How is research described?


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Angela Okune's picture
November 19, 2020

7:10 EAKWAM03 articulates a very important sentiment here where she mentions how she feels so alone in her attempt to bring change to higher education institutions in Kenya because she is just an individual. She wonders if a platform like the Research Data Share platform might be one way to gain visibility of an issue because it isn’t just her opinion or her voice but actually demonstrates the testimonies of the students and their experiences in the data transcript itself.

“I hope [REDACTED - NAME OF GOV’T ORGANIZATION]…but they are so used to speaking to Vice Chancellors, I don't know, and that for me is the thing, I don't know if this should be...[recorded]... it feels like...I feel so...I feel so alone. Like I'm a solo voice. And I feel deeply I'm speaking something that makes sense. But I just feel because I'm solo. I'm not in an institution of higher learning, in a very big institution, I feel my voice may not be heard. So's either I use this [data sharing platform] to, to sort of amplify my voice or see how I can create a community of... but it's kind of...feels so slowly... it feels so big for me. But so important. So I mean that... And maybe this is way my voice as a solo person, interested in higher education...because normally people approached it as institutionally, let's solve this but as an individual, I still feel you can see a problem an institution and want to do something but maybe this is…[trails off]”

Angela Okune's picture
February 20, 2020

AO: After emailing this data to a non-Kenyan anthropologist I met in Nairobi, I received the following response:

“I went through the transcript and I really find it fascinating how respondents link research with development. It took me several hard-on collisions with scholars who work in political sciences, agricultural sciences and similar disciplines to realize how much this causality is assumed even by scholars themselves. Being raised in a postmodern science, such blatantly modernist assumptions were like a shock to me. That being said, I could not find much of it in my own interviews which were mainly done with men who mostly linked their participation with [redacted Org Name] with a concept of "work" or almost a contractual situation where they participate in order for [redacted Org Name] to develop the community as such (not so much about learning how to use computers, but giving away time and personal data so that [redacted Org Name] works on creating a better Kibera).” (email correspondence, February 20, 2020).

I was keen to include his response as a public annotation because his statement helps make the case for why sharing research data can increase the robustness of our understanding of complexity in a given site. Sharing data in this case offered a different perspective, particularly important when doing research on what might be heavily ossified terrain. Since his own interviews were mainly done with men "who mostly linked their participation with ... a concept of "work", looking at the data from my all-women group discussion gave him a different starting point to think with, which as a foreign man he may not have had access to otherwise (and which seems to have led him to begin thinking the issue in a different way).

When I shared this annotation back to him, he responded that it is probably very common for people being researched to assume that it is part of a developing or modernization process so perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to say that the additional interview data helped reveal that.

What they [the transcript/conversation] did, however, was to remind me of the importance how such demands are made and how they are framed politically, i.e. are they framed as unfulfilled collective rights or as offers delivered to individuals. I find it fascinating to start thinking through how research as delivering a neoliberal service to consumers clashes with research as advancing and experimenting with collective entities. (email correspondence, February 21, 2020).

This dialogue highlights additional value of open ethnographic archives. Beyond just the data, it is the opening enabled by the sharing of annotations and data back and forth. In this case, by sharing an annotation to ask: "is this what you meant?" the earlier statement could be further nuanced and qualified. Again here, through such on-going processes, ethnography is made more robust, increasing not only its ethical validity (increasing researcher accountability and representations of those we engage with), but also strengthening its research validity.

January 23, 2020

At the onset of the FGD, the women agree that research consists of three aspects: 1) to teach them a skill, such as digital literacy; 2) to further their knowledge about a topic (i.e. the flu and other health-related information, from which they express marked benefit); and 3) a general experiment, with unspecified value. With regards to the latter, one participant explains a financial experiment in which she recalls vivid decision-making and choice architecture of how to allocate money. 

"For an elderly person, they are obviously older than you, so if you have 200shs, you could decide to give them 170 shs and remain with 30shs; and if it’s a young boy, you could decide to give them 100shs and remain with 100shs or 20shs and remain with 180shs. So I would say it helped me know about sharing. Like if a person is older than you, you are supposed to give them more money and if younger, you can decide whether to give them money and what amount." 

Interestingly, this participant felt that she was "supposed" to act a certain way, thereby questioning the validity of the experiment itself--perhaps multiple participants are altering their behavior exclusively as a result of being observed, an inadvertent description of the Hawthorne Effect (McCarney et al, 2007). 

Research is also described as a process of nominal value: "I would say that sometimes they promise that you will get some money just to make you feel like you have done something." Here, it sounds like the participant did not intrinsically feel the value of research but rather received external messaging that her actions "would be" relevant.

This theme of research as a mechanism of productivity became salient throughout the transcript; however, it also raises the issue of true consent. For example, if participants have no source of regular income, they may feel they have no choice but to participate in any income-generating activity, including research that they might not fully understand nor directly see the benefit of.

Notably, research was commonly conflated with service delivery from development agencies and NGOs; however, women expressed the greatest appreciation for these services. Therefore the irony and discrepancy with defining research is flagrant: the idea that research is tethered to service delivery sets unrealistic expectations that inevitably lead to disappointment, but the visibility of service delivery in Kibera is one of the greatest experiential/lived benefits. This juxtaposition then poses the question: how might our research organization want to clarify our mission to create appropriate expectations, while also cultivating and better disseminating more action-oriented research?