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Virginia Mapedzahama

Further information

About the author

Virginia Mapedzahama is a PhD student at the University of South Australia. Her thesis is a cross-cultural comparative analysis of women’s work/life negotiations in Adelaide and in Harare. Her research interests are in women and work, African feminisms and post-colonial feminisms. She is also a sessional tutor/lecturer at the University of South Australia.
Email: [email protected]

Publication details

Volume 17, November 2007

The Crisis of Representation: An African Researcher's Dilemmas in Doing Feminist Cross-Cultural Research in Africa and in the West

This paper is a reflective piece on my experiences of conducting a feminist cross-cultural research on the work/life interface of working mothers in Adelaide (South Australia) and Harare (Zimbabwe). I focus on my social location as an African woman living and researching in a western society; to engage in a self-critical analysis of the challenges and dilemmas I encountered while researching women across borders and cultures. I discuss the dilemmas in negotiating the insider/outsider position in both research sites, and on my experiences of the complex power dynamics in the interview process. In so doing, I assess my positioning as the ‘other’, the non-western, black woman researching the white woman. I address the often-unacknowledged complex issues of power dynamics when the non-western woman conducts feminist research in the west.


She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain the contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. (Anzaldua, 1987: 79)

I start this paper with this quotation from Anzaldua because it precisely portrays my lived reality. I live between two cultures, my everyday reality straddles two worlds: that of the (Zimbabwean) Shona culture into which I was born and raised, and the dominant, ‘Australian’ culture in which I now live. This space that I occupy is a site of contradiction, for, as Anzaldua (1987: 42) wrote, I am alienated from my mother culture, yet ‘alien’ in the dominant Australian culture. As a black African woman researching both the white (Australian) woman and the black (Zimbabwean) woman, reading and re-reading Anzaldua’s 1987 publication, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, was significant because it helped me make sense not only of my cross-cultural existence, but also of the dilemmas that researching across cultures entails. I then began questioning how permeable the borders between races are, and also whether my experiences as a Third World 1 woman, born and raised in Africa, now living in a western society, allowed me to claim an ‘in-between position’ and if so, how does that position allow me to speak? I asked the questions: How does the black African woman research the white woman in the west and the black woman in the south? What is the Australian (and Zimbabwean) woman’s perception of me as a researcher? These questions by no means attract simple answers, but they do form the core of my reflexive process which I analyse in this paper, along with the layering of power relations and the complex dynamics of the insider/outsider status during my interviews. For me, such reflection provides valuable data from which insight can be gained into the empirical research findings.

My concern in this paper therefore, is not with analysing (western) feminisms per se, nor with how they have been “articulated in Europe and America and subsequently carried forward in an imperial march across the globe” (Oyewumi, 2003a: 1). Rather, it is to locate myself, the African woman researcher, within feminist discourse, through reflecting on my experiences and challenges researching in cross-cultural contexts. This paper is my attempt at reflexivity in my research. It is written from a sense of reflection on my own in-depth interviews – a reflexivity that is essential for me because it makes me constantly aware of how my values, attitudes and perceptions as a cross-cultural researcher influence the research process, from the formation of research questions to the data collection, and also to the ways in which the data are analysed and eventually, theoretically explained.

When North Meets South: Western Feminist Theorising and the Cross-Cultural Researcher

When I chose to embark on a cross-cultural study of the work/life experiences of women in Adelaide and Harare, I knew from the outset that I would conduct my research from a feminist perspective. Even though the methodology of my research shifted as the study progressed, my feminist perspective remained a constant. I needed to adopt a methodology that “honoured the lived experiences and knowledge of the people involved” (Gatenby and Humphries, 2000: 89) because the subjective experiences of working mothers are at the centre of my research. Such a methodology, as Smith (1987) has commented, “begins from where women as … knowers … are located in their actual everyday worlds rather than in an imaginary space constituted by the objectified forms of sociological knowledge” (p. 153).

As I developed the methodology of the study, however, I began to question how the concerns of (western) feminist methodological literature would address the particularities of my research. I found myself pre-occupied with the ‘African’ women / western feminism debate, and with the limits of contemporary (western) feminist theorising “in terms of its accessibility as well as application to understanding of specific regions” (Mohammed, 1998: 6). Yet I was aware, like other writers (see, for example, Mbabuike, 2002: 65), of the risks involved in such debates, the risks of replicating the binary paradigm of ‘Western conceptual categories’ versus ‘African indigenous categorisation’, and of reducing it to a simple ‘conflict’ between Africa and the west, and also of exoticizing difference. Nonetheless, my engagement with these debates led me to not only (re)assess my own positionality as an African researcher researching both the white woman in the west, and the black woman in Africa, but also to delve deeper into discussions of ‘power’ in feminist research.

Most cross-cultural debates on power relationships in feminist research, however, centre on white women researching black women, or women of colour (Dyck, Lynam, and Anderson, 1995). Black feminist analyses, for example, critique the inadequacies of white, western feminism in incorporating the very different experiences of black women in its theorising (see for example hooks, 1992; Spivak, 1988, Collins, 1999). Some debates centralize the (white) western feminist’s experiences researching the Third World woman, and the complex debates that arise – for example, on the silencing of the Third World woman in western feminist theorising, and the domination of western feminist theorising in women/gender in/and development discourse (for example the self-critical work by Lyons, 1999; Nattrass, 1995; Lather, 2004). African theorists have particularly voiced concern over the black woman’s passivity and white expertise when the western woman researches in Africa. For example, Nzenza (1995), critiques western feminists working in Africa for their inability to pay enough attention to the structural function of power of knowledge and its relationship to the politics of positionality and representation (p. 100). There has, however, been little literature on the experiences of women of “colour” engaging in cross-cultural research.

The key difference between my research and feminist critiques of power relationships in feminist cross-cultural research is that it is the researcher who is the woman of colour, the black African researching women both the white woman in the west and the black woman in the south. I am the ‘other’ who is “allocated constrained spaces within white western feminist discourses” (Haggis and Schech, 2000: 395), the subaltern, wishing to speak, to or about the ‘privileged’ white woman of the west as well as to and about the ‘underprivileged’ black woman in Africa. Yet I also found myself asking the same question that Nzenza (1995: 100-101) asked of the western feminist researching women in Africa: What is the nature of power relations between myself as a western-educated, diasporic African woman and the Zimbabwean woman on the one hand and the Australian woman on the other?

Dilemmas in Feminist Cross-Cultural Research

Cross-cultural research raises several interesting and potentially thorny issues for the ongoing feminist project of centring women’s voices in knowledge production about their lives (Dyck et al, 1995). Nnaemeka (2003) observes that researching, writing and theorising in a cross-cultural context “is fraught with intellectual, political, and ethical questions: the question of provenance (where is the theory coming from); the question of subjectivity (who authorises?); the question of positionality (which specific locations and standing [social, political and intellectual] does it legitimise” (p. 362). It was inevitable therefore, conducting feminist cross-cultural research in countries that have such diverse cultural and economic contexts as Australia and Zimbabwe, that I would confront significant challenges during data collection. I focus here on two particular challenges: the issue of power and negotiation of insider/outsider status.

Confronting the Problem of ‘Power’ in Feminist Research

Feminist scholars are particularly concerned with participants having an equal relationship with the researcher, with the research experience being empowering, and with a more interactive relationship with the reader / consumer (Merriam et al, 2001: 413). Ideally then, participants are colleagues in the research process, equally in control of the research. Ann Oakley’s (1981) important work on relationships between women in the interviewing process has led to considerable discussion on power relationships in feminist researching. Recent feminist analyses have now exposed the power-based dynamics inherent in all research and have suggested that power is something not only to be aware of, but also to negotiate in the research.

Adopting a feminist methodological framework for my research meant that one of my goals was to maintain a non-hierarchical interview relationship with my participants. There was no doubt in my mind, when I started the research, that I could not, and should not pretend to be the “all-knowing, all-seeing” researcher (Rose 1997: 305). When I began the research, one of my objectives was that I wanted these women’s stories, their voices, heard. What I did not realise then, was the power inherent in the production of knowledges about others: I had not fully developed sensitivity to the intersection of power with academic knowledge. McDowell (1992, cited in Rose, 1997: 307) noted that there are “real dangers inherent in our own position within the powerful institutions of knowledge production”. As I read later in Rose (1997: 307) “…researchers are in a position of power by virtue of their ability to name the categories, control information about the research agenda…”. I understood that even though I had endeavoured not to separate myself from the women I was interviewing, I had, and still have, the final say of interpretation in the conclusion of my study, and this in itself is an act of power. I was forced to face the fact that I hold a somewhat privileged position: by deciding what questions to ask, interpreting the interviews and any observational material and also by deciding the form in which it will be presented.

I had gone into the study hoping and intending to follow the principles of feminist interviewing that would enable me to break down hierarchical relations and interchange on the basis not only of shared gender and race (with the Harare participants), but also of shared experiences as a working mother. However, I had not fully problematised the effects of my social location on the research process. I not only speak from a specific historical, cultural, racial and sexual position, but also from an economic position (Nzenza, 1995). Alcoff (1994, cited in Nako 2001: 188) observes the relationship between location and speech, observing that the position from which one speaks affects the meaning of speech - legitimising or compromising one’s speech. I realise now that my diasporic position allows me to speak and claim subjectivity in a manner quite different from the participants in either of the research sites (Nzenza 1995: 103)

Granted that interviews inescapably involve power imbalances, it is therefore inevitable that the researcher has some power over the research process. However, the power dynamics are fluid, and the balance of power is not fixed; but rather, they are continually shifting and are rarely equal. In her own research, Ming-Yeh (in Merriam et al, 2001: 413) observed that power dynamics in the interview process are negotiated by the interviewer, the interviewee, and the culturally embedded interview context constructed by both. Power is not monolithic, and there are moments in the research when the “feminist researcher can feel helpless” (Franks, 2002). Interviewees then, also subtly negotiate power, for instance by determining where and when the interviews are held, and who else is present. It is this power that my interviewees had. For example, I conducted two of my interviews in a less restricted area of the intensive care unit at one of the major hospitals in Zimbabwe, despite my phobia of hospitals. On several occasions I also had to wait for hours for interviewees to finish tasks on hand before commencing an interview.

Interviewees are also not passive sources of information, they control the information that is shared. While it may have been inevitable that as a researcher I had some perceived (and real) power in the research process since I was the one asking the questions, the women still had the power to subvert some of those questions overtly or covertly as they saw fit. For example, most of my participants in Harare chose to ‘laugh away’ my questions rather than answer them - for example laughed in response to the question: “Would you like to see your husband do more to help with the housework?” despite the fact that this question is an important theme in my research. For them it is unthinkable for a man to be doing housework, and there’s nothing more to be said about it.

I later interpreted the women’s laughter, when they declined to talk about their husband’s non-participation in domestic work, as a “paralinguistic cue” (Allen et al, 2004: 178) that is significant on two levels. On one level, it is used to downplay the significance of the question asked. To these women, the question of who does what in the home is

… something which … is a non-issue for African women … Every African woman grows up knowing that it is the woman who cooks the meals and generally sees to it that everything is in its proper place. Whatever the level of education or professional status, she does not normally expect her husband to share the household chores with her. If the husband enjoys cooking and chooses to cook dinner one day, she appreciates the fact that he is being helpful, but she does not expect him to do so as a matter of course. (Dolphyne, 1991: 4).

So, on this level, the women’s laughter conveyed their interpretation of the question of men’s involvement in housework as so alien, and insignificant to, their realities, such that they could afford to ‘laugh it off’.

On another level, asking questions about the gendered division of labour in the home can be interpreted as a taboo topic and so the women’s laughter can provide a valuable opportunity to identify some “paradoxes and ambiguities… or sensitive and taboo topics that otherwise might seem inappropriate or … problematic to discuss” (Allen, et. al, 2004: 117). Their laughter may subtly mark their relative discomfort in discussing the question. One could argue then, that the women’s laughter might signify their unwillingness to question the taken for granted, or the tension associated with discussing topics that can be interpreted as fundamentally challenging the status quo.

The Problem of Difference: Negotiating Insider/Outsider Status

There are many subtle assumptions that both researcher and participant bring to the interview encounter that influence the process. I embarked on my data collection with certain assumptions about the issues that I was about to investigate, about the situations I was about to observe, and about the women I would interview. I assumed that an immediate ‘bond of sisterhood’ would form with the women in both sites: with the women in Adelaide - due to my situation as a woman juggling paid work, motherhood and study - and with the women in Zimbabwe - due to my situation not only as a working mother, but also as a Shona Zimbabwean woman. Merriam et al (2001: 406) noted that the more one is like the participants in terms of culture, gender, race or socio-economic class, the more one assumes that meanings will be shared, and validity of findings assured. What I discovered instead, were challenges to my assumptions about access, power relationships and commonality of experience, and I found myself negotiating insider/outsider status in both sites.

The Outsider Within? On Being Black African Researching White Australian Women

When I decided to include Australian women in my research, I was certain that despite being a migrant and despite the racial difference between myself and the Australian participants, our similarities around not only gender, but also experience (as working mothers), and locality (having been resident in Adelaide for over six years), would diminish issues of perceptual difference and power relations in the interview process.

Although ‘race’ is not my focus in this study, it was nevertheless an issue of considerable interest. This is not solely because I am a black African woman researching the white woman in the west, but also because researching the white woman and the black woman simultaneously conjures up debates within the feminist movement about racial domination and representation. For example, it brings to the fore feminist debates about white woman’s privilege and the black woman’s underprivilege 2 and debates about the ethnocentric implications in (western) feminist writing which centre the “white woman … [as] the norm - measure of all things” (Oyewumi, 2003b: 28). Researching the black African woman and the white middle class western woman concurrently, also brings into focus the question of “bonding as sisters across our differences” (hooks, 1990: 91). Even if ‘sisterhood’ were possible, the question still remains: how deep can these ‘bonds of sisterhood’ run - particularly between the white western woman and the black African researcher? As Chicana feminist Cherrie Moraga has written: “it is not a given between us … to come to see each other as sisters…” (1983: xiv).

I found that in my interviews in Adelaide the bonds of sisterhood were not as strong as I had initially assumed. While the Adelaide participants and I were able to draw on our stories of motherhood - to talk about our children’s experiences, exchange photos and laugh at children’s jokes - and this played an important part in establishing common ground, I was still allocated an ‘outsider’ status as a non-Australian. Almost all of the participants I interviewed asked me ‘where (I am) from’ and whenever I replied that I was from the University of South Australia, the women would clarify that they mean my nationality because I am ‘obviously not Australian’. As one of the participants said: ‘No, I mean… coz you are not Australian er, I just wondered what country you are from that’s all” (Jemma 3, call centre worker, mother of 1, Adelaide). I later realised that being an African researcher rendered me something of a curiosity among the women I interviewed, which meant that I was subjected to the ‘gaze’, even among these well-meaning women (see also Nzenza, 1995). As I found out, my participants were even more eager to know my story: where I came from, how I am ‘coping in Australia’ (despite me explaining to them that I have been living in Australia for several years already) and even some intimate aspects of my social life (if my ex-husband was Australian or African, or whether he is re-married to an Australian). It is inevitable, in interview situations, that the participants express some interest in the researcher’s own situation, hence it is important—in order to establish rapport—that the interviewer also shares some personal experience. Nonetheless, the nature of the participants’ questions (for example how long I would stay in Australia after completing my study before going back, or as one participant even asked: if it is something that would happen in Africa for a woman to conduct interviews with other women) not only signified my ‘outsider’ status, but also confirmed that my “position as an African woman is to reinforce and reconfirm my underprivileged status… This way, the hierarchical and racial structures of power are maintained” (Nzenza, 1995: 105).

Furthermore, because the process of selection of the women in Adelaide for the study was informal (the snowballing method), I took it for granted that I was an ‘insider’, and that establishing rapport would not be an issue for concern. I discovered, like Tang (2002), that when women interview other women, gender and personal involvement are not necessarily enough for full “knowing”, since attributes such as race and class can shift the balance of power in the interview. Black researcher Anne Phoenix (cited in Tang, 2002: 707) also comments that it is true that when a black woman interviews white participants, the “traditional” power relations in the interview - that is, the presumed dominant position of the interviewer - are inverted.

Another form of power that cannot be ignored in interviewing women, as noted by Tang (2002: 714), is linguistic domination. While I am not a ‘native’ English speaker per se, I have a good command of English, so I had not anticipated the linguistic domination and subordination that was played out in some of my interviews in Adelaide. I did not experience the same problems that Tang experienced as an Asian interviewing academic mothers in the UK, where several of her interviewees corrected her in her expressions. However, some of my participants often asked me to repeat my questions, as they did not understand because ‘(my) accent is so strong’. I also sensed an element of (Australian) “cultural superiority over that of the foreigner” (Tang, 2002: 715), particularly when I explained that I am a Zimbabwean. As one of the participants commented: “Oh, you poor thing, bet you are grateful that you here [in Australia] not there [in Zimbabwe], ha? It’s just so much better, isn’t it?” (Keira, hospitality worker, mother of 1, Adelaide). It was then that I realised that the normally taken-for-granted label of ‘immigrant’ that had been assigned to me is a social construction that has real consequences (Dyck et al, 1995: 625). Likewise, my status as a PhD candidate did not give me a higher social status. Unlike the situation in Harare (discussed below), some of the participants in Adelaide felt sympathetic to my situation as a migrant mother who was not only working but also studying.

On the other hand, I found that as I took on the status of ‘outsider’ who was not too close to the culture under study, I was able to ask some questions that an ‘insider’ would not, questions that would ordinarily be considered obvious. For example, I was able to ask why the women chose to engage in paid work. Most social scientists or work/family researchers no longer ask ‘why’, but rather, ‘how’ contemporary families ‘juggle’ the spheres of work and family, and ‘how’ this juggling act influences the children, the parents, the employers and the state (Edwards, 2001: 184). I argue that while the significance of women’s employment to family life in various research contexts is indisputable, the reasons why women choose to participate in paid work are varied and cannot be taken for granted. The outsider status was therefore an asset for me as I was able to elicit more information from these women; it was not assumed that ‘I already know’. I was able to prod the women to talk about their ‘taken-for-granted’ experiences. As Merriam et al commented, “(t)he outsider’s advantage lies in the curiosity with the unfamiliar, the ability to ask taboo questions and being seen as non aligned with sub-groups, thus getting more information” (2001: 411).

The ‘Authentic’ Insider? On Researching “Some of My Own People”

When I set out to interview the Harare women in my study, I had assumed that geographical region of origin and ethno-cultural similarities would play a big part in establishing common ground that would facilitate a non-hierarchical interview process, and that there would be a somewhat mutually perceived homogeneity and sense of community that would enhance trust and openness throughout the interview process. I had taken for granted that being a Zimbabwean woman, I would not face some of those contradictions that western researchers like Lyons (1999) face while researching women in Africa, and so the politics of identity would not be an issue for me. Indeed, I did not meet the “scepticism, defensiveness and ambivalence of some Zimbabwean women who argue that western research only serves to silence the African woman” (Lyons, 1999). What I found though, was that interviewing the Harare women still presented a somewhat paradoxical situation.

In the Zimbabwean culture, my status as a doctoral student living in Australia was perceived as higher than that of the participants and this meant that in certain circumstances, I was allocated an ‘outsider’ status. In Zimbabwe, obtaining a university education is highly esteemed - particularly for women, because of the gender inequalities in education. According to the 2003 Zimbabwe Human Development Report (ZHDR), “the higher one progresses in the education system, the lower the representation of women” (p. 21). In 2000, women comprised only 30 per cent of university enrolments in all five universities in Zimbabwe. Inevitably then, educated women are considered a ‘breed apart’ from the rest of the women, the ones who should be heard and listened to. In reality, they do have a louder voice. This became clearer to me as I listened to the women tell their stories, and as they constantly minimized their own experiences as not relevant or important enough for a “book that will be written in Australia”. As I constantly reminded them that this was about them, about their experiences and not about me, I realised that I was not being perceived as an equal but rather being relegated to a higher academic (and consequently, social) status, something that unfortunately seemed to widen the social distance between me and the participants. As McDowell (1999) notes,

Women studying women are quite likely to find themselves in circumstances where they are more knowledgeable, more powerful, more affluent or with greater access to a range of resources than the women they are studying (p. 239).

The appropriateness of McDowell’s quotation to my own research became clear to me as I re-read the field notes; (re)listened to the tapes and transcribed my interviews with the Zimbabwean women. I realised then that I had not paid enough attention to the fact that a western-educated African woman has a louder voice (especially in the academia and formal settings in both Australia and Zimbabwe) than that of most of her African women participants. While being a Shona Zimbabwean woman afforded me a general insider status, my education and perceived social class rendered me less of an ‘insider’ and more of an “outsider within” (Collins 1986, cited in Merriam et al, 2001: 410). The many years lived overseas had ‘compromised’ my insider status.

My realisation of the women’s perception of me as somewhat ‘privileged’, prompted me to ask: Was I then, as a western-educated African woman, not like the white woman, who, when she speaks, has her voice heard because the position from which she speaks guarantees an audience? Black feminists argue that only those who have lived experience of what it is to be black and oppressed are able to (and indeed entitled) to study and write about the experiences of the black woman (Wolpe, 1998: 96). But I am a black African, whose work is more likely to be read in academic circles of the ‘west’, and I am more likely to speak, but the African women who I write and speak for are rarely if at all located there. So, by speaking for, or about the African woman when I am in the west, am I not assuming, like the white, western researcher, that she cannot do so? It is this realisation of my perceived privileged status that prompted me to include in my writing the extracts from the Harare women’s interviews in the original language (Shona) so that their voices – not only my interpretation of their voices – are heard.

While all the women I interviewed in Harare were fluent English speakers, they all chose to tackle the discussions about their lives in their mother-tongue, Shona.4 In my endeavour to present these first-hand accounts in the ‘women’s own voices’, in my thesis, I chose to present every quotation from the Zimbabwean women in Shona which I then translated into English. To me, including the Shona excerpts facilitated “hearing the black woman’s voice” (Pilcher, 2001: 302) through their own words, not those of the researcher/interpreter. Furthermore, given that the thesis and all later publications are written for a western and non-western, non-Anglo, African population (academic) audience, some of whom (it is expected) would be fluent Shona readers, including the quotes in their original language would be seen as allowing the Harare participants to speak. In a very important way, therefore, including the Zimbabwean women’s Shona highlights the manner in which these women themselves talk about how they “navigate the delicate waters of family life” (Ufomata, 2000: 7). I maintain that for cross-national feminist research like this research, it is important to write in ways which do not “alienate the women from their own stories” and for the “sociological account to be in some ways enriching to the women” (Middleton, 1993: 67).

The switching between languages when I write about the Zimbabwean women’s experiences – from English to Shona and back to English, or what Saldivar-Hull (1999) calls a ‘bilingual strategy’ (p. 4) – is also significant in that it reflects my experiences as a non-western, non-Anglo, cross-national researcher. This produces a juncture where cultures and languages cross-pollinate. I therefore use the strategy to highlight the challenges I encountered when conducting research in different languages. The challenges are not only in the ‘choice’ of words used when conducting interviews in different languages in order that questions are presented to participants in the same way, but also in the translation of research transcripts, so that the non-Anglo participants’ own meanings and voices are heard.

It is commonly assumed that being an insider means easy access to participants. For me, being female of the same culture meant I had no problems gaining access to and establishing rapport with the participants in Harare. I found that to some women, I was a confidant, someone they could talk to about some intimate aspects of their (marital) relationships and one who would ‘understand’. So while, I wanted to stick to my interview task of collecting information on the women’s work/life interface, on the other hand, I felt the distance between the interviewees and me was narrowing, as they talked more about themselves. It is for this reason that some of my interviews in Harare lasted for two hours, (compared to the average of one hour for the Adelaide interviews).

Being an insider, however, was not without problems. For example, there was the problem of taken-for-granted knowledge: what questions the insider can and cannot ask. While it is generally assumed that being an insider who is familiar with the culture being studied means being able to ask more meaningful questions, and to react to non-verbal cues (Merriam et al., 2001, p. 411), I found that for me it meant that there were some issues I was not supposed to discuss, despite their centrality to my research project. Questions about what housework the husband/male partner does around the house (How does your husband share / help you with the household chores? How satisfied are you with this help, do you feel he should be doing more?) were considered trivial: as a (once married) woman in my culture I should already have known those things. So, as an ‘insider’ it was inappropriate for me to ask such questions. Indeed, most of the Harare participants’ answers to several of my questions started: “Ah inga munongozvizivawo pachivanhu pedu… [Ah you know these things in our culture...]”. The phrase served to “generate a common definition [and understanding] of the problem… building… solidarity…[and] alliance” (Allen, Reid and Riemenschneider, 2004: 178) between the participants and me. For this reason, some participants did not expand on their answers to some of my questions since it was taken for granted that I should already know ‘these things’. I am, so to speak, ‘one of them’ and no amount of probing could get those participants to talk. It seemed that to them, dwelling on those issues was redundant.

Crisis of Representation: Some Conclusions

Self-reflexivity in this research and in this paper has enabled me to (re)assess my own positionality as an African researcher researching both the white woman in the west, and the black woman in Africa. I acknowledge that my choice of research topic and research methodology is in itself not objective; rather, it is situated in my experiences as a working mother juggling the many demanding responsibilities of paid work, unpaid work and motherwork in a cross-cultural context. Hence I am different from the women in either site: my experiences are set within the context of my cross-cultural existence; I am a self that exists in a web of interlocutions in a multicultural society in the west. I present multiple identities. To use Bulbeck’s (1998: 6) description – I claim that I am a “hybrid subject”, and so I do not write as the detached researcher, but rather present my writing as knowledge situated in my hybridity. I also acknowledge that the dilemma of unequal power is not easily resolved simply because I write from a feminist perspective or identify with (African or western) feminisms. However, a feminist commitment to the empowerment of women as well as a reflexive account of my part in the relationship and the research is significant to any attempts at addressing issues of power.

My discussions in this paper have also exposed some of the issues that trouble feminist politics: the act of speaking about, for, by, or to, the ‘other’. So writes Nako (2001):

…[E]ven if feminism requires some women to speak on behalf of others, such acts of representation are fraught with problems in that who is spoken about and for has largely depended on other categories such as power, race, class and sexuality. Indeed, much of what has been written about mainstream feminism’s experiences of all women… has a lot to do with representation; that is how mainstream feminist, often homogenised as western feminists have represented themselves and Others (p. 187).

Power relations in feminist theorising and research therefore make it “dangerous for the privileged person to speak for the less privileged because that often reinforces the oppression of the latter since the privileged person is more likely to be listened to” (Nako, 2001: 188). Other African writers have argued that notwithstanding the problems involved in representing others, it remains crucial that African researchers speak for those groups (of African women) who have remained silenced, owing to specific material, intellectual and social circumstances (Adu-Poku, 2001: 165). The social location of the diasporic African intellectual gives them the space to talk, in which their message is heard; therefore they can “confront power structures… in order to build strong foundations for social change” (Adu Poku, 2001: 166). Yet for me the challenge remains that while my social, linguistic and geographical location affords me a louder voice than the Zimbabwean women in my research, and gives me space to be heard, it is the Harare women’s stories that should be heard through my writing, not mine. It is still imperative for me to maintain accountability to the women I interviewed in both countries, and not only to the academic community.


1. My deliberate use of the term ‘Third World’ here does not mean that I am unaware of the many difficulties or controversies I may encounter in using the term. I acknowledge that the term is a highly contested one in development theory. Nonetheless, as noted by Mohanty, Russo and Torres (1991: ix), I use the term in preference to alternative terms such as ‘developing countries’. I therefore use the term to refer to “ the colonized, neocolonized or decolonized countries (of Asia, Africa and Latin America) whose economies and political structures have been deformed within the colonial process” (Mohanty et al, 1991: ix).

2. While I refer to white (western) women and black African women as whole groups, I remain aware that they do not form homogenous groups. I acknowledge that while they might have certain commonalities of outlook by virtue of being white western women or black African women, they are also differentiated by class, age, sexuality, region and so on, which result in diversity of outlook within the ‘groups’ (see also for example: Collins, 1999; Russo, 1991 for a discussion on this).

3. This is a pseudonym. In order to preserve confidentiality, the real names of the women who participated in this research were not used in any writings relating to the research. Each participant was assigned a pseudonym, which was then used when transcribing data as well as any subsequent writings.

4. English is the ‘official’ language of instruction in Zimbabwe because Zimbabwe is a former British colony.


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