Intertwined Journeys of a PhD Student and Unaccompanied Minors: Autoethnography of Research with Vulnerable Participants

Mervi Kaukko
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 13  •  2018  •  pp. 347-359

The aim of this article is to discuss a PhD student’s experience of working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, amidst a rapidly changing global situation. The focus is on how the research process influenced the novice PhD student, and how the student’s subject position influenced the research.

The incentive for this article comes from an examiner’s comment, which argued that the student’s thesis did not clarify her subject position, or allow her voice to be heard. Paulo Freire’s (2005) concept of “pedagogical love” is used in unpacking these dimensions.

The paper adopts an autoethnographic approach. The data, consisting of 48 pages of field notes written during the doctoral study, are analyzed abductively (Timmermans & Tavory, 2012), in dialogue with theory.

The paper brings to the fore the ways in which the doctoral research processes may influence students, especially those working closely and intensively with participants in emotionally challenging situations and within a research field in flux. This knowledge is rarely included in doctoral training, but is relevant in today’s world where migration and refugees have become a popular theme. Secondly, the paper contributes to the already well-established body of literature about how doctoral student’s positionality influences the research.

The article utilises the ideas of storytelling (Weir & Clarke, 2018) and communicates findings in the form of three intertwined journeys: that of the author through her PhD process; the journey of her research participants from their countries of origin to Finland; and the journey of the PhD research within the historical turbulence of 2015 in global refugee situation. The findings show that acknowledging and reflecting one’s own emotional stance is required for the wellbeing of the student, as well as for an ethical research process resulting in a trustworthy outcome. The findings also suggest that although the love-rhetoric may sit awkwardly within our current academic perspectives, a focus on emotions does not diminish rigor in research. Instead, it enables ethical relationships and processes that are meaningful for all participants.

The paper recommends that practitioners in academia (including doctoral supervisors) encourage doctoral students to “know with [their] entire body, with feelings, with passion and also with reason” (Freire 1997, p. 30), and to reflect on their positionality, as well as map their doctoral journeys in the intersection of others.

The paper highlights that researchers working with people in challenging situations must continuously question their biases, show interest in the research participants as individuals, and create trust through long involvement in the research field.

By highlighting the complexities encountered in this research project, the paper aims to disrupt the simplistic, often deficit-focused assumptions about people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds.

The scope of the findings leaves open a discussion on critical moments during the shared journeys: how to enter the research field ethically, and how to exit after creating trust and building relationships?

autoethnography, Finland, PAR, pedagogical love, unaccompanied minors
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