- Samruddhi Gole, Senior Research Associate
Education research often yields valuable insights not only through effective documentation and dissemination of results but also through the enlightening experiences gained in fieldwork. These fieldwork encounters are enriched with "aha" moments, which can significantly contribute to the research process. In particular, fieldwork acts as a catalyst for the maintenance of critical thinking skills, the formation of a deep understanding of the local context, and the management of expectations within the research field. As a researcher locked in a room in front of a computer on your desk, immersing yourself in the field of education is crucial. Fieldwork is not just about gaining entry into the field, but it is more about respecting local context, customs, and people, building relationships, and improving a better understanding of the moral edifice that is part of a research project.
Given my recent educational fieldwork for our project on the status of in-service teacher training in India, I use this article to discuss it as a platform to explore the nuances of fieldwork processes in the Indian context, explicitly emphasising the intricate permission procedures. My colleague Umesh and I were working in the field to observe a training program jointly organised by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) in collaboration with the Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training (GCERT) and the School Leadership Academy in Saputara, Dang. Before getting on the field, accessing necessary permissions and approvals is not only a requirement but also a crucial part of any research project design. The basis of our access approvals and permissions began to initiate collaborations with educational officials at the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) and various other educational institutions. Later, we started collaborating with local and national NGOs in India. However, collaborating with government educational officials played an important role in initiating the pilot of our study.
Openness and Contextual Understanding
Undertaking a research project requires permissions and approvals, regardless of whether one is an insider or outsider. As residents of this country, we also had to go through the process of obtaining permission to conduct our study. Despite being familiar with the geographical and socio-cultural aspects of the country, our understanding was still limited compared to that of a local researcher. We had to remind ourselves that we were guests wherever we went constantly. As researchers from a particular part of the country, we faced challenges in understanding the local dynamics, and socio-cultural context and obtaining entry access permissions. The process was highly bureaucratic and time-consuming.
When seeking necessary permissions and approvals, academic knowledge and expertise must take a back seat. The researcher needs to learn how to establish local networks and contacts with educational officials, especially when conducting a research project that is highly required and culturally sensitive.
When you arrive in a state in India that is not your native place, people will ask you where you are from. Your language will reveal that you are not a native. Even if you or your parents have lived there for generations, having come from another part of the country, you will still be considered an outsider. Your sociocultural background and the institutions supporting you can influence the perceptions of local authorities. Gender and position also play a critical role, especially in this research, where a female researcher from an NGO, rather than an authoritative body like other educational government bodies, is involved. Being open to ideas and suggestions from nonresearchers who are educational officials is crucial when approving research.
Establishing contacts and being open to suggestions as a researcher is an ongoing and reflexive process. In India, while private schooling is growing, it is crucial to collaborate with insiders who are part of local government or educational authorities, as their insights and suggestions are invaluable. Collaborating with them not only helps in accessing approvals and entry into the field but also provides a critical reminder throughout the research process to break down any inherent biases.
Processes of Fieldwork
1. Establishing contact
The establishment of collaborations with educational authorities is highly imperative. You can effectively complete your study and obtain the necessary approvals with the help of that one person. For our project, we initially contacted officials who would provide us with the essential data without obtaining permission to undertake this study. It did not help us at all. Our attempts were unsuccessful. However, we continued to explore multiple opportunities to gain access and permission to carry out our project.
2. Gaining Permission
Permission to access necessary approvals differs from project to project and the type of research that is conducted. If your project involves children you can talk to a school principal, parents of the children and teachers too. You can talk to students also. This process may not be that difficult, but when it is about data related to administrative processes and working with educational officials you must have formal permission to conduct your study. However, in this scenario, interaction with educational officials is preferable. Establishing contact with an authorised individual, at least in our instance, aided us in gaining access to the field.
If you manage to get formal or informal permission for your research fieldwork, you need to research how you can travel to the field, the best mode of travelling, and what season you will be conducting your fieldwork in. Consequently, you need to choose your clothes. While on the field formal attire is highly advisable. When is the best time to do fieldwork? In our case, it entirely relied on the teacher training organiser, however, we did receive information on when training will occur. It helped us to plan in advance. You must plan your stay and food at the field. We were fortunate to stay at the training centre, which was well equipped and well-managed, thanks to the organiser. It was the best cuisine we'd had. For us, a field visit provided the finest opportunity to conduct pilot research and manage everything easily. These are the things you should keep in mind when travelling to India for fieldwork.
Challenges to Educational Fieldwork in India
There are advantages to closely observing people and developing completely diverse, contextualised points of view, yet there are drawbacks to educational fieldwork in India. Owing to the participation of multiple parties and establishments in the authorisation procedure, feedback and approvals may take longer than anticipated. These uncertainties can cause stress and anxiety for researchers. Many times researchers may think they need to give up their project and need to look for something else entirely. In our case, we had planned our study well in advance, but it took an additional year to obtain data since we were not allowed to pilot the project. Beyond uncertainties and numerous closed doors, one must continue to follow up with different people to obtain permission and control internal stress by discussing your concerns with your seniors. If you are certain about the project, you can schedule permissions far in advance. Continue looking for alternative methods of obtaining the necessary approvals and permissions.
There are some more difficulties.
You might not be able to establish contacts and a rapport with your respondents even after entering a research field until you are formally introduced to them. It could be a waste of your time. In our case, we had to wait a day before being introduced to our respondent and explaining why we were there. It was the loop that caused our data collection process to be delayed.
Fieldwork costs must also be considered. Fortunately, unless you want to live in luxury, fieldwork in India is not too expensive.
Having recently completed my educational research fieldwork in Saputara Gujarat, I conclude this article with some final thoughts for conducting educational research fieldwork within a similar setting
Researchers must invest enough time and effort into comprehending the particular environment of their work. In this paper are included political, social and cultural developments that have influenced local lives in the past and present. In order to better acclimatise researchers to local reality, it also entails becoming knowledgeable of customs and practices.
All documentation, including study instruments, procedures, and authorisation applications, must be clear and precise, and it must show how the research will help the beneficiaries involved.
Careful preparation should include assigning the appropriate time and resources to comprehend requirements, compile necessary documentation, and acquire permissions.
To leverage previous learning and secure local permits, researchers should contact experienced researchers and local stakeholders, including government agencies and universities. This increases the quality of research and the dissemination of findings. To develop a network of support for present and future research initiatives, such relationships necessitate proactive communication and collaboration.
Disclaimer: This article is based on our experiences conducting educational fieldwork in India, specifically in-service teacher training, and may not apply to other types of fieldwork.