Global Development Institute Blog

by Sally Cawood,  a PhD researcher at the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester. 

I need a plan, I like to plan, I LOVE plans! At least that’s what I thought before starting fieldwork. I had meticulously planned each part of my fieldwork schedule from finding language classes at the beginning, to organising dissemination workshops at the end. Whilst this was a useful way to prepare, I’ve learnt that flexibility is of utmost importance for a PhD student. Let me share some examples of ‘plan’ vs. ‘reality’ during my first three months of fieldwork in Dhaka;

  • ‘Work in 6 different settlements across Dhaka’: In the first few months I went to over 20 slum settlements across the city which is the tenth largest in the world. We did well despite thP1000764e difficult transport situation. However, the 5thJanuary brought political crisis, and this brought enforced strikes (hartals), which brought an ongoing political blockade from the opposition party (BNP). This greatly restricted my mobility in Dhaka, especially to the southern parts of the city. I’ve had to adapt to these unexpected political events by selecting more accessible field sites.
  • ‘Distinguish between sites on public and private land’:I initially thought this distinction would be relatively clear cut. How wrong I was! Land ownership is highly contested in each and every slum settlement. For example, public land can still have private renters, and private land can have MPs and government officials as owners! After careful consideration, I purposefully chose my first field site where land use was mixed, with public and private owners and renters, to understand these complex dynamics.
  • ‘Conduct 60-75 multi-stakeholder interviews’: Very ambitious, I know. I’m sure it’s possible, however, I came to realise that in a study about community based organisations, I should focus more on community leveldynamics, as opposed to travelling all over the city chasing busy government officials. Whilst I will still do this, it will be at a later stage, after in-depth community level fieldwork is complete.P1000516
  •  ‘Conduct interviews and workshops in a quiet environment’: Let’s face it, a city of 15 million people is NOT a quiet environment. One thing that struck me about conducting mini questionnaires and interviews in the slum settlements was the importance of having family, friends and neighbours nearby for moral support. This, added with dogs, chickens, goats and screaming babies makes for an interesting interview environment. I’ve started to see how life in Bangladesh revolves around strong kinship networks. To ignore this and try to create an artificial environment would in some ways make participants feel uncomfortable. So, I’ve adapted to participants preferences, schedules and comfort levels. This, coupled with a big smile and clearly defined fieldwork objectives has meant participants have warmed to me and my research assistant quickly, and accepted our presence in the area.

I’ve leant many things in my first three months of fieldwork but most of all I can say keep smiling, be confident and be flexible!