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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Feb 13 2017

Book Review: The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique by Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang

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In The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique, authors Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang call for a new approach to the anthropology of China – one that seeks to bring China specialists into closer dialogue with more general anthropological theories to the benefit of both. This is a timely and important contribution to the field that will particularly serve as a valuable resource for new teachers putting together their first courses on the anthropology of China, finds Loretta Ieng Tak Lou.

The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique. Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang. Imperial College Press. 2016.

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the-anthropology-of-china-coverUnlike many anthropology readers that are as bulky as a phonebook, The Anthropology of China is relatively compact: it is only slightly bigger than a small iPad and is roughly the same length as one of the most widely used anthropology textbooks, Thomas Hylland Eriken’s Small Places, Large Issues. You might wonder: why does the size of the book matter? Considering that this book is to be used in classrooms, both price and portability affect its accessibility. Although the former is on the high side compared to other anthropology books, this is a textbook worth investing in, especially for anthropology teachers starting out on their first course on China.

Despite its modest length, The Anthropology of China is packed with useful references and valuable insights. Most importantly, it is the first book that tries to embed ethnographic studies of China in some of the major debates in anthropology. Anthropologists of other regions might ask: what is special about this approach? After all, isn’t anthropology about uncovering ‘the commonalities and specificities of humanity’ through studying particular people and representing ‘their lives through a type of writing called ethnography’ (9)? The problem is that traditionally anthropologists of China are more interested in particularities than commonalities. The tendency to give more weight to Chinese specificities stems from the field’s close affinity with sinology, which until recently was deemed ‘anti-theory’ by some critics. And for those who are interested in both the commonalities and the specificities, the fear of being seen as a reductionist or cultural essentialist silences any attempt to compare and generalise, the necessary processes of theory production. In the midst of this long-standing and unresolved debate about how far insights can be extended to more general principles (9), some anthropologists of China have retreated into writing ethnographies of the particular.


Image Credit: Suzhou main railway station, China (Alexander Mueller CC BY 2.0)

This is why the The Anthropology of China makes a timely and important contribution to the field. Instead of clamouring ‘enough about ethnography’, as eminent anthropologist Tim Ingold sarcastically did in his ‘anti-ethnography’ manifesto, Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang take notice of the discipline’s constant resort to ‘ethnographically oriented particularism’ (McLean 2013) and call for ‘a new way of studying the anthropology of China, namely one based on anthropology as much as on China’ (263). The authors hope that by bringing ‘anthropological studies of China into the field of general anthropology’ (263), it could open up new dialogues for anthropological and ethnographic theories. Likewise, in bringing theories back to the study of China, Bruckermann and Feuchtwang challenge specialists of China to stop navel-glazing and reconsider the ‘value of comparison’ (van der Veer 2016).

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