Originally posted in USIEF - Fulbright Blog: http://blog.usief.org.in/Posts.aspx?PostID=2014
I’ve just returned from 8 months of conducting interviews in Jaipur, Rajasthan on a Fulbright grant and want to put a few things down on paper. I haven’t reviewed my notes or even begun my analysis, so these are simply initial thoughts based on the anecdotal evidence that comes to mind. Primarily, I came away with an absolute conviction in the necessity of finding local assistance whenever engaging in research, qualitative or quantitative, outside of the environment you were raised in. The research facilitator who was critical to my own work provided local knowledge, insights, and skills that are unobtainable by a foreigner, regardless of how long they’ve lived in the country. I’ve met expats who have been in India for years, and have an understanding of the politics, language, society, and culture that I envy, but still at a macro level. Gaining a thorough understanding of the personal interactions at the micro level requires an immersion that I am convinced is unobtainable by an outside visitor.
The minutiae that compose personal interactions are incredibly complex and ingrained from birth, Indians from other regions, states, even nearby cities are recognizable as an outsider. Acknowledging this is very important for a researcher, particularly one using qualitative methods, as these minutiae color our interactions and interpretations with the subjects of our interest, and thus bias our findings. This bias is unavoidable, but I found that by filtering this interaction through a trusted facilitator, I was hopefully able to mitigate this bias to some degree. With his superior, and local, Hindi, he managed our interviews, ensuring that the questions I wanted to ask were understood correctly by the interviewee. Conversely, he ensured that I understood the answers correctly, particularly in terms of the context of the interviewee’s environment and background. The subjectivity of my facilitator certainly biased this process, but I am confident to a much lesser degree than had I engaged in these interviews alone. Even in the English interviews I conducted on my own, I had to frequently consult with my facilitator concerning local references (names, places, organizations, events, etc.) that only a local resident would know and understand.
Although this is not my area of expertise, I would argue that even in quantitative research a local expert should always be consulted and engaged in the process. While many political scientists argue that quantitative data analysis lessens the influence of the researcher’s subjective biases, we must consider how that data is generated in the first place. Several visits to the government offices that are responsible for collecting, storing, and disseminating much of this data convinced me that humans are still very much a part of the data generating process, and naturally it’s not a perfect procedure. This doesn’t mean that such data should be thrown out, but we must gain as full of an understanding of how the data that we use, quantitative or qualitative, is generated, and that always requires someone with local knowledge. Even Americanists should keep this in mind, as we are certainly not experts across the entirety of our country. People think, speak, and understand differently from state to state, city to town, rural to urban, and data is gathered and presented differently from state to federal, public to NGO, etc. We need to understand the entire process before we can confidently conclude anything.