Ethnographic Research as Social Work Practice: A problematised study of socio-cultural tensions and conflicts experienced by the Orang Asli communities of Tasik Chini, Malaysia
Start date: 13 July 2016
Journal: Global and UK Perspectives on Generic Social Work Education, Research and Practice
Place of Publication: Milton Keynes
The concentrated ethnographic study reported in this paper represents an ethically driven project which sought to ‘allow’ the Jakun peoples of the Orang Asli (the indigenous people of western or peninsular Malaysia) to have a voice in an increasingly complex, difficult and monochrome neoliberal socio-cultural environment. The primary fieldwork was completed in 2014.
Our findings indicated an erosion of their environment and lifestyles and growing perceptions of powerlessness amongst the people. We noted a ‘clash of cultures’ (although not in Huntington’s sense) in which normative neoliberal pressures and expectations appeared to be promoted within mainstream society without question. These findings were interpreted using sociological and anthropological theorisation highlighting potential dialogic ways forward for the communities using their traditional approaches to conflict resolution. Our initial work resulted in 10 recommendations that were offered to the Tasik Chini Research Centre at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia with whom we were attached. We presented our findings and recommendations to the people we worked with in the communities and has since been disseminated widely as one of the few ways that seemingly impotent social work researchers could amplify the people’s unheard voices.
The problems and opportunities of being foreign researchers imbued with a certain level of privilege conducting research with an oppressed minority led to reflection concerning the complexities and nuances of research and the pursuit of social justice. The acronym AESThETICS captured our reflections in understanding ethnographic research as a type of social work practice: • Activism and social research • Ethics and social research • Social justice and post-post-colonial research • Theorising for better practice • Empowering communities • Training and education • Inclusion • Criticality • Support
This model has potential to help work within the messy and complicated area of international research, social justice, and privilege versus minority statuses.
This paper briefly reports the study, findings and interpretation and then, drawing on our reflections, it explores and problematizes the ethnography whilst suggesting ways in which it can be employed as part of an engaged approach to social work research and practice.