A reflection from the field by Aisa Manlosa
I’m nearing the end of my stay here in the southwestern part of Ethiopia for the second field work of my PhD. Lovely highlands. Rich culture. Great coffee. During this field work, one of the important lessons I have been learning is the value of recognizing and learning the rhythm of local life. By rhythm of local life, I simply mean the way things are done by local residents, in the pace they are done. Here I reflect about how this idea had influenced the way I thought and moved in the field and the way I engaged with local residents. This may speak more to researchers in the social sciences but perhaps, the increase of multidisciplinary projects and collaborations, makes this more broadly relevant.
As a background, I’m doing my PhD focusing on livelihood strategies of farming households under Joern’s SESyP project. Methodologically, I consider the mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches particularly suited for building understanding of the dynamics and nuances of local livelihoods and its relationship to the broader social-ecological system. Last year, I conducted the first field work for three months to characterize livelihood strategies and explore how these link with capital assets and food security at the household level. The method for data collection was mainly quantitative survey, supplemented by a small number of semi-structured interviews. Building on that, my second field work now investigates gender norms and power relations which mediate individuals’ access to capital assets and how differentiated access influences well-being outcomes. I am presently applying an open-ended, qualitative approach using focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. My reason for choosing the qualitative approach is its capability to capture local voices, build rich narratives and engage with complexities from the perspective of the local residents. This shift I’ve described from a mainly quantitative approach in the first half of my PhD to a qualitative approach at this stage involved a change in the level of structure and boundedness in the design of the study. It has also required a different set of skills. Inevitably, the change in approach made me ask myself about the ways that I can effectively implement a qualitative study. This precipitated the thought about rhythm.
The rhythm of local life – the beat or cadence if you like, is part of the character of the place and its people. It expresses itself in many ways and we could name a few. In the hour of the morning when people get up and start their day. When the first cup of coffee is served (unthinkable to miss). The interval between ordering breakfast at the mana nyata (eating place) and when that order is served. What most women do at noon time – prepare lunch for children returning from school. What men do in the fields at this time of the year – plow the soil as the first rains of the arfasa season fall. The small markets that happen every afternoon called golit. The larger markets that happen weekly called gaba. The pingpong of greetings people serve to and fro upon meeting, before they begin their substantive conversations. And perhaps more relevant to me, is the time of day the focus group participants can be depended on to arrive. The rhythm is everywhere, because ways of doing and paces of doing permeate daily living. Even in the slow walking of the cows across the street, stopping our car and making us wait.
The rhythm is perceivable because it has a regularity over certain times of a day, over the days of a week, and over the seasons of a year. But it wasn’t so much the regularity that made me notice and think about rhythm, but the existence of my own rhythm.
There are some things one can wish to proceed faster in the course of a field work – the drives on potholed roads, the waiting for public officials, the waiting for focus group participants and others. I began to be aware of the stark difference between my rhythm and the rhythm of the local life when I caught myself wishing for some things to proceed faster. I am an outsider and the “field” where I study is their home. I am trying to understand people’s livelihoods and ways of living; and they are, simply living their lives. My agenda for the day is to research, but it is not theirs. My rhythm and theirs are dissimilar. But what if I could suspend mine and take on theirs? Will that enable me to enter with a bit more depth into the fabric of local life and learn more about the lived realities of the communities where I am undertaking the study? The questions I am asking immediately bring to mind the idea of positionalities (Chacko 2004) between researcher and researched. I find it an important idea to engage with because awareness of positionalities – of myself as outsider and them as insider, of the distinctiveness of my agenda and theirs, of my rhythm and theirs, can be the starting point for moving forward responsibly.
Being aware of the rhythm of the local life has a number of advantages. Certainly not the least, is how it eases the stress that may arise from logistic glitches. No, it may not change the fact that some participants of focus group discussions would not arrive on time, or that it would be very hard to conduct interviews when there is a wedding in the vicinity and people are celebrating. But yes, it helps one develop patience with things not working as planned. And patience finds its root in the understanding that one has entered a different reality. And this reality is that, my agenda for the day is mine, and they have theirs and mine must be subsumed under the truly more important matter of their lives simply unfolding as I try to follow and seek to understand. Recognizing the rhythm of local life, and respecting this as an outsider, also helps one plan activities around people’s availability – considering market days, prayer hours, work times and others.
The awareness of my position as outsider-researcher led to the early realization that some of the questions I prepared for the group discussions and interviews may be insufficient. Rather, these could function as starters for meandering conversations, made more substantive by follow up questions that are actually my responses to their response. And then, a more coherent picture of gender norms and power relations may begin to appear. The whole process had involved a great deal of willingness on my part to cull out from the list of FGD questions, retain a few key ones, and provide space for conversations to take a shape of their own. This is of course, not new, and is a well-known way of working in qualitative research. But I found that process to be more easily facilitated by my awareness of my limitations as outsider. As outsider, I may be unaware of a different logic running through the rhythm of local life – a logic that underpins why local residents do the things they do at the pace the things are done. I may be unaware of underlying meanings and reasons behind some of their ways of responding to questions. As an outsider who is aware of a different rhythm and a different logic, I may exert effort to discover the other logic and respond with sensitivity.
Recognizing and easing into the rhythm of local life also helped me see and understand people a little better. I see this learning of local rhythm as primarily about recognizing that some of the things I face while doing field work are the daily realities that people live day in and day out. And what to me could be a slowing down of the plan, things that we easily describe as “not working” are the constraints that people face and cope with everyday. It has meant to pause, and notice opportunities when one can come remotely come close to wearing the shoes of the local residents if only in walking up and down slopes with a heavy burden on one’s back, or walking under the glaring sun with very little water to drink. If only that. But there must be more. Perhaps this way of thinking and of experiencing makes the importance of a milling station nearby more real than just a good idea. The whole manner of practicing empathy may or may not change the solutions eventually arrived at, nor is it strictly necessary for good science. But for researchers genuinely wishing to arrive at a depth of understanding about the lives of other people, households and communities, it is known that the process is often as important as the outputs.
The whole experience of staying in the field can contribute to a better understanding of places and its people. And it is in the manner of perception and insight that social science stands with a lot to contribute to efforts for charting the future we want and tackling such wicked problems as poverty, food security, equality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among many others.