Category Archives: Student Life

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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Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen

Says it all..

Blessed, that is exactly how I describe my internship with UNICEF Laos.

I love to dream. Irritatingly cheesy but I grew up believing that I can do anything as long as I work hard and commit to it. With a little smile from fate and support from my family and friends, someday I will be able to make my dreams–or as I call them plans–happen.

But if there is one thing I learned from planning, that is they do not always work they way we want them to. Something goes awry along the way, no matter how fixated one is in carrying them out. Indeed, lessons are learned the hard way but we are given a choice to wallow or to push forward.

I must admit wallowing was an immediate response to the failure stimulus; however, after falling flat on face several times over, I found out that wallowing is just as equally exhausting as moving on and starting over. After a moment of weakness that comes from every plan gone askew, I pick myself up, ignore the numbing agony of rejection and failure, hold my head up high and…dream again. But dreaming can only do so much and it could be extremely taxing to chase on something that, for lack of a better term, is not meant to be. Sometimes, it is better to let go of old dreams and just face reality as I see it.

So you can just imagine how my heart started beating double-time, alarms ringing in my ears, my head throbbing while reading that one email that changed the course of my professional career. An internship so elusive that filling out application forms is just as futile as looking for a needle in a haystack. But there was it. All the months of hard work, emotional craze, and ripping plans apart felt like a distant memory. Finally, I breathed as I wrote my reply.

Surprise! I’ve always been the Girl-Who-Takes-Pictures, this time they let me say something to the kids. My Lao was put to test!

Second day into my internship, I was sent out for an assignment in the Southern province of Laos. It was my first time exploring the South; as much as I would want to get my blog-mode on, we were on a tight schedule. The Mother of All Deadlines, as I put it. We roughly had a few hours for interview, write the story and send it to the main office. We were running on adrenaline, and perhaps, there was also that element of commitment that we were able to make the deadline. And it yielded desirable results.

After that eventful week, the days went by like a tremendous blur of tasks, alongside my Master’s classes that were just as astoundingly demanding. But what kept me going is the trust given by my supervisors and staff–so overwhelming, it felt surreal. My supervisors specifically instructed me to prioritize my studies, and never compromise it for the sake of my assigned tasks. I was treated as a colleague, and my opinions mattered. My service was not considered as just an ‘intern’s output’ but rather held with respect and appreciation, and with that, I am deeply honored.

And today, my 16 weeks of service comes to a close. It feels like a surge of emotions, actually. Relief because battling wits in class and helping with documents at work did knock me down, but also separation anxiety because I may never have this kind of experience again. Worried because I have to start regrouping and planning my next steps. Proud because I made it. Immensely grateful, bordering on feeling unworthy, of all these blessings.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to UNICEF Laos for giving me this opportunity of a lifetime and for teaching me in more ways than I have expected. To my supervisors who were patient and kind in guiding me, and for being very supportive; to my colleagues who were accommodating, attentive to my questions and always ready to help out when I am feeling lost or confused. To everyone I have worked with, to all the staff–thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate your warm welcoming smiles.

During the basii ceremony for the new staff in August (it was held two days after my birthday actually), I said that my months with UNICEF Laos will be my best yet. Turns out I was wrong. It is the best because nothing will ever compare.

I do not have to articulate everything the organization has done in serving the vulnerable and marginalized for decades–millions of people reached and lives changed–you are a blessing to the society.

You are a blessing to dreamers like me.

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