Feb 8 2018

Little pink notebook, or fragments of my manic fieldwork adventures

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The blog post is an effort at honest reflection of the personal side of conducting field research. Using private notes from my field diary, I sought to convey the contradictory emotions that my recent experience with fieldwork had triggered. The article highlights the insecurities, stress, and anxiety that get otherwise overshadowed by my own understanding of fieldwork as both personally and professionally enriching and constitutive experience. In this article, I reflect upon my fieldwork in Tunis where I spent two months between October and December 2016, interviewing politicians, civil society representatives, experts and journalists about the constitution-making process that followed the 2010/11 uprising, writes Tereza Jermanová.


Little pink notebook (photograph by the author)

I research politics. In my doctoral thesis, I study the extraordinary events of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that started in December 2010 and January 2011 (respectively) and the processes of writing new constitutions that these upheavals brought about. I interviewed mostly politicians, but I also spoke to journalists, activists, scholars, and other specialists from these two countries. Back in England, I now read through piles of my notes, documents that I copied while in Tunis, articles and books published by others, and listen through hours of interview recordings, trying to make a sense of all my data, reflect, tell a story, and write it down. I tend to think about this stage of research cycle as less exciting than fieldwork; in words of Mock Turtle and Gryphon, characters from Alice in Wonderland – ‘Explain all that,’ said the Mock Turtle. ‘No, no! The adventures first,’ said the Gryphon in impatient tone: ‘Explanations take such a dreadful time.’

I prefer fieldwork.

I enjoy fieldwork because that’s when politics reveals itself to me more naked, tangible, giving me the sense that if I stretch my fingers just a little bit further, I would touch it. My work feels for some reason more real there than when I sit at my desk. When I’m in the ‘field’ (how strange that word is anyway…), my thoughts click, and problems that I couldn’t solve for months become immediately obvious. There’s more into fieldwork when I strip the layers down from my professional (or rather the more reasonable) to my selfish self. A side of me feels that just being there is an achievement of something (you’re chasing an experience that others might not have) and it makes me more interesting, and it is indeed interesting, exciting, adventurous, meeting new people, learning new things, living that life. Those who come back from fieldwork

Tunis, Tunisia

have the aura of people who did something real. The everyday uneasiness of things then gets covered under personal satisfaction that at the end, I’ve managed – gathered interesting insights, met the people that I planned to, survived the loneliness of a new place, handled it without long lasting psychic consequences…

But then, when I was skimming through notes from my last research trip – searching for details on interviews that might have slipped my mind – I accidentally stumbled upon these exact words, which I had scribbled in my small pink notebook (in Czech, my mother-tongue) last November, almost a month into my fieldwork in Tunis.

So I’m here for a month and it’s so intense, mostly emotionally. You feel like you can’t make it, that you don’t know enough… I do one interview and it’s all great, and then another one and it’s not. It’s like up (a lot up) and down (really down). A feeling of success that I made an appointment with someone important, as if that, on its own, would make the fieldwork successful. A bit superficial. And then you learn – again – that things are more complicated. Someone else doesn’t pick up the phone, another one can’t meet up or cancels, and suddenly, a slump. Thinking whether these interviews are important at all, perhaps I should read more instead. But then there’s the level of thinking, of ideas, which is so intense here. Yet it’s hard to keep it going, in a reasonable way, when there’s this much. And then, I’m here alone. It is all so physical, the fear of dialling a new phone number, will they be congenial? Fear of my French. Will they come to our appointment?… The intense experience of the interview itself. And then the absolute exhaustion. The feeling that I should transcribe the interview, but that I terribly don’t want to, I want to sleep, but I have to prepare for tomorrow’s interview… So much pressure at the same time, and a worry whether I will be able to finish everything in time, stomach ache. 

And I concluded: I should make these notes more often.

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Jan 17 2018

Being a positivist researcher in the field: Reflections on conducting a field experiment in Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri districts, India

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Few quantitative researchers share their field experiences (for one of those rare moments, see the contribution by Ping Lin). Perhaps this is because they are invested in large teams of enumerators, who collect data across large sample sizes. However, the process is far more complicated than just getting a team together to collect the data. There are several subtle challenges at every stage of fieldwork, much of which is often unexpected. This is often because these challenges are not freely and frequently shared or discussed. My identity as a positivist, quantitative researcher was put to test every single day of my fieldwork given the dynamic, unpredictable and often haphazard settings across the districts of Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri situated in West Delhi, India, write Aditi Bhutoria.


In association with a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), which acted as the implementing agency, I conducted a randomized control trial with women-only savings groups (involving a sample of 1281 women). The study aimed to measure the impact of a financial education program on savings and other financial behaviors. The program was relatively light (a day of training), offered in non-formal community settings and was a significant departure from more costly traditional classroom style adult education interventions. This is because it was based on simple rules of thumb involving a goal-oriented, action-focused learning, which targeted behavioural change.  Limited time, limited funds (doctoral fieldwork grant), substantial sample size and most importantly ‘me being a girl’, were enough reasons to make me concerned about going into the field, one of the largest resettlement colonies of Delhi. Hearing the participants’ stories of violence, hardship or strength and personally staying detached, resisting help even when most needed to avoid bias or innovating new techniques to optimize resources – taught me much about life and perhaps my own self as an individual and a female researcher.

On the Geographical Context

Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri (see Figure 1 below) are among the oldest and the largest resettlement colonies in India, established way back in 1977. These are also amongst the most highly populated areas of western sub-urban Delhi. The majority of the population in this area comprises old migrants from the poorest states of India. This is largely non seasonal migration, flowing in from under developed states or areas with limited economic opportunities to fast developing areas, which provide higher wages and prospects for an improved socio-economic status. Today this area is a combination of an industrial hub and residential colonies, and falls within the city with well-connected roads, local transport, basic water supply and sanitation facility, electricity and other basic facilities for a modest living.

Figure 1: Location of project area in India and within Delhi

 

Like most other urban resettlement colonies in Delhi, Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri also lie at the geographical periphery of the capital city. There has been a disparity in economic growth between the city center and the peripheries, with the latter converting to an agglomeration of slums and government built resettlement housings. The changes in spatial structure of the city over the years along with growth of manufacturing industries in these peripheral areas, has led to severe environmental concerns for the population residing in the resettlement colonies (Kundu, 2012). A rising demand for labor to work in the adjoining industrial areas has also led to intense population pressures. This has been coupled with unorganised development and little policy attention from the local government. As a result there has been a gradual degeneration in the living conditions and economic status of the resettlement colonies.

Interestingly, both Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri areas constitute of multiple parallel lanes, which are crowded with a motley collection of kutcha and pukka houses. Women from each lane usually come together to form their own savings groups and the research was conducted with these groups.

Figure 2: Bird-eye view of a resettlement colony in Mangolpuri (author’s own sketch)

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Oct 30 2017

Ever wondered why practitioners treat researchers like a nuisance? The challenges of accessing expert knowledge, from two perspectives

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The difficulty to reach practitioners and experts is one of the main challenges faced especially by young researchers and can overshadow fieldwork experiences and attempts to produce new knowledge. While researchers might get an impression that they are ignored or treated like a nuisance by experts, the latter often have a different view at researchers’ attempt to reach them. We look at nuances and blind spots of the interaction between researchers and practitioners through two pairs of eyes, and suggest a way forward, towards a more dialogical, collaborative approach, write Philipp Lottholz and Karolina Kluczewska.


One aspect that came to the fore on recent exchanges about research on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations (IOs) in Central Asia was the difficulty of gaining insight into their activities and knowledge when doing field research. Many if not all researchers are finding it hard to collect rich empirical material during their field trips. The struggles and dilemmas they are confronted with can relate to research ethics, safety of research participants, interlocutors or researchers themselves, and the emotional baggage accumulated from these and other fieldwork aspects. Yet, accounts of these struggles, the search for solutions and acknowledgement of failures tend not to make it beyond informal conversations and some reflective formats on academic conferences and blogs. In this contribution we unpack the particular difficulty researchers encounter when trying to reach practitioners and experts in specific areas. We look at the issue – that researchers are treated like a nuisance in more or less obvious ways – from the perspective both of a researcher critically reflecting on fieldwork in retrospective and that of a former practitioner. While we use the general term NGOs we understand this to include both national and international NGOs. By IOs we mean organisations with bilateral (e.g. DFID, GIZ) or intergovernmental mandates (such as the UN system or OSCE).

Doing field research with/on NGOs: A researcher’s perspective (Philipp)

Everyone who has done fieldwork in developing and peripheral countries will share this impression to some extent: It can be a greatly satisfying activity but is also marked by a lot of precarious – even if just emotionally – moments. The fact that researchers usually depend entirely on the readiness of national and international organisations, institutions or individuals to participate in their research usually subjects them to a painful initial ‘trial and error’ period. However, even once they get the trick, researchers are usually confined to a ‘scattered and shadowy presence in the field’. As Loyle and Simoni note in their article on researcher trauma, especially graduate students and junior researchers may feel stressed to succumb to rigid timelines and carry out research despite limitations and risks incurred by their research framings and techniques. However, even if academics encounter a lot of access barriers and may sometimes openly be treated as a nuisance, it is worth reflecting on why this is so and how we as researchers might be complicit in the production of such tense and uncooperative situations.

In my own field research on peace-building and community security practices in the Kyrgyz Republic, I encountered both indirect and direct resistance and non-cooperation from NGOs during my MSc research in 2012 and doctoral fieldwork in 2015. The first challenge stems from the fact that  web pages of major actors are often scarce, and  indicate only general areas of activity or dated lists of realised projects. This often made it impossible to prepare questions and interview requests based on information about ongoing activities. Although perhaps partly due to negligence, lack of capacity and human resources, this non-transparency reflects attempts to limit public exposure so as to prevent interference or criticism from a population that had proven unsympathetic to the involvement of international actors in Kyrgyzstan who, like in Russia, were about to be classified as ‘foreign agents’ in a 2014 draft law.

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Oct 18 2017

Cultural encounters in the field: Finding a ‘home’ away from home

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This article describes experiences from fieldwork research conducted in the districts of Paramaribo, Commewijne and Nickerie in Suriname across two months in the summer of 2015. This research focused on an Indian socio-religious organisation, the Arya Samaj in Suriname, discussing the key themes of religion, society and identity. These themes are the foundations of the organisation and they form a complex web of intricacies within the organisation, which this project sought to understand by analysing its development from an anthropological and sociological perspective, writes Bhavik Doshi.


Implementing Theory into Practice: Research Techniques

Fieldwork is strange, it not only requires an intellectual capacity to understand what is being researched, but also calls for social ability in finding contacts, joining networks and establishing yourself within the confines of the researched. It is a daunting experience for anyone, more so for someone coming from a quantitative background like myself. Most of my research background prior to my masters involved collating statistical data or conducting econometric analyses. Undertaking qualitative research was a stark contrast, but it enabled me to apply multiple research techniques in the field, specifically interviews, ethnography and archival research.

Elite interviews were my principal tool for research, as I conducted my first recorded interview in mid-June 2015, asking participants to come one-by-one so as to explore their views without any external influence. However, the first two participants had come together and had already formulated some answers (which were scripted). This left me asking generic questions about the organisation and its impact; and even when there was an opportunity to probe answers, I was rebuffed by one of the other participants. Though I learned and improved on this as I began to develop a style to manage the extraneous variables – this only came with more interviews, which boosted my confidence and ability.

Figure 1: Fieldwork in Paramaribo, Suriname

In fact, in some interviews I was able to converse in Hindi, which helped with participants who did not speak English. Being able to understand Hindi allowed for a better understanding of the philosophical and religious values of the Arya Samaj that would have been difficult to interpret or define in English. This was the best technique in garnering rich and detailed information from participants as it enabled me to probe certain answers and add a layer of context so that the respondents could effectively develop their ideas (Hochschild, 2009).
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Jun 16 2017

Notes from the waiting room: Seeking research access to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)

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Discussing the ethnography of public institutions, Didier Fassin (2013: 642) has described its dual ability to ‘interrogate the obvious’ and ‘illuminate the unknown’. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a large public teaching hospital in Delhi, represents both of these conditions. This made it an enticing site for my PhD research, but also one that proved particularly challenging to access. While everything hinged on the crucial letter of official permission that was eventually written by the dean of research, personalities and the establishment of rapport…were central to the negotiation of the institutional labyrinth, writes Anna Ruddock


Opened in Delhi in 1956, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is an enormous government-funded hospital, anomalous in the Indian public healthcare landscape for employing many of India’s most respected doctors, who provide high-standard free or low-cost care to patients of low socioeconomic status. The AIIMS outpatient department (see Figure 2) sees an average of 10,000 people a day. Many of these patients travel from across northern India, seeking competent and affordable treatment that they cannot find at home. AIIMS also occupies an undisputed position atop the hierarchy of Indian medical education. Each May, around 90,000 candidates compete over 72 seats at the college, making for a notorious acceptance rate of less than 0.01%. The tiny minority of successful students are catapulted into an exclusive club, with their achievement celebrated in the national press.

Figure 1. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) (Photographed by the author)

Figure 2. AIIMS outpatient department (Photographed by the author)

Virtually everyone has an opinion about AIIMS, especially in Delhi. AIIMS is there: embedded in the landscape, and in the imagination of people both within and beyond the city. It is a phenomenon as much as a collection of concrete buildings. This in itself made it a compelling site for my PhD research. Its relative neglect by social scientists added to the appeal. Writing about the challenges and rewards of conducting ethnography in public institutions, Didier Fassin (2013: 642) notes that while ethnography must pay attention to understudied social locales, it also retains salience in ‘spaces saturated by consensual meanings’. In the first circumstance, he writes, ethnography ‘illuminates the unknown; in the second, it interrogates the obvious’ (ibid.). AIIMS encompassed both sets of circumstances, making for a research site that was both enticing and particularly challenging to access.

In April 2014, having listened patiently to the wry and occasionally despairing account of my effort to gain research access to AIIMS, a friend gave me a copy of Kafka’s The Castle. In the novel, K. arrives in a village believing he has been appointed as a Land Surveyor by the authorities that inhabit The Castle, which sits on a hill and pervades the life of the village. The story revolves in increasingly dizzying circles around K’s efforts to have his position recognised by The Castle in order that he may begin work. The challenge of securing access to AIIMS was similarly inflected with moments of comedy, suspicion, despair, and, ultimately, triumph.

…in things of that kind the Castle moves slowly, and the worst of it is that one never knows what this slowness means; it can mean that the matter’s being considered, but it can also mean that it hasn’t yet been taken up … and in the long run it can also mean that the whole thing has been settled, that for some reason or other the promise has been cancelled … One can never find out exactly what is happening, or only a long time afterwards.
– Kafka, The Castle

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