Stories from the Field: Venturing the Unchartered Territory of Qualitative Research

Zeeshan Ashraf, Research Associate at the Research, Policy and Governance (RPG) team at BIGD, reflects on his experience in exploring qualitative research methods first-hand, in the remote villages of Sylhet. 

I have been working as a Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) for over two years. Throughout my tenure at BIGD, I have been primarily involved with quantitative research. Although qualitative research is at the core of various programs of BRAC, it remained uncharted territory for me. Earlier this year, thanks to the initiative taken by Mehnaz Rabbani, Program Lead, Research, Policy and Governance (RPG) – I was able to participate in a three-day field visit along with my team members from the RPG team, to villages located in Sylhet district. This visit enabled me to experience the undertakings of qualitative research first-hand.

On the first day, we were assigned to conduct a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) on the theme of digital literacy, which assesses an individual’s ability to use digital devices, such as computers and smartphones. We decided to organise the FGD in a village named Chanpur, which is located near Ratargul. Luckily, the people from the village were friendly and approachable and agreed to participate in our FGD. We also met some female teachers, who agreed as well.

Participants mentioned that every household had at least one smartphone. In fact, ownership of a smartphone was not confined to any particular socio-economic group.  They also mentioned that they used smartphones primarily for browsing Facebook, watching videos, playing mobile games, and for monetary transactions. During the course of the FGD, we noticed that only a few individuals were participating in the discussion, while the majority of the attendees remained tight-lipped. Moreover, the female teachers, who previously seemed quite enthusiastic about participating in the FGD, were reticent in front of the male participants in the discussion. The lack of involvement of the female teachers made us realize that FGDs should be organized separately for male and female participants. We also felt that we would have been able to obtain a more holistic picture of the village residents’ perception of digital literacy if all individuals had participated in the discussion.

We decided to conduct another FGD on the following day at a village named Jointapur, hoping that we would perform better as we had acquired some hands-on experience. We felt that the residents of this village were slightly conservative. Conversations with some of the local people substantiated our initial hunch. We came to know that none of the households possessed a television as they were instructed to eschew watching television by a late Wali. In fact, if television were to be found in a house, the residents of the village would storm in and destroy that television! As we walked around, trying to gather more participants, the residents gazed at us with suspicion. In fact, a resident enquired us about our purpose for visiting the village in a rather confrontational way. Another resident informed us that the villagers were suspicious of visitors, as some non-local individuals had committed anti-social activities in the past. Sensing the uncooperative attitude of the residents, we realized that we would be unable to conduct the FGD within the stipulated time. Hence, we left the village immediately. This particular experience made me realize that there were still areas in Bangladesh where the residents carried forward a rather conservative mindset, despite the wave of socio-economic progress in the country.

On the last day of the field visit, we decided to try our hand at another key tool of qualitative research – Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). We conducted the PRA in a village named Doloipara. The two primary components of PRA are – “wealth ranking” and “problem ranking”. Under the purview of wealth ranking, all households of a village are classified into different income groups. The participants of the PRA informed us that the households of Doloipara were clustered into four income groups- i) high-income, ii) middle-income, iii) low-income and iv) extremely low-income (Miskin). In order to undertake the task of problem ranking, we asked the residents to identify the most pressing problems of their village in a sequential way. The residents identified inadequate levels of drinking water as the most critical problem of Doloipara. The dismal state of roads, lack of electric poles and absence of proper drainage system were also identified as major problems. The residents mentioned that the aforementioned problems required immediate attention as these problems affected the daily lives of the people to a significant degree.

This PRA was the last assignment of the field visit. Following the conclusion of the PRA, we returned to the hotel to collect our luggage and departed for the bus station to board a Dhaka-bound bus. En route to Dhaka, I reflected on my experiences in this short yet insightful field visit. I realized that each village has its own culture and customs. Interacting with the residents of these villages can expand a researcher’s horizon of thinking, having encountered various perspectives from various individuals. Field visits can also teach a researcher the techniques of approaching and communicating with people from different walks of life. But most importantly, a field visit can open doors for a researcher to witness the state of a multitude of issues at the local level. All in all, I believe researchers should go out to the field, if for nothing else than for the sake of their personal growth and development.

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

Photo: The RPG Team in discussion with local residents of Chanpur