Field work, hard work and networks

By Sergio Mukherjee

The difficulties of doing research in West Bengal are many:  very high temperatures (if you are there in the summer), poor public transportation outside major cities, general chaos, disregard for punctuality or ‘scheduled’ meetings, excessive verbosity or brevity on the part of interviewees, mosquitoes who work three-shifts a day around your ears and legs   (footnote, literally from the foot:  when I was a kid, the mosquitoes in India only worked at night.  Now, in a post-communist and liberalized West Bengal, they seem to be the only creatures–the only beings– that work day and night, round-the-clock).

At times, feelings of exhaustion and frustration can compete with the exhilaration of discoveries.  One needs to be patient here, and luckily patience is something I have in large supply.  I don’t think I was born with it, but the circumstances in which I grew up (the youngest out of three) taught me that it is in my interest to be patient especially with those who are not.  

Remembering  the reasons why I do what I do and some of the foundational traits that make me attracted to this profession in the first place have also kept me going when the improbable seemed most probable. I am sure every researcher has his/her own ‘pillars’ and ‘reasons’ that keeps he/she thinking at night when much of the world goes to sleep.  It is always useful to remember why you are doing this in anticipation of the sensorial overload that India generally provides.  In my case, I can highlight the following: 

a) Sense of problem b) Big question c) Personal curiosity d) Personal commitment to the issue e) Will of sharing my findings (the premise for me to keep researching and teaching) f) Imagination g) Intuition h) Relevance. 

Yes, everything in West Bengal is easier said than done.  Just ask any politician.  One of them even confessed: “When everything is said and done, more is always said here than actually done.” 

It could be, but it is my hope that more will be done in the near future for the greater well being of those pursuing literacy and basic education.  In terms of research-related tips, here are a few ‘rules’:

1) be super patient;

2) use whatever ‘connections’ you have starting with members of the family who might know someone

3) learn the local language (a huge advantage in my case)

4) use verbal consents for interviews – written ones will scare them;

5) try to get a local affiliation if possible with a Development Institute;

6) (for political scientists) — You are a political ECONOMIST with emphasis on the ‘ECONOMIST’ part;

7) clearly label the audio files or audio folders – it will make your life much easier after a few months of interviews. 

8) be extra polite even if someone keeps you waiting for 5 hours.  

9) get to know a few journalists early in the process – they tend to be extremely resourceful, dynamic and well-connected.  In my case, I am most grateful to Debeshish Chakraborthy (more on him in a different post)

9) you are a married person in India even if you are not (or else, they will call you back to set you up with the cousin of the neighbor)

Interviewing is an art, which all of us can master with time and experience.  Some interviwees are very talented at going off tangents or taking the conversation to where they are comfortable, but you somehow need to be patient and persistent enough to re-direct it to your set of questions.  Never sound impatient, since some tangential points can be actually quite relevant! And, don’t give them the impression that you are there to do ‘investigative journalism.’  Instead, I always presented my work in terms of “I am a researcher who is trying to understand X, Y and Z…” –which is the case!

Some interviews might be unsatisfying, but so be it.  After all, the learning experience an interview offers goes much beyond the set of answers we get.  Furthermore, keeping track of which questions were consistently ‘dodged’ can also be tremendously valuable. 

While the last thing you might want to do after a long and tiring day in the field is to type your ‘field notes,’ resist the temptation to go to sleep and get that done.  If you don’t want to stare at your computer screen, go back to those good old notebooks and get those daily notes written down, or else they will escape you very soon. Most of my evenings in Bengal were as predictable as the constant unpredictability of its daytime. I would take a refreshing cold shower, apply my Odomos (an advanced mosquito repellant) and write my notes.  As I scratched my head, documented my findings, and chronicled my encounters sitting in my small room, I never felt completely alone.

No matter how skilled and careful I tried to be in applying Odomos, you are always bound to miss a spot — a tiny one— which those little beasts are bound to find.  



(Photo by Sergio Mukherjee — with permission.  Ram Das, a hard-working hero, who lacked the means to gain literacy)

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About msergio2013

PhD Candidate -- University of Pennsylvania