I spent one month living at Sevagram Ashram in Wardha during the spring of 2013, as part of the CMU Social Change Semester Program. In addition to collaborating with KJBF staff on several writing projects, they accompanied me to conduct individual interviews during two days of visits to water project sites. Manasi Patil, a former CMU student, and KJBF staff member Haribhai Mori were my main translators. I also interviewed women at Self-Help Group and Village Volunteer meetings. I interviewed a total of nine people, not including the number of women who attended various group discussions that also informed my research. All interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed, and photos were taken after interviews had been conducted with their permission.
My own research interests and KJBF’s need for case studies for their annual report shaped the interview format. I wrote a script of questions for the sake of consistency across case studies, but I expanded upon these questions as I gauged the interest and comfort level of participants. KJBF is using some of my interview findings in their case studies, so I avoided asking questions that demanded information that was too private or potentially put the participant at any risk. All interview and group discussion participants were informed about the purpose of conducting interviews and how their responses might be used by KJBF and my own research.
COMPLICATIONS of GENDER and FIELD RESEARCH
Gender dynamics influence the quality of interviews between beneficiaries and researchers, which can skew research findings that inform water resource development projects and policies. While it can be difficult to tease apart the impact of cultural, gender, and language differences between field researchers and subjects, they all can hinder researchers from building connections with local communities (Schenk-Sandbergen 1995 WS-138). Many female researchers in India have also struggled to navigate around cultural restriction such as chaperoning women (Schenk-Sandbergen WS-40).
Researchers themselves can hold condescending viewpoints about their roles within rural water development, which hinders their ability to connect with local citizens. Insensitivity is evident in statements such as “When NGOs educate poor people, they at least contribute to broadening their horizons, and to some extent, make them listen to reason [emphasis added]” (Ghosh 2009). Such statements undermine the knowledge and awareness of farmers and can damage partnerships between agencies and rural communities. Stereotypes about rural peoples have become less pervasive, but their more subtle forms perpetuate the idea that rural communities are incapable of leading themselves.
Interviewing project beneficiaries consisted of wading through layers of cordialities and formalities to elicit honest feedback, a task that is complicated by gender and cultural differences between researchers, like myself, and local support staff. KJBF graciously scheduled transport, hours of interviews and transport for my research, but their involvement made it inherently more difficult to conduct interviews. Their unyielding proximity made it difficult for participants to give private responses to my questions. KJBF staff was under pressure to collect success stories for their upcoming annual report. Some staff members would act as translators and often tried to speak on behalf of participants without even translating my questions.
As a young woman interviewing men, it was difficult to make the farmers feel comfortable talking about their problems. Participants often treated the interview process as an opportunity to assert their dedication to KJBF rather than to openly discuss any concerns or critiques. On occasions in which a male CMU colleague was present during an interview, participants and KJBF staff would direct all of the conversation towards him, which made it more difficult for me to interject with follow-up questions or comments. In rural Wardha, women have little freedom to travel outside of their home, so the only time I interviewed a woman at a field site was in the presence of her husband. Even with guarantees of anonymity, women and men all felt uncomfortable being the center of attention from outside researchers, KJBF staff, and the inevitable band of onlookers.
In Wardha, and perhaps other communities throughout India, attempting to conduct interviews with individuals is the least affective research method. Individual interviews and the expectation for critical feedback of any kind, seems to be a uniquely Western approach. Because I only had a few days in which to conduct my interviews and live in Wardha District for only a month, I had little time to establish any trust with farmers.
Working with KJBF Women’s Self-Help Groups, Participatory Rural Appraisal meetings, and Village Volunteer groups allowed me to interview women in a more comfortable setting and present challenging questions. The conventional interview process of a brief introduction, series of questions and prompt departure leaves little room for establishing more substantial dialogue. Casually conversing with participants at group meetings and asking for collective responses instead took the focus off of individuals and lessened the pressure of a formal interview. This configuration also allowed me to interact with women from more diverse social groups and different villages, who were able to contribute different perspectives on water management in their respective communities. Bringing women together to discuss their own community concerns evoked powerful and emotional responses from women about their struggles and hopes for their communities and KJBF. This powerful and unexpected exchange strengthened my friendships with the women and gave me a far nuanced comprehension of the issues that they face.
Paying close attention to the women’s ideas and opinions was a simple but profound way to gain their trust. My foreign background sometimes helped women to feel comfortable talking with me because I was a neutral party removed from their social setting. Being an outsider with very different experiences than the women also provided rich conversational opportunities in which we could compare our own routines and experiences. Demonstrating my interest in their lives encouraged women to openly discuss their daily activities, enabling me to learn more about their water use and relationship with KJBF.