Roshini Suparna Diwakar

Why contextual understanding matters in Qualitative Research

This piece has emerged as a result of a recent conversation I had with someone from outside the development sector. We were talking about the transcription of interviews and I realised how much imbibed knowledge I take for granted. As someone who has grown up being exposed to the work in the development sector, spending many hours after school at Amma’s workplace, I had the privilege of absorbing many facets of the work within this space without realising it. Add to this the, let’s call it ‘heated conversations’, we regularly had have at home, and I learnt about communities other than my own and broadened my worldview.

My entry into this space was organic and I deep-dove into engaging with communities with whom my organisation would work. This meant regular visits to villages and our ‘field’ office to better understand how our work is going. Documentation of programmes involved research- interviews, focus group discussions, surveys etc. Any qualitative researcher worth their salt will tell you that one of the most mind-numbing but critical tasks of research is transcribing interviews. It takes forever, you have to be alert through the entire process, and need to do a lot of back and forth to ensure that you are capturing the conversation in its entirety and its essence. This is not as exciting as being in the “field”, writing, or working directly with communities on programme implementation. (Side note: I just found out that one of the meanings of ‘fieldwork’ is a temporary fortification of land by an army in the ‘field’. What a god-awful term that, in the space of research, treats communities as passive, subjects, and receivers, rather than participants and collaborators).

A meeting of women leaders of a resettlement colony in Delhi*

Qualitative research requires a deep understanding of context. It requires patience, open-mindedness, and a genuine sense of curiosity that is not laden with biases of what is “superior”. It requires the ability to say, ‘I do not know’, something that we are penalised for saying out loud in a world where arrogance is celebrated and humility is a weakness. This also means that one has to be able to listen, truly listen, to what is being (un)said and not patronise the expression of a reality. The process of qualitative research is a dialogue- ‘they’ are not your ‘data points’ from whom you can ‘extract’ information. Rather, it is a collaborative effort to understand and make meaning of the context of the communities. To do justice to the communities we serve, therefore, one needs to be committed to ensuring that all aspects of this process are robust. This includes ‘data collection’, documentation, analysis and writing. (Can we please find less exploitative terms for this process?)

Many organisations outsource the transcription process because it is time consuming and the people working within the organisation are already swamped with multiple things. Once the transcripts are created, analysis and writing are done in-house. I mean, how hard can it be to just listen to a recording and write down what is being said verbatim, right?

This is where we take the process for granted! Contextual understanding is critical for accurate documentation. Transcripts that are done by external persons often fail to capture the essence of the conversation because they have no idea what you’re actually talking about! Without any understanding of the community, its history, geography, issues or way of being, the local institutions and networks, and colloquialisms, there cannot be true justice to the information that has been shared, the stories that have been told, and the insights that are to be gained. Emotions and tones that are expressed in conversations are not captured, denying communities their right to be fully heard in all their complexity.

I write this because, in my experience of working with multiple organisations, this aspect of documentation in qualitative research is taken for granted. It is a given that transcripts need to be created for the research process and people will be hired to do it. That is it. How the manner in which those conversations are documented impacts our understanding of the community and the learnings that are to be had from it is completely neglected.

I also write because qualitative research continues to be viewed by the larger audience as easy, non-scientific and biased. In a world where things are ‘measured’ based on their ‘scale’ and the application of formulae, experiential and participatory research is treated as less valid. But, my experience as a qualitative researcher has shown me how much can be learnt if we stop treating people as ‘data points’ and treat them as human beings. To immerse ourselves in values that don’t make us feel superior or ‘them’ obligated. To stop ‘othering’ in an attempt to make sure that we have got what we need. I firmly believe that this kind of research is fruitful when communities directly engage and participate in the process. Extractive processes do a disservice to the communities we work with and create new hierarchies.

There is an adage in research that one often comes away with more questions than answers. This is because it is an ongoing dialogue, an unfolding of a reality. A reality that deserves to be captured for all that it is.


Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar


* Consent of identifiable women in the picture was taken before sharing.

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