Walking on eggshells: Why our research methods, practices and procedures at every level must have the community in mind

Hiram L. Smith
Bucknell University

Drawing on research that I conducted on Palenquero Creole, spoken in San Basilio de Palenque, a small Afro-Hispanic village in northern Colombia, this talk engages ethics, methodological choices and personal responsibility of researchers who work in marginalized speech communities. Since our work is not just about linguistics for linguistics’ sake, but always has social and political implications, it is important to acknowledge (and not just intellectually) the impact that our presence and work may have on a community long after we’re gone. Since researchers and readers of their work are not immune to implicit biases, I argue that we must actively incorporate into our projects design strategies that militate against such biases. I will demonstrate how this can be done at every phase of the research process.
Using original data, I discuss specific ways in which this plays out on the ground in a variety of areas: integrating one’s self into the community (without offending community members), accurate reporting (which implies allowing the subaltern to speak), methodological and transcription choices (implications of using simplified alphabets), sharing our research with the community (don’t ‘eat and run’), and involving community members in the scientific study of their own language (and caveats).
I will finish with a word on why we must be vigilant–yes, hypervigilant and hypersensitive–in this regard. This research is part of a project that aims to counter categorical perception and stereotyping of minority speech communities–especially Afro-Hispanic ones–and to putting science in the service of the communities we serve.