We couldn’t have done it without them!

Olga Shevchenko and Renée C. Fox write:

From the inception of our joint fieldwork in Moscow, and throughout the drafting of this article based upon it, we repeatedly said to one another, “I couldn’t have done this without you!” More than our reciprocal enjoyment in working together was expressed in this recurrent exclamation. It also contained our mutual recognition and appreciation of the distinctive contribution that each of us made to the participant observation, interviewing, the acquisition of primary and secondary documents, and the analysis and interpretation of the data collected by these methods.

On the very first day that we crossed the threshold of MSF-B’s office in Moscow, the “national” employees identified Olga (on the left in the photo) as a fellow Russian. They immediately drew her aside and began to spontaneously talk with her — in Russian — about the phenomena and issues they thought we ought to investigate, singling out the relations between “nationals” and “expatriates” for special attention; and they presented themselves to her as persons who were especially qualified to provide the information and understanding about MSF in Russia that, in their opinion, we should be seeking. We would not have been alerted so quickly to what became the central topic of our paper without this encounter, which occurred primarily because Olga herself is Russian. Nor would we have become privy to as many of the “backstage” office conversations that took place among the Russian employees if Olga, as well as Renée (on the right in the photo), had been American. It is also possible that our informants were more disposed to share their critical perspective on the “national”/“expatriate” dilemmas in MSF with us because they viewed Olga as a member of a two-person, cross-national team (with Renée) that was functioning on a harmonious, co-equal, collaborative basis. On a more macro-level, it was Olga who had the background to sociologically locate and connect the phenomena we were observing within the larger sociopolitical context of contemporary Russian society. She brought to the situation the knowledge and insights that she had gained through the ethnographic fieldwork she had been conducting in Russia, since 1998, on the postsocialist transformation that Russian society has been undergoing, with all the economic, political, and cultural quandaries that have accompanied these momentous changes.

At the same time, the open and hospitable reception that we received in MSF-B’s Moscow office from the outset of our research was partly attributable to Renée. She was not only well acquainted with MSF, but also well known within it, because of the first-hand sociological research about MSF in which she had been engaged since 1993 — on their medical humanitarian and human rights witnessing action; its underlying ideology and value-commitments; the moral dilemmas that it poses; and its intended and unintended consequences. Furthermore, she had a national reputation in Belgium that resulted from her more than 40 year-long relationship to that country. The sociological study of medical research in Belgium that she initially undertook there, which progressively developed into a more encompassing study of Belgian society and culture, had resulted in the publication of articles and a book that had achieved some renown in that small country. These factors facilitated the entrée that we were given by the Belgian and other European “expatriates” into the MSF-B Moscow office, and its projects. Furthermore, Renée’s involvement in Belgium had transported her to Central Africa where, primarily in the (ex-Belgian) Congo, from 1962 to 1967, she was intensively involved in other ethnographic research. This helped us to decipher the tendency of MSF members (in their “La Mancha” process of self-examination) to associate what they identified as their unjust treatment of “nationals” with attitudes and behavior that had been carried over from “colonialism” in Africa.

These are some of the complementary background factors, experiences, and competencies that, individually and collaboratively, we brought to bear on the fieldwork underlying this article, and the conclusions that we drew from it. However, our inquiry would not have been feasible without another crucial component: the fundamental, principled openness of MSF to in situ research like ours, which they regard as compatible with, and potentially helpful to their action. They consider it to be relevant to their “culture of debate” — in which they take pride — that is centered around their conviction that “ideas matter for action.” It seems fitting, then, to conclude these reflections by saying, “We couldn’t have done it without them.”