Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections
Chapter Three: Research Methodology
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar
(Antonio Machado 1875-1939)
Wanderer, there is no path
The path is made by walking[i]
In November’s Informer, I explained the theoretical framework for my study, Raising the Dust: Exploring Traditional Medicine in a Changing Context. I showed that whilst I was bringing together many different concepts in my research, these different ways of thinking about the world can be brought together through a number of core themes and ideas. In my November article, I also suggested that I was drawn to indigenous and post-colonial methodologies. For me, this was the natural link between what I was studying and how I would go about doing it.
My undergraduate study is in Anthropology. I have a keen interest in other cultures; their knowledge, practices and beliefs. Given my background in Anthropology, it seemed that completing my cross-cultural study should then be done using an ethnographic methodology, one where I went and spoke directly with participants, in the context of their everyday lives. I was aware of course, that despite my interests in indigenous knowledge and in post-colonial methodologies, I was born a white South African and had become a naturalised white Australian. Hardly a recipe for understanding traditional ecological knowledge or indigenous research methodologies. Whilst I remained true to these knowledge bases as much as I could, I soon realised that I could only view these frameworks from my own particular point of view.
Anthropology is a holistic approach as it looks at everything in the context of its greater environment. As an ecological approach, it looks at the interconnections that make up the whole. The early anthropological approaches that I had previously studied where not much help, however, because they are antagonistic to culturally appropriate contemporary research methods. They objectified and demeaned others. Yet despite these limitations, they were the primary way in which people learned about each other at the time. Even the earliest anthropologists have helped people understand each other’s ways. They certainly paved the way for the more engaging and intersubjective post-colonial discourse that followed WWII.
As the core methodology of the discipline of Anthropology, ethnography remains one of the best ways of learning about others. Given my limitations of not being an indigenous researcher, yet my ethnographic research interests were about an aspect of traditional knowledge, I had to develop a methodology that would respect all aspects of my participant’s knowledge, practices and beliefs, whist at the same time, acknowledging my own biases and limitations, as a white person. Seeking suitably rigorous ethnographic methods within this context, I soon realised that narrative inquiry, using insider and outsider voices to explore aspects of traditional knowledge, practices and beliefs, would be the best way to go about things. My methodology thus emerged from my literature review, as I drew on the early theoretical and conceptual frameworks of the study, those being holism, harmony, interrelationship and balance.
It was important to me to acknowledge my “outsider” status and be sensitive to all aspects of my cross-cultural research. As an open-minded, honest, tolerant and curious person, with a strong interest in holistic health, and an extensive professional career in helping others, it was easy for me to be drawn to qualitative, narrative methods. Early on, I selected two main ethnographic methods to support my narrative methodology, in-depth interviewing and participant observation. Although I had grown up in South Africa, and had travelled to a number of other countries in southern Africa, I had never been to Malawi, the country I choose to conduct my fieldwork in. I chose Malawi because it is a poor country that is rich in biodiversity; close to my South African home, but not my home. I discovered a suitable Biosphere Reserve in the South of Malawi, one that highlighted traditional medicine as a part of the areas local features. The region is defined by Mulanje Mountain, Malawi’s “Island in the Sky”. The mountain stands out as a distinctive feature of the surrounding landscape as its 650 square kilometre massif peaks at over 3000 metres above sea level. In order to familiarise myself with this region, I studied maps and pictures of the place, and I spoke to anyone who had been there. I found out as much as I could about the predominantly rural area where my field work was to take place but, for the most part, the area remained entirely foreign to me.
Most importantly, early on in my study, I began establishing contact with an organisation in my field work area. It started with a single email to someone I thought might be helpful. He then referred me on to the right person in the role of research officer, who in turn instructed me about what I would need to do in order to be given permission to conduct my field research. Even before I left for fieldwork, due to my early contacts, the research had already started to take shape. I knew that I was to be conducting my interviews and participant observation around Mulanje Mountain. Knowing that I was following the research guidelines of one of the key stakeholders in a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere designated area. gave me the confidence I needed to enter the field and provided me with a suitable ethical framework.
Knowing that I would have no car, and would need to cover considerable distances, most of the time on foot, I began preparing myself for the fitness this would require. I walked about 50kms each week for many months prior to leaving for the field. This was all part of the preparations for the study. In addition to these physical preparations, I also began preparing myself emotionally for my journey. To do this I started a journal, noting my thoughts, feelings and dreams. I made notes of the people I spoke to and the things that came up for me at the time. I recorded my thoughts about going over to my research field and also my feelings about what I was leaving behind. I had decided on a 3-month time frame for my fieldwork, with a few weeks either side to visit my country of birth and meet my first grandchild. This was long enough for me to conduct my interviews, and get a feel for the community I would be living in, and it was short enough for me not to be a burden on the internationally funded organisation that was supporting my research. It was great to have connections with my field before I left.
For me this was very important because I did not want to be just another researcher, going to a ‘poor’ country, talking to people and then taking their knowledge away with me when I left. This is what research is often inherently about, collecting knowledge and then removing it from its source, but it was important to me to be authentic and open in my methods so I learned as much as I could about intersubjective and engaging methods. Not only did I try and understand these qualitative approaches, I did everything I could to make them part of myself before I left.
All of these things added to the essential mental preparations of fieldwork. It is important to enter the field with an open mind, but it is also important to be prepared. In my case, because I was heading off to engage with people, not just about their knowledge, but about their traditional cultural practices and beliefs too, it was also important to prepare myself spiritually for my field. Generally, I am very open minded, spiritually, yet I knew that I must stay open to the subtle meanings and spiritual beliefs of all of the participants in my study. I felt that my intuition would become an important research tool, since my methodology involved interpreting the words, behaviours and beliefs of the stakeholders. I have a strong intuitive voice and believe that by listening to it, this helped me to complete my fieldwork successfully.
As noted, I choose to conduct interviews in the field. The in-depth interviews that I initially designed changed, however, to meet local conditions. They had to be changed twice and became much shorter, simpler questions, more directly related to the lived experiences of the participants. This is all part of qualitative research. How we design our research and what we find in the field are often two quite different things, so we need to be flexible. For instance, my participant’s had responsibilities that did not allow them to be away from their homes for hours on end. I had initially planned to interview two groups of between six and ten traditional healers. I had designed my open ended research questions around my planned one hour sessions but since this did not suit my participants, each interview ended up being around 20 minutes and most were conducted with the assistance of a Chichewe speaking interpreter. Instead of the projected between 12 to 20 participants, all up there were 48 participants who wanted to be included. I was able to accommodate their requests by modifying my interview questions, thereby allowing enough time to speak with them all. Being narrative research, I was able to change my approach to meet my participant’s needs without losing sight of any of my initial research aims. This is how qualitative research becomes naturalistically shaped in the field.
Although it is completed after data collection, data analysis is included in the methodology. In my study I used an interpretive analysis. To do this I referred back to African philosophy and post-colonial discourse to give weight to my interpretations and put them into context in the field. A small paragraph from my thesis shows how I approached this interpretation.
The first time I made the trip to Phalombe I was struck by the idyllic rural characteristics of the surrounding area. The experience imprinted a somewhat surreal impression in my outside observer’s mind. The rurality of the landscape transported my senses to places I had never been before, yet seemed to know and remember well. Perhaps it was associated with places from my early childhood memories in Africa. The mountain, the fading light, the mud huts, the goats, the rapidly changing weather patterns, the bicycles, the dust and the Coca-Cola signs transported me to a space, a place and a time in-between. The sight, sounds, tastes and smells of the in-between spaces struck my senses. The area has a very different ‘feel’ to the Nessa side of the mountain. I could not see pineapples or bananas growing there, as I had in Nessa village, the landscape is flat and remnant forest vegetation can be seen close by. The miombo grass is longer and different to the miombo grass growing around Nessa. Domestic animals, like chickens, goats and dogs roam around or sit in the middle of road in the Boma[ii]. Cattle, an unusual site elsewhere around the mountain, return home in the evening guided by a young herdsman. By entering into this liminal space I could consciously compare, contrast … and most importantly, position myself in the field.
I used my field notes to record my personal experiences and made layered or ‘deep’ descriptions of my observations in the field but was always aware of the limitations of my research, both of myself as researcher and of my chosen methods. In order to overcome some of these limitations I continuously referenced my own experiences within the local context with a broader African philosophy and way of life. Likewise, I had to explore what “traditional” meant in the context of my research participants lives. I wanted to be sure to avoid imposing a simplistic Eurocentric framework on my analysis. This is where participant observation was helpful in providing a lens through which to view and interpret the data, a careful interweaving of insider and outsider points of view. Although I paid particular attention to representing the voices of my research participants in an ethical and sensitive way, I was aware that, inevitably, mine was an outsiders point of view of local experience, knowledge, practices and beliefs.
Next month I will go into more detail about the specific methods used, highlighting that research is a process that does not always go as we expect. In the meantime, if you would like any further information about my research, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605
[i] This is the epigraph at the beginning of the Methodology Chapter
[ii] The “boma” is the heart of the village, it includes the official buildings within the local community