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Rapidly refining research methods

Rapidly refining research methods

Chris Shepherd is a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the Australian National University. He has undertaken postdoctoral research on rural development processes in Peru and Timor-Leste. He has published widely, using Science and Technology Studies perspectives to shed light on how new technologies interact with indigenous groups and local cultures. Chris is researching the impact of Kopernik’s Light Up Oecusse project in Timor-Leste.

Since late 2010 Kopernik has distributed more than 3,000 d.light solar lights in the remote enclave of Oecusse, home to approximately 6,000 households. We aim to give every household in the enclave access to clean, bright solar light. Along the way, we have sent Research Fellows to monitor how the d.lights are surviving the conditions in Oecusse and evaluate the impact the lights are having on people’s lives. We use this information to report to donors, provide feedback to the manufacturers, keep ourselves accountable to customers, and share with other organisations.

This has been cross-posted from the Kopernik in Action blog.

To date, I have conducted about 50 solar light surveys. Surveys are fairly routine affairs; a list of questions and a range of answers that eventually becomes predictable. There are, moreover, methodological limitations to surveys. Not only do they structure the responses, but they assume that people can provide the information one wishes for, and that this is an accurate representation of reality.

For instance, when I ask a rural farmer for which activities he uses d.light solar lights, he may have just one answer: ‘cooking’. So, I give some prompting….

Me: … and how about eating?

Him: Yes, eating too.

Me: … what else… washing dishes?

Him: Yes, washing dishes….

Me: What about the children. Do they use it for study?

Him: Yes.

Me: How long for each night. One hour, two hours…?

Him: Yes.

Me: Yes what? One or two? Hmmm… ok, let’s say one hour….

His children may have never studied at home, neither at night nor during the day, but still he will answer in the affirmative.

Fundamentally, by surveying, we are asking the informant to report on things, to give an account. Reporting and accounting, in this particular survey way, lies outside of the experience of most people in Timor-Leste.

Seeking information on solar lights during the day, when the lights are used at night, is comparable to doing a study of the rice harvest at the time of the sowing (or, for that matter, doing a study of how an anthropologist does fieldwork after he has thrown in his career).

This is why anthropology invented participant observation, where the anthropologist would go to live in a village (or somewhere) for an extended period. This was no less the case in order to study a given technology, such as a hoe or a spear: to understand a technology, you have to be there and follow it, for weeks, months, years; you have to see how that technology is woven into the very fabric of social life, how it acquires certain meanings, how it is embedded in particular practices, how it mediates social relations, how the technology itself is like a ‘living agent’ that ‘uses’ people as much as people use it.

I was thinking along these lines when I wrote about preconceptions. After doing 50 surveys and realising that doing surveys was perfectly suited to understanding the social life of surveys (after all, surveys too are a living technology) but imperfectly suited to understanding the social life of d.lights, I thought it was time to switch from day shift to night shift, from survey mode to participant observation mode.

In doing so, one consideration was paramount: what method could allow me to research d.lights at night while minimising boredom and discomfort. The risk of boredom and discomfort has always led me to prefer multi-sited ethnography to the classical village study.

In the latter, one is imprisoned in the village, perhaps for 18 months, while in the former one can follow his or her interests and whims. Was there an alternative method to sitting in a hut, night after night, with my ethnographic eye trained on solar lamps and the activities that took place under them?

Yes, indeed, there was an alternative, and since ethnographers like to give technical terms for their field-methods, I will call it Rapid Transit Night-time Qualitative Technology Assessment, or RTNQTA (don’t forget to cite me if you are going to use it).

Perhaps I should pretend that RTNQTA was devised and refined over a period of years, to improve existing field methods. In truth, I came up with the idea yesterday afternoon, at about 3:15 pm. This is how it would look: I would go on a night-ride in any given direction from Pante Macassar (except north, of course, which would have me riding into the sea), and stop at every d.light I encountered, record its specific use, and make conversation with the owners; to be thoroughly postmodern, I would also make conversation with the d.light (‘Are you a happy little d.light? Do you love your owners?’); I would ‘survey’ one hundred moments of d.light use, wherever that might be—on roads, in huts, in fields, on tidal flats or in pig pens — then return home to bed. I would do this for ten nights, and then compile statistical data and make qualitative observations, and I would cross-tabulate, triangulate and quadripulate with the daytime survey.

I dedicate the remainder of this blog to last night’s RTNQTA.

Saturday June 15.

6.45 pm: Leave Pante Macassar, ride west along coast, deep into the night.

6.55 pm: In Lifau, encounter a young man and his brother using one d.light S250 solar light to put away the pigs.

7.01pm: Lifau, a family sitting under a verandah, illuminated by one d.light S10. I ask them what they are doing (even though it’s quite obvious): ‘just sitting’ (tuur de’it). At this point in time, it strikes me that RTNQTA is a very good method indeed, since I don’t have to spend three hours watching them sitting.

7.02 pm: I rapid-transit out of there, cross the river, get to the other side (arriving at the other side should not be assumed in this place), continue on, until I come across two men and three women walking along, with one d.light S1 showing the path ahead. ‘Hi, how are you, where are you going?’, I enquire. ‘Nowhere’, they reply. I open my notebook and jot down, ‘Sub-village Tulaika: five people going nowhere with one S1’. I bid them all the best for their journey, and continue with mine.

7.15 pm: Now about 10 kilometres west of the river. It is pitch black, there is nobody to be seen, the shadows appear spooky, and I am beginning to wonder whether my RTNQTA is a sensible idea.

7.22 pm: The darkness is broken by what appears, from a distance, to be one d.light. It is indeed; as I approach I meet one S250 accompanied by four girls. I stop abruptly. ‘Boanoite!’, I call out, happy to see fellow humans again, and I dig into my bag to extract my camera. The girls scream and run. ‘Four timid girls and one S250 going from a to b; field method needs further refinement’, I note.

7.30 pm: I arrive at a village. I drop in at Maun José’s house (he works for Kopernik’s local partner, Fundasaun Esperanza Enclave Oecusse). I observe three d.lights: one S250 lights up their kiosk, one S1 is in the bedroom, and one S10 is hanging under the verandah. ‘How’s life?’, I ask each of the d.lights. ‘Is your battery holding out?’ José looks at me strangely.

I tell José about my new research method, and translate it into Tetum for him: Halai Lalais Loos Kalan-kalan hodi Halo Evaluasaun Impaktu Teknolojia Nian. He repeats the words, apparently impressed. This conversation ensues:

José: Be careful tonight. Don’t stay out after 8 pm.

Me: Why not?

José: Ninja.

Me: Ninja?

José: They’re like people, with a black veil covering their face, black shirt, black pants, boots. They’re big and tall and kill people.

Me: Are they really people or are they like witches?

José: They are like people.

Me: Do they kill malae (foreigners) too?

José:… That I don’t know…. They take children’s heads and put them under bridges.

Me: Are there a lot of them?

José: One or two… They steal…

Me: Steal what?

José: Just whatever they find.

Me: Do the ninjas use d.lights?

A woman with a S250 turns up to buy cooking oil. I snap a photo.

8.15 pm: I continue riding west. At the edge of the village I see three figures on the seashore with a lamp of some kind. I cross to the beach. One young man and two boys are catching fish trapped in the shallow pools of tidal flats. The man wields a S250 in one hand, while with the other he knocks the fish out using a machete.

Using the d.light 250 to catch some fish at night.
Using the d.light 250 to catch some fish at night.

He says, ‘when there are no vegetables, we look for sea vegetables (i.e. fish),’ and he adds, ‘This d.light is really useful’.

‘Do a lot of people come down here at night with d.lights?’, I ask.

‘Not too many… ninjas’, he replies.

8.28 pm: I return to the motorbike and leave the village. No moonlight. No people. Total darkness. It is at least another 10 kilometres to the next village on a road that is more like a dry creek bed. I start to wonder, about these ninjas. I notice shadows. I rapid-transit more rapidly (or speed up). I tell myself that ninjas are nonsense. But the shadows augment my anxiety. What if I’m mistaken as a ninja, and am attacked? What if there really are thieves who dress up as ninjas? My reason succumbs to some more primal fear emerging from some primitive recess of the anthropologist’s mind. ‘There are no ninjas!’, my rational self insists; yet just beyond the light of my motorbike, I sense ninjas all around me. ‘This is enough research for tonight’, I say to myself, and I turn around and head for home.

8.40 pm: I see a figure behind a tree with a d.light. Not stopping to see what he is up to, I hurry on.

8.55 pm: I arrive at the river. I cross it. I see four motorbikes parked, and just beyond I distinguish a group of six youths, sitting in a circle beside the river. Smoke swirls up through the shine of one d.light. I approach them. They invite me to sit with them. Comforted. They are smiling, at nothing, or at everything. I inhale. The moon rises. The light flickers on the water. It trickles, mesmerises.  I exhale. There are no ninjas here.

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4 thoughts on “Rapidly refining research methods

  1. Well- written narrative. Kind of feel like I’m left wanting some kind of summary evaluation of the research method. Maybe that’s the point?

    1. Agreed. Can we get a follow-up, ed? There doesn’t seem to be one at the original posting site.

    2. Chris is currently writing up the results of his impact assessment, which we will publish on the Kopernik website. In the mean time, he is continuing to share insights from his solar light research on the Kopernik in Action blog.

    3. Chris Shepherd’s complete impact assessment of the Light Up Oecusse project is now (finally) available on the Kopernik website here:

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