Experiences of conducting research in an informal settlement
By Samiha Ali
Dusty roads, narrow passageways, every three feet or so a small shop selling tea and snacks. A child wailing in the distance and the smell of freshly fried samosas in the air. To a qualitative field researcher, this scenario is not an uncommon scenario. Walking down the winding streets of Korail slum with the children smiling down at you and shopkeepers greeting you, it is almost easy to forget that you are an outsider in the community. Almost.
The reality is that however much I would like to forget that I am an outsider in the community, it is really difficult to gain an insider perspective of the daily struggles of community members. As outsiders, it is important for us to develop skills and self-awareness to ensure that the challenges faced in the field don’t hamper the research process itself. I would like to share some challenges I have faced and factors that must be overcome while working in the urban slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Gaining entry into a research site might seem like the easiest step of the whole research process but is actually the most difficult and the most crucial. To put it simply, if the initial entry in a field is not done properly then the data collection process is jeopardized! Imagine someone asking for permission to come inside your house for an interview. Their approach would essentially be the make or break factor in you welcoming them into your house. Similarly, our initial approach towards the community members eventually becomes the deciding factor in how organically the community members respond to you.
Before starting the research process, it is crucial for us to build rapport with community members. In my experience I have found that being a member of the BRAC broader family gives us an added advantage and provides an easy pathway for rapport building. This privilege cannot be expected in a setting which has experienced less BRAC intervention as there is often a general distrust among the community members. The presence of BRAC programmes essentially means that we face less resistance.
Case in point, our ARISE research team went to Korail slum in order to pre-test the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tools that we had developed for qualitative field data collection. We wanted to understand if our theoretical knowledge could be used in practice. We had previously worked in Korail and had ongoing BRAC programmes thus access was relatively easy. In this particular case, we enlisted the help of the field personnel working in the BRAC Maternity Center at Korail as our first point of contact to navigate through slum. Seeing our team with the BRAC field personnel, the community members talked to us openly and we were able to do our work relatively easily in a short time frame.
Understanding our environment and being aware of our positionality within that setting is crucial. Especially so when we are working within a marginalized community who enjoy less privileges than you. This one is a no-brainer but is one that we as researchers often tend to forget or overlook.
As a qualitative researcher, our primary goal should be to interact with the community in such a way as to get mixed with the community – in terms of our clothing, our manner of speaking, our posture and our general behavior and gestures. In 2018, as a young researcher just starting out in this field, I often wore leggings and a kurta to the field. I realized that this attire made it more difficult for me to connect to my respondents as most of them considered me foreign, an outsider. Based on my experiences, I started wearing salwar kameez, which is more traditional and worn by the women in research site, I noticed that it was much easier for me to approach my respondents and engage them in conversation.
At the beginning, I also had difficulty in my way of talking. I would often end up talking to informal settlement dwellers in very formal Bengali, which would sometimes illicit limited response. This led me to speak in a less formal tone over the last two years, my interview skills improved. I became much more adept at extracting meaningful qualitative data. Understanding the demography and context of the study population and being aware of our privileged position is crucial to engaging with the community in a respectful manner.
Conducting research, especially in a participatory research as we wish to do in ARISE, imposes challenges on a researcher that must be sufficiently handled with care and caution. Engaging the community and adapting to it is a crucial phase before the research phase even begins. Failure to do so will ultimately affect the quality of data from our research.