Further thoughts about field practice — Larry Stillman

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Many of us have taken qualitative and quantitative design courses at one time or other, or at least read any number of text books about them. I admit, I am not a quantitative person, but working with the ‘team’ based between Australia, Italy and Bangladesh is certainly causing me to dust away the cobwebs and engage in some revision on what I find a very painful, and ultimately critical activity. If you don’t ask the right questions for what you want to know, then of course, you will be fed back, well, totally irrelevant data, whether it is qualitative or quantitative. Furthermore, we continue to be bedeviled by the unavoidable problems of intercultural and language translation and transmission. And, most infuriatingly, at times we are forced to repackage old wine in new bottles to meet the demands of an esoteric journal: their favored internal literature, rather than the parallel universe in another field. The particular focus of research in this quarter (July-October 2016) to take up what is proposed by Flick in his masterly discussion, to gain knowledge of what he calls the social representation of technological change in everyday life. This will then also be used to provide useful data (and concepts) for the examination of Geel’s ideas around social-technical transitions and transformations at micro-meso-and macro levels of society in Bangladesh. If we are lucky, this will provide practice research outcomes for our partners and government in Bangladesh, as well as the required academic publications.

Which has more impact on reality — the abstraction ( by Geels), or the extract from “A Quiet Voice”? Of course, each has a different purpose but the left counts for research quantum, and these days, the right, unless surrounded by an approved apparatus criticus, counts for less. Some observations, however: Should we be expected to engage in long-term, situated ethnographic research of the type conducted by Hartmann and Joyce and documented in their work “A Quiet Voice”, a study of a Bangladeshi village (shades of Geertz and so on). Several issues come to mind. This is a work from 30 or more years ago. Would it at all be acceptable today for white, middle-class foreigners to engage in such work, even though all those years ago, that couple gained entrée into a very traditional environment in an even less developed situation? Shouldn’t such a work be today conducted jointly through a more participatory method, between the villagers themselves and local researchers who are likely to be much more attuned to local needs (even if they come from Dhaka). Second, when coming from a different discipline (such as social-technical research), is it even reasonable to engage in such a form of highly skilled, narrative ethnographic research, which approaches novel-writing at times (see Giddens quoted below). Third, in the current political environment, is such research even possible for foreigners? Lastly, does the level of complex and ever-razor-thin and competitive theoretical overlay that is now required for ‘adequate research’ to be regarded as academically respectable (and fundable), turn what might be exciting research into turgid, positivistic or jargon-ridden words and gymnastic concepts for articles that mean little to other than the initiated few in specialized academic departments that cater for elite groups, with even less meaning to the villagers themselves and people involved in development? All these issues tie directly into the criticisms made from critical and postcolonial viewpoints, drawing up on the work of Foucault and others on power and discourse, and the ways in which they (un) consciously, as part of over-arching structures (such as particular ideologies of aid), which act to “de-politicize” politicized situations through particular forms of normalizing discourse, and acceptable spheres for operation (Bourdieu’s habitus) which in turn, on meso- and micro-levels, structure all sorts of relationships, including the research relationship. Of course, this is not just one way: the “beneficiary” (the subject of a whole lot of discourse assumptions) can be socialised into a particular form of behaviour, or learn to manipulate particular relationships to her advantage. And why not resist? As Escobar suggested in his critical of international development, that it is “a historical construct that provides a space in which poor countries are known, specified, and intervened upon”, by people such as myself. (An excellent discussion of Foucault and Bourdieu and Giddens is found in Rossi, 2004). Rose refers to such systems as “technologies of governance”, the [P]roblems, means, actions, manners, techniques and objects by which actors place themselves under the control, guidance, sway and mastery of others, or seek to place other actors, organizations, entities or events under their own sway. (Rose 1999: 16). To quote Foucault in detail: “What individuals, what groups or classes have access to a particular kind of discourse? How is the relationship institutionalized between the discourse, speakers and its destined audience? How is the relationship of the discourse to its author indicated and defined? How is struggle for control of discourses conducted between classes, nations, linguistic, cultural or ethnic collectivities? ” Foucault, in the essay Politics and the study of discourse. We need to query all this, particularly as we engage in Participatory Action Research. But to come back to earth-if we do decide to just have some practical research conducted at a distance, what we might work out what appears to be an unambiguous or subtle question whether in qualitative or quantitative form, in the English language, is going to be translated into Bengali with all the governing filters that we can imagine. We are reliant and dependent on our Bangladeshi colleagues. Indeed some concepts ‘village’ or ‘family’ may have to be localized to capture particular local structures and relationships. And then…the results, particularly the qualitative responses are going to be translated for us, back in English either word for word, or summarized, depending on the richness of the response to a complex question. Again, a quote sums up the complexities, this time by Rossi: “the field opened by development intervention is characterised by different cultural spaces discontinuous from each other (the area of project intervention, donor and recipient countries’ ministries and aid institutions, etc.), and it brings together different categories of actors (planners, development workers, so-called ‘beneficiaries’) belonging to different cultural and social formations” (Rossi (2004), p.70. The dynamics of how interviews are conducted is another factor in this activity in distant villages of Bangladesh, so interviews don’t come out nowhere. As Giddens suggests in the quote below, complex skills which actors have in co-ordinating the contexts of their everyday behaviour” and, “the social analyst must also be sensitive to the time-space constitution of everyday life”. The process of arranging interviews from thousands of miles away is mediated via Oxfam in Dhaka, the local NGO, the village association and its leading people. We might not get the whole story of how this is done, and what social and physical resources have been expended, yet we can only respect it and hope that the process is ethical. And of course, the time-space constitution effects every single person involved here from Monash to the village. What I do know: Bangladeshi society is traditional and hierarchical and gendered, with an inherent respect to those perceived to be learned. And, as we have already observed, the outsider locals do tend to lead on the respondents, and we have been trying to find workarounds to avoid this problem. We can exclude local NGOs who know the community from answering for or “helping”; it is my experience that the notion of an ‘individual’ and an ‘individual interview’ is not possible, and culturally impossible in the village setting. People are naturally going to join in and help, but it should not be from the NGO which has a leading development role in the community. It is much harder to stop fellow villages from drifting into the courtyard, if they are not there already. Of course, this is no way criticizes the NGO; it just reflects the way things are done, and as outsiders, we are completely dependent on their good intentions and cooperation in what amounts to a new form of research, encouraging as much bottom up participation as possible. At the same time, only through our ongoing reflection can we guard against “caricatured” and “essentialized” forms of documentation, interpretation and presentation (Watts, p. 549). One way of hopefully overcoming a number of inherent problems by evaluating and assessing the value of what is transcribed and written by Bangladeshi field workers conducting the survey and interview work is to work with skilled Oxfam and Monash staff and to also work with them to become highly reflective and conscious of their interpretive role. They will help to filter and interpret the data through teamed work with us. We already have some pilot interviews translated into English and despite their high value, they require cultural interpretation and ‘filling in’. Additional insights will be gathered, for these and other interviews, and there is no reason that as part of an iterative cycle that we cannot go back to the field staff or even the villagers themselves for more information, as a limited form of participatory action research [more observations about that in another blog]. One worker is part of the Oxfam PROTIC team, the other a PhD student at Monash. Both are well-experienced in field work and community dynamics, particularly with rural Bangladeshi women. We hope that by using a simplified form of grounded theory, and reading transcripts and precis of the qualitative data together, interpretations and theories will be generated through their skilled, but indigenous knowledge, in interaction with our own ‘office-based’ more theoretically-drive approach. Giddens offers some guidance in this conscious and reflexive form of research, though others take it up in other works as well: ” All social research has a necessarily cultural, ethnographic of ‘anthropological’ aspect to it…literary style is not irrelevant to the accuracy of social descriptions…the social scientist is a communicator, introducing frames of meaning associated with certain contexts of social life to those in others”. Furthermore, “it is important in social research to be sensitive to the complex skills which actors have in co-ordinating the contexts of their everyday behaviour” and, “the social analyst must also be sensitive to the time-space constitution of everyday life”(Giddens, 1984, 284-286). Perhaps then, we will be able to get to describe and theorize, in a meaningful and useful way, the social representation of technological change in everyday life. Flick, U. (2000). Episodic Interviewing. Qualitative Researching with Text, Image and Sound: A Practical Handbook for Social Research, (November), 75-92. (a very is locatable online) Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8-9), 1257-1274. Foucault, M., & Rabinow, P. (1991). The Foucault reader. Penguin social sciences. London ; Ringwood, Vic.,: Penguin. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press. Hartmann, B., & Boyce, J. K. (1983). A Quiet Violence: View From a Bangladesh Village. Dhaka: University Publishers. Rose, N. S. (1999). Powers of freedom reframing political thought. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York: Cambridge University Press. Rossi, B. (2004). Revisiting Foucauldian Approaches: Power Dynamics in Development Projects. Journal of Development Studies, 40(6), 1-29. Watts, M. (2004). Postmodernism and postdevelopment. In Encyclopedia of International Development (pp. 546-550). Routledge.

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