Field Notes 2: What Do I Know

The process of sense-making is, I believe, one of the most unique experiences in research studies employing qualitative methods and approaches. Just ask yourselves, “Why do you see what you see?” and “Why do you know what you know?” and that’s when the ground opens up and swallows you whole.

My first attempt at a ‘qualitative’ study was during my coursework a year ago. I’m pretty much a newbie which is why the process still confuses me but it’s exciting at the same time because making mistakes is how I’m going to learn how to make things right. Or more wrong, depending on my luck.

I never really thought of myself as a ‘positivist’ kind of researcher. To be honest, numbers and figures hate me. Not that numbers and figures don’t matter in qualitative research studies–they do–but they’re not everything.

I work in the Development sector and every development intervention has to be evidence-based meaning every claim has to be backed up with sound statistics representing the social issues of the world. But because I’m weird and a sucker for full-length stories (what can I say, I love to read), I have always sought something much deeper than numbers and figures, something more compelling than mere percentages and generalizations that don’t exactly tell the whole story, especially in Development where every stakeholder plays a role, a character, a contribution to the process. I feel like reducing their faces to numbers and figures downplays the meaning of the intervention. But that’s just me–like I said I’m the lethal combination of rational and emotional. As much as I appreciate numbers, I also seek a narrative because everyone has a story to tell that we can all learn from.

Hard evidence is crucial, I agree. But something about stories and experiences feel more real to me. Perhaps it’s because I know how quantitative methods go about. I know what it’s like to design a research instrument, I know how to conduct surveys, analyze and interpret data in light of a framework or a theory and measure them using statistical analysis tools. I know how limited and limiting the process is not only to the researcher but also to the stakeholders. I think development work shouldn’t settle for ‘limited approaches’ or ‘business as usual.’ Because development involves people and how can we deal with people effectively if there isn’t a lot of room to move around?

It’s true, yes. “Forty-five per cent of the population lives below poverty line.” is more powerful and earth-shaking than “This little girl dreams of becoming a teacher one day despite living in poverty, and only her brothers are allowed to go to school at the moment due to safety issues.” The explanatory power of numbers and figures is undeniable. It’s just that for me, there is also power in stories, narratives, and experiences. I believe that qualitative data is powerful in its own league, and should not be considered as mere anecdotes or an appeal to emotion. Qualitative data also provide the bigger picture, something deeper and broader and more thought-provoking, inspiring.

My career in the international aid community has been about numbers (oh yeah!) and I was functional at it. I can understand it. I can design communication materials based on it. But I remember that I enjoyed being out in the field more, interviewing stakeholders (even with the language barrier), writing stories, and highlighting the face of development beyond numbers. I always feel anxious, I always worry before conducting a focus group discussion or a key informant interview. But once I was in the zone, I couldn’t even stop myself from wanting to write and share my findings with the rest of the team. It’s just unfortunate, in a way, that qualitative data have not reached the level of believability and validity that quantitative data have established over the years.

However, I stand by the perspective that development is a communication process; and with communication, comes the human element, and with the human element comes the heart and a spectrum of issues, concerns, challenges, and triumphs that numbers do not entirely represent. To gather qualitative data is to observe, to immerse, to interact, to reflect…simply put, to gather qualitative data is to communicate.

Being objective in development is important, I know, but to what extent should we distance ourselves from the process? And when a development partner should function as a partner, distancing one’s self defeats the purpose of communication, doesn’t it?

My apologies if I’m digressing. It’s just that discussing the Development Communication Discipline can never be without practice. Concepts and ideas also become concrete when they are given a context.

But back to research: With my research and field experience, I can say that I’m not a positivist, but I still don’t consider myself critical nor post-modern either. I like to explore, I like to see things in different takes, angles, and dimensions. I like to keep an open-mind. This is a recipe for disaster for some researchers (‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’ type of criticism), but I’ll take my chances. The worst that could happen is to me is to be confused, but I think in confusion, there’s learning. In learning, there’s growth.

During my first attempt at a qualitative study, I found myself going back to my positivist beginnings. I realized that it’s not because I’m a positivist, but it’s because it’s a comfort zone; it feels safe, and convenient. When numbers don’t check out, you know you’re wrong. When numbers fit, you know you’re in the right track. There’s a level of certainty that’s comforting to all researchers, especially scholars. However, with qualitative study, when words find their way to you–you can explain, you can make sense of them, the text resonates–but it sure ain’t the same effect when other researchers look at your work and they come from different parts of the terrain.

It’s probably the best and worst part of the experience. Because as a researcher, you know that what you know is real, that it has value, that is has something new and fresh to say. But when it comes to sharing it with the rest of the world, all you get is a nod and a ‘let’s move on’. It’s frustrating but it also feels like a challenge.

In my previous blog, I asked “What am I looking at?” I have my data set for my dissertation in hand and have begun the process of coding. But I can’t help but ask myself, “What do my eyes really see, what do my ears really hear?”

I might be just placing meanings that aren’t there, or I might be ignoring what I really see because it’s scary to dig deeper and have to explain why I found this and that. Why do I know what I know? How do I know that what I know is valid?

I told you, it’s confusing!

 

 

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Field Notes 1: What Am I Looking For

Hi, my dear blog. It’s been a while!

I’d like to play catch up but I feel like it’s been ages since I last wrote here and a lot of things happened in my life already that I’m not sure where to begin. But perhaps, I can attack this like one of those movies that begins in the middle (or end) but provides flashbacks within the course of the film and breaks the fourth wall. That way, I would know when to (necessarily) reflect and skip on the parts that I want to just forget. LOL.

As you can read from the title, it’s called Field Notes [insert number] because the succeeding posts will be about my dissertation, the process, and my thoughts that will help me in my analysis, or so I hope. I am–thankfully and hopefully–on my last leg of PhD studies and because this is cruuuuunch time, I recently decided to buckle down (at the 11th hour, no less) and work on my dissertation with full force and focus. Easier said than done, but it’s not like I have other things going on my with life (okay, that sounds sad) but to work on my studies, maintain my fitness goals (yes, I am still on it!), and with a fearful but full heart, take on the challenges of life without regrets.

My posts are going to be sloppy, and a bit whiny, because let’s face it, I don’t think researchers are always on point and put together when they are out in the ‘field’. Some people, yes. But we’re talking about Me here. I’m the lethal combination of rational and emotional where I can be the no non-sense type one minute then totally anxious and hesitant the next. However, I do not consider that as a weakness. I think that just makes me more human—more in touch with my surroundings, more flexible with my choices, and more accepting that things do not always go the way I want them to. I’m okay with it, I think it took me time (and age!) to develop that kind of mindset (I just turned 30 y’all. T H I R T Y.) I do not want to limit my understanding of the world; and if that means being rational, critical, or emotional all at the same time, then so be it. Sometimes, the most genius of things can be found in the craziest of experiences as I’m a firm believer that there’s also order in chaos. Most of our scientists had their own bouts of insanity because they were curious, weren’t they?

The exciting part about being raw and real in writing field notes is the unfiltered and unbridled thoughts articulated that provide a different dimension during analysis. I am employing qualitative methods and approaches (quanti-researchers be like… *raises eyebrows*). This is my first grand attempt (I had little attempts because they were required submissions in my coursework haha), so I am not expecting a lot from myself  (though I am pretty sure my academic advisory is. LOL) but I am doing the best that I can. I have been in school for 27 years (most of my contemporaries already have families, established careers, and embarking on different journeys). This dissertation is, perhaps, the most important thing in my life to date; all the sacrifices, all the hard choices, blood, sweat and tears culminate in this text. I must make sure that my 27 years is going to be worthy of a PhD. Just thinking about this is enough to trigger panic attacks but you know what, if there is one thing I learned from all the experiences and challenges, is that wallowing and crying are okay but make sure that after that phase, get up and fight for another day. And another, and another.

I am not the ‘cleanest’ writer out there, which is exactly what I am worried about in the process of writing my dissertation. I have a voice, yes, I have my own quirky structure. But that doesn’t always translate well in Academia and I kind of envy those who possess the power of writing in a very scholarly manner. But okay, one day at a time. I wish to focus on my blog first. The beauty of writing here–my own version of center in this infinite universe–is I am free to make sense of everything I see without being confined in the rules of being a ‘good writer’. This is my space and this is where my thoughts came about. They may be considered knowledge in its own right, am I right?

Alright, here we go. Wait, what am I really looking for?

 

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The Long Pause

He said he misses my stories. I rolled my eyes and almost immediately spat out the most insulting phrase ever, I Know, Right.

It was sarcastic, of course. As a blogger–sort of–I’m not really sure if people really care about what they read, especially when posts are overly dramatic and that there are more important issues in the world apart from my own thoughts.

Abandoning my blog for a few months isn’t exactly a deliberate step to get over the ‘adventurous life’ I left behind and stop regretting my decisions. For some reason, things have not been kind. Or that I am simply not kind enough to myself. Either way, it’s been tough. I stopped writing because–just like that–nothing inspires me anymore or at least, I haven’t been motivated to write. I’m the type of person who can write about dirt if I can make something out of it but not even my most interesting moments the past few months (definitely more intriguing than dirt) were able to make its way to me and be transformed into words. Logging in to my account is a struggle, let alone write something. Anything.

But here’s one anyway.

…Somehow the word about some makeup hobbyists from UPLB offering their hair and makeup services got out, and Ate Sheryl and I found ourselves reveling in an experience of a lifetime.

Two years ago, I pledged to myself that I would grow out my hair and upon reaching my waist, I would cut the whole chunk of it and donate it to an organization dedicated to creating medical wigs for cancer patients. But since my insecurities ate me up more than my pledge, I failed. I  bleached my hair to a shocking rusty blonde and it dried to the tips after a month. I guess it’s more rude to donate damaged hair than to back out on my word. When I cut the animal hair off my life in December, I was still in the middle of figuring out what I would do to compensate for my wrong decisions.

One day in January, my Mother–last semester’s executive producer of a local television show of their college–was telling me about her day and how her guests made an impression to her. She was telling me about this ‘group’ who get together every Valentine’s Day and ‘beautify’ themselves for the day. I was about to brush off the idea when she mentioned that they are, in fact, cancer patients.

I was moved. Not only because they are cancer patients and that I finally found a way to compensate for my botched hair donation but because I felt deep in my heart that our art can mean something for other people. Even for just a day.

Armed with our signature pink traincase, Ate Sheryl and I arrived at Madre de Amor Hospice Foundation on Friday the 13th of February (Ate Sheryl is engaged, so her Valentine’s Day was booked) at 8 AM and there we met the strongest people we have known. No, they are not just a group who get together for Valentine’s Day. They help cancer patients help each other during these trying times.

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They are some of the women from Madre De Amor Hospice Foundation in Los Baños, Laguna. They are called mobile cancer and dialysis patients who get together to build a support system with and for people who can relate to their own plight. They do fun activities together; share stories, progress, struggles, loss. They were no celebrities but the glow that radiated from their faces was priceless. I don’t think any amount of cosmetic surgery could give them that, it’s not even the makeup. Their spirits were warm, bright and alive because of the happiness knowing that there are people around to support them; the optimism that everything is going to be all right for them and their peers; and that strength, that strength that not even cancer can beat.
All That Glitters, Leandra Flor, Division K International Speech Contest 1st Runner-up, Toastmasters International

These women were my inspiration in writing a speech for Toastmasters International. Their strength is silent but profound. The day that Ate Sheryl and I spent at Madre de Amor became one of our most unforgettable walkabouts in our lives. Our makeup gig might not have been located in another province, or in another country–it wasn’t even with famous people. But they are all what we needed to see that life is beautiful. No matter what.

And I should remind myself of this. Every day.

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