I have always loved being independent. My parents like to tell the story of the time when, soon after I learned to walk, they took me for a picnic in a local park. My father put me down on the grass, and I got to my feet and toddled away. My mother looked anxious, and my father said, reassuringly, ‘She won’t go far.’ But his confidence was misplaced, because I headed determinedly off into the wide green yonder, and he had to do a quick sprint to bring me back before I came to grief.
When I began researching, I called myself a freelance researcher, or a consultant researcher. I didn’t start calling myself an independent researcher until Immy Holloway told me I should, at a terrific research methods conference in Bournemouth in 2006. (The same conference where I met the incomparable Ken and Mary Gergen, as a result of which they kindly wrote the foreword for my creative research methods book.) As soon as Immy suggested the phrase, I took to it immediately. It seemed to suit.
I love working independently. Particularly at the moment, when I’m mostly home-office-based and writing – though after a few weeks I’ll be pleased to have the meetings and teaching that are scheduled then. But for now, I’m really happy sitting alone at my desk, looking out at the garden growing into spring, listening to the birdsong and the squeals of next door’s children on their trampoline, and writing this blog post.
You know, though, I’ve been thinking recently that despite being officially an independent researcher, I’m actually very dependent. For example, I am completely dependent on others for my income. If nobody chooses me, or not enough people choose me, to do available work, I will go under – particularly as there is so little research funding for which indies can apply. Also, I often need to ask for favours, from small (please can I put your name down as a referee for this research tender?) to large (please will you write a foreword for my book?). As an independent writer, I am dependent on readers for reviews, whether official written ones on websites or in journals, or unofficial verbal ones – the coveted ‘word of mouth’ (at least, it’s coveted if the words are complimentary). More worryingly, I am also dependent on readers to help get my books translated into other languages. My publisher tells me that this usually happens when a bilingual academic makes a proposal to a non-English publisher and offers to support the translation. I am only fluent in English, and although I have good international networks, they’re mostly in English-speaking countries. Unlike institution-based scholars, I have never been able to afford to go to a conference outside the UK where I might make contacts with bilingual academics who could help with translations, perhaps in return for other favours. As a result, I know very few people who I can ask to help with translations. (If you know anyone in the social sciences, arts, or humanities who might help, do tell me please!)
I remember when my supervisor and I were planning my viva. I knew who I wanted for my external examiner, but my supervisor over-ruled me, because she didn’t know the person I wanted, and she did know someone else who she thought would be good (and was). She said she was sure he would do it because he owed her a favour. I have learned since then that a lot of academia seems to work through giving and calling in favours. In such an environment it feels odd to call myself ‘independent’.
The book I’m writing is on research ethics. In the Indigenous research paradigm, reciprocity between researchers and participants is a key ethical principle. However, in the Euro-Western paradigm, researchers have found that attempting such reciprocity where there is an imbalance of power is difficult and can even have dangerous consequences (Israel 2015:137-8). I can’t find much work on reciprocity between academics, and what I can find addresses reciprocity between countries or disciplines and doesn’t say much about power imbalances. I haven’t found anything about reciprocity across the walls of the academy, where there is undoubtedly a power imbalance. I’m glad to say that, in my own experience at least, academics have mostly been courteous and often generous with their help and support for my work, even though, as an indie, I can’t reciprocate in all the same ways that I could if I was based in an institution. This potentially makes me even more dependent, because I have less to offer than salaried mid-career academics. As I progress in my work, will this power imbalance grow? Will it adversely affect the reciprocity on which my entire career depends? Or am I needlessly worrying about something because it feels insecure, when in fact it doesn’t really matter?