Qualitative research has enormous potential to produce rich data that can be used to design agricultural interventions that take into consideration the cultural context, gender norms, identities, and socioeconomic factors that influence knowledge, attitudes and practices. This month, Johanna Bergman Lodin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), shares her perspective on being part of a large, multi-site qualitative research project designed to explore gender issues surrounding agricultural innovation, and more specifically, what she learned about adapting a standardized methodology to answer questions related to nutrition. Johanna is working in collaboration with the CRP on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) and the CRP on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics.
I recently spent some time in Nigeria working on two case studies for the Global Study on Gender Norms and Capacities for Agricultural Innovation, a qualitative research project launched by the CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network. Having done qualitative fieldwork over the past ten years, this was still a very different experience for me as all the teams contributing case studies to the Global Study are using a standardized manual. While this may sound contradictory to a qualitative researcher, the benefit of this standardized approach is persuasive in this context: we will be able to compare cases across “a broad range of target regions, environments, crops and cultures, so that broad patterns in the role of gender norms in innovation and adaptation can be identified across CGIAR research.” As one of two principal investigators for these two case studies, I trained the field team (after having attended a training of trainers workshop myself) and then participated in the data collection phase as an observer.
This fieldwork made me, once again, acutely aware of the disconnect between the fieldwork plan and reality. It reminded me of how “messy, frustrating, and complex” fieldwork actually can be (Valentine 2001, p. 43); something that is rarely discussed or reflected in the final reports and published articles, where it is represented as “a linear, pristine, ordered process” (ibid.). Therefore, I hope it will be valuable to other researchers to share a few personal reflections.
To start, the various interview guides in the Global Study manual barely touch on gender-nutrition issues, even though that was of particular interest to me. (I should mention that upon our suggestion, the Global Study manual now includes a question about household meals and distribution of food within households.) However, teams have the option to change or drop ‘optional questions,’ and are allowed to add new questions of specific interest to their CRP(s) sponsoring the case. The optional questions in the Global Study interview guides were very thoughtful and interesting, so we only deleted ONE question from ONE guide. Yet, we added some questions - no more than five questions per guide - on topics such as who purchases and prepares food for the household, who makes those decisions, and the role of specific crops in the local diet (our case studies focused specifically on cassava and cocoa related innovations). As a result, the guides were really long, and took between 3 to 4.5 hours. So, in some cases, we decided to run them over two days.
In hindsight, adding questions this way was not the best approach. Next time, I will remove the optional questions and replace them with a set of nutrition- and -health-specific questions. In this study, vignettes turned out to be particularly successful in generating vivid discussions amongst the focus group participants. So, I will most likely design the nutrition- and health-specific questions as vignettes.
There was also somewhat of a mismatch between the interview guides and the field reality. My field team, made up of qualified researchers from IITA and the University of Ibadan, as well as the farmers, found it difficult to understand some questions. The situation was aggravated by the fact that even I, who was supposed to train the team, struggled with some of them! Retrospective and abstract questions are particularly challenging. For example, asking the farmers to compare women’s situations today to 10 years ago, resulted in responses like, ‘a woman today has more decision making power than she had 10 years ago because then she was very young.’ Since we were part of the Global Study, we could not simply drop these questions. We had to accept the fact that we may not have reliable and valid data in relation to every aspect of the study. Instead, we can appreciate the good quality data that we actually did manage to collect, which contributed to the highly interesting story that unfolded.
Finally, I realized too late that we had not invested enough effort in sensitizing our village coordinators on the study and its purpose, as well as the specific facilitation we needed from them. In the first village this translated into true sampling and timing problems. The ‘wrong’ persons were recruited for some of the activities due to mix-ups, some of the focus groups were not homogenous although this had been deemed critical, some (groups) did not show up at all, and one of our visits clashed with the market day. In the second village, we totally failed to manage expectations because the coordinator misunderstood the whole purpose of our visit. When we arrived, around 300 farmers from the local government area had gathered to ‘receive great gifts’ as representatives of their villages in the case study, even though the intent of the Global Study was to include only one village per case study. Taken together, this really highlights the value and importance of thorough ‘groundwork’ before launching a study, which in this case had been compromised for time and budgetary reasons.
The next round of case studies that I will be involved in will be in Tanzania and are now in the pipeline. Mindful of my recent experiences, I will definitely try adhering to Denis Waitley’s advice to ‘Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.’
- Valentine, G. 2001. At the drawing board: Developing a research design. In Qualitative methodologies for geographies: Issues and debates, ed. M. Limb and C. Dwyer, 41–54. London: Arnold.
- Barter, C. & E. Renold. 1999. The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research. Social Research Update, Issue 25, Summer 1999. Dept of Sociology, University of Surrey, the U.K.
- Neno, S. 2014. “Transforming gender norms in agriculture for greater development impact.” CIAT News, 27 June 2014.
This post is part of a blog, the Gender-Nutrition Idea Exchange, maintained by the CRP on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. To add your comments below, please register with Disqus or log-in using your Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. You must be signed-in or registered in order to leave a comment.