This is the first reflexive essay I have ever written. Pondering about this thought, I knew that most of the concepts and methodologies that were discussed in the course, were not new to me. However, having to reflect and in that sense writing out what they mean for me personally, is a novel exercise to me and it has proven its use greatly. By not only using, but specifically and fully understanding what a methodology and what a specific form of presentation can do to my research practices and reception, my research and thought processes improve tremendously. This essay conveys my personal reflections and thoughts about several topics discussed in the course: Researching Africa in the 21st Century. There are too many things to say, because the course was diverse in its topics, concepts and methodologies. Therefore, I will focus as much as I can on what I take from it in my own (future) research. My own research will take place for the organisation: ‘Financial Sector Deepening Zambia’ (FSDZ), and hopefully I will be able to further the understanding of the relationship between individual values and social norms with regards to financial decision-making. Not too long ago, a quantitative research project was conducted by, among others, researchers from FSDZ and Leiden University: they looked at how, in the Eastern Province, people make choices when it comes to what to do with a little spare cash, and what the personal opinions were with regards to those choices. If everything turns out well, I hope to look into one unexpected outcome of their surveys, using qualitative methods: participant ethnography, semi-structured interviews and small group discussions in Moral Case Deliberation style. What is most evident to me is that doing research in the 21st century means not only the need for interdisciplinarity, but also the ambition of the researcher to work within various disciplines: research today is multi-modal. It is thus necessary to work with several methodologies and disciplines, and to present your research (findings) in more than one way. To convince others, and more than one audience, the 21st century researcher needs to allow transparency and creativity in her work.
The article by Rivoal and Salazar is of interest to me, because it is the first article I have read that underscores the importance of the ‘unknown’ (2013). Of all the anthropological works that I have read in my bachelor and master African Studies, most of them describe the development of the author’s serendipitous process, but none of them actually dare to spell it
out. The form of serendipity I am referring to now is: ‘a concept merely indicating how observation unfold’ (Rivoal & Salazar, 2013: 183). Serendipity to my understanding comes a lot closer to the proposed new conceptualisation, in that it should be seen as an experimental tool or process manipulated by the researcher (2013:183).
One of the arguments in the article is that serendipity cannot be planned, but the conditions enabling the development of it can be controlled and that it takes time (180). Just as important as the ‘Geertzian-moment’ (183), is the awareness of one’s own ‘sociological perception’ and position: without it, one cannot come to understanding (179). For every case, topic and context, this planning is different. Like with doing ethical visual research (Clark, 2013: 31), there are no appropriate or accurate universalities for creating (conditions inducing) serendipity and researchers should acknowledge the particular context they are in.
Because the authors, or anyone for that matter, cannot give specific guidelines as to how to prepare for serendipity, it is not easy to envision it in my own research. Reflexivity and transparency with regards to the gathering and analysis of my data (Rivoal & Salazar, 2013: 181), knowing what I know and understand that my fieldwork is multi-dimensional will be important steps to take. It will always be important to create a structure (a research proposal), but it will be equally important to leave room for unexpected realisations of what is relevant.
As mentioned before, anthropology and one of its methods ethnography, have been part of my academic studies. Internet and visual ethnography, however, open up a new world to me. I find it fascinating that internet/visual media are at the same time: object to, method for and display of research (Ardévol, 2013: 74-76). This means that through internet a large amount of new (visual) data, which are published online, are available to study (2013: 79); and at the same time internet is also the space to publish and share the results of research (74-75). Taking data from the internet implies that the researcher has to critically analyse to ‘what degree specific data is conditioned by the particular context of the internet’ (82). Taking data and publishing results on the internet pose ethical problems different from printed difficulties (86). I believe that it is in those specific contexts and problems that the importance of ethnographic research lays: investigating the new, the human and the controversies in the (online) space and time.
Internet ethnographers use the online space as their field to understand how the internet is used as a piece and product of culture (75). Visual ethnographers use photo and video as their fieldwork, but are also in cooperation with the internet (75). Ethnographers in general are not restricted to one form of fieldwork: the strength of the discipline is found in its diversity and flexibility in gathering data, presenting the results, being part of the research personally and the fact that creative practices can mingle with ethnography. In her chapter on the intersection of creative practices and ethnography, Berry shows in several ways that creativity
should become accepted as a method in wider academia (Berry, 2017: 12-17). She paraphrases how Haseman calls for a reform in the thinking about research and the forms of presentation of research (2017: 14). In addition to this, she demonstrates Sullivan’s argument that through creative practice research our existing knowledge can be questioned and generates ‘critical insights that can change what we do know’ (15). New fields of research and new combinations of older forms require new paradigms.
In my own research proposal, I see ethnography in general as an important method for investigation. Social norms and individual values make up large part of the topic, and getting to know both of these will require interaction with the people living and having those norms and values. Two of the preparations I want to do is creating a vignette and a template
for a group discussion, based on the model of the Moral Case Deliberation (Tan et al., 2017). A vignette is a’ short, carefully constructed description of a (…) situation’, to ‘elicit their beliefs attitudes (…) [and] judgements’ (Kushnick, 2013: 2). Vignettes are tools for studying decision-making and stem from the fields of psychology and sociology (2013: 2). In my case, I want to create a written and a visual version of the vignette, because I am interested to see whether people’s reactions differ between the two.
A group discussion in the form of the MCD could be informative in understanding what people think the dilemma is and what the harms are when choosing the one or the other (Class 14- 10-2019, Ethical Questions). These group discussions and the moral issue will ideally be further elaborated in interviews with all the participants separately. The analysis of these interviews could be done through theme and content.
Qualitative analysis: podcast
The podcast was one of the assignments we had to make for the course. My partner, Charlotte, and I quickly decided that we wanted to interview Victor Ogola. He and Charlotte were acquainted from when they were both working with the African Studies Centre. We contacted him, because we wanted to do an interview with a Sheng speaking person for an assignment
for another course so it would be great if we could use this opportunity for both ends. Luckily Victor had the time and opportunity for us to come to his place in Dordrecht and so we did. Because of the short preparation time, we had some questions prepared the morning we went to visit him. It was actually the first assignment that I have had to work together with another student (other assignments were all individual) and it definitely was an experience. The division of the task was that Charlotte would do the interview and I would be listening through the recorder, and later Charlotte sought out which part of which files we would use, and I edited them together in a podcast. It felt to me that I did more than she did and that I was more invested, and that it would have been better if we were a bit more prepared. Part of the problem was the time constraint and the other part is that we could have communicated better and spoke out more clearly what we respectively wanted to get out of this assignment. Because we planned to use the same interview-data for another assignment, we did not really focus on the fact that podcasts have certain necessary parts: a clear intro of the podcast and the interviewee and the interview situation in general. However, it has to be said that my idea was also to do as if the podcast belonged to a series (so not the first one, but just a casual episode). The listeners to the podcast from whom we got feedback did not receive this message, so that is also a learning point.
Nevertheless, I loved the experience of editing audio files. It was new to me, I have edited videos before, but editing sound files is a different type of exercise. I am thankful that we got to try it out, because now I know better what one needs for a good podcast and I decided that it will be one of the ways I want to present my thesis data. The videos on how to do an interview were helpful (Syllabus Researching Africa in the 21st Century, 2019: 14). The explanations on how to design and carry out semi-structured interviews are of particular interest to me, because this is one of the methods I hope to use during my research. I would have enjoyed doing all tasks myself as well, to get the hang of it completely: I will make sure there will be many chances for that in the future.
(Community-)radio is one of the most important media forms in rural Zambia, not different in the Eastern Province (Willems, 2013: 225). It might therefore be interesting to share the research process and results with the people who want to participate and know more about it in the ways that fit the practises people know (such as radio interviews). As old and new media
are working together in Zambia and people enjoy participating in on-air discussions (2013:230), making and sharing a podcast of my research process and findings might be an appropriate way of presenting it to them.
Quantitative analysis: infographic
During my minor Water Management at the University of Wageningen and Technical University of Delft, I came into contact with quantitative data. Even though this was not the right track for me, quantitative data is interesting, because of its use within the bodies making decisions shaping millions of lives. To me personally, I am interested in the combination of quantitative and qualitative data, like Prof.Dr.Ir. Han van Dijk (Class 07-10-
2019, Mixed Methods, Surveys & Data Visualisation). Through quantitative research on studies concerning environmental change, it can be concluded that location-specific measures are necessary to adequately address environmental issues (Neumann et al., 2015: 124): location-specific measures that can be made through qualitative research. So to convince those larger bodies (governmental institutions, UN, World Bank to name a few) that small, qualitative research is vital for the situation ‘on the ground’, quantitative research plays a big role. As discussed by Prof.Dr.Ir. Van Dijk, working with several and interdisciplinary methods allows the researcher to operate on different scales and impact different ‘layers’ of society (Class 07-10-2019). I think this is key to 21st century research.
Not only are large decision-making bodies are convinced by (big) numeral data, they are easily used by politicians and the media try to convince the common (wo)man. Going into detail about research is often difficult to follow for a laic, so numbers are used: especially the visualisation of data is a tool in which certain information can be communicated which otherwise would be difficult to share (Meirelles, 2013: 13). An infographic is a ‘visual display in which graphics together with verbal language communicate information’ (2013: 11). In her book, Meirelles not only shows how students can learn to create and use, but also understand elaborated infographics and visual designs (2013).
The infographic was another challenging assignment. Although the content was not what I liked best, the practice was nice. Making the infographic and throughout that thinking about design, information, communication, analysis and visual style all at once was new for me and I enjoyed it. The experience was useful, because it opens up options, just like with the podcast. It is important for researchers to step into the non-academic world with their data, because a lot of research has societal relevance, but does not get there. Infographics are one way to make research results socially available and to tell the story of the process and the outcomes (Class 07-10-2019). I will definitely try to make infographics, if I have numeric data
in my thesis. In combination with a blog post, explaining the situation deeper, infographics will serve a purpose of making my research accessible for non-scholarly members of the community.
Short note on Ethics
I believe that in 21st century research, whichever discipline, transparency about choices and approaches concerning ethical dilemmas are more important than the decisions made. Clark argues that ‘ethical decisions and practices run throughout research practice, and cannot be resolved by adherence to predetermined codes’ (2013). What I take from his essay is that leaving the choice of anonymisation with the participants, is empowering: participants become human and active in the ethical discussion, and are not merely passive research subjects (2013).
It is not sensible for a researcher in our current time to make all the decisions, to think that she knows what her participants want/expect: research is about finding out and opening up the new. New and transparent ethical decisions are part of this research, researchers should dare to take part in the discussion and listen to their participants and not practice the take-for-granted ethical practices.
In my own research, as I have mentioned above, it would be one of my wishes to create several media forms explaining and sharing my personal research processes and eventually the outcomes. Which forms it will take; I will leave to serendipity. That it is necessary to ask participants in which ways they want to take part in our research, is one of the things I have learned in this course. I use the word ‘our’ here on purpose, because although I might be the ignitor of the conversation, collaboration is what fuels the research fire.
In this essay I have tried to share my reflections, thoughts and ideas on the concepts and methods discussed in the course ‘Researching Africa in the 21st Century’. Because the course has a diverse content, I have focused on four topics that have a special interest to me and/or that will become part of my research.
I think that serendipity is a concept that cannot be seen separately from knowing your position as researcher, allowing time to lead and approach the topic well-informed. It is important that researchers are transparent, that they show in clear ways how and which choices have been
made, and why.
Ethnography as a multi-modal method will be leading in my research practices. Internet and visual ethnography, as well as creative practice research, open up new possibilities and methods to me, that I hope to use while practicing ethnography. Ethnography, in its many forms and modalities, seeks to find the human in the new. Today’s research should deal with the new of the specific contexts on- and offline. Ethnography will allow us to explore the difficulties particular contexts pose.
I am pleasantly surprised by the functions podcasts can fulfil for researchers today. As a more casual and accessible way to share (or receive) qualitative research data, podcasts keep on increasing in value. Through the course, I have experienced with and learned several things about podcasts that I hope I can bring into practice in the future.
The Humanities today should be open to and comfortable with both quantitative and qualitative research methods. I find it important to do more with the research process and outcomes than only sharing it within academia. Different scales, levels and layers of society can be reached
when researchers do not shy away from either quantitative or qualitative methods. We as researchers should actively bring out and incorporate our data within societies. Interdisciplinarity is not only a necessity, for a 21st century researcher, it is the only way.
Ardévol, E. (2013). Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research. In S. Pink, Advances in Visual Methodology (pp. 74-94). London: SAGE Publications.
Berry, M. (2017). Creative Practice Meets Ethnography. In M. Berry, Creating With Mobile Media (pp. 1-24). Melbourne: Palgrave MacMillan.
Clark, A. (2013). Visual Ethics in a Contemporary Landscape. In S. Pink, Advances in Visual Methodology (pp. 17-36). London: SAGE Publications.
Kushnick, G. (2013). Access to Resources Shapes Maternal Decision Making: Evidence from a Factorial Vignette Experiment. PLoS ONE, 1-9.
Meirelles, I. (2013). Introduction. In I. Meirelles, Design for Information : An Introduction to the Histories, Theories, and Best Practices Behind Effective Information Visualizations (pp. 7-16). Rockport Publishers.
Neumann, K., Sietz, D., Hilderink, H., Janssen, P., Kok, M., & Van Dijk, H. (2015).Environmental Drivers of Human Migration in Drylands – A Spatial Picture. Applied Geography, 116-126.
Rivoal, I., & Salazar, N. (2013). Contemporary Ethnographic Practice and the Value of Serendipity. Social Anthropology, 178-185.
Tan, D., Ter Meulen, B., Molewijk, A., & Widdershoven, G. (2018). Moral Case Deliberation. Pract Neurol, 181-186.
Willems, W. (2013). Participation – In What? Radio, Convergence and the Corporate Logic of Audience Input Through New Media in Zambia. Telematics and Informatics, 223-231.