Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sigur Center Grant for Field Research Summer 2012: Girls' Education in Rural India

The most important lesson gained from my recent Qualitative Research Methods course is that all researchers must own their subjectivity. Regardless of qualitative, quantitative, or mixed method designs, your motivations, beliefs, and opinions will color your study to some degree. Our professor encouraged us to reflect on these issues throughout the semester, and it was a very worthwhile exercise. However, it is something that I continue to struggle with during my research here in India, particularly with regard to cultural differences.

I am navigating an ambiguous boundary between cultural outsider and insider. My heritage is not Indian, but I have gained insight into the country’s culture and traditions through interactions with my Indian-born husband and his family. My mother-in-law’s strong desire for me to learn her native language, Tulu, has resulted in hours of study with flashcards and audio-recordings and the acquisition of key phrases. In addition, I’ve been taught to respectfully address all Indian people older than myself as “Auntie”, “Uncle”, “Anna” (brother), and “Akka” (sister), regardless of our actual familial connection, and am cognizant of using my right hand to handle money, hold books, and touch food.

While I am certainly no expert, in the United States, I am often engaged in discussions about India, whether with a stranger discussing my ungila wedding ring (the traditional ring of my husband’s community) or explaining my marriage to South Asians who inquire about my Indian last name. These conversations inevitably lead to questions about my travels to India, of which there have been none. Until now.

And the first thing I realized when I stepped off the plane is that I truly know very little about this country which has a mind-boggling diversity of religions, customs, languages, and food. It was also immediately obvious that I will be viewed by everyone here as an outsider, a ‘foreigner’. Whatever confidence I had in my ability to blend in disappears as I struggle to roll my r’s when announcing my desired destination to the bus conductor or fumble awkwardly when dancing to Bollywood songs with girls at the schools that I’ve been researching. There have also been numerous embarrassing moments as I attempt to eat rice and sambar using only my right hand, often watched by an audience of people curious to see how Americans eat and whether I can handle the spices.

All efforts to explain my connection are met with confusion or hilarity, as in the case of a school administrator who literally fell off her chair in fits of laughter when my husband’s cousin called me his auntie-in-law, or disapproval, like the man at the flour shop yesterday who tsk-tsked as our other cousin explained why she was with an American. Strangers approach me at every tourist attraction, and even local government offices, to request photos with me. It will be a long time before the memory of my time at the Mysore Palace fades, as I spent 15 minutes in a photo-shoot with a family of 20 people who expressed such excitement that I could not deny them a few minutes of my time.

While I have travelled internationally in the past, this is my first time spending an extended period in areas where few foreigners have ventured, and my first experience collecting data in such a context. Of course, I have taken measures to ensure that my data collection and analysis is overseen by individuals who are intimately familiar with these locations and their cultural practices, but I cannot erase the feeling that perhaps it is inappropriate to do research out of one’s own culture. The thought of “Othering” my research sites and participants concerns me to a great extent.

Beyond the language barrier (many of my participants speak Kannada, and I do not), this doubt has been most apparent during classroom observations. The Indian education system differs in several significant ways from the U.S. system. Numerous journal articles and books illustrate this clearly. However, it is challenging to witness these differences firsthand, while reserving judgment based on comparisons to the U.S. and other western nations. My first observation of corporal punishment in the classroom, for example, shocked me, and I intensively recorded the interaction in my observation notes. The same event was recorded by my local guide/interpreter as, simply, “typical behavior correction- teacher lightly tapped student on her back.”

I’m not convinced that I will be able to represent my participants as fairly or objectively as I wish, but perhaps this is the case with every study. Even my local guides have struggled during observations of non-formal education programs, as they have been raised in the formal education system. In the end, I think it is a Catch-22-like situation: one must have understanding to do the research, but one can only truly understand by doing the research. It is a seemingly never-ending balancing act.

Nora Shetty
M.A. International Education, 2013
Sigur Center 2012 Field Research Fellow
Karnataka, India

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