Prep before heading to respective field sites
“Do we need to cook?” “Will there be electricity connection?” “If our neighbouring village has a festival for which we get invited, are we allowed to attend it?” were few of the concerns raised by the students. The research anchors equipped them with certain tips to handle situations while they were in field. Students were advised to always respect respondents’ feelings and time, and to politely excuse themselves when faced with internal matters of the village. Pratim said the faster one gets into the rhythm of the village, their presence would be welcomed rather as being seen as a hindrance.
Translators were briefed about their role that was essential and central to the research work. But, the trick was in forwarding all questions to the research teams and let them do the talking. They had to ensure that their role as mediator should not get in-between the research partners.
A student from indigenous community and a Cornell student formed a research team. There were eight research teams working on different topics related to Community Wellness, Health and Nutrition, Water and Waste, Gaur Monitoring, Forest Rights Act and Fallow Lands. They headed to different field sites from the 9th week of the NFLC course.
Encounters of a strange kind
The gaur monitoring team had an interesting encounter with a man who wanted to tame and domesticate a baby gaur. He believed he could easily do if it was caught within a couple of weeks. The team was unbelieving at first but the man seemed very determined.
For one of the research teams, entry to a village was restricted as the community leader was not convinced to let them continue their study . This meant another village had to be located and the research had to be explained to the elders of that village. Eventually the new village worked out well. Research teams witnessed daily lives of people, they were invited to tea, sometimes a mother made food for them while they waited for their bus to return in the evening. These simple gestures left deep memories in the minds of the young researchers. At one of the villages the elders got into an argument amongst themselves about whether or not to allow non tribals to rent homes in their villages, students watched these internal conflicts from the sidelines.
An elderly woman of one of the villages was initially upset with one of the teams when she thought that they would not be interviewing her on the question of land fallows. But later when the team did come to her house she was very happy indeed. She opened up about her title to land ownership and also said how she treated elephants as a mother rather than seeing them as intruders. An elephant visits her regularly and raises its tusk to bless her. One grandmother in another area told the researchers how she felt that the cell phone towers in her area are the main cause for low yield in her pepper crops. Some elders started to question the students for asking too many personal questions and told them that they should do something in return for them. The students waited anxiously while the women discussed, till they finally told them that they should sing and dance for them. In one village, an elder had ideas for a marriage alliance for one of the Cornell researchers, but of course she was discouraged from taking that forward.
Meeting challenges along the way
NFLC researchers learnt to get over their own shyness and it took time for them to initiate conversations with strangers. Teams realised that they ought to be more confident in the field. They also realised that sometimes people do not keep their appointments and one has to be creative in the field, look out for alternative respondents and sometimes asked relatives or other family members. One of the teams had trouble with getting right translations for the information collected, but their respective field guides helped to fill the gap. When research teams were seen with notebooks, people hardly talked to them nor gave any information. They said “owner is not here, go away”. Some of the respondents did not speak in front of their employers.
In most of the villages, people kept saying “Many like you come to gather information, but, what is the benefit for us?” “It’s the seventh time I’m being interviewed for surveys”. The research fatigue was visible. People expected immediate benefits like physical structures or monetary benefits, etc. in return for the information they gave. Gathering people together at a time to a common place to conduct a focus group meeting was a tiresome task. The teams expressed that the challenging aspect was to tackle those situations where one person tried to dominate the group conversation.
Strategies learnt to survive and get work done efficiently in the field
Children in the village acted as the best field guides! They took the researchers to aspects of their village which would have been normally left out. As the days started early and ended late in most of the villages, the appropriate time to meet with people were either early mornings or late evenings. Lengthy, descriptive interviews when done in two or three parts gave better information than doing it all at one shot. Index cards with pictures or same examples were used to best describe a situation to ensure consistency in all the interviews. Debrief after every interview and/or at the end of the day helped to fill the gaps in translation or accruing right information from other partner. Respecting other’s time and being persistent helped to conduct successful focus group meetings in villages. Letting the Keystone students lead the interviews and meetings worked out best. They were able to get descriptive responses by probing further with additional questions. Dominant responses from group discussions were sorted out by politely shooting questions at the silent ones in the group or by talking to them separately to get their opinions. Field guides played a vital role in introducing the team to the people. They also helped in village mapping exercises where they facilitated the teams to re-visit missed houses or lands, marking village boundaries, taking them for transit walks, etc.
“Why now?” – Last minute realisations
The team working on health said “Research data did not give expected results”. For example, highly literate mothers would know the importance of breast feeding, but it turned out that they were the ones to bottle feed their baby than the mothers with less literacy. Some of the women were embarrassed to be questioned about the practice of open defecation in their village, but appreciated it as a good question. The team on water and waste felt that they could have gathered much more information with the rapport that was built after repeated visits to the village. One of the students said that he realised the importance of taking field notes while doing data-analysis. The need to look into the previous year’s reports and communicate with people who had already worked on the topics helps to avoid collecting the same information or using different research instruments. One of the teams realised that the way they were entering the data was wrong. Few teams that had access to read papers related to their study after the field work, felt that they could have asked certain questions in a different manner from the way it was asked in their questionnaire. The team which was predominantly relying on surveys said “Focus group meetings with people gave opportunity to seek out information as per our interest than the use of instruments like surveys which limits the researcher to those questions”. One of the student said “data analysis helped to draw links between different information but it was frustrating to not find the solution to a research problem”.
As the past weeks were in filed gathering as much relevant information and data as possible, the upcoming weeks are all about getting themselves prepared for the final presentations! The last before week of NFLC is all about organising the collected information, analysing it and presenting the key findings to all the stakeholders of Keystone Foundation including Trustees and Advisors, Cornell faculty members, people from different communities and family members.