Preparing for The Philipines fieldwork

By | February 12, 2009

The next phase of the fieldwork, in The Philipines starts from the 20th of February in a small village of approximately 2000 people about an hour outside Iloilo city. Fascinating history dating back to before the Spanish occupation but I don't know if I'll get the opportunity to explore the actual city. The Western Visayas region are a group of islands and IloIlo city is the most populous on Panay Island.

My biggest concern of late has been figuring out the protocol for the user observations. My previous fieldtrip to rural Rajasthan was an attempt at prototyping the questionnaire and the profiles of those I wished to learn about. There I discovered, during a long conversation with my local guide, on the very first day of fieldwork that I'm going to have to throw out the lengthy questionnaire that I had developed.

Unlike user research for the design of artifacts where one can simply work out a bunch of questions on features and form and usage and things pertaining to the artifact, I'm discovering that as I attempt to apply the same methodology to abstract concepts – trust, value, commitment, community – as well as sensitive personal things – saving, spending, earning and of course income itself – I must change the method to account for these differences.

Let me use an example to explain – its easier to start talking to a third party stranger about an impersonal tangible artifact like the mobile phone but not as easy to simply ask "So… how do you manage your monthly expenses with your unpredictable income?" *grins* You see?

My Indian experience led me to focus on three key broad topics rather than using a list of questions – these were "how do you plan when you cannot predict (your income)"; "how do you manage emergencies that arise" and finally "what is your pattern of shopping/home expenses". Across the 9 or 10 people that I spoke to I discovered that a conversation around these things, not direct question & answer, usually brought the various points that I'd wanted to know to light. People love to tell stories and an interested listener can learn a lot from simply asking encouraging questions.

Now though I feel that the approach wasn't robust enough for what I need to discover in order to obtain sufficient and relevant insights for our conceptual design. Secondary research online – particularly in the area of micropayments and microsavings (more on these in forthcoming posts) has thrown up far more abstract elements. And the abstract is one of the most difficult to ascertain across language, cultural and socio-economic barriers.

My goal is to come away from this village with some understanding of how values are set for informal transactions, the role that trust and social networks play in relationships and community life, particularly for loans and credit, and the cultural concept of money itself.

Perhaps all the above is far too ambitious for a couple of weeks spent in a village but at least being aware of the need to observe and understand these elements might increase my sensitivity to the part they play as I make my observations and listen to people's stories.

I will be living with a widow who runs a small shop from her home selling snacks and soft drinks. She has 6 children and 11 grandchildren but still helps some of them out when required. Perhaps this opportunity to immerse myself in daily life, however fleeting, might help increase my understanding of the challenges faced in daily life by those who manage with irregular unpredictable incomes at the base of social and economic pyramid. I'm excited and nervous and a bit scared all at once but nonetheless I'm looking forward to the adventure.

One thought on “Preparing for The Philipines fieldwork

  1. Alex Cheek

    Hi niti,
    Not sure if you’ll remember me, but I heard that you have a great memory for these things. I went to ID in 2005-2008. I had studied Anthro and taught Spanish. You took my application but were gone by the time I arrived.
    Anyhow, I know how you feel. There is a lot riding on being “interested listener” and asking “encouraging questions”. It doesn’t feel robust enough to be all that you have going into a real and expensive trip to India.
    I would say that participant observation is the best way to get at these things. You are on the right track. Being with people and watching them plan, shop and experience emergencies will be extremely informative. Take pictures. As you do, ask yourself what you are trying to show. It will help you understand your hunches better and take more useful research pics.
    The other thing that I would say, is come at it from another angle. Look for symbols around the thing that interests you. Look for the symbolic ways that money is used and the symbolic gestures, rituals and interactions around loans and credit. This is where you will have to ignore your desire to be an objective observer. Like you said “the abstract is one of the most difficult to ascertain across language, cultural and socio-economic barriers.” The way around this is to actually leverage your moments of surprise and confusion as key moments of insight and dig deep there.
    Sounds like a fascinating project. Thanks for sharing it.
    ps. Check out this project that I helped on. We used remote researchers in India to do the groundwork. It was a great team and might be another useful method for extending your research.


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