South Africa Alumna Reflects on Power and Privilege in Research

By Tiffani Kennedy, alumna of SIT’s South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights program



From the beginning of my first year at the University of Virginia, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. To my excitement, I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa!

Before I knew it, the day of my departure in January of 2016 was upon me. I boarded my connecting flight to London with a particularly numb sensation. I was undoubtedly looking forward to my semester abroad; however, I was not overwhelmed with any one emotion. In fact, I believe I had so many thoughts, emotions, and concerns swarming about my mind that not a single one could manifest itself over the next.

For that reason and the simple fact that I had no idea what to expect from living in another country for four months, I had difficultly establishing any concrete expectations for my trip. Nonetheless, the primary thing I hoped to gain from studying in Cape Town, South Africa, was to leave the country with new and more enlightened perspectives concerning multiculturalism and human rights. To my benefit, I gained that and much more.

Tiffani in Bo Kaap

Listening to South African trap music on Longstreet, attending a women’s empowerment cypher in Khayelitsha, participating in a poetry workshop in Stellenbosch, and gaining inspiration from the words of activists and playwrights in Rondebosch ignited in me a desire to learn more about hip-hop culture in Cape Town.

I’ve always had a love of music, and seeing the African Diasporic commonalities in hip-hop culture encouraged me to research its circuitous flows across the Atlantic. For the purposes of my Independent Study Project, I was interested in understanding how hip-hop was employed to empower, liberate, and enlighten some Capetonians. Thus, I sought out the Cape Town–based hip-hop collective Soundz of the South.

The collective provided me with a wealth of knowledge concerning how they fused hip-hop with cultural activism to improve the present-day political, social, and economic state of their community. In addition to reflecting on the wisdom of the collective, I spent my final evenings in Cape Town thinking about the underlying implications of my research.

These thoughts were prompted by the range of ethics questions concerning positionality, power, privilege, and identity we covered during our Research Methods and Ethics course. These questions sent my mind through a whirlwind of confusion, reluctance, and critical skepticism.

go beyond the corner tshaboThe course forced us to reflect upon the implications of conducting research in a foreign country. We spent our time critically discussing and unpacking a range of topics that included what the “third world” was, who was responsible for its construction, and the power dynamic between “the West and the Rest” inside the matrix of global knowledge production.

This knowledge has ultimately influenced the way in which I approach research practices today. My takeaway is that an unequal power dynamic has the potential to unfold when a Westerner sets out to conduct social research in a non-Western nation. There is no mystery to the power of “The West” in today’s global climate, made possible through histories of colonialism and European expansion. This power reveals itself in the spread of democracy across the globe, in how frequently Top Shop stores pop up around every continent, in the Eurocentric aesthetics of the world’s highest paid supermodels, and in pop music styles that flow so effortlessly across the seas.

There is one thing each of these phenomena have in common. Regardless of their country of origin, each found its birth in a Western nation. That which is produced in “The West” tends to dominate.

The very salient dominance of The West, unsurprisingly, exists in research. This is something that must be taken into critical consideration so as to avoid perpetuating these unequal power dynamics. To ensure that you do not cause harm to your participants by misrepresenting them or exploiting or appropriating their culture through the words of your research, be sure to ask yourself some essential questions. These are the ones that I drew on most:

  1. What are my identity markers and what amount of privilege do I possess in both my cultural context and the context of the country I am visiting (i.e., what is my positionality in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.)?
  2. Why do I want to research this particular subject and what informs my interest in this particular topic, with this particular group of people (i.e., am I perpetuating a stereotype about Africa that I inherited through Western eyes)?
  3. Whose voice is dominant in my research? (It should always be the voice of your participants, as it is their story.)
  4. What is the history of this country and how does my identity fit in to that history (i.e., context is everything)?

The aforementioned questions are in no way an exhaustive list of questions to consider prior to and throughout your research process. Trust me, there are many more. The point that I am trying to evince is that power and privilege exist. Many people have privileges that go unacknowledged and unquestioned. If your intentions are to conduct any form of field research, it is essential that you consider the potential ways in which your identity and the identity of your participants connect and clash, while simultaneously addressing the privileges you possess.

Tiffani and penguins SIT Study Abroad South AfricaCultural exchange is a phenomenal experience that all people should partake in, however, that exchange must be conducted in an open and respectful way. My time in South Africa was beyond any expectation I could have possibly mustered up. In fact, last semester was my favorite semester to date! I left Cape Town with added wisdom and knowledge, perhaps better than this, I left South Africa with more questions than I had prior to my arrival. I look forward to the future adventures that will answer these questions and gift me with new inquiries to explore.

Learn more about SIT’s Multiculturalism and Human Rights program in South Africa.

Be Sociable, Share!

, ,

Comments are closed.