The times I was caught by surprise! Lessons on qualitative research on gender transformation

Ranjani K Murthy
Apr 30, 2019 · 26 min read


This article seeks to draw lessons on qualitative research methodologies and methods from experiences where I as a researcher was caught by surprise. This article is subjective, as some other researcher may not have found what I found surprising as astonishing. Nevertheless, I hope it offers useful insights on qualitative research methodologies, methods and process that lead to gender and socially transformative findings.

This paper is structured as follows. The second section defines key terms used in the paper. The third section describes situations where I was caught by surprise as a qualitative researcher in evaluation settings focusing on issues of gender and social transformation. It also describes the qualitative methodology/ method used. The fourth draws lessons on qualitative research for gender/ social transformation from the experiences shared, while the fifth offers some concluding remarks on qualitative research for gender/social transformation.

At the outset I would like to situate myself. I am an upper caste Tamil Hindu by birth, follow Buddhism and am married to a Muslim. I am economically privileged, and live in Chennai a metropolitan city in India. I have a background in development studies, rural management and gender & development, and have worked at the grass roots, nationally and internationally on gender, poverty and health for the last 35 years. My background, I am sure, has influenced what I found surprising and my interpretation


University of Utah defines qualitative research as follows

“Qualitative research is a process of …inquiry that seeks in-depth understanding of social phenomena within their natural setting. It focuses on the “why” rather than the “what” of social phenomena and relies on the direct experiences of human beings as meaning-making agents in their everyday lives. Rather than by logical and statistical procedures, qualitative researchers use multiple systems of inquiry for the study of human phenomena including biography, case study, historical analysis, discourse analysis, ethnography, grounded theory and phenomenology”(University of Utah, n.d: 1).

Qualitative research can be gender (socially) blind, gender (socially) instrumental, gender (socially) ameliorative and gender (socially) transformative in methodology and methods adopted as well as interpretation of findings (adapted from Kabeer, 1994, Murthy 2014a). To give an example, qualitative methods may include case studies without a gender or social relations lens, leading to a gender and socially blind perspective. Case studies may explore how far sex roles are adhered to by participants and health workers, and whether this leads to improved child health. This leads to a gender instrumental perspective. The day to day needs of women and men (for example, drinking water services) can also be a focus of case study leading to lightening of work load. Case studies can also include a strategic gender and caste lens. Examples, include gender and caste based ownership of assets, freedom from domestic violence etc.

Research methodology refers to the research strategy, the research plan and action, the rationale behind the choice and use of a particular method. Furthermore, there is a theoretical perspective, a philosophical stance that informs a methodology grounding its logic and criteria. Research methods, entail certain techniques and procedures that guide researchers in gathering and analyzing data related to their research questions and hypothesis (Marelli, 2019). When one uses the term gender and socially transformative research methodology, one implies that there is a transformative theory underpinning it and the research design seeks to probe issues of power, norms, resources in different institutions of society (on the basis of gender, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, abilities, gender orientation and sexual identities). The qualitative research methods -be it case study, narrative, ethnography, participatory methods etc -are facilitated and analysed keeping in mind the power hierarchies

My focus within qualitative research is on qualitative evaluation research, that is qualitative research used to evaluate impact of development programs with the objective of both learning and improvement of development policy and practice (Stern, 2005).

The times I was caught by surprise

One of the times I was caught by surprise was when I was training researchers on gender and livelihoods in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India with the objective of economic empowerment of women. The water table was high in the area, and the facilitating NGO had introduced treadle pumps and sustainable agricultural practices. The NGO which organised this training wanted me to demonstrate qualitative methods that could be used in gender transformative research, so I went with few participants to a women farmer from MBC community whose income had improved through the technology and practices introduced with her women farmers’ group. Her husband owned one acre of land and she had leased another. Her income improved with expansion of cultivated area and enrichment of soil fertility over the years. Her husband who was a migrant worker returned home and started engaging in agriculture. Their livestock herd increased. However, when three faces were drawn — happy, moderate and sad- she observed that she felt sad before joining the NGO intervention and continued to feel the same now in-spite of improvement in her economic situation. This was surprising. When asked as to the reason as to why she was sad in spite of increase in income , she observed that her son-in-law brought her daughter back, stating that the fertile land should be given to him as dowry. She, her husband and the daughter did not want to give the land as it was their source of survival. Besides she had one other daughter and a son to think of. The NGO was asked the women if she would like the Gram Panchayat to mediate (which came to know this problem during the “happiness mapping” )- if the daughter really wanted to go back (Murthy, 2013).

Two other times I was caught unawares were in Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, India. In Madhya Pradesh maternal mortality was high amongst Korku tribes in Khandwa district. Institutional delivery was very low in some villages in remote areas, located at a distance from the PHC. When I went to explore why (Focus group discussion) several factors emerged. The main bottleneck here was that majority of pregnant women were first generation ‘Maternal Health’ service users. Further, the health providers do not seem adequately equipped to deal with first generation institutional delivery seekers. Once a pregnant woman, due to the motivation of ASHA posted in the village, had gone to the health centre upon getting labour pain, but felt that they did not get appropriate medical and social treatment (in particular, injection and access to water and food which the health centres are supposed to provide). She saw a woman from another community in prolonged labour getting ‘injection’ and could not understand why she did not get Further, in their community they offered water to guests, and could not understand why this basic courtesy was not provided. She hence returned to the village and delivered under the hands of the traditional birth attendant (Murthy et al 2015) . This information was fed back to government officials at senior level, as well as the concerned NGO facilitating community participation.

In Pakur district Jharkhand there was “saas- bahu-pati sammelan” (mother-in-law-daughter in law-husband meet) with Santhal and other communities. Separate and joint discussions were held with mothers-in-law, daughters-in-laws and husbands. The women observed that the strategy of working with husband was useful and the husband’s faith in the pregnant/ lactating wife’s knowledge on MCH had increased when they scored well in quiz. This was less true of the mother- in-laws, who continued to believed that they knew more, even when they scored less in quiz. Further, 40% of women in some villages went to their mother’s house for delivery (sometimes even to neighbouring districts West Bengal), and hence working with mothers of pregnant and lactating women was equally important (Murthy, 2014b). That is, the traditional assumption that delivery took place only in mothers in law houses was not valid for all communities.

Following songs and games, decision making matrix was used to probe issues of reproductive decision making amongst Pahadias, Lalitpur Block, Jharkhand, a primitive tribal group in Jharkhand. After cajoling the women to draw, I finally drew diagrams of a woman, man, mother-in-law, father in law and other family members, and asked them to tick who took part in decision making and discuss to what extent. The women were asked to discuss the following themes: whether to have child, when to have child, whether to use contraceptive, who should use contraceptive. The 8 women present unanimously choose “other”. When asked for the reason, they said it was not other family members but the government which made the choice. The Paharias were considered endangered by the government, and contraceptive services were not available to them like other tribal and non-tribal communities. Some stated that they or their husband purchased condom or mala and used (Murthy, 2014b). Another example from Jharkhand, this time from rural Ranchi and a different organisation, is the case of interview with a member of a defunct father’s group from Munda (Adivasi) community on gender based violence. The objective of the NGO in promoting father’s group was to promote “responsible partners and caring fathers”. His daughter had been raped by three men after the group was formed two years back. I was initially reluctant to put him through a recall of the incident, and happy to gather secondary information on what action he took on the atrocity against his daughter. However, he was keen on sharing his experience, so that other fathers’ would stand up too. I met him outside his village, in a room where no one else was there, and got his consent for the interview. I assured him that name of his daughter and himself will not be revealed. . No photo was taken. Though somebody wanted to videotape the interview, I did not agree as I could not guarantee how it could be used or how it could affect what he shared. The father shared:

“I have been a member of the father’s group in my village, Ranchi district from the beginning. A little over a year ago my minor daughter (In 7th class) got raped by three people from the same village. It was 12.30 in the night and she had not returned from the celebrations of a marriage. There was dancing, and she stayed back while I returned with my wife and other younger daughter. My older daughter told me that she will return with her friends. Me and my wife were afraid when she did not come before midnight. She came in a daze at 1 AM, weak and crying. My wife started scolding her for coming late, but I realised that something was amiss and gave her a cup of tea. She was and is my pet. I went to file a FIR (First Hand Information Report) ) in the police station after informing a few ward members. The Mukhya-village chief- was not supportive. The Police Inspector refused to file an FIR. I had studied only till 4th, but used to read the newspaper regularly. I recognised the phone number of the Superintendent of the Police on the wall of the police station and called him. He was supportive, but told me that once I filed the FIR there was no going back as the case came under POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act . That night I did not sleep. By the time the Superintendent of Police came and we finished filing FIR under the POCSO it was 6.30 AM. We took my daughter for medical check up. There was pressure from all sides- including some of the father’s group members who were related to the perpetrators- to compromise (money, marriage) . Me and my wife (who is a member of women’s group) did not want to compromise. We encourage our daughter to memorise what she told us and the police, and not to change the narrative if she was grilled. All the three perpetrators were put behind bars, and a month back (after a year) the verdict has come in favour of my daughter. Now we hold our heads high, and my daughter is now in 8th in the same school opposite my house. I would have done the same even if I was not in father’s group, but I may not have succeeded as I did not know how to talk, I would not have had the support of the facilitator and lawyer associated with the NGO. Even if the perpetrator was one man, I would not have got her married to him It will not be justice and there will be more such crimes”

The surprise elements were many. This Adivasi father fought against the (majority of ) group opinion to stand for the rights of his daughter. It of course helped that he had his wives support (from a women’s group) and that of the NGO which had formed the father’s group and its lawyer. Further, unlike many fathers met by the researcher who stated “if a girl is raped it is better to get her married to the perpetrator” he did not report the same. It emerged later that earlier he told the film maker (who wanted to film my discussion) that if it was just one perpetrator he would have got her married, but there were three. That is, the father had changed his opinion through the process of questioning and reflection with other players. He became a hero over time, and was now cited as a role model by the NGO during discussions with fathers and youth in father’s group and youth group. Further, the fact that perpetrators could be brought to book is reported to have reduced such violence in the area.

Moving outside India, In Badakhshan province of Afghanistan I was surprised to find that a tailoring programme with a group of women can be empowering We used “road maps” of change to discuss what are the changes in around 15 women’s lives during the life-span of the project (Mayoux, 2008). The women comprised of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Several women drew ascending pathways to show improvement in life, some straight pathways to show no improvement. One adolescent girl, a Tajik around 17 years, drew an ascending pathway then a steep decline then a slight climb up but below what she began with.

All participants who expressed their life condition had deteriorated were given the option of sharing their experience in private. The young woman, in private, expressed that she joined the tailoring group when she was 16 years and earned income, apart from going to school. She hailed from a poor family, and had an older brother and an older sister. Six months ago she was shown the picture of a young boy by her parents, and asked whether she would marry him. She agreed, and the marriage was arranged. The groom gave the family bride price as was the custom. With the bride price they could get her older brother married. To her horror, during the nikaah she discovered that her husband was 60 years old, and this was his third wedding. She used her contacts with the group to escape with her tailoring machine to a government shelter, and to access emergency contraception. As leaving one’s daughter in a shelter was considered a disgrace her parents took her back, and agreed to return the bride price over time (some of which was spent by then). She now stays with her parents and uses her tailoring machine to earn and contribute to her parents. The NGO worked through the brother (who was more sympathetic than her parents) and the parents and visit the house often so that they parents know that they are being watched (Murthy, 2016).

In ex-communist Moldova, I was astounded by the difference from India in people’s definition of poverty. I used “economic ranking” method to enquire into changes in poverty due to a project to revive grape vines and agricultural livelihoods in the year 2002. “Economic ranking” entails participatory mapping of what changes have occurred in economic status of participants and participants’ households during the project period, and the reasons — general and gender related — for the same. The reasons for changes could stem from the project or due to other factors. Following this exercise, I asked to be taken to the very poor households who had not improved to the next level. To my surprise some of the houses were over 1000 square foot, but with no heating, running water, broken washing machine and non-functional toilets. Food security was an issue, but some had barrels of wine considered a must in winter. Heating was more important than food, as one could freeze to death in winter in a short time. The definition of poverty different substantially from my country. The poorest houses comprised of elderly, differently abled or very young families who had rented the house. Young couples normally did not even own agricultural land, which was privatised and given to their parents’ generation. Normally, young women migrated to Western Europe in search of work, leaving behind their husband, children and parents. According to women’s group a few had been trafficked for work and sex work, and their husbands asked the I could help. I only pointed to organisations that worked on this issue, and did not make false promises.

A woman’s grant cum capacity building organisation in Nepal was giving small grants for women’s empowerment to community based women’s group. One such grant was for purchase of office furniture like desk, chairs, almirah with locker, filing cabinet etc. I went to visit this group and was curious as to what impact this intervention would have had. I played the “ball game” wherein the person receiving the ball had to say why they applied for this grant or what impact it had and throw the ball to another person after naming her. The same person was not to receive the ball again till everybody else had spoken. The women observed that they could command respect of men’s and male youth group in the community only if they had furniture like them. Further, local government and government officials were more willing to give the group grants/loans for livelihood, health and education only when the group looked “official” With the support of 50000 Nepali Rupees they had mobilised 6 times more funds in just three years (TEWA, 2015).

In Khartoum, Sudan where the South Sudanese (now South Sudan is a separate country) refugees were relocated in 2002, ‘control over body’ mapping was used to explore control over mobility, work, reproduction and freedom from female genital mutilation and other forms of violence. This research method entails discussing how much control a woman exercises over different parts of her body beginning from mind to legs, with the participant skipping the parts she does not want to discuss. This is followed by a discussion on changes in control over body, and how much of this is due to partaking in project/programme. Rapport of the agency is a must, and it is is best this method is facilitated in private. A revelation was the divergence between progressive attitudes of most women (who took part in the control over body map) against FGM and the continuing practice of FGM. Majority of the 12 women who took part in ‘control over body mapping’ expressed that the practice should not continue, pointing to several side effects like high rates of infection, bleeding, pain during sexual intercourse and complications during pregnancy. However, in reality a majority had enforced FGM on their daughters, pointing to the possibility that though most women said that decisions were taken jointly with husbands, in reality they did not have such influence. This is supported by the indication that a lesser proportion of male members were against the practice when compared to women. Further, majority of grandmothers and grandfathers favoured the practice. The project worked with women or men in household (not both), and did not have intervention with grandparents (Murthy, Show and Research Team, 2002).

In Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, I led a research team of 7 young researchers (four women and three men) to facilitate research on changes in attitudes on work with men and boys on acid violence. We were staying in an Inn in the town. I had retired to my room for the night, and the research team members were in one room chatting with each other. Suddenly, there was an uproar, and a right wing group (all men) raided the room were the young researchers had gathered together. They wanted to know if the men and women were married, and if not why they were together in the same room. As it happened, none of the team members were married to each other. The right wing group (of various ages) did not belong to the guest house, but the town. I had to intervene, explain the purpose of the research, and show the letter from the donor NGO which commissioned the research. I was careful not to turn the apple cart, and spoke to them with reverence and even apologise on behalf of the group to ensure their safety. I diverted their attention to acid violence, and tired to get their opinion on acid based violence on women. While the attitudes of men and boys involved in the programme was changing- with the majority expressing that acid based violence on women and girls was not warranted whatever be the reason (rejection in love, revenge etc), amongst the right wing group there was a tendency to blame women and girls for the problem of male youth. They were not aware of the legislation against acid violence. The surprise element here was not so much the findings, but the risks to researchers (men and women) in conservative settings (Murthy, Alam and Shantha, 2009).

Conservatism is not unique to any religion or community. In a fishing village in Thiruvarur District, Tamil Nadu India (comprising of mainly Hindus), women who are members of women’s sangams (for women empowerment) and enterprise groups (for women’s economic empowerment) took the lead in protesting against a thermal power plant. This was due to their awareness of the adverse effect of the plant on coastal commons and livelihoods and also to shield men from being arrested. When asked (during a focus group discussion) what has been the impact of their participation in sangam, enterprise groups and protests, the foremost comment was that till they took part in protest outside, as a group, they had to take permission of the traditional fishing panchayat (all men) when they went out as a collective . Their participation and leadership in the protest- still ongoing- has led to partial renegotiation of power relations between women’s groups and the traditional fishing panchayat. While women still are not officially members of fishing panchayat meetings, they are consulted in cases of marital disputes. The final verdict continues to be given by the all men fishing panchayat. The women, did mention about the benefits of their membership in the sangam like accessing membership and loans from fishing cooperatives, taking up cases of domestic violence like physical/emotional violence, and closing liquor shops near schools. However, divorce cases, adultery cases and property disputes go the fishing panchayat (Murthy, 2018) .

Rarely I get the opportunity to stay in the village and observe processes as they unfold. One such opportunity was in Thervoy village, where a Dalit youth group along with Dalit women’s groups had come together to protest against government allotment of commons to industries (including MNCs). This affected access to water for irrigation, fodder and water for livestock, medicinal plants, cultural spaces, and spaces used for open defecation. All this had gendered ramifications as women were more involved in agriculture and livestock rearing than men, knew more about medicinal herbs, dependent on commons for fuel. The youth group and women’s group were well aware of gender and caste issues (the government would not have allotted the common land were it an upper caste village). Staying in a women leaders house whose son was involved in the struggle, she casually mentioned that she was now in her late 40s and her son 27 years. She wanted to get her son married so that her daughter in law could take over the housework (Murthy, 2014). Her son replied “I want a companion, not a servant for you. I help you don’t I?”. The surprise here was in the mother retaining patriarchal values, while her son had moved on being exposed to people of various social movements who interacted with them. However, the reality was that the son helped but did not share the housework.

Yet another situation where my eyes were opened was in Sri Lanka. I facilitated gender audit of one agency working nationally along with a Sinhalese woman using various participatory methods. We travelled to war torn areas, as well as areas where widows of armed forces lived. In some areas the army was hostile towards me, in others (Tamil dominated areas) the people at the hotels were hostile towards my co-researcher. We had not anticipated the extent of hostility, so much so that I asked my co-researcher to stay with me in my room. Yet another surprise was the vulnerability of not only ethnic Tamil women and men caught in conflict, with their lands and houses usurped and rehabilitation programmes mainly targeted at men (even in bilateral communities, with property owned by women) but also the widows of Sinhalese men who worked in the army who died in conflict. While they did receive pension and were glorified by government, stigma against widows was not uncommon and some suffered from mental depression (Murthy and Peiris, 2008).

Lessons on gender/ socially transformative qualitative research

The examples from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka point to the fact gender and social transformative evaluative research — in particular qualitative- is a political process (Palaganas et al, 2017). It is important to ensure the safety of the research team, especially when they break deeply entrenched patriarchal and other social norms. The composition of the team is also important. In the case of the research on impact of work with men and boys against acid violence, the research team from Dhaka were much more progressive in their thinking than the district in which the research was taking place. Backlash due to behaviours that were acceptable in Dhaka but not in the small town were not anticipated by the research team leader (from another country), the research team members (from Dhaka) or the organisation concerned (based in Dhaka). The fact that the team leader was from India (a country considered overall friendly to Bangladesh) and had a letter on the purpose of the mission helped. It also helped to engage the right-wing group and get their views on the topic of research. In the case of Sri Lanka, having a mixed team — one an Indian Tamil and one a Sinhalese helped ensure safety of the team, as well as elicit trust of the participants in northern/eastern and southern Sri lanka. The organisation had purposely chosen research team of a mixed composition so as to ensure safety and capture the complexity of changes that were happening on the ground.

The experiences point to the need for epistemological (Epistemology is the field of philosophy dealing with cognition and knowledge) reflexivity on the part of the qualitative researcher (Palaganas et al, 2017.. The example from Moldova points to how the researcher from India- where the index of poverty included lack of access to food, clothing, housing etc- had to reflect on her own biases on what is poverty when confronted with poor who lived in cement houses of over 1000 square foot but with no access to heating, nutritious food, limited income, functioning washing machine, functioning toilet etc. Constant reflection on one’s theoretical assumptions on the part of the researcher is a must.

The case study from Afghanistan shows how context and culture matters in deciding whether a tailoring group and tailoring machine addresses strategic gender interests or not. While in some cultural context (e.g Dalits, Adivasis in India) it may be a stereotypical intervention, in the context of Afghanistan it has given space for women to come out of their group, meet as a group, earn some income and discuss strategic gender issues. Further, it has given the space for the adolescent girl to stand for her rights vis a vis forced marriage and her parents. Such an approach of qualitative research is referred to as phenomenology- a qualitative research methodology that is used to describe how human beings experience a certain phenomenon and whether an intervention was empowering or not is captured from the perspective of the participant (Chatfield, 2018). Ethnocentric interpretation of what intervention is empowering and what is not empowering is dangerous, but what is crucial is understanding whether the process of empowerment are being unleashed.

The case of Thervoy, Tamil Nadu shows how staying in a village in an attempt to understand the social world from the action of people and group has its own advantage. The Dalit women’s leader perception that her son or her husband could not help her much with housework, and she now needed a daughter in law as she was entering middle age would have not come up, as it was not on my agenda of research. The “conversation analysis” between the Dalit woman leader and her son- a leader of the male youth group- shows how the male youth having been more exposed to leaders from social movements and how the leaders lived (he went to the city) had more gender transformative views than his own mother (who rarely left the village). She was also of a different generation. Further, the assumption of the researcher that notions of femininity and masculinity were more deeply entrenched amongst Dalit men than Dalit women was challenged, generation and exposure mattered. Intersectional analysis is a must, and understanding standing that gendering is more important than gender (Christensen and Jensen, 2013)

The case study of the father who brought perpetrators who raped his daughter in Jharkhand to book shows how the research can aid critical thinking for the participant. The father stated to a filmmaker (before the researcher met him) that he would have got his daughter married to the perpetrator had he just been one person instead of three. However he told the researcher that he would not have got her married to the perpetrator even if one person as that would not have ensured justice for his daughter and such instances have to stop. This case study method- examining the case from the eyes of various people who have interacted with the participant- has helped capture the process of change in thinking over time. Further, it is apparent that interaction with the NGO, film maker has enabled the father to think critically. The research, in this instance, has been a heuristic process where the participant strengthened his strategic gender perspective through the different research processes (Gurtler and Gahleitner, 2005)

Discussions with tribal women who “ran away” from institutional delivery services at PHC revealed that basic hospitality rules common amongst their community were not adhered to, and health workers did not explain why some services were offered to others but not them. The methodology of phenomenology- understanding phenomena as consciously experienced by people living those experiences is very important in qualitative research. Further, as a researcher one’s background should not colour ones conclusion. Irrespective of one’s own religion, one should not assume that conservatism is particular to specific religion or location (Borowska-Beszta, 2017) Posing an open-ended question as to what has been the consequence of their participation in protest against power plant, the researcher was surprised to get a reply “now we do not have to take the permission of the traditional fishworker Panchayat to go as a group outside”. If the researcher had asked was the plant shut down or economic consequences to women such as answer may not have come. The researcher spent time building rapport with them through games (e.g. blue colour saris introduce yourselves etc) and sat at the same level as the women on the floor.

The situations that took me by surprise point to several qualitative research methods which can be used in research or evaluation. The one used in Afghanistan is “road map of life” akin to life story but not probing childhood but the period post project/programme intervention. It can be used to understand changes due to the intervention and other factors, like in the case discussed. The road map is done individually, unless one is facilitating road map of a group as a collective. A lesson on method from the Pakur project is to keep a blank or open card while discussing decision making. Though the researcher meant this card to stand for family members other than the women, husband, mother in law or father in law who took decisions, it created the space for Pahadia women to point that it was in fact the government policy which controlled their reproduction and not family members. Further, posing open ended questions is important. For example, asking tribal women like what do you think of the “Saas bahu pati sammelan” and what needs to be improved brought out the fact that women went to their mother’s houses in another state for delivery and hence messages needed to reach them as well. Further, discussing with deviants is important, both positive deviants (like the father who stood for his daughter) and negative (Stasik and Gendzwill, 2018)

Finally, while women’s empowerment has become a popular slogan for NGOs and government, assessing whether that path is being travelled by the participant is difficult to assess. The road map of change is a participatory method that I use. Yet another method that I use is happiness mapping, which brings surprises. Economic ranking can be used to explore economic progress of households and individual women. However, when one uses “general” participatory methods like economic ranking, happiness mapping, road map of change, much depends on the transformative orientation of researcher. However “gender transformative methods” like control over body mapping and decision making matrix are less dependent on researcher. Gender transformative research methods should be used along with feminist ethics like building rapport, ensuring confidentiality, ensuring privacy (e.g girl from Afghanistan, father from Jharkhand), ensuring utility (e.g taking back findings to government as in the case of Madhya Pradesh) and ensuring no harm (e.g not allowing film maker to tape the researchers’ discussion with father). I had to rely on translations in several countries, attention to body language is a must and validations of findings from different sources is crucial.


This paper has shown that gender and socially transformative qualitative research can lead to surprising findings on processes and challenges in changing power relations in different institutions. The fact that bride price is as bad as dowry for women’s rights, government controls reproductive rights of ‘endangered’ Adivasi women, furniture can be empowering for women’s groups, the need to work across generations to end female genital mutilation, land reforms do not benefit the young couples post reform etc were new learning for me.

The specific challenges posed by gender and socially transformative qualitative research versus qualitative research (in general) are to firstly acknowledge that the entire research — who does the research, why, with what perspective, what design, what methods, how analysis is done, report written and taken back- is a political process wherein gender and other hierarchies intersect and play out. One has to be aware of one’s personal identity and biases arising from preconceived notions, while at the same not abandoning a gender and socially transformative lens. This holds good with the research commissioning agency, within the research team and research process. Being political attention composition and safety of research team and participants is a must, and gendered/ social ethical aspects have to be kept in mind.

Gender transformative qualitative research requires researchers with a transformative vision and attitudes. At the same time their values and attitudes may clash with conservative cultures in which research takes places posing threats to their security. A fine balance needs to be maintained by the lead researcher between support for challenging social norms and the boundaries of the extent to which cultures and contexts can be pushed. The reluctant gate keepers and censors into the research have to be mollified, as was the case in the study on acid violence.

Lastly, results out of gender transformative qualitative methodology and methods can be quantified, as in the case of the eight women from Pahadias community who unanimously said their reproduction is controlled by the government. Qualitative research could also be followed by quantitative research to understand extent of problem (or solution), like finding out how much percentage of marriages are forced and to elderly or average extent of benefit out of furniture grants to groups. In fact quantitative studies on gender and social transformation should follow qualitative research. The potential of qualitative research in development is yet to be realised, and one could add for changing gender and social is is far from understood (Beigi and Shirmohammadi (2017).


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