into this trap - creating distance between your work and the real people who you have studied. Part of it may be because when you’re in the throes of writing, you focus on certain goals for the sake of efficiency: getting this section out of the way and moving onto the next; making sure you have evidence; trying to find the exact quote from the woman discussing corruption; worrying about the peer review; trying not to ‘be political’ but ‘objective’ (though it’s highly doubtful if that is even possible). Part of this may be inexperience, as in my case. Another factor may be using what is necessary to further your own agenda. Do you want to emphasize sexual violence in a post-war setting because you think that will obtain interest and funding? Ambika Satkunanathan, a researcher and lawyer in Sri Lanka, wrote an excellent piece[1] about how various actors will often utilize women’s harrowing experiences with violence, and spin them to reveal what they want them to reveal.

This all sounds incredibly cynical. Of course, not all research and writing is like this. But it happens. And at what cost? Women and young people, specifically, are often the targets of research and development interventions on conflict and poverty. Studies and reports on gender-based sexual violence, encouraging entrepreneurism amongst women and youth, and getting women ‘more’ involved in development are published regularly. The problem is that these are not homogenous groups. Yet the tendency to use these studies to perpetuate certain narratives about ‘victimisation’ or ‘empowerment’ persists. What does this mean for those who do not 'fit' easily into one of these categories? What do we gloss over when we view people from a single lens?

As Satkunanathan argues, the effectiveness of transitional justice processes for groups such as women depends on them being able to decide what they want to share and how they want to share it. My desire for Sunayra is exactly this: to give traditionally "disenfranchised" groups the opportunity to become, as Satkunanathan says, “change agents.” Sunayra hopes to eventually foster the skills in expressive writing and storytelling amongst youth in post-war areas of Sri Lanka, so they can work through their experiences without the pressure of discussing one particular thing, fitting into a certain narrative, and without the constraints of a set of questions that the researcher needs to get through in an hour.

This level of agency is inherently important, but in terms of how we, as outsiders, make sense of other people’s lives, it enables us to see just how nuanced, complicated and unique the human experience is. This is sometimes forgotten in contexts such as war and poverty, where research and news stories tend to propagate one simple image. Sunayra aims to be part of a larger movement to foster a deeper understanding of how young people negotiate their lives in times of trauma, and move past the tendency to utilise a ‘single lens.’

[1] Ambika Satkunanathan, “What is Represented and what is made invisible: Women and Transitional Justice Processes in Sri Lanka.” Groundviews 6 March 2015. http://groundviews.org/2015/06/03/what-is-represented-and-what-is-made-invisible-women-and-transitional-justice-processes-in-sri-lanka/



Mira Philips heads up Sunayra's Research & Operations, and is currently pursuing her MSc at London School of Economics. Mira, and Sunayra, believe that critical analysis of current research attitudes is necessary to create long-lasting and sustainable change.