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This article is taken from the January 2000 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

The hidden side of research: high quality fieldwork

The S&T approach to fieldwork is a developmental one, recruiting unemployed local matriculants training and deploying them in the field. The reasons? Enhanced quality, and a developmental investment in local human capital. The problems? Considerable, as Nobayethi Dube explains.

Having been involved in fieldwork training for research projects for the past three years, one begins to understand that each project has its own dynamics and challenges.

In planning a project, concepts and methodology are what specialists normally worry about. A proposal puts forward the methodology for the study, and once the client has accepted the project a brainstorm is arranged to design the questionnaire or instruments to use in field.

Designing a questionnaire could take weeks, especially if there are many interested parties involved. S&T normally goes through five to six drafts before anything is shown to the client. We then pilot the questionnaire to evaluate what works and what doesn't, once a final instrument is agreed, the research team is ready to go out to field.

Unemployed local matriculants are used to administer questionnaires, having been trained and sent out as teams to the various areas. Because of the unemployment 'epidemic', more fieldworkers have tertiary qualifications, but even so, a synergy of theory and practice must be achieved.

When planning for fieldwork teams, one has a set number of days within which to complete the sample. A fieldwork manager will always add days for 'unforeseen circumstances' which could affect the smooth running of data collection and which will vary from one project to the other. It could be violence, natural causes such as rain, areas which appear on the maps but are not necessarily known on the ground and (visa versa), and so on. In some instances, access may prove to be a problem where communities feel threatened by strangers asking for household information.

Using local people known in the area may avoid some problems, and should also lead to improved quality of data since there are no barriers of language or dialect or the sense of an 'outsider' asking questions. Locals know the area and are familiar with the culture.

Having chosen fieldworkers and supervisors (team-leaders) one is now set to train teams on sampling procedures (i.e. the selection of households and respondents) and administering the questionnaire.

During training it is imperative that the researcher who designed the questionnaire is part of the training team. Some clients also want to be present during training in order to introduce themselves and the project. We encourage this, and fieldworkers appreciate the respect it shows for their work.

In every training session, fieldworkers raise issues which may not be obvious to researchers. These may relate to the phrasing of questions, or perhaps to double-barrelled questions which may prove problematic during coding. Language is an issue, it is very rare that questionnaires are translated into vernacular languages because this is time-consuming and expensive. It is therefore important to get consensus during training on how certain questions will be asked. This is particularly true in metropolitan townships where people grow up speaking up to four and five languages.

The first week of fieldwork is crucial. It is important for the training team to be available for the issues and logistical problems that may come up, because of the unpredictable nature of issues on the ground.

If fieldworkers are experiencing access problems, the researcher may need to negotiate with local structures, amakhosi (traditional leaders) or others. During data collection a co-ordinator may be stationed in an area to act as a trouble-shooter. The co-ordinator is also responsible for check-backs (S&T normally checks 25% - 30% of all interviews) and meeting with teams during the survey.

Questionnaires don't always come back from field correctly completed, questionnaires must be checked before coding takes place. Again, coding poses a challenge because it is not only transferring numbers - coders must understand the questionnaire and pick up minor mistakes. Once coding is completed, questionnaires are sent for punching and then researchers can plan for write-up.

It is only at this point that top-line results can be shared with clients. Their first response is normally, "What took you so long?" If only they knew!

 

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