Orientation Session on ‘Ethnographic Research in the Development Sector’

A screenshot of the Orientation session held over Zoom.
A screenshot from our session during the Orientation Week

When our fellowship drew to a close in July 2021, we were informed about the 11th Month of Service. This presented itself as an exciting opportunity to stay engaged with the AIF community and give back, in whatever way we could, to the fellowship that had given us so much over the past ten months. The 11th Month of Service or MoS had previously been used by fellows in diverse ways – from conducting trainings and workshops for incoming batches, to building the fellowship alumni database and so on. Aman Walia, my co-fellow, and I realized that during the course of our own fellowship, we had greatly enjoyed the sessions conducted by alumni, not just because of the new topics that they exposed us to (design thinking, policy research, social media communications, film making and many more!), but also because what better way was there for us to learn than by interacting with those who had been AIF fellows themselves? So Aman and I decided that we wanted to design a session for the next batch of fellows, on ethnographic research and its applications in the fellowship and also in the development sector at large.

While I had studied ethnographic methods during my undergraduate education, Aman had been exposed to this qualitative research method during the course of his fellowship. Both of us shared a common interest in the topic and we knew, from our own experience during the fellowship, that it would be useful for AIF fellows in multiple ways.

Applications of Ethnography in the Development Sector and during the AIF fellowship

Ethnography aims to understand social phenomena from the ‘inside’, by observing and participating in social activities, by talking to people in their ‘natural’ settings and collecting materials, (photographs, texts, literature, statistics) that help to develop an understanding of the social context in which social meanings and activities are embedded (Rhodes, J 2021). In simpler terms, ethnography is a qualitative research methodology that aims to generate data about people and social phenomena, in the form of pictures, conversations and observations. The key appeal of ethnography is that it can come as close as is possible to offering an ‘insider’s perspective’ on the ways in which communities exist and operate.

Ethnography, then, holds a lot of potential for development sector work, in that it does not approach a community with preconceived notions about what needs to be “fixed”. Rather, it allows the community to speak for themselves and to define their own challenges. This creates the possibility for development sector work to incorporate human-centered design, and to place empathy at the core of project planning and implementation.

While ethnographic methods would be useful for the AIF fellows in terms of learning about the development sector at large, ethnography also has more specific applications during the course of the AIF fellowship. Firstly, fellows who would be working on fellowship projects that involved field-research, MEL, or any community-facing work could use ethnographic methods to generate insights from the field. Secondly, during the fellowship they would experience everyday encounters with people from the host community. Ethnographic methods would help fellows make sense of the information received from these interactions, to study larger social phenomena in the field and to write about these in the form of fellowship blogs. Finally, and most importantly, cultivating an ethnographic mindset would help fellows to make the most of their time in the field by having more meaningful community engagement.

Ethnographic Methods

We knew that AIF fellows who were deployed in the field would already be engaging in ethnographic activities – by interacting with people in their ‘natural’ settings and observing and participating in the community’s everyday lives. And so, what remained was for us to simply equip the fellows with the tools and resources that would help them make sense of the information they received from the field – and to then collate that to gain deeper insights.

Ethnographic methods can range from participant observation (which involves subjectively participating in the everyday lives of the community while simultaneously being an objective observer) to thick description (which entails detailed accounts of field experiences), focus group discussions and interviews. While we briefly introduced all of these to the fellows, we wanted to focus primarily on the interview method. This method of one-on-one conversation would be the most efficient way to harness deep insights from the interactions that fellows would come across on a regular basis. Insights from interviews could be used to write individual blogs highlighting certain social phenomena (as I had done during my fellowship), or to work on larger qualitative research studies (as was initially part of Aman’s fellowship project with IFMR-LEAD). Most importantly, learning how to take interviews would train fellows to have more meaningful conversations with their host community and their host organization.

In keeping with the ethnographic tradition of ‘letting the field speak for itself’, ethnographic interviews do not always require a predetermined structure and set of questions. On the contrary, interviews which are more open-ended and semi-structured/unstructured can lead to more novel insights and allows more agency to the interviewee. We introduced the AIF fellows to some of the basics of interviewing – including the 5 Why’s Method and novelty-relevancy mapping (how to detect useful insights that are both novel and also relevant to the broader research question). A short activity in pairs encouraged the fellows to utilize some of these techniques while conducting an interview of their co-fellow. Since the fellows would be having a virtual Orientation and had not met in person, this activity was also designed as an ice-breaker, to help fellows learn more about their partners while simultaneously practicing interviewing techniques.

For fellows who would need to conduct a large number of interviews (for projects at their host organization or for their fellowship projects), it would also be helpful to learn how to code insights. Coding interview transcripts involves systematically arranging, organizing, labelling the qualitative data to identify themes and patterns. These themes and patterns then help to make sense of the information that a large volume of interviews generates. Coding would require first scouring interviews to find recurring topics and then using these to generate codes. The codes can then be analyzed to find patterns (similarity, frequency, difference, sequence and other such patterns). These patterns then generate categories, which lead to broader themes and finally, this leads the researcher to a theory regarding the social phenomenon under study.

Ethnography and Self-Reflexivity

Going into the session, we were fully aware that not every AIF fellow would have the chance to conduct a full-fledged ethnography for their fellowship project or for the work at their host organization. However, learning to cultivate an ethnographic mindset remained absolutely crucial, to help the fellows engage in more meaningful interactions during the course of the fellowship. This is because self-reflexivity is at the heart of ethnography. Ethnographers are required to actively reflect on their own positionality in the field, and to understand how their own personal biases may impact their interactions with the community. Self-reflexivity involves asking yourself difficult questions about how your caste/class/gender identity may place you in a position of privilege and power in your host community. Locating positionality then, offers crucial insights into how the community responds to the fellow, what kinds of reactions the fellow may elicit from the field, and what are the ethical implications of carrying out research or development interventions that may potentially uproot the community’s ways of being.

AIF fellows hail from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds and over the past 20+ plus years of the fellowship, the fellows have been warmly welcomed into numerous host communities all over India. Fellows have successfully integrated into their host communities, so much so that hosts remain in close touch with fellows after the fellowship period, and oftentimes fellows choose to stay on with the community even after completing their fellowship. Just like ethnographers in the field, fellows therefore occupy the unique position of the “insider-outsider” – whereby their close entanglement with the everyday lives of the community integrates them as ‘insiders’ and yet their socio-cultural and economic backgrounds mark them as ‘outsiders’ to the community. The unique position of the “insider-outsider” allows the fellows to form deep and subjective connections in the field while also objectively reflecting on the social phenomena that they observe.

Therefore, while the primary purpose of our session was to introduce fellows (especially those without any formal training in social sciences or development studies) to a useful qualitative research methodology, the session also served to encourage fellows to think critically of their own position in the field, to contextualize their interactions with their host community and, as budding development professionals, to gain a deeper understanding of not just the community but also of themselves.

References and Additional Resources:





Amiya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Prajwala Sangham in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her fellowship project, she is documenting the educational work that has been co-created with women, girls, and women prisoners. Amiya’s interest in gender and caste developed during her undergraduate studies in Sociology. She conducted ethnographic research on the Dalit community in Bangalore and Delhi and presented her work at conferences organised by Shiv Nadar University as well as the University of Toronto. To better understand these social realities, she spent her summers working in rural India. Her first internship in rural Telangana involved training the underprivileged students of a women’s college with English language and communication skills, while also encouraging them to pursue various career opportunities. Here, Amiya began to understand how gender and poverty stood in the way of equal accessibility and exposure. Her second experience was as a research intern at The Timbaktu Collective in Andhra Pradesh, where she helped ideate and implement an impact assessment project for the NGO’s Mogga Sangha initiative. Here, she interacted with 300 children by travelling to over 20 villages, during which she witnessed harsh realities such as child marriage and gender imbalances in rural Indian schooling. The collective’s successful organic farming and sustainable livelihoods initiatives also piqued her interest in these areas. Since Amiya aspires to pursue a career in development, the AIF Clinton Fellowship is a tremendous opportunity for her to learn, grow and make an impact. She has been placed with Prajwala Sangham, in Hyderabad, an organisation that pursues critical interventions in gender and caste sensitisation as well as women and child rights. In her free time, Amiya reads, bakes and plays basketball. As a Bengali raised in Bangalore, she is perpetually caught in a dilemma between eating kosha mangsho and paper dosa.

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