Parachute Researchers

[edited April 2018]

Another story came out recently about a possible water scam in Flint. Through my various connections, I have heard of several stories of opportunistic charities popping up, fly-in activists, and many parachute researchers. These are outsiders who come in and seek to benefit from the challenges facing the Flint community.

Let’s be clear, I too am an outsider who has benefited (professionally) from my work in Flint.

I am not a Flint resident. I have never lived in Flint nor have I ever worked for a Flint-based organization. I am not even from Flint’s surrounding area—but I am from Michigan (does that count?).

Am I a parachute researcher? I try not to be…

The term “parachute researcher” refers to scientists, inclusive of social scientists, that descend on a local community (which is not their own) to collect specimens, data, or interviews; quickly leaving to conduct their analysis elsewhere. It is often associated with researchers from wealthy countries swooping in to poorer countries uninvited, but it can be applied to people like me, as well: a privileged white academic, interested in understanding the lived experiences of a majority minority city.

So, what to do? According to Cordner et al. (2012), we as scholars should seek “continual reflexivity concerning relationships between researchers and participants.” Reflexivity is about understanding my position-my role- as a researcher in relation to the community.

I am an outsider. I am a researcher.

I am a scholar-activist with a research interest in how communities’ respond to public policies. I myself have a history of community and feminist activism. Does this make me immune to becoming a parachute researcher? Not. At. All.

Both my training as an academic and my experience as an activist have helped me navigate the challenging world of academic field work, building community trust, and being reflective and reflexive about my role in the city and my role in the research process.

I am not “giving voice to the voiceless”—that is B.S.  I am not speaking on behalf of the community. That is not my job.

The people on the ground are the experts on what it means to be an activist, organizer, community member. It is my job to listen to their stories. Learn from their experiences.  It is my job to aggregate the narratives, find patterns in the interview transcripts, and tell a different story. It is my responsibility is, as Dean (2017) points out, “to be aware of the distortions that [are] created in the data by [my] presence” and to understand how my own positionality informs my analyses.

Hopefully, the story I tell—published as policy briefs, research papers, and (soon) a book—will 1. Inform our understanding of how policies create politics; and, 2. Shape how we think about policies like municipal takeover, which not only supplant elected officials, but restrict other participatory mechanisms for citizen engagement.

I will be conducting more interviews in Flint this summer—reminding me that my research, which typically focuses on interviews and fieldwork, requires constant process of self-reflection.

*** next post I will talk about navigating fieldwork as a parent. Spending time in the field with children.


Cordner, A., Ciplet, D. Brown, P., & Morello-Frosch, R. (2012). Reflexive research ethics for environmental health and justice: Academics and movement building. Social movement studies, 11(2), 161-176.

Dean, J. (2017). Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction. Chicago, IL: Policy Press/ University of Chicago Press.


  1. Fieldwork and Parenting | Ashley Nickels - […] my last blog post I talked a bit about the challenges of avoiding “parachute research.” In that post I discussed…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *