The challenge of research and data- collection: Uncovering facts while getting a reality check!

July 23, 2019 8:09 PM

It’s not just the heat or the cold or limited culinary options but also the complete loss of semblance of your lived realities.

Research, data collection, challenges of ground research, how to conduct research, research methodology Over the years, researchers have developed strategies to tackle questions.

By Rajkanya Mahapatra

Research is no cakewalk. It gets meaner (read: more difficult) once you finally get to working on the ground to collect data, and almost always in wildly different circumstances than the previous ones. Have you watched Lagaan? Remember how Bhuvan and team huddled, tied their bandanas and got ready to face what was coming? Yeah, researchers do that too, only tablets and sheaths of paper replace the bandanas. Working on the field is an entirely different ball game. It’s not just the heat or the cold or limited culinary options but also the complete loss of semblance of your lived realities. In such conditions, a research enthusiast who wants to see their project through will need to brace themselves and be open to anything and everything going wrong. That’s what I found out when I spoke with a few researchers who shared some really interesting stories from their time on the field.

‘Purush’ vs ‘Aadmi’

When Dhruvika and her colleagues were collecting data in Rajasthan, for their study they wanted to know how many males members lived in a household, so they asked, “Aapke ghar mein kitne purush rehte hai?” The woman taking the survey looked back at the researchers with a confused face and repeated, “Purush?”

So, Dhruvika reframed the question, attempted at the colloquial, and asked “Kitne aadmi rehte hai?” Much like the original utterer of the question (Gabbar), and the woman glared back. Did the researchers make a mistake? Oh yes, they did. In many parts of Rajasthan, especially in the villages, the word ‘aadmi’ denotes ‘husband’. No wonder she was offended. It took a few “please maaf kar dijiye, hamara yeh matlab nahi tha” to get the conversation back on track again. The biggest takeaway from this interaction was the realisation that there may be more linguistic variations than one is aware of. Take great care while translating.

17 or 71?

Like language, there are other important concepts/realities that go for a toss when you travel from the urban to the rural in India. This is to say, we live in a very diverse country and fieldwork can be a lot more challenging as variables change every few kilometres. When Kritika was on the field in Bihar, she had an experience that made her question (and by extension, should make us think too) the concepts of space and time. On a sultry afternoon in a village in Bihar, Kritika’s next respondent was an old lady. “Aapki umar kitni hai didi?” (How old are you, didi?), Sruti asked. “17”, she said, giggling, her grey hair glinting in the sunlight. “Didi are you sure you are 17?” She said, “Yes, Yes”.

Almost all surveys require the respondent to share their age. In one part, partly due to lack of documentation of birth dates, and also because of the concepts of time and space in rural India differ in meaning than the Western one – it is often tricky to collect accurate data.

Over the years, researchers have developed strategies to tackle this question. For young children, the researchers check their government-issued MCP (Mother-Child Protection) card. In case, they do not have one, they find a significant event around the time of their birth, like a natural disaster, and check if they were born before or after that disaster. This helps the researchers get closer to recording accurate data.

For girls in their adolescence, asking them if (and when) they began menstruating is a good tactic to ascertain age. As for our 17-year-old didi-dadi, we asked her if she was around when India became independent – turns out she was!

“Who’s The Loo-ser, Here?”

Going out in the field also means you’re in for rude shocks and reality checks. When it comes to the numbers, you’ll see that thousands of toilets have been constructed. But what do we know about whether those toilets have active water connections? Are they been used and cleaned regularly?

This bit is about a bright yellow building in a school that attracted Shaina’s attention. One of the teachers at this school was giving the researchers a tour of the school and pointed at the yellow building, and said proudly, “that’s the girls toilet!”

Shaina wanted to check the toilet and requested the teacher to open it for her, since there was a huge lock on the toilet door. By then, the principal of the school had also joined the teacher and researchers, and decided to unlock the door (might I add, very unwillingly).

Inside, what was supposed to be the girl’s toilet, there was no latrine, no tap, not even a hole! I’m certain social science researchers working on the ground in India would have experienced incidents eerily similar to these. This is what it’s like to uncover realities from the absolute bottom. If you’re just starting out at a researcher or you’re still a student, here’s hoping these little anecdotes will prepare you for what’s coming. Will be back with more soon!

(Names, locations and timelines have been altered to protect IP. The Author is Senior Communications Officer at Outline India. Views expressed are personal.)

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