The choices we make to be invisible on the field.
Field notes from a seasoned researcher.
“Main kood jaungi” (I will jump) was the semi-audible wail from the 4th floor of a house in Shahpur Jat, an urban village in Delhi. A woman and man were fighting, the husband was probably drunk, the wife had probably been abused. She wanted to end it. As she threatened to jump off, her mother-in-law sat at the chaukhat of the house, calmly combing her hair. People passed by as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, and a few who chose to comment said ‘miya-biwi ka maamla hai’ (It’s between the husband and wife). Shreya Garg, a designer-researcher with Treemouse, looked on.
“In realtime, it’s a 100 times crazier. What was the right way to react? It was heartbreaking because I could only stand back and look and do nothing. Taking action would mean I would stand out and disturb the field without having the means to settle it back.”
Being a researcher is a conflicted position to be in. There are difficult choices one needs to keep making, a recurrent one being that of identity. ‘Am I the actor or the audience, the facilitator or the participant? Am I to be myself or assume a character? What character?’
In the lanes of Shahpur Jat, Shreya is sometimes an architecture student, sometimes a potential tenant and sometimes a girl interested in learning silaai (stitching). She has played along in conversations that oppose her ideologies and has been nonchalant about ideas that she would otherwise take people to jail for.
We go to the field to get influenced, but we inadvertently end up influencing it.
For an outsider, playing these various personas might sound like an exciting game of hide-and-seek. But there is more to it — “There is a big ethical angle here. Sensitivity towards your respondent is non-negotiable. We go to the field to get influenced, but we inadvertently end up influencing it. We need to be aware and conscious of our footprint and make deliberate choices”, says Shreya. This ethic and awareness lies at the heart of our field research process. It equips researchers to feel akin to respondents and be invested in protecting their interest.
Contrarily, on many occasions we are compelled to camouflage our objectives and identities as researchers, to be able to open windows into the real lives of people — But isn’t that lying, borderline illegal maybe? Is there a right way of doing it? Are there any ‘Harmless Alibis’? There are, but coining them is a matter of practice. Harmless alibis are essentially personas that make respondents comfortable without playing on their vulnerabilities. At no point can their safety, security and dignity be compromised. The intent is to enter their world, interact with them and exit with minimum impact.
Spending some time understanding the dynamics of a field before actively interacting with it gives researchers the bandwidth to assess what personas might be best suited for navigating through it. In Shahpur Jat, where the economy runs on designer boutiques, calling herself an aspiring tailor helped create conversation grounds with various women and small-time vendors for Shreya. Playing the role of an architecture student instead of a design student put people at ease with her clicking pictures of the space and their workshops. The role of a potential tenant was the most suitable for conversations with a Jat man who otherwise would not be interested in speaking with a girl. Sometimes alibi-creation can also be an act of introspection — which version of myself works best for right now — a student, a consumer, a woman, a job-hunter?
Can we understand stereotypes without creating a few?
During field experiences, we are very often faced with conflict between gathering rich information and protecting respondent’s interest. For example, loosely associating ourselves with certain organisations might make information more accessible, but for us it is important that by playing that role, we might alter our respondent’s perception of that organisation. We might end up creating expectations, giving hope, changing opinions, and that makes us wary. Awareness of the consequences of an alibi is a good way to judge its ethicality.
The most moving reflection, and perhaps the most difficult to internalise is that when on-field as researchers, our opinion doesn’t matter. It’s the respondents’ thoughts, their opinions, that matter. Our sole motive is to absorb them. So when on the field, we screw our bias and listen to our respondents without judgement. Even if it means trampling over things we believe in, we wear their shoes and walk in them. We become people with invisible opinions, definitions or biases. We become water.
Follow Shreya’s journey as a researcher & a lot more on www.treemouse.com