What I learnt from my experiences as field researcher in the social sector
I can safely say the journey from that initial jolt of culture shock that one experiences from stepping on the field for the first time, to the final peace that a researcher makes with the fact that obstacles are an intrinsic part of fieldwork is neither long nor arduous when taken with the right spirit, an open mind and the right mentors.
Field research as starting point of a project
The first thing that I was made aware of in my work at 4th Wheel was that for any CSR-based development activity to be truly effective, it must be aligned with stakeholder needs, and these can only be understood by studying a community from close quarters, through in-depth research. That enthusiastic or lackadaisical fieldwork can either elevate or completely destroy a research design and subsequent research outcomes.
Armed with that little piece of crucial ‘social development and research’ wisdom and a few more equally important field etiquette tips that included proper attire, correct way of questioning, body language and, most importantly, “mark of respect” for the respondents, off I went on some of my first research missions, to the less visited and thought of rural parts of our country. To say that the initial experiences were challenging and confounding is putting it mildly.
Empathy forms the bedrock of field research
I realised that as researchers, although we define our own fields, right from the context of the research to the geographic location and finally and most importantly the target group for the study, the obstacles that the field throws at you are about as diverse as the people and cultures that we study. Despite all the preliminary secondary research that goes into understanding community demographics and their cultural values, anticipating and tackling an ‘individual’ respondent required me to develop keen empathy, which needed to be fuelled with an honest desire for social change.
In the course of a day I came across a variety of respondents: the acutely uninterested, the overtly enthusiastic, the storytellers, and the severely self-conscious, each requiring special management skills that I easily developed. The respondents who required real practice were the cynical ones, who not only refused to participate but also discouraged others from participating in the study, and perhaps rightly so, as many have sat through countless surveys that probably promised sweeping changes but eventually came to naught.
This brought me to my first fieldwork lesson: that the most important thing a researcher ought to do is to be completely transparent with their respondents and make them aware of the purpose and probability of the benefits of the survey. The other thing that became obvious was that the majority of respondents were more than welcoming and had a real need to share their stories and problems and every one of them hoped that the solutions to their problems existed somewhere in the near future.
Our target group are people not objects
Most research begins with the presupposition that that there is a lack or a problem within the community that needs to be resolved. True as that maybe, this brought me to my second most potent issue: my state of mind as a researcher. In the beginning I too looked at respondents as ‘problems to be solved’, yet often enough what we perceive as problem the local community considers a way of life.
I realised that going in with that perception quickly estranges people as they feel judged and their responses become more and more defensive. Soon enough, it became apparent that to receive quality information, I had to leave my biases and preconceived notions behind and look at people as people and not as problems that needed solving. Making efforts to truly understand respondents went a long way in empowering them to communicate their honest opinions and views.
Being in field is enriching every time
The variety of experiences that field work offered has not been restricted to just the expansion of perception, and has gone on to enhance people’s skills. Often enough, the geographic location of the study, weather conditions, dealing with field workers, time management, and local problems that make reaching study sample size difficult have all been obstacles threatening the completion of a study. But dealing with these limitations by adapting and innovating has perhaps made me appreciate the dynamic nature of fieldwork even more, not to mention looking forward to every future fieldwork opportunity with unabated enthusiasm.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)