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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