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Module 1: Research Surrounding Ethnography

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Designing the Research

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In this section, we will address the first two questions. What are we seeking, and why are weinterested in it? How is this all relevant, and what is its purpose in a wider context? Therest of the question we will address in later sections. So, let us begin with the first one. Whatare we seeking, and why are we interested in it?Some of us may be commissioned to do research, and some of us may initiate it on our own.In either case, it is important that we have some clarity on what we are seeking and how wemay find it. Otherwise, we will land up like Mulla Nasruddin. Let me tell you that story ifyou don't already know it.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:51)
Mulla is looking for something outside his house in the night. A passerby stops asks him,what are you looking for? He says 'Oh, I have lost my keys'. The passerby decides to helphim. 'When did you last see them?', he asks the Mulla, who answers, 'I had them when I wentto the forest to get some grass for my donkey'.'So could you have lost it in the jungle?''Yes, I am pretty sure I did.''Then why are we looking for them over here?''Well, because it's too dark there, and here there is light!'We must have some clue about what we are seeking and some ideas on where we may find
the answers. Often, there is a broad subject that we are interested in. But in order to take itforward as research, we have to identify an aspect of it that we find interesting and have themeans to pursue.For instance, we may or may not be interested in fashion. But we may be curious to learnabout how people make decisions about clothing. We might find it interesting to learn aboutthe perceptions attached to clothes- what a saree means to someone; or how someone isperceived when they wear a dress. Or we might be curious to look backstage and see howclothes are made, and the lives of those who make them.(Refer Slide Time: 02:18)
The deeper we get into a subject, the more likely we are to find something about it thatintrigues us. The more we learn, we realise how much more there is to learn. Of course, wecannot possibly hope to be equally interested in all subjects under the sun, but in each subject,we can find something of our interest.Ethnographic research, as we know, requires direct and sustained engagement with a subject,for an extended period of time. For this, we require access to the context and materialresources. So it is crucial we choose a subject that we feel deeply interested in. Else we mightfind ourselves feeling trapped and wanting to quit midway.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:04)
Having decided on a subject, we need to examine the relevance of our research. Why is itimportant for us to be pursuing it at this point in time? To address this question, we need tothink about which people or groups might benefit from the research. And, in what ways couldthe research affect the people, communities, organisations, or environments associated withour chosen subject.(Refer Slide Time: 03:31)
For instance, our research may focus on a form of craft. Through our research, we couldcontribute to the craft's preservation and propagation, and celebrate the lives and works of theartisans. In studying the lives of a marginalised community, our intent may be to make theirstories visible to mainstream society. The designers, social workers or strategists amongst usmight want to improve the working and living conditions of the communities we work with.(Refer Slide Time: 04:02)
We might want to do this by making better tools and processes for existing tasks. Or bydeveloping better living spaces. In each of these cases, our work begins with understandingthe existing universe of our participants. This understanding gives our research project itspurpose. To a great extent, the purpose of the research defines the knowledge we hope toaccess, the nature of our inquiry and the methods that we may employ.
For example, if we want to work towards better housing conditions for an urban community,we have to understand what people mean by 'better housing'. So, the knowledge we are tryingto access is 'what a section of the urban population means by better housing'. This, in turn,defines the methods we may use. A well-defined purpose is all the more important inapplication-focused disciplines like design or management where the research is not an end initself.(Refer Slide Time: 05:10)
Once we are decided on a subject and are sure of its relevance, we need to articulate thequestion that our research aims to address. This is called the research question. We may startwith a whole lot of smaller questions and then tease out the nodal question that holds them alltogether. This becomes our research question.Alternatively, the research question may be broad, to begin with, but eventually, it must bearticulated into a set of sub-questions or themes. Breaking down the research question shouldtell us what nature of information we are looking for- quantitative, qualitative, factual, ormore ambiguous.We may find ourselves redefining this question now and again as we learn more about oursubject. A well-articulated research question can also help us determine if ethnography is themethod we need for our study.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:04)
Consider for example, that a student wants to undertake a research on the practice ofTholpavakoothu puppetry in Kerala. He wants to understand how the art form, a ritualperformance of shadow puppetry accompanied by music, is faring in this day and age. As heexplores a little bit about the subject, he realises that Tholpavakoothu does not have manypatrons. Moreover, the puppeteers receive little payment and a very small audience for theirperformances. So, he wants to learn why they continue to perform. What are the interests andmotivations of the puppeteers and their few patrons, that keep them engaged with the artform?(Refer Slide Time: 06:58)
As a student of design, he is also interested in learning what role digital media andtechnology might play in encouraging the art form, or in turning people away from it. Whatdo you think could be a good research question for his research? Let us consider someanswers you might have thought of.(Refer Slide Time: 07:38)
Some of you may have framed a question about the motivations that encourage theperformers to continue their art form.Some of you might have thought of the researchquestion is about exploring the factors that have enabled the art form to survive. And othersmay have thought of the question about the ways in which Tholpavakoothu performers havedeveloped their art forms and skills.And maybe some you framed a question about the role of digital technologies in preservingthe art form. Let us discuss these questions.(Refer Slide Time: 08:19)
While there are no incorrect answers as such, options 1 and 2, are the closest to a researchquestion that takes his interest forward. Options 3 and 4 are good questions, but they addressa limited aspect of the students' research interest and do not cover many other aspects of thephenomenon. Some of you might think that the first two options are too broad and vague.However, these questions will be further broken down, later in the process, to suggestmultiple different aspects of the research.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:50)
For example, as the researcher explores the motivations and drivers that encourageTholpavakoothu artists to continue performing, he will have to look at the ways in whichtheir lives and art have adapted to social and economic changes. As we define our researchquestion, we get a clearer idea of what exactly is the focus of our research, within the subjectwe are interested in(Refer Slide Time: 09:18)
And this enables us to determine the research method we should use. So our next step is tochoose the research method. We will discuss this in our next session.
Is ethnography the method we need for our study? This is the question we shall discuss in thissection. Some research questions may be addressed by ethnography, and some others can't.For example, for the research on Tholpavakoothu, ethnography would be more suitable whenwe want to study how the puppeteer community feels about sustaining the art form evenwhen there is a poor audience for it.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:35)
However, it may not be the best of methods to study the history of puppetry in Kerala or thegeographical spread of puppeteers across the state. There are some areas of study whereethnography is a particularly useful method. Ethnography is a great method when we aretrying to understand how people see their world or certain phenomena in it.(Refer Slide Time: 00:59)
It is also useful for investigating relationships. We might want to understand how certainrelationships are formed and maintained and how they end or learn about the dynamics of anongoing relationship. Here, the term relationship can be described very broadly as anassociation between people, objects, places, or phenomena.
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Human social activity is an area that may be researched through ethnography. The termactivity, here, can include all activity that is undertaken by a person or a group of persons.Eating, cooking, going to work, studying, commuting, building, and so on. Throughethnography, one can look at the activities undertaken not only by others but also by oneself,or a group that one is a part of.Identity is a rather important area of study where ethnography is particularly suitable.Identity, here, refers to how we define ourself with respect to, or as a part of, a larger group.For instance, I am a woman, an Indian, a member of a certain community. These formdifferent aspects of my identity.Similarly, being a teacher, a researcher and a filmmaker is also a part of my identity. How didI come to see myself in these different ways? How have these ways of defining myselfevolved over years and through various experiences? The formation, transformation andevolution of identities across social contexts, and across time, is primary to our understandingof ourselves.This is true for individuals, and for groups. Our identity is constructed by us, by variousothers, and by our context. So, being a teacher is a part of my identity, partly because that ishow I am seen by my students. Or, I identify as somebody from Bombay because I have livedin this city for many years. As we try to understand people's relationship with theirenvironments, it becomes almost essential to also understand how they see themselves.
Let us pause here to think about the importance of 'identity' in an ethnographic study. Perhapswe can continue with the example of the Tholpavakoothu performers. The performers havemany different identities, as defined by them, by others, and by their context.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:52)For instance, the government records the community as Saiva vellala Pillai. In governmentrecords, this community comes under the OBCs or Other Backward Castes. The patrons ofthe puppeteers are worshippers at the Kali temples where Tholpavakoothu is performed. Theybelieve that the puppeteers are agents of the goddess Bhadrakali.Now, for upper-caste patrons, such as the Nambiar community, the puppeteers are lower casteperformers, and so, cannot be agents of the goddess. And in a non-religious environment,such as the Sangit Natak Akademi, which is a government institution for supporting the arts,the puppeteers are performing artists. So here's a question for you:What is the value of understanding the puppeteers' identity, or many identities, for anethnographic study of their art and lives?Some of you may have said that the identity of thepuppeteers defines how they are treated by different people. Others might have said that theresources they may or may not have access to are also determined by their identity.These are good answers. Because in each context where they perform, their interactions withothers, and possibly even their earnings, are determined by how they are identified- as agentsof Bhadrakali, as low caste performers, or as performing artists. Some of you may have alsonoticed that their identity matters only when the society around them cares about their casteidentity.It is true that their caste is an important aspect of their identity. However, even in a contextlike the Sangit Natak Akademi, where their caste may not be of great importance, theiridentity as artists determines the opportunities they have access to. So, to do a research on theTholpavakoothu performers and the art form itself, we would have to understand the manyidentities of the performers, and how they play out in different contexts.
Let us continue discussing the questions that guide us in designing our research. So far, wehave determined our area of interest and its relevance to others. We have defined our researchquestion and figured out that ethnography is the method for us. Next, we need to learn aboutthe subject that we are going to research, from the knowledge that already exists about it.(Refer Slide Time: 00:27)
What do we already know and what knowledge already exists? Why do you think it isimportant to do this: to access existing knowledge about our subject?
(Refer Slide Time: 00:43)
Can you think of one reason why it important to look into existing knowledge? And, is itpossible that we may get biased by looking at existing material? Or maybe less likely tocome up with something original? Take a minute and note down your answer. Let usconsider some of the answers you might have come up with.(Refer Slide Time: 01:08)
Some of you might have guessed that looking at existing studies first can tell us if theresearch we want to do has already been done. Or some of you might have said that it canhelp you see what about your research topic has been explored and what has not. And theremight be some of you who feel that we should limit the time and energy spent on this taskbecause it might lead us to repeating existing information in our studies. So, what is the
correct answer here? Well, there is a great emphasis placed on existing knowledge inethnographic research.This is because, as some of you guessed, it helps us learn from the experiences of otherresearchers. We can identify what aspects of the subject have been already studied. Knowingwhat has already been done in the area, we can avoid reinventing the wheel and focus on newand unexplored aspects. And contrary to what some of you may have thought, existing workcan play an important role in our study, in helping us identify new directions to research.Existing studies offer insights and raise new questions which inform our way of looking atthe subject. Some of these questions may drive us to further develop our existing researchquestion, making it more nuanced and refined. Studies done by others can also help us comeup with ideas on designing our research - what tools to use, what questions to focus, etc.
For all these reasons, many researchers begin their research design with a study of existingknowledge. We begin, most often, by tapping into our own knowledge. We often have somelatent and informal knowledge about the subject of our interest.It may have come from previous readings, encounters and experiences and it may be partialand subjective, even incorrect in places. In tapping into this, we are able to gather togetherwhat we know and do not know about the subject. And importantly, by noting down ourexisting knowledge - biases, gaps and all - we are able to articulate and acknowledge some ofour assumptions before we begin. And we look at knowledge shared by others about oursubject, or related subjects.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:35)
This process is called secondary research, because it relies on secondary sources, that is, onothers' experiences and research(Refer Slide Time: 3:46)
The most common way of doing secondary research is by doing a literature review, or areview of existing literature on the subject we are interested in. A literature review is oftendefined as reading everything one can, everything that has been written and published relatedto the subject of one's research.That might sound daunting, but with the application of a little thought, and a little process, itis not too gigantic a task. A simple way to go about a literature review is to think about thethemes or sub-themes that make up the research subject and start by looking for material
related to those. Or we can list the smaller questions that constitute our research question, andlook for studies that have tried to answer questions similar to them. For instance, we mayundertake a research that centres around the use of mobile phones for professional andlivelihood purposes among women in small towns.(Refer Slide Time: 04:51)
The themes for this research may include employment opportunities for women.(Refer Slide Time: 4:54)
Mobile phone usage in small towns.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:57)
Availability of mobile phones for women.(Refer Slide Time: 5:00)
Usage of mobile phones for networking and livelihood and so on. We just said a minute agothat a literature review is often defined as reading everything about the given subject. But thisis not entirely possible. It doesn't mean that we leave out subjects or studies, but that werefine (define?) our selection. We can, for example, prioritise those studies which are situatedin regions or cultures that are similar to our research context.So if our research is situated in small towns of India, we can look at studies located in SouthAsia, and in developing countries, and in other cultures where the social, cultural structuremay be similar to our studies.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:44)
In doing this, we gather context-specific knowledge about our chosen subject, and also learnthe intricacies of the cultures we are going to be immersing ourselves in. There are challengesthat we can avoid if we are well informed about our participants' culture, before enteringfieldwork. By being better informed about our participants, their cultural beliefs and socialnorms, we are less likely to make incorrect inferences from our observations.And less likely to upset them by unacceptable behaviour. Reading ethnographic studiesrelated to our subjects is a bit like reading a travel guide before we go on a trip. It helps usplan our time there, know the basic rules of the culture, learn the phrases we might need, andgain some idea of what to expect.(Refer Slide Time: 06:37)
Can you think of any online research databases where you could access existing researchpapers and articles? Write down the ones you can think of and share them on the discussionforum with your peers.(Refer Slide Time: 7:01)
There are various authentic research databases you can search for papers on related work.Many of you may have mentioned Google scholar. Then there are JStor, Project Muse andSCOPUS, where some papers are open access and others which you can access through yourinstitution. And Academia.edu and Research Gate are two portals where you can access awide range of papers after signing in.So, having learnt about our subject and the context through various sources and havingrefined our research questions some more, we return to our list, and the next question on it.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:35)
What do we hope to find through this research? Based on our secondary research and ourown prior knowledge, we may propose to arrive at some new knowledge through ourresearch. For example, we find that there is a lot of work done in designing visual symbolsfor healthcare in rural India. However, there is little research about how people respond tothese symbols or how they interpret them. Through our research, we could hope to find howthese symbols are read by their intended audience and whether they have the desired impact.(Refer Slide Time: 08:10)
There is actually such an example: a team from the National Institute of Design collaboratedwith the Family Planning Foundation and the Government of Rajasthan to developcommunication material to popularise contraception among the rural population. Before
starting their design explorations, the team wanted to understand the prospective audience'sunderstanding towards the existing communication material and their perceptions aroundcontraception. They realised that the material that was being used, was more often than not,designed in urban centres like Ahmedabad or Jaipur.(Refer Slide Time: 08:46)
It was based on urban sensibilities and as an urban understanding of signs and symbols. Itwas simply not understood in the very different context of the rural population.(Refer SlideTime: 08:57)
For instance, many of the signs showing what not to do used the cross mark over the image ofa figure doing that activity. These signs were not interpreted in the same way by most usersbecause the cross mark did not have any meaning for them. The designers realised that they
needed to learn the visual language of their participants- the signs, symbols and markers thatthey used and understood. And so, their research was designed towards accessing thisparticular knowledge.