ATC 11 – Qualitative Research Methods at the Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, 27 April 2019

Written by Sahar Malik, ESR 14

After three days of intense discussions and networking at the Global Land Programme Open Science Meeting 2019 in Bern, the group of ESRs spent a rainy Saturday at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) learning about qualitative research methods. This ATC was not originally part of the ATCs planned for our program but was added due to popular demand. Thanks to our project coordinator Jonas Østergaard Nielsen who took the lead with contributions from Dr. Cecilie Friis and our COUPLED PhD fellow Anna Frohn Pedersen from the Humboldt University of Berlin. We were also joined by four other PhD students based at CDE.

Setting up for another day of learning

We started off with a round of introductions, especially by the four PhD students from CDE. They explained the qualitative research methods they had used so far in their research, their experiences, and the challenges they had faced. This very interesting session was followed by a very informative session on Knowledge: Positionality, representations, and knowledge production in social science that not only gave us an idea about how to behave in a culturally appropriate way during field work but also how to build rapport with participants in the field. Qualitative research is not about numbers but about thick descriptions, mainly focusing on the question “Why?”. Used a lot in social science research, it takes into consideration cultural and social relationships when explaining the context behind specific behaviors. Positionality has also an important part to play in qualitative research; where you come from and what your beliefs and values are can impact the research in a number ways.

We then learned about qualitative research methods including focus groups, interviews, and participant observation, each of which has its own pros and cons. Focus groups won an award from Jonas for being the “Best method ever” given that one does not mix different types of stakeholders in a focus group. A farmer won’t be honest in front of a government representative so one has to be very careful when putting these groups together. Interviews, especially semi-structured interviews, provide the best information for one’s research especially when using the technique of probing questions. Overall, it was a really nice session with a lot of new things to learn.

Cecilie Friis sharing some insights

Cecilie and Anna led a very exciting session on Multi-sited ethnography, case studies, zooming techniques and progressive contextualization. This session left us with a very important message: there is no perfect method for qualitative research. Rather, it is all about improving methods to help us answer the questions we want to answer.
Lunch brought a boost of energy and smiles to everyone’s faces. The food was just delicious. It was ordered from a vegetarian and vegan restaurant chain in Switzerland called Tibits. If you are ever in Switzerland, you should try this place.

After lunch, we split into groups of four. In each group, one person presented their planned research and the other group members discussed the most suitable methods for that particular research. Exercises like these are the ones the COUPLED fellows enjoy the most. We always wish we had more time to discuss each other’s research.

Lastly, Jonas had some very interesting things to say about field notes and diaries. Transcribing and coding all of the data is a crucial part of qualitative research and there are a number of ways to do so. It was recommended to transcribe the interviews yourself rather than outsourcing the process as it will give you a better idea about your data. Fieldwork can sometimes get very frustrating as well and one can always keep a separate diary to write down all the challenges and frustrations if needed .

After rounding off an intense day full of learning and sharing field experiences, we said goodbyes with a heavy heart as the next time we will all be together again is in about a year’s time in Copenhagen. But thanks to the work packages and virtual meeting series, we will stay connected over Skype meetings.

In the evening some had to catch a flight or train while the rest of us headed to the Asian Food Festival that was happening in Bern over the weekend and enjoyed some yummy Asian food. It couldn’t get more “telecoupled” than this.

We witnessed two rainbows in the evening when the sun finally came out

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