Wednesday, 12 March 2014

PhD Tips: Second Year or Fieldwork as a Planned Adventure

When I wrote out tips for First year PhD students, I didn't realise it would become the most viewed post on my blog (nearly 1200 views to date!). Between picking up a new job, relocating back to India, and getting used to post-PhD life (who knew I'd miss it so?!), I found myself going through notebooks I'd kept during my fieldwork. Covering 11 months of fieldwork, the notebooks reminded me of the best part of my doctoral journey, which involved asking difficult questions, travelling to the back of beyond, and sometimes, eating opium for dinner! Today, I am writing about things to keep in mind during one's fieldwork, assuming you have a clear idea about what data you want to collect and how (methods and tools you are using). As before, this post would apply to people doing primary predominantly qualitative data collection. 
  • Do not underestimate the pilot phase: Give adequate time to piloting your tools. I spent two months making linkages within the community, piloting my questionnaires and different participatory tools, and familiarising myself with words I needed to know in the local dialect. At the end of the two months, my supervisor made a visit to the field location. She helped me revise my research tools, reconnect with my research questions and take a step back to see whether I was able to answer my research questions with my data collection tools.
Initially, I had pictures for participatory ranking exercises. In the pilot phase I realised they were prone to
tearing. So I got stuck them on cardboard squares and laminated. Cheap, durable and useful!
  • Plan your adventure: While this may sound like an oxymoron, having a clear plan that relates emerging data to your analysis is critical to good research and avoiding wasting time. As in any grounded research, data emergence and analysis is iterative and has feedbacks, but having a plan helps channel this process better. The worst possible outcome of fieldwork is getting inadequate data or too much irrelevant data. And with a plan in place, you can monitor your progress and enjoy and immerse yourself in data collection!  
  • Liason (formally and informally) with local actors: For field-based research, having a good link with local actors like NGOs or district officials is invaluable for collecting data, being introduced to key informants, and learning about the region. However, small NGOs are often overworked and understaffed, so make sure to be mindful of your demands on them. The NGO I worked with provided me entry into villages I was conducting my research in and I gave them unbiased feedback about their projects in the form of a report at the end of my stay. Contacting them before I reached the location and making my needs clear was very helpful.  
  • Transport: One of the most difficult parts of my fieldwork was arranging transport. Not knowing how to drive, I relied on the erratic public transport which was time-consuming considering the remoteness of my target villages. My suggestion is to organise independent and flexible transport. 
For daily travel, I took a bus followed by the little jeep-like vehicle in the picture above. Funnily, the vehicle was
my namesake with 'Chandni' written across its flank!
  • Language issues: Take time for choosing your translator. My translator became my friend and was useful in building acceptance within the community. Key to this is examining the positionality of the translator within the village and forecasting potential effects this might have in your data collection. I chose a young man from within the village to accompany me - he was accepted by female respondents as 'their son'and by the men as one of their own. Also, learn key words of your research in the local language to capture nuances. For example, I used to ask people whether they had taken loans from anywhere. In the local language 'loan' translated into salt. So during the pilot study, I had women guffawing at me (the obviously clueless outsider) - "Of course we get 'loan', without it we cannot eat." Had I not learnt that loan meant salt early, this would have led to a rather confused dataset about people's loan taking behaviour! 
  • Observe observe observe: Many of my insights into local perceptions and norms came from observation. Even when you are not collecting data, it is important to keep your researcher hat on. And so I drank my tea at local stalls, travelled by public transport, and chatted with school girls at the bus stop, I made it a point to absorb all I saw - from discussions about the weather, to empathising with the bad bus service. Once you build a rapport with people, you realise they are as curious about you as you of them.
  • Data recording is a balancing act: Make extensive notes during field work. I used quick diagrams and sketches to note things I couldn't capture in words. If you're like me and prefer plain old pen and paper, keep enough time to type up. This can be time consuming but try not to allow too large a gap between recording and typing up. Balancing directing a conversation and noting it down can be quite demanding. After the initial few questionnaires, I decided to record all my interviews with an audio recorder as well as take notes during the interview. The good thing about the recorder was that it took the pressure off me during the interview and helped me go over sections I wanted to examine closely. [I used this one but looks like it is not manufactured any longer. There is a lot of choice available based on memory, battery life, hardware compatibility, and sound quality, so choose what fits your needs and budget.]
  • Backup like there's going to be an apocalypse: Google Drive, Drop Box, external hard drive, best friend, do it all. There are several options today for backing up one's data so there is really no excuse for losing data.  

I hope some of these tips help researchers about to start their fieldwork. It is a stimulating and challenging experience, but if done well, it can be a wonderful adventure too! Do you have any tips you'd like to add?

Further Reading:

  1. Doing Development Research by Desai, V., and Potter, R. (2006) is a comprehensive book about planning and executing your research. A must read.
  2. The University of Leeds has a Researchers in Development PhD Network (RiDNet) which has some useful guides. They also have an annual conference for researchers to reflect on fieldwork. 
  3. For beginners, Research for Development: A Practical Guide edited by Laws, S., et al. (2013) is a useful start. 

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