Research in Practice: 10 Lessons from Fieldwork
For my senior year project on an Economics and Anthropology course, I did fieldwork in a low-income community in Lahore called Chungi Amar Sidhu. Separately, I worked with the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training as part of a five-week internship. The project that I was assisting with was an ed-tech strategy formulated by the federal government, which required my supervisor to go to each provincial capital and consult relevant departments. These meetings were essential to ensure the final draft of the strategy was considerate of cultural, infrastructural, and financial technicalities specific to each province. We prepared a rough plan for how each meeting was supposed to go. The format was a semi-structured interview; however, none of the sessions went the way we had imagined. Here’s what I learned:
1. Be flexible, nothing ever goes quite to plan. Conducting interviews in person is a more structured form of human conversation, and does not always flow logically according to neatly made plans. Be prepared to adapt and change your plan – and even research question! - accordingly: sense when to gupshup and when to get down to business. As the interview progresses, and if you are observant, you will get a fair idea about which strategies will work best with your informant, or when their mood shifts from one to the other.
2. Help people understand their views are valued (and don’t preach). It’s important to help your participants understand that you are there to listen to them, and are definitely interested in what they say. This goes a long way in establishing conversational comfort. When speaking to women in Chungi about their issues, I had to make sure I let the women know I understood the seriousness of their (financial and personal) struggles and the importance of the information they were giving me. In another specific example from ministry meetings, it was essential the provinces felt heard. We did our best to provide them with the space to discuss their progress and hear about their problems and province-specific issues. We also came away knowing that it was our job to incorporate as much of their feedback as possible in the strategy, since that is why they had dedicated so much time to these meetings.
3. Be aware of your positionality. Your gender, socio-economic status, educational qualification(s) and institutional role can all have a major impact on the rapport you build (or don’t) with your participants. This mediates the amount and nature of information people reveal. Being self-reflective (often referred to as being ‘reflexive’) represents an effort to minimise the impact of one’s position on both the field and the writing that emerges from it. Marginalized communities or people may feel especially challenged by your position and power. In some of the government meetings, the discomfort people felt with my presence (as a 21-year-old Pukhtun girl) was so tangible I sensed it right away. Here, because our purpose was to extract as much as possible, it was essential people felt comfortable, so I made an active effort to blend into the environment. In Chungi, I tried to mitigate my intrusive presence in a family home and connect to the girls I spoke to by talking about my sisters and how we were also a family of women.
4. Be responsible and respectful. Sometimes those being interviewed say things they do not want you to pass on; respect that. Or they may have said something that will harm or impact them if you were to publish it - be mindful of these ethical dilemmas and think before you reproduce what people say. Ideally, verify on the spot how comfortable they are with being quoted on a specific opinion or comment. There was an instance in one of the meetings where I was asked to stop taking notes, and even though I felt what the informant had to say was valuable information for us, it was my ethical responsibility to respect his wishes.
5. Keep good notes. Notes should include all relevant names (but always try to give participants pseudonyms to protect identities), dates, key ideas discussed/observed, and follow-up action points. After the meeting or interview is over, go through your notes once if possible. You can add points and details you missed during the meeting, especially in the form of a longer reflection.
Also, be cognizant of how people perceive your note-taking. Sometimes, informants get distracted by it or aren’t comfortable with you writing down what they’re saying, in which case you should resort to jottings and expand on them only once you’re on your own again. The opposite is also true sometimes when people perceive your notes as giving their opinions value and importance. Here, note down things freely (maybe even write down points that you won’t necessarily need or use later but which you feel informants may find important).
6. Share details and stories about yourself (but not too much). People feel comfortable sharing their stories in research if they know a bit of yours, as they do in normal conversation. Once I got the hang of it, my interviews with women in Chungi were always an exchange of information rather than an interrogation because I found this got them to open up more easily
7. Take the time to properly introduce yourself and the purpose and aims of the discussion before diving into the detail. If not done right, this can lead to confusion and miscommunication later. We faced this in Balochistan when the meeting had to be interrupted midway to clarify we were a delegation from the ministry and not the World Bank. Some of the people joined the meeting after introductions were done, and because my supervisor is British, they assumed he worked for an international organization.
8. Meet people where they are comfortable. As the interviewer you should take the trouble to go to where people are comfortable - not the other way around. The difference this makes is often underestimated: not only do people open up most in their own setting, they also appreciate your effort in coming to them. This is often truest for marginalized and/or neglected groups.
9. Try and structure a meeting to have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should start light, make people feel at ease, comfortable with you and to know who you are and what you want. The middle is the central section where they can share what you need. The end should try and conclude on a grand, deep or positive note, to make it feel conclusive. And don’t forget the epilogue - when the official meeting is over and you’re chatting informally - sometimes this is when people open up most!
10. Keep an eye on the time and always come away with next steps. Anything beyond an hour can be tiring for people (though sometimes, the opposite is true and it’s hard to stop them!) and ensure that this meeting leads to further meetings, collaboration or contacts, and that it builds momentum.
Manahil Naeem, Undergraduate Senior, Department of Economics, LUMS