‘A research assistant is just an implementer’: the argument in favor of involving local researchers in project design
Translation by Sara Weschler
The author, Vedaste Cituli Alinirhu
Within an epistemic context characterized by and a renewed interest in qualitative research, it is important to pay particular attention to the manner in which research methods and techniques are applied in field research. For indeed, qualitative methods depend heavily on the context in which these methods are put into practice. In other words, the application of qualitative methods requires a very good knowledge of the local context, which foreign researchers often lack. This knowledge of the situation on the ground does not solely have to do with political, social, cultural, or economic contexts, with which foreign researchers are often broadly familiar. It refers also to a fine-grained knowledge of more subtle and complex aspects, which often only the research assistants know well.
For example, one qualitative technique popular among researchers is the use of focus groups. But this technique is also subject to several challenges connected with group dynamics, contextual factors that may influence interactions, the sociological profiles of the target group’s members, the social setting and the societal issues under examination, as well as the power relations between actors at the local level. It is therefore crucial to be able to read the discourse that unfolds between group participants beyond their spoken words. One must pay a lot of attention to anecdotes and paralinguistic cues.
Yet these aspects of methodology are rarely taken into account in the field – not necessarily because the project leader or funder is uninformed, but simply because he or she is not sufficiently familiar with the local context. It seems at times that project leaders impose certain methods and techniques on local researchers just to show that they have met sampling criteria, rather than to truly gather serious information. Local researchers are then obliged to adopt these methods in order to satisfy their project leaders or funders.
Let us consider that this problem may arise from the fact that in many research projects, local researchers are often seen as implementers and not really as partners. Project leaders design their studies upstream, often without soliciting the opinions of the local researchers they will be working with in the field. At best, local researchers are asked for security information or contacts, or else they are entrusted with logistical tasks or establishing connections in the field . At worst, they are contacted practically on the eve of the study to be asked if they want to participate. But we often ignore the fact that viewing local researchers as mere implementers can have a negative impact on the quality of data we receive. Here I will illustrate this problem with some examples taken from my own experiences with focus groups that failed to provide quality data for the simple reason that the project manager, or researcher from the Global North, did not involve us in reflections on the methodology.
Indeed, in several of the studies I have worked on, the project leader or funder has insisted on organizing focus group discussions. Due to a lack of resources, the number of days in the field was often limited in relation to the number of focus groups planned. This being the case, it was necessary to improvise and try to convince the people present to participate in group interviews. The participants were not informed of the study in advance, nor were they selected along the lines of the study’s pre-established criteria. Oftentimes, a handful of participants or a single actor would monopolize the interviews. In some cases, the less talkative participants would just sit there, silently blinking at us. Others furrowed their brows or held their hands up by their cheeks with one finger extended, waiting for a chance to speak. Out of fear or respect for the chief’s authority, or sometimes to safeguard their private interests, throughout many discussions, participants would only respond to questions with, “The chief has said everything that….” Despite efforts to balance out the debate, others would begin their comments with, “As the chief was saying….” Without being able to take into account the timeframe pre-established by the project leader, it was difficult for us to assemble groups ahead of the interviews. While the project leader’s instructions had been to conduct five focus groups in five days, with an average of ten participants per group, three focus groups with an average of five participants each sufficed for a saturation of data.
In addition to the abovementioned signals, some participants used certain coded language among themselves. In order to respectfully contest their chief’s ideas, participants had a tendency to answer in proverbs. Such was the case of one Burhinyi elder when the chief ordered him to provide additional input to discussion. His response was, “One cannot say everything, chief, but you have said the essential things.” One woman in a couples’ focus group about family planning answered our questions with, “In Bushi, two people do not speak,” which was to say, My husband’s ideas suffice; I can’t contradict him.
These examples show that applying qualitative methods (such as focus groups) without mastering the local context or taking subtle signals into account is problematic at the level of basic methodological principles. This is even more problematic when the aim of these methods is purely to artificially inflate the sample size. However, even when the researcher has had time to study the local context so as to develop a good group interview methodology, mastering group dynamics remains complicated. Northern researchers are rarely aware of the implicit power dynamics at play, or the relational stakes between participants.
Thus, silences, body language, para-linguistic cues – all of these are data whose meaning the researcher must interpret. These “metadata” reveal plenty of interesting information that ought to be capitalized upon. Moreover, it is not easy for a foreign researcher to read and decode these kinds of data. In these types of cases, a research assistant provides a fundamental comparative advantage. He or she is better equipped to interpret participants’ subtle signals: their small gestures, their silences, their frustration, their little signs, etc. All of these elements reveal plenty of important information that should be utilized in analyses of the data.
Nevertheless, project leaders and funders rarely recognize research assistants’ potential in this area. Often, assistants are pushed merely to collect and transcribe participants’ words, without being encouraged to report metadata. At the same time, project leaders often deploy research assistants as simple “data collection robots,” without first involving them in methodological reflections or giving them the space in which to provide valuable orientation for their foreign counterparts. Thus, research assistants have little room for manoeuver in which to develop their analyses of the metadata, for example through deeper one-on-one interviews with individuals from focus groups.
In short, qualitative methods and techniques are often used under inappropriate circumstances. A profound and subtle analysis of the contextual and social dynamics in the research setting is crucial to the proper application of these methods and techniques, and to the collection of quality data. These dynamics are often observable not only in peoples’ speech, but also in the metadata that participants reveal (their silences, their body language, their gestures). When it comes to grasping and interpreting this sort of data, the research assistant has a genuine advantage, compared to foreign researchers. Hence the need to involve research assistants upstream in the process as project partners. And this need to engage the local researcher as a project partner goes beyond just methodological considerations. It also goes for the construction of project goals, and for data analysis.