Dissident data – The Subject Matter(s) – Part 1

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. Here is the Part 1 of the second post. You can read the first post here

When I was in the field collecting data for my dissertation on domestic violence, my advisor, Mike, recommended that I write about my experiences every day. I was not very disciplined, so I would only do them every week. These were not technically field notes, but my own reflections on what I was experiencing when I was in the field. I decided to make them into letters that I sent every week to people who were interested in hearing from me. This is an entry:

I know I have glorified the process of data collection in previous letters. But it can be really hard… I sometimes get so angry I don’t know what to do with myself. The anger is fine.  But after a while, I feel myself getting a little cynical about the lives of the women I encounter. I remember feeling shocked at my own reaction in one interview when one woman (whose husband was not beating her) said that she was very happy with her husband. A voice in me said – yeah well, how long is that going to last? I realized immediately that I can’t think about the world that way, or I am not going to be a very happy person.  

I recently interviewed a woman whose story made me mad during the interview. I wanted to shout, scream, do something for this woman and do something to her mother-in-law. Usually, this anger hits me after I have finished with the interview and usually, I try and control myself when I am interviewing. But during this interview, I felt like screaming obscenities at the world and I don’t even know any good ones. Well, it passes. It always does.

What I didn’t realise then and am able to see so clearly now is that it doesn’t always pass. It stays, much longer than it should. These emotions of anger and helplessness were the first formative lessons in data collection that I learnt in the field, and in various forms, they have stayed with me ever since. These are the stories and lessons that I still go back to when I have to understand anything about oppression or violence, and about how the world is not tilted along the right axis for many people.

I brought these feelings to bear, to some degree, in my writing. When I wrote my case notes, I would bring a mental picture of the women I had been interviewing. By concentrating on her face, I would try to remember what she said and how she said it. Sometimes, this made the writing process very hard, because I would remember their faces flicker with emotions that I couldn’t even begin to name. I would remember the shuttering down of something dark and lightening up of something joyful. Somewhere in the middle was a story that I probably did not do justice to. And that feeling of impotence has survived all these years . . . that I could listen more, that if I could talk more, that if could do more, then it would all be better.

I remember thinking (with all of my feelings of inadequacy, cynicism, and anger) that the research that I was doing could not even begin to address the level of structural inequalities that I was seeing and recording. No amount of empathetic writing or theoretical understanding could take away the pain and hurt that the women I was interviewing were experiencing. It started to feel as though all of research is pointless, and the role of the researcher, even more so.

At the time, the very wise Mike told me – I can’t dwell on what isn’t, or I can never do anything with what is. I must admit, I didn’t quite understand it at the time. I was so lost in my own self-flagellation and my own navel-gazing that I didn’t get it. It was only years since that I understood that he was trying to tell me (at least) two things. First, the pain and anger I was feeling was an abstract one. It was on behalf of someone else and something else. It cannot be made mine, even if I tried. So, it had to be channelled into a more productive arena; it can be channelled into more empathy, for instance. Second, the feelings of frustration and impotence that I was experiencing are not the same as being self-reflective. These feelings of impotent guilt cannot (or perhaps, should not) be used to punish myself. It has to be channelled outward into asking questions of possibilities – What can be done? How do I do what I do best to make it better? How do I contribute? What can I change?

Over the years since that advice was given to me, what I have learnt is that these emotions that we take to and take from the field act as anchors. They make us empathetic, they make us accountable, and they make us human. Our knowledge of the complexities behind simple statements (of fact) comes from these complicated feelings we have towards and about those who have shared their lives (and data) with us. Any knowledge (or data) that we have derived from these interactions are, thus, almost always tinged with this emotional content. And this is really what I remember when I remember the lessons that I have learned in the field. So, no, these complicated feelings do not always pass. Perhaps, they shouldn’t.

Dissident Data – a new blog series

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. It is an idea that has been brewing awhile, and without much more ado, here it is, Niveditha’s first post introducing the series.

A long time ago, when I was working in an interdisciplinary lab, we organised a workshop to showcase our work. To prepare for the workshop, I was to give a colleague a brief description of the project that I was working on at that time. I handed her a five-page document describing everything about the project. We had just started working together, so she found it prudent to keep her shock and dismay to herself. Later, when the workshop was over, we had a chat about how useless it was to give her a five-page document for an infographic that she was trying to create. What I needed to give her, she said, was a story. I replied – but I don’t know how to tell stories. She said that that’s what I have been doing any way — my research is a story about data.

Those of us who are researchers (and some of us who are not) have to contend with various forms of data. If I may be permitted to generalise, the quantitative amongst us typically think of numbers and figures and graphs when we think of data, and the qualitative think through narratives and themes. But underneath it all, what we are trying to convey is a story that we see in our data that we think is important to understand our world better. This blog series is about unpacking the story that is hidden in our data, be it the trials and tribulations of contradictions within our data, or the euphoria of finding something unexpected.

I come from a qualitative feminist sociological tradition, so I work with a particular framework of feminist and anthropological methodologies that does not treat data as abstract. For me, all data – whether quantitative or qualitative – are relational and are produced by the specific socio-cultural and economic contexts in which the questions are framed and the researcher is located.

My advisor once told me that data doesn’t speak. It is not an animate object to have its own language. It exists because I have caused it to exist. It is a thing shaped by me, and can speak to only that which I see or which I allow others to see. It is moulded by the nature of my questions and the tonal voice in which I have asked these questions. Many researchers do not subscribe to this contention. Yet, I am sure that they also have had to confront the fundamental questions around the nature of data: How is data produced? What are the rules related to data collection? What kind of data is necessary to make an argument? What is to be done when data misbehaves?

Of course, there are tomes written by researchers of all disciplines trying to answer these questions. We simply have to google ‘epistemology’ to engage with any of these authors. This blog series will not revisit these themes and debates, although it will heavily draw upon them. Instead, this data blog series will engage with the relationship between the production of data and the presentation of it. It is about the personal journey that researchers take with our data in our quest for a better understanding of the world and how it works.

The rationale for documenting such a process is two-fold: (1) to lay bare the difficult decisions, dilemmas, and contradictions of data that we all encounter in our working and daily lives, and (2) to engage with the fundamental role that researchers and non-researchers have in the process of producing, analysing, and representing data. It is, in some ways, a space to engage with the myriad ways we submit to the authority of data, and to self-reflect on the implications of this submission.

This tentative mandate, however, is subject to change, as the series evolves. But for the next few blogs, authors, broadly defined as those who are producers and conveyers of data, will be drawing from their own to tell a story of their relationship with data.