My colleagues and I, from the UK, the US and South Africa, feel frustrated. It is December 2014 and we have gathered at a jungle lodge in the highlands of Madagascar with 25 academics and postgraduate students from Antananarivo’s departments of sociology and communication to hash out the methodology for a large-scale research study. However, our research partners’ greater apparent interest in discussing theoretical issues is slowing us down. It is also tough for the interpreters, grappling with three-way simultaneous translation from Malagasy to English, French to English and English to French. The day reaches a low point when I hear through my headphones: “The real problem is situated somewhere between the problematic and the problematisation.”
We feel like prisoners in a jungle of theory. However, over the next few months, I come to realise that the lecture on Weber – and other diversions into Marxist, literary or linguistic theory – are not mere academic posturing. They are – to use development jargon – capacity-building. Unicef has asked our team to build the capacity of Antananarivo staff and students to conduct social research. We know how to design a quantitative and qualitative study, do the data analysis and write the report. But we know little about Madagascar: its culture and turbulent history, or how our Malagasy colleagues regard research. Their priority for the seminar is not to draft survey questionnaires but to build an equal, trusting research partnership…
According to the research design, a quantitative study (two questionnaires, with about 1,500 respondents for each) is to be conducted first, to highlight issues to be explored in the subsequent qualitative research. Unfortunately, the eastern floods and southern drought put the project several months behind schedule, and the Antananarivo qualitative research teams go into the field at about the same time as the quantitative research is being conducted, working in different communities. They emerge with hundreds of hours of focus group and interview transcripts and field notes, and it is a formidable task to merge them with the quantitative data.
Ultimately, common sense and pragmatism prevail. We use geographic and economic criteria to classify communities into four types: interior, sub-coastal, coastal and urban. Some interior communities are two days by zebu cart from the main dirt road; including them would lengthen the research and strain the budget. We reduce the long list of variables to be analysed. Our Antananarivo colleagues have a therapeutic 15-minute debate over whether coding – or, indeed, any attempt to organise human experience – is a colonial imposition. And then everyone goes back to work.
Doing quality research in first-world countries is difficult enough and yet working through the obstacles to doing good research in the developing world could lead to many positive consequences. It would be nice to see a follow-up article that shows what came of all these efforts.