Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What to do....

So it has finally happened… A whole bus of people gave me the “You’re insane look” yesterday afternoon as I tried to explain that I didn’t actually care where the bus was going; I just wanted to go somewhere! Anywhere! With lots of people on it!

Blank stares. Lots of blank stares. “This girl clearly doesn’t know where she is going in life.” I think that’s what their stares meant.

I am doing bus questionnaires at the moment and it is a 1) funny, 2) frightening, 3) interesting and 4) maddening experience.

I have learnt that the Sudanese public transportation system is populated by a combination of extremely kind, obedient, friendly folk who want to fill out my questionnaire, young men who try to use my questionnaire as a way of subtlety giving me their phone numbers while failing to answer any of my questions and then lastly and most regretfully, completely crazy people who make me want to jump out of the window as we hurtle over the Nile river.

The good thing about Sudan is that for every mean bus traveller there are about ninety nine lovely bus travellers who give me sweets, bananas and teach me Chinese. I have noticed that when someone gives me a hard time (i.e. calls over a policeman to question me, asks me why I don’t go back to my own country or demands money for filling out my questionnaire), I get really shaken for about five minutes and then someone else comes along and makes me happy again. You can’t stay angry for more than five minutes on a Sudanese bus.

I had originally decided to do bus questionnaires because Ramadan was making it difficult to set up interviews with HR managers and I wanted to get a general picture of how other parts of the economy (outside my categories) recruited their staff. I am also trying to move away from the more official side of things and I want set up more interviews with individuals who have both succeeded and failed to climb up the social mobility ladder. Bus journeys provide opportunities to meet these people but they are also very very difficult.

First of all, people on the bus are generally not the wealthier members of society. A great number of the people are either unemployed or illiterate. They often don’t volunteer this information and after I sit patiently for thirty minutes, they return my questionnaires blank but slightly crumpled. I don’t say anything because I don’t what to embarrass them. It makes me feel guilt that I have put them in this uncomfortable situation but I don’t know what else to do.  

I guess this brings me to the point of this post. It is sooo difficult to design a common research strategy for the whole population.

Before I started with my questionnaires, I went through this whole battle between using standard Arabic vs. colloquial Arabic. In the end I went with the advice of a Sudanese linguist who told me that if I wanted to make my questionnaire accessible as possible, then I had better use the simplest language possible. He also thought that it would encourage more reflection on the part of respondents. If someone is not used to reading colloquial Arabic, she might step back a moment and think about the questions in a deeper way before she responds. Some of the professors in my department at the University of Khartoum thought that I should use standard Arabic, saying that they always use standard Arabic for these things. One of them helpfully went through and corrected all the questions for me. I said thank you but then went with colloquial. I know that this was controversial and I often get funny responses. In big modern companies, I have had people laugh and smile when they read my questionnaires. Sometimes people try to correct them, telling me ‘this is not standard Arabic’. I know, I know, I know! I want to say. Others like the colloquial Arabic and tell me they think “it is sweet” that a khawaga is writing in this way. I don’t mind being teased if it means that more people can answer my questions but even with simple language, I cannot reach everyone. I am now working on an English version because I have had Southern Sudanese respondents tell me that they do not read and write Arabic despite speaking it fluently. This is true of even quite young Southern Sudanese. Very interesting! In some ways this mimics what I have found in a lot of work places: English as a written language, Arabic as a verbal language. Of course this depends on the work place and I wonder how much access Southern Sudanese have to these working places. I just find it so fascinating how this city is divided so much by language! Maybe that should be my PhD topic!

Privacy and Literacy

Buses are a great place to do questionnaires because they give you access to a diverse group of people outside of their offices. People seem to feel a lot more comfortable talking about their company when they’re not physically there. I am sure this affects how people answer my questions. Up until now, I have been handing out my questionnaires within companies with the official permission of their bosses. While I always try to stress that their responses are anonymous, I wonder whether the work place still inhibits them. Buses, in contrast, are strangely private places despite their congested nature. Whenever I have tried to hand out my questionnaires in public places, people always crowd around and the police turn up and harass me. I have my university letter and ID, so it doesn’t go any further, but it spooks me a little and I don’t enjoy the hassle. Buses let people sit quietly and take their time. Even the policemen I meet on the bus treat me differently. Instead of asking for my ID, they ask if they can fill one out! I have a natural distrust of law enforcers but they can be very nice when they are on their way home…

The two main problems with buses are:

  • -       figuring out how to include the Arabic-illiterate employed folk
  • -       finding a way to make my sample representative, when I have limited information about what the general population looks like.

Buses are private literate places. As soon as you start speaking out loud, privacy dissipates. I know that if I really wanted to get information from the illiterate members of the population I would have to do it verbally, which is impossible in the close quarters of a bus. So it is difficult to include them.

The second problems relates to sampling. Mack, my *favourite* neo-classical economist keeps freaking me out about how I need to make my questionnaires representative of the whole population (despite the fact that last year’s population census is controversial and we don’t even know what the population looks like statistically!!). How am I going to deal with all my responses once I have finished? Tell me Mack, tell me Oracle!

The other night I was having a discussion with Mack and Manuel, my current “research buddies”. We were discussing the benefits and limitations of quantitative vs. qualitative research. I was trying to argue that some topics are practically impossible to approach in a quantitative way. I used the example of my topic: social capital. A huge aspect of my project concerns discrimination, which is an extremely sensitive topic in Sudan. It is not something the government necessarily wants people to look into. This is why buses are a good place to reach out to people, but it is hard to do it in any kind of systematic way. It is easier to go through companies, but then again we have this difference between the official and unofficial response. And on buses, we have this problem of literate/verbal communication and privacy and then coming up with a way of making my sample representative. 

I am trying my hardest to combine a little bit of the official and unofficial, quantitative and qualitative but I am getting frustrated by the quantitative side of things. I have started to see buses as a way of setting up interviews- using the questionnaires as communication tools. Of course, I shall look at what kind of data I get, but I am slowly being convinced that the quantitative aspects of my project are extremely tricky!!! If anyone has any advice, it would be much appreciated! I have open ears and eyes right now. You hear that, economists and statisticians out there, open ears and eyes- help me! Otherwise you will lose me to the “soft scientists” forever!