Is it Helpful for Researchers to be “Moved” by Research?

By Edward Appleton and Aastha Tiku

Are the most meaningful, memorable moments for us as researchers when an emotional bond arises with our participants – we laugh with them, suppress a few tears maybe, hug….embrace mentally and physically?

Are the insights generated richer when the researcher “gives” as much as (s)he “takes”?

Or is this research madness, where we lose our ability to be objective, to be empirically balanced, think and see clearly because we’ve got too close?

For many quantitative researchers, this may seem an odd question – ever met a respondent yourself in a survey?

For quallies, especially those in social research, it’s an interesting issue: are we better researchers when we engage very closely with our subject matter?

Immersive qualitative research conducted by Happy Thinking People over the past 12 weeks into hip-hop sub-cultures and rapping in Mumbai has lead us suggest that the richest research results are often generated when the researcher gets more involved than the interview guide suggests or allows – when he or she goes off-track, creates multiple rapport relationships with participants, leading to an emotional openness that results in totally fascinating research findings.

It can go further: the research effectively changing the researcher – our lead researcher is now learning how to rap!

We’re presenting a short version of the findings at the Festival of New MR on February 4 –; we’ll also be reporting here with more details after the event with a follow-up blog.

In terms of methodological approach, here are some of the take-outs that we can share up-front on the pros (and a few cons) about “getting involved as a researcher”.

  1. Rich Immersions – Worth the Effort!

When we initially approached the rapping challenge, we knew that doing focus groups or IDIs wouldn’t get us far in understanding socio-cultural complexity. What we didn’t anticipate was how quite how intricate and varied all the languages, the slang, the rules codes of Indian sub-culture rap were – and that we would need to work very hard to get to a more understanding, “insider” position.

We changed our approach to involve visiting gigs, being part of the audience, listening to different rapping styles in our free time, asking to be introduced to rappers, trying to gain the confidence of accompanying the groups before and then after the concerts.

The output was fascinating – and humbling. Our discussion guide proved pretty flexible.

  1. Life is messy – great research designs allow for that.

Messy research forms (such as immersive ethnographies) that mimic life as closely as possible are potentially troublesome, time-consuming, frustrating at times, but they are immensely rewarding. And insights-rich.

To understand the young rappers in the suburbs of Mumbai we had to spend time gaining their trust, presenting ourselves as real people rather than “researchers.”

Their curiosity (and fear) about us was likely as high as ours about them.

We had to hang with them, slowly gain their trust to be party to their conversations, fears, insecurities.

This was time-consuming, certainly meandering, but indispensable for us to understand the nuances of the rapping stories we heard, the particular emotional mix of anger and hope characterising much of these rapping Indian sub-cultures.

Maybe the acceptance of non-linearity is culturally specific to India, or this particular task. We’d suggest that a lot of other research tasks would benefit from having more freedom to go with the flow when participants nudge you off-track, so to speak.

Which leads to the next point…..

  1. Stop Pretending you’re the Boss!

Much research is a relatively organised, one-way process: we wish to discover something from people. They play along – at worst it can be a sort of unspoken game, take the incentive (if there is one) and go home. Getting beyond the “mask” or the “presented narrative” is easier if you’re actually doing things with a participant – jamming with them, for example, understanding a few of the technicalities involved. This lead us to revealing details – for example, one rapper told us that his extremely impressive-looking rapper gold chain was actually borrowed from his Mum!

These are just a few of the learnings from our work with rappers in Mumbai – and how an immersive approach helped us. There are also downsides:

  • Getting lost in your personal fascination
  • Underestimating the amount of time needed
  • A diminished ability to compare and contrast

Coming back to the original question: is it beneficial for researchers to be “moved” by research? To get more closely involved, personally?

On balance, and in an ideal world independent of time and therefore cost constraints, we’d say: yes, with caveats.

It’s great to be moved by research – empathy is the beginning of understanding, and hopefully insights. If we can retain a sense of balance and perspective, stepping back when we need to before going close again, maybe we can achieve the ideal balance. Something to aspire towards.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Appleton and Aastha Tiku, Happy Thinking People Berlin & Mumbai