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Key lessons in exploratory research and fieldwork

A key feature of the Tata-Cornell experience is conducting fieldwork. As TCI Scholars, we gather primary data for our thesis research through a long-term engagement with villages in rural India.  Before we finalize our research questions, write a proposal and present the project to our PhD committee, we get a chance to conduct a summer of exploratory research.  

Some scholars use this time to practice research methods, others get a jump on collecting data, while still others explore context or try to identify potential partners.  It’s a very productive time, and we all walk away with a deeper understanding of research and a better appreciation for what it takes to be successful in the field. 

I completed my own exploratory fieldwork last summer.  This was my first time to work in a field setting.  Since then, my project on Community-Led Total Sanitation in Uttar Pradesh has really taken off and I feel very comfortable working in the field.  In fact, I love it!  

This summer, as my survey work continues, I have also been presented the task of supervising a research intern from Cornell, who is now having her first experience doing rural fieldwork. As such, I have to encapsulate the roles of mentor, friend, caretaker, and fierce protector. I am also her teacher. Being with her has helped me to reflect and articulate my thoughts on all that I’ve learned. I feel it is pertinent to share the most important lessons from my own experience in order to help you, the reader, in your own exploratory research and fieldwork.

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Payal Seth (center, camera facing) getting to know the villagers through conversation and focus group discussions (Photo credit: author)

Don’t Get Confused

Since exploratory research work is a testing ground for whether the theme interests you enough to pursue it as your thesis, or to find new ideas for your thesis, you will find yourself in a coveted position where the daunting logistics of the future are not a huge concern and yet you learn just enough to know the viability of transitioning your long-held classroom knowledge and ideas into ground breaking fieldwork.

What would help a scholar most is to do a bit of reading before heading to the field. Have a clear grasp of the plausible research questions, the loopholes in the literature and if pursuing the fieldwork in that direction is even conceivable. Fieldwork demands managerial skills, maintaining public relations, arranging logistics, and taking care of innumerable things that could go wrong. Hence, it becomes even more critical to sort out the research components before heading into the field.

Know Their Language

It is of utmost importance to use the language of the locals. Speaking in their language (even if you only know a little), you will feel their stance towards you change. The transformation is just phenomenal. You will no longer feel like an outsider who considers them as a data point. Instead, you will feel like you are one among them, and this gains their trust. They feel at ease and open to you, and that only makes you a better researcher.

Having said that, I understand the difficulty of learning a new language in the short span of time. I would then suggest a very experienced translator or a very strong team of enumerators that knows how to carry out the conversation with the people and helps you form connections with them.

Be Culturally Sensitive

It is obvious that being respectful of the culture you currently are a part of paves an easy way for your successful fieldwork. For example, in the villages where I work in Uttar Pradesh (as in many other Indian villages), wearing sleeveless clothing is considered a sign of disrespect. One must keep the cultural constraints in mind and dress accordingly. Appropriately covering your legs and arms, no matter how hot the weather, is considered the norm. 

Also, be mindful of interactions with the opposite sex, especially when it comes to sensitive issues. One of the male enumerators on my team was assigned the task of asking women “how long have you breastfed the child?”. On every occasion he asked this question, he was confronted with angry stares which accused him of questioning the dignity of the women; he confessed that he often filled the answer at his own will to avoid conflict. 

One can be the strongest propagator of gender equality and believe in the right to wear whatever one desires, but this is not the best place to demonstrate one’s outlook. Respecting a culture exhibits that you are secure when it comes to your moral values.

Establish Rapport

A shy and unwilling audience will fail to give you an authentic outlook on their lives. Introduce yourself well and show your gratitude for the time they spare for you. Explore the classic ice breakers. Engage them in conversation by sharing your experiences and asking them to chip in with theirs. Once you all feel comfortable, delve into the topic you want to discuss. 

Even then, I feel I have hit a roadblock many times. So proceed with patience and delicacy, and be willing to share about your life too. For example, one of the most tabooed conversations has been safety for women. When we asked the women of the village “do you feel unsafe when you go to defecate?” their answer was a generic monotone, “no we are used to that”. We then had to engage them in a conversation and mention that: “darkness of the night has a certain intimidating quality to it and I personally feel very unsafe as I cannot go past a few meters and it generally gives me chills”. It was after I opened up that they did the same and expressed their pain in hushed voices. A few women explained to us about their travails such as insect bites on their exposed skin, fear of being followed, and rape instances in the dark. Some said they felt so unsafe that they often skipped on meals to avoid defecating at night. 

These valuable insights would have been missed had we quit trying to get a genuine response. Having a recount of these true-to-life experiences helps one to assess the suitability of the intervention. It also grants one an edge to know what the people are actually hoping for or seeking.

Control the Conversation

Once you have managed to establish rapport, predicting the course of conversation is a fairly difficult task. Be certain that you are getting responses to your questionnaire and/or are not led too astray from the message you are trying to deliver. One will persistently find a handful of people who are disinterested in listening or want to have fun at your expense. Do not be afraid to stand up to them. Do learn the art of holding the content of the conversation relevant. 

Take Care of Yourself

I can’t emphasize this aspect enough! As enriching the fieldwork is, it’s also equally demanding. It can be blistering hot one day and pelting heavy rain the next. Carry your own water bottle, if you feel the water from the village doesn’t suit you. Bring an umbrella, a sun hat, or a dupatta at all times. Eat well. It is very easy to lose track of your heath when you are deeply engrossed in work. Inform your team/mentor/advisor if you find yourself in an uncomfortable position. And always have someone lined up to be at the receiving end of your SOS call.

TCI has graciously granted me the opportunity to gain a plethora of experience, beginning from my own exploratory fieldwork last summer.  This has vastly improved my skills as a researcher.  If possible, I sincerely recommend you seek out the chance to conduct exploratory research and fieldwork. The insights gained are invaluable.

By Payal Seth

Payal Seth is a PhD Student and a Tata-Cornell Scholar in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Her research focuses on linkages between sanitation and nutrition.