Working with research brokers: Power, positionality and ethics

Lynda Keeru reports back on a recent webinar, ‘Coloniality of research and spotlight on the research backstage.’ The speakers suggested ways that we can forge more ethical and transparent research collaborations that produce knowledge that is accessible, meaningful and transformatory in a world altered by COVID-19. This blog summarises the presentation given by Swati Parasha Director of the Gothenburg Centre for Globalisation and Development. To find out more please watch the recording of the lecture.

Researchers engage with many people on the ground, in field sites. These people make important decisions about what knowledge is made visible and what frame is used to tell the story of people involved in research. Knowledge or research brokers are the people who facilitate field research (also known as fixers, facilitators, managers, assistants, gate keepers, interpreters etc.) They assist researchers in the field and collect field data. Sometimes they work for local research partners to whom research has been outsourced. Field work practices thrive on the labour of racialized research subjects and brokers. Yet these workers are often not acknowledged and there are few discussions about their role. Brokers and research subjects are often diminished and erased when it comes to the authorship of research publications. This means that researchers (and brokers) in the Global South receive fewer citations than their colleagues in the Global North.

It is important to document the role of brokers, examine their positionality and reflect on the way that they shape research processes.

Many researchers from the Global South have documented their experiences of how they are treated differently to white researchers. There is an intersectional hierarchy based on gender, class, race that operates in the research backstage that people need to start paying attention to. Many Global South researchers and academics also inadvertently get roped into broker roles by researchers from the Global North and this too has its own dynamics.

Paradoxically brokers can be both powerful (and able to dictate how research unfolds and its outcomes) and vulnerable (as marginalized people who can be exploited or manipulated by researchers). When researchers in the Global North engage with brokers in the Global South power differentials can potentially be greater.

It is not uncommon for brokers to face challenging and potentially violent circumstances in the course of their work. But while safeguarding is becoming an increasingly hot topic in development, we rarely see discussions about the ways in which the relationship between researchers and brokers impacts the security of the brokers or that of their families both in the field and afterwards.

Swati reflected on the inequalities and exploitation present in the ‘use’ of research sites in the Global South – which are often positioned as ‘case studies’ on which Western and Eurocentric theories are applied.  Swati described a vicarious expertise industry thriving on the intellectual labour of people of colour where the bounties are only available to white scholars with access to resources, funding and publication. She argued that there is need to do away with this model and recognize that all phenomena in the Global South have their own theoretical foundations, developments, and explanatory trajectories. White privilege often means that the analysis of scholars in the Global North is considered more credible and legitimate in comparison to work produced by local scholars despite the likelihood that they have a deeper and more nuanced analysis of research phenomena due to their embeddedness and potential lived experience.

To conclude Swati raised some ways in which the pandemic has altered the traditional research dynamic. For example, ‘access to the field’ has become more challenging and restrictive, governments have become more concerned about permissions to enter field sites and communities have become less trusting of outside researchers and their prying questions in the light of more pressing demands. This provides a useful moment to rethink and reshape research practices in more ethical and equitable ways.


Parasha S (2021) Coloniality of research and spotlight on the research backstage, Webinar organized by The Danish Institute for International Studies, chaired by Ninna Nyberg Sørensen