Classifying the unclassified

This is my second year as a CASI summer research fellow, and my second year researching a complicated behavior phenomenon and community in my hometown of Mumbai, India.

This research is based in Mumbai’s Malvani neighborhood: the undefined borders of the same manage to pin the problem of assembling structure and amorphous meaning in social research. Malvani’s district borders are constantly changing: it’s predominantly migrant population constantly exploding and receding with COVID-related migrations, and it’s child population being the most dense in Mumbai city. “Shark schools” are private schooling enterprises launching in the neighborhood with extremely high tuition rates because the public school system cannot accommodate the burgeoning student population. Parents mostly work in service and small business sectors, with unreliable income frequencies and sources, and constantly changing perceptions and beliefs of their children’s long term education goals. There is no real constant in this dynamic community, making

Which category is it anyway?

Before the pandemic, parents hoped that their children would go to college, irrespective of gender, and now a shift in goals is evident with two years of schooling disruption. Through phone-based interviews, we tried to learn more about children’s home environments for home learning, care, and parent-child engagement. Implementing scientific and structured research also raised important problems that researchers don’t get to question enough: “this binary answer does not explain my complicated experience with my mental health” or “I do not understand all these different options because I don’t know what an ordinal scale is”. We ended up creating a practice questionnaire using enjoyment of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan movies on an ordinal scale to ease participants into the rest of the interview.

Seemingly straightforward questions such as “how many people live in your household” were challenging to tackle: “do I include my aunt’s son who is living with us this year while his mom is in North India for work?”. A question that caused the most chaos was “what is your main source of income” and was often met with “it was running the shop last month, but this month I am a security guard five days a week and it pays better”.

These seemingly innocuous barriers to smooth interviews and data collection were eye-opening as a PhD researcher: using our carefully constructed and validated metrics still require adequate tailoring to be the right fit for the targeted population! Moving forward, constantly improving the quality of data collection practices should be imperative, and we should be up for the challenge.

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About Anahita Kumar

I'm a PhD student at Penn GSE in the Human Development and Quantitative Methods Division. I research behavioral interventions such as cash transfers and phone-based nudges, parent engagement and decision-making, household stress, child labour practices, and children's learning environments, in India, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana.