Every time I travel I expect the country I’m in to tell me something. I like knowing this and I like not knowing what it is I will be told. Writing on an article that will be published later this fall had me realize what it was this time. I realized how much that had fallen into the realm of this research, and although the research question has remained the main focus, many more things had taken shape to help guiding it forward.
I know now that it is about the people I interview, it is about the questions I ask, it is about my aim, it is about cultural codes, it is about being a foreign researcher digging in someone’s past, it is about finding a safe space, it is about honouring the memories, their stories. And time, it is so much about time: them giving us their time to talk about something that not everyone wants to talk about, and us allowing for this to take as long as they need. We spent hours and hours listening to personal stories and fragments of what happened during that year, day, and even hour. In the midst of everything it is sometimes hard to see the relevance of allowing so much time for this as it often does not directly relate to the questions you want to ask, or the main of the your research. But this showed to be one of our best decisions yet taken. By placing the interview outside the realm of academia we placed their story first and foremost, and the interview was conducted from their story. Nothing else.
We know that we are obsessed with time, that’s what everything evolves around, with this research being no exception and I accept that. But what I don’t accept is the fact that not enough time is given to listen to people’s stories, their memories, and their suffering. I don’t accept that an interview about reconciliation and post-conflict health is only 20 minutes long, and I don’t accept your expectation of continuing the interview until you understand everything they are telling you.
It becomes very complicated here, I know. Yes, this can have some information to get blurred. Yes, the information may not fit into your research paper later. And yes, this can have you drawing faulty conclusions about things. But really, not all information has to be in there, not everything has to be clarified to the point when there is an absolute understanding between the two of us. Do we live our life at home being sure we fully understand everyone around us?
Let some parts remain unanswered. That’s okay.
We don’t need to understand every part of the story, but we are not going to leave all our questions unanswered either. You will see the difference between a fact that has been there for 36 years and might as well have changed a bit and a fact that is more relevant to have longer discussion about.
Looking at this from a time-focused perspective you can argue that you pick your fights after the time that has been given to you to do this interview, no matter by who, but there is something else happening when the time allowance of the interview is put in the hands of the interviewee instead of being all yours.
By starting the interview with “If he is comfortable telling us, we are curious to know about his experience during the Khmer Rouge” created a big change in the time we allowed for it. We allowed for the person to tell his or her story without being interrupted or questioned. Many times the story would be longer than the actual interview. But that’s okay.
What came from making this decision becomes about so much more than just the research. It becomes about the people I interview, it becomes about the questions I ask, it becomes about my aim, it becomes about cultural codes, it becomes about being a foreign researcher digging in someone’s past, it becomes about finding a safe space, it becomes about honoring the memories, their stories. And time. Letting go of time is what allows for this to become about so much more than “What are the individual incentives for taking part in a reconciliation process?”