Prateek Aggarwal is the Field Manager at Outline India.He has previously worked in Management Coordination and Support Team at Pragya. He was a fellow at Milaap and took part as a field investigator in FOCUS 2 report undertaken by centre for equity studies.He has a Masters Degree in Sociology from Ambedkar University.
Qualitative studies can be very interpretative in nature. There are no encompassing theories of how an interview or how a FGD should be interpreted. For example, an FGD conducted by two different researchers in the same location might lead to very different conclusions, based on a variety of factors such as the social background of respondents, the way the questions are framed by the researchers, how villagers perceive outsiders and much more. After recently conducting in district Raniganj in Bihar, here are some of the factors that I observed would be helpful to conduct focus group discussions more effectively.
Preparing for the FGD
There is a tendency to generalize a village as a monolithic entity, wherein the community conforms to a uniform culture. This may lead to us developing a reductionist account of the perspectives and practices within the community. I discovered this once when I went to conduct a meeting at a panchayat with 50-60 people present, where I asked a question about the quality of the Anganwadi’s resources. I assumed this would elicit straightforward, simple answers, however, it brought out deeply felt conflicts among the respondents, who became very argumentative. It seemed that they had very different experiences of the anganwadi because on the spatial organization of the village, where they lived and socio-economic factors.
Every society has its own cultural idiosyncrasies, which we may not immediately be able to understand or relate to, as outsiders. Therefore it is important that we are familiar with our respondents and their environment before we conduct the study. This can be achieved by learning about the community and its culture from the local resources such as the ASHA, PHC workers, local shopkeepers or school teachers. Having conversations with your own field team can give you deeper insights about the cultural context, which can be used to further probe the FGD.
We also need to realize that as researchers, we are effectively intruders in their community and due to time constraints while conducting an FGD, we might not have enough time to break the ice with the respondents. Under such circumstances, it can be helpful to involve the community leaders such as sarpanch, school leaders, and SHG leader and like, as they can help us to gain the trust of the community and by extension, the trust of respondents. However, involving local authorities may be possible in all the cases as the study may be such which requires a total non-participation of such local authorities.
With or without help, it is crucial to gain the confidence of your participants and make them comfortable talking to you, to ensure the depth of conversation in an FGD. To mitigate the risk of low participation in an FGD and lack of trust, it is important to spend extra time on the field with the community as this helps in getting participants familiar with both researchers and purpose of their study.
While recruiting participants it is also important to ensure that participants from different socio-economic and caste backgrounds are a part of the discussion. This will help us ensure that we have the representation of diverse sub-cultures in the FGD. However, it may also happen that participants from one background are dominated by the participants from the other in the discussion and in such cases, separate FGDs should be conducted.
It may so happen that more people are interested that the required number of the participants or people from the community in the village who we do not want to study may also want to be part of it. A situation like this has to be handled very carefully so as to not offend any community. We can explain the villagers the purpose of the study, in addition, we can have separate mock FGD with the other community members or extra participants.
It is always helpful to have enough manpower to communicate with community member and the deal with the situations which may arise from the misunderstanding which happens more than often. To put yourself in the shoes of the respondents and think of the way you would perceive an outsider asking you to share details that you are asking for will give us a context which will help us better conduct the FGD.