Stories From the Field: Breaking Communication Barriers in a Qualitative Field Research

Photo: Smiling schoolgirl in a yard

Upon joining the Gender and Social Transformation team at BIGD in June 2019, I have been engaged in some exciting qualitative research projects. The team is well-known within BIGD and also among international researchers for its expertise in qualitative research. As a member of such an expert group of researchers, I had to match the intensity of the job of conducting rigorous fieldwork in various projects.

Qualitative research is always challenging as the researcher needs to remain sensitive and continuously aware of all the questions which require answers to understand the context of a particular problem. Keeping all these in mind, we were conducting a research project called ‘New forms of adolescent voice and agency through the use of mobile phones and ICT’ with four schools from different socio-economic backgrounds in Dhaka and Cumilla. We aimed to explore whether mobile and internet usage is enabling adolescents to overcome barriers, and how it increases their voice and agency, with a keen eye on whether this contributed to building youth leadership.

This research is part of a nine-year (2015-2024) longitudinal research and evaluation study titled ‘Gender and Adolescent: Global Evidence (GAGE)’. GAGE is generating evidence on ‘what works’ to enable adolescent girls and boys to emerge from poverty and fast-track social change for young people, their families and communities.

The fieldwork of the project was divided into three categories — English medium school which represents higher class society, Bangla medium school representing the middle class and lower middle class and slum school representing the lower class. Taking Dhaka as the urban area, we conducted research in a Bangla Medium school, an English medium school and a Government high school, each representing a particular class as mentioned earlier, while another school, a Government high school from Cumilla, was added to the study to represent the rural lower-middle class.

The qualitative methodology of the research included focused group discussions and in-depth interviews of class eight students, their parents and teachers as I exclusively conducted FGDs and IDIs of boys and their parents. Upon completion of these activities in Slum school and Bangla medium schools from Dhaka and Cumilla, we struggled to find a suitable English medium school to wrap up the field work. Our senior team members picked out several English medium schools, most of which could not give us proper responses. However, we finally drew a positive response from Sir John Wilson School situated in the outskirts of Basundhara residential area. We went there and several team members went to meet the principal. Tensions within the team ran high after the principal mentioned undesirable incidents involving internet usage, such as cyber bullying and harassments, among the students of the school had made authorities cautious regarding the matter. We were worried whether the students would openly discuss these issues with us as conducting research in such English medium schools has been rare for us.

Photo: Students at Sir John Wilson School

We pondered over how we should deal with students from this particular class as communicating with them could be a challenge due to their verbal expressions and the issue mentioned earlier. Despite all these worries, I remained confident and enthusiastic because our topics were based on teenagers and the internet – both I am quite comfortable with. I felt my understanding of these areas would give me common ground with the particular respondents and allow me to draw enthusiasm from them as well. In separate meetings held by the team for this particular issue, I assured everyone that things would go smoothly.

After arriving at the school with the team under pressure, I began conversing with the boys and surprisingly drew spontaneous responses. My approach to the discussion was built around the universal usage of the internet and empathising with the student about web surfing to guide them into a common platform to make them open up without hesitation. As the FGD progressed we spoke following the guidelines. I tried to keep the mood light and had fun sharing secrets like flirting over social media and playing games etc. They brought up the issues of cyberbullying, sexual harassment and how the internet was becoming a place which regulated the mood of the adolescents often getting them depressed overreactions to certain posts and drawing comparisons with others they have contact with over the internet. I was deeply moved by their insights into social issues like garment labour movements, student movement over road accidents issues.

While speaking with them, I felt that the negatives of internet usage were highlighted overwhelmingly more than the perks. It is undeniable that the negative effects of using the internet during adolescence could bring great harm, yet the utility of the brighter side of the internet, like the negative sides, cannot be downplayed. With the internet’s unlimited resources for free, it assists them greatly in their studies, growing good hobbies and learning new skills, i.e. learning programming languages, developing games/apps, creating music and sharing them with a wider audience to appreciate or improve upon. It is nonetheless the quickest way to remain in touch with friends and families defying the distances. Adolescents expressed their worries about the risk of exposing themselves to strangers which sometimes lead them to getting blackmailed over life-threatening issues. Additionally, cyberbullying leads them into unhealthy relationships with friends, peers and forces them to take fatal steps like committing suicide which is a matter of grave concerns in the society.

After all the worries we had, it felt great to conduct productive FGDs and getting to know their activities and opinions about daily internet use was worthwhile as they expressed their opinions thoughtfully. It was the most enjoyable part of being a qualitative researcher as I felt privileged to have a job where I could connect with others in deep conversations and get to know their thoughts in the light of a particular context. And a well-versed conversation always helps to make the research compact and strong. Speaking to the respondents without any regard for their social class and status and in a passionate and curious mindset to understand the research problem can surely bring success in fieldwork.

Saklain Al Mamun is a Research Associate in the Gender and Social Transformation (CGST) cluster at BIGD. 

“Stories from the Field” is an ongoing series where members of the BIGD team reflect on their experiences conducting research on-ground. 

Photo 1 by Ricci Coughlan / DFID, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo 2 by Pragyna Mahpara