The many challenges of doing research in the field
Academic papers and research reports often show us fascinating results. But they often present data without going into much detail of how it was collected. Such papers and reports make the research process and fieldwork seem controllable and straightforward. However, the reality is often quite the opposite. The process can often be messy, unpredictable and quite challenging, especially when collecting primary data in the field. This blog tries to shed some light on the realities of the research process and particularly on the challenges of conducting fieldwork.
The next paragraphs present anecdotes about our research team conducting fieldwork. They are from different research projects in two different countries — Egypt and India. While this post focuses on the challenges of fieldwork, our next post will focus more on the strategies we developed to cope with these challenges.
Anecdotes: fieldwork context — Cairo, Egypt
A member of our research team started their PhD in 2010. The project was a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Vodafone Egypt, which was about to launch a new mobile money service called “Cash” (the Egyptian version of M-PESA). The aim of the project was to understand the impact of mobile money services on the business practices and performance of micro-entrepreneurs in urban slums in Egypt. The MoU between the two parties had been signed, preparations for conducting fieldwork had started and the team was awaiting final government approval for the start of the service when the Arab Spring hit Cairo in January 2011.
The resignation of president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 created a power vacuum which put all government decisions on hold — including the decision on whether to launch the Egyptian mobile money service. And so, a long period of uncertainty and waiting started for the research team.
Societal structures and corruption
In 2012 we resumed fieldwork in Cairo and decided to work with a community-based NGO in one of the most disadvantaged slums of Cairo called Ezbet Kairallah. The NGO acted as a gatekeeper who would give us access to the community, provide us with a team of fieldworkers and help us in building trust. The board of directors in the NGO consisted of five women from the local community who suggested to us that they could become team leaders for the fieldwork, each managing a team of 3–5 fieldworkers.
We agreed on a price to pay for each survey conducted (about 15 EGP per survey) and a fixed monthly salary for the team leaders. To reduce the hassle of having to pay each fieldworker individually, we delegated managing the fieldworkers and paying them to the team leaders. As one of the research team members started to build trust with the individual fieldworkers, she was informed that they were only paid 2 EGP per survey. It turned out that three out of the five team leaders would only pay fieldworkers 2 EGP per survey and put the remaining 13 EGP into their own pockets. When the research team confronted them, they admitted and defended their practice, arguing that this was their commission for giving the fieldworkers a job.
The second research project in Cairo focused on the impact of choice of product assortment on micro-enterprise performance. It started at the beginning of 2016. At this time President Abdel-Fatah El Sisi had been in power for two years and two rounds of data collection had been conducted in preparation for the intervention. The sample size at this point was about 550 micro-entrepreneurs.
Towards the end of 2016, the Egyptian president issued a decree, in compliance with the conditions of a new World Bank loan, to devalue the Egyptian pound. Fuel subsidies were removed. Prices for basic commodities such as rice, pasta, and fuel almost doubled. This policy change resulted in the closure of about 25% of the grocery stores in our sample, which lead to a reduction in the power of our experiment. The research team was again faced with doubts about their ability to continue their research project.
Language cultural barriers
When it comes to developing an instrument in a foreign language, researchers usually develop a well-designed instrument in English and then follow very rigorous standards to translate that instrument into the foreign language, making sure that the translations capture what the original question in English wanted to capture. For the research conducted in Egypt, the research team followed the same rigorous standards and procedures. But when they went to the field to pilot their instrument they found a number of problems.
First, although the instrument was translated into colloquial Arabic, the language was still quite formal. The instrument would have been suitable to medium and large enterprises since it used a lot of formal business terminology. But it turned out to be unsuitable for micro-enterprises since they use a “business slang” language when talking about their businesses. So they did not quite understand what we were asking for. Second, the instrument included psychological questions that asked participants about quite abstract terms. The research team realized that participants found a lot of these questions quite difficult to understand. After months of work on developing the instrument, the research team had to consider a whole new approach to instrument development.
Anecdotes: fieldwork context — India
Distrust among the community
During primary data collection, one of the foremost things that enumerators are trained on is to assure respondents about the confidentiality of their responses and their freedom to choose to not respond to any or all questions. However, often when the respondents are illiterate or live in remote areas, there is a lack of awareness of ‘social research’ as a concept. This lack of awareness can fuel distrust of the field team among respondents.
During a round of data collection in Balrampur district in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, one of our enumerators was held by a group of men in a village where our field team was working. As a protocol, before any survey is started in a village, the field team speaks to the village head (Panchayat Head) to get their permission to interview some of the households. In this particular case, however, the group of men who held one of our enumerators deeply mistrusted the village head and therefore refused to believe that the enumerators were who they said they were, even after the field team provided them with multiple proofs. In the end, two members of our field team had to spend the night in the village, and in the morning the police had to intervene to get them out. We were unable to conduct the surveys in that particular village.
Prior to fieldwork, most research studies require a lot of planning in terms of sample size, location, and budgets. However, unforeseeable weather conditions can lay the best of plans to rest — or in our case delay them by months. For our study on digital payments, we had chosen tea and coffee plantations in Karnataka as our study area. The prime reason for selecting plantations as our study area was that they provided us with closed ecosystems which would allow us to keep a track of both the micro-merchants and their consumers during the course of our study. Moreover, Karnataka Government requires that permanent plantation workers be paid wages in their bank accounts, which is uncommon among daily wage earners in India. This provided us a perfect sample of low-income earners to test our intervention on improving uptake and usage of digital financial payments. However, the intense monsoons of summer 2018 in southern Karnataka (where most of the plantations are located) impeded our fieldwork. The extreme flooding and ensuing landslides in these districts have prevented us from traveling to the plantations and conducting any surveys for the past two months.
Have you experienced problems/challenges like this in your fieldwork? Do let us know if you have in the comment section below.