Things They Don’t Teach You In The Classroom
“This is just futile. What is the point of my answering this?”
Let me tell you, conducting a study in the comfort of your campus, within its premises, or even in a Western “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) country, is nothing like conducting research in a country such as Sri Lanka. Forget the lack of accessible public transport that inhibits quick travel from participant to participant when conducting interviews. Forget the change in climate that may induce some sickness or jetlag. Forget the different languages (and sometimes, communication barrier) and time constraints that one may have in conducting the research.
What do you do when your participants do not understand the premise of a questionnaire itself?
It seems to me that psychologists take for granted that people understand the notion behind a questionnaire. You are presented with statements. And you agree, or disagree. On a scale of 1 to 7 if you use Likert scales. But that’s the trick of actually doing field research. A student in a classroom can suggest the use of a Likert scale if a professor asks what type of scale should be used for a certain study. That’s what my group did when designing a study for Experimental Methods in Psychology and we didn’t think twice about it. If you walk up to someone in the Academic Commons and ask them to fill out a questionnaire with Likert scales in it, you take it for granted that the individual understands this idea of ‘rating’ their response on a scale of 1 to 7.
But what if the natives of the country in which one is doing the research in is not familiar with the concept of such a rating system? Better yet, what if these individuals are not familiar with a questionnaire, with such “arbitrary statements without context” itself?
What do you say when your participant then doesn’t understand the concept behind your research and questions the validity of it all?
You sit, and smile, and you ask them to fill out as much of the questionnaire as possible, bite your tongue, and take an aspirin after the study is done. There’s something they don’t usually teach you in the classroom.
Such questions are valid, after all. How is your participant supposed to rate their affinity to their culture, simply by “Agreeing” or “Disagreeing?” How are you supposed to explain to your participants that yes, certain statements need to be considered in singularity, and that no more context can be given? It’s especially difficult to explain to them that these items have been adapted from scales that have been administered in other conflict areas. People actually care about this topic. This research project doesn’t deal with hypothetical scenarios. It deals with real attacks, that occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war, that pique at sensitive memories. Some people refuse to acknowledge the conflict. Others won’t stop talking about it. Still others accuse me of being an agent that cause conflict by bringing up such issues. But these are the times that strengthen my own conviction that these issues can’t be swept under the rug, that we need to get people to reason out their justifications for both sides of the conflict, in order to move towards informed reconciliation, and not this umbrella term of “rehabilitation” that seems to be thrown around these days, in this setting.
Research is really not for the light-hearted. Or the easily-daunted. Recruiting participants, coordinating times and logistics with translators and transcribers who change their rates, and argue times and availability… and repeating the same questions to not two, three, four, but five and sometimes six people in one day, and biting your tongue if they come up with questions for you, the interviewer, regarding such sensitive material… is not fun, to say the least. When one of my participants refused to answer my questionnaire in the morning today, on account of it “radicalizing” him and not making any sense, I wanted to tear my hair out. But I smiled, and kept trying to explain that his response was going to be a statistic in the questionnaire, and would not be used to profile him specifically. Then there was the participant who refused to acknowledge the conflict in Sri Lanka, said my work was futile, and kept probing me to look into “the conflict in Iraq.”
A great way to start off the morning.
Then this evening, one of my participants said something to me, while filling out the questionnaire. “This is great, what you’re doing,” she nodded, “Thank you. Thirty years ago I watched my friends put their children on [vehicles] that carried them away in the middle of the conflict, and comforted them as bombs went off around me. What you’re doing might not change the world, but it gives people like me some hope that people nowadays care about this kind of thing. Thank you.”
The feeling I carried with me after that interview made all those issues I had worth it; that’s another thing they don’t teach you in the classroom.