Fieldwork often confronts us with unforeseen situations!
Take for instance informants- the primary source for any research. While researching, one comes across different kinds of informants- some active and some passive. The ‘active’ ones are involved and interactive while ‘passive’ informants narrowly stick to only answering the researcher’s questions.
Working as Project Associate with the ‘Tracking Access under Digitalization’- a project that entails fieldwork among the large mass of TV users experiencing transition from analogue to digital mode of cable distribution, was enriching both experientially and theoretically. The unit of my study was naturally the household or family- the site where TV sets are located to receive cable or DTH services.
I use this blog as a scratch pad to jot down my experiences while conducting fieldwork for the project. This research seeks to understand how people often with completely non-technological mindsets- with some even technologically challenged- grapple with innovation conceived and implemented in the far corners of the globe.
Since the present Tracking Access under Digitalization (TAD) project involves fieldwork in cities as different as Delhi and Patna, our theatre of operation is a multi sited one. Different locations provide us with unevenness, different and at times conflicting ideas about similar issues, and the possibility of comparative analysis. Before I joined the project I had almost negligible idea of what ‘digitalization of television distribution’ meant. Therefore I had to start from scratch to comprehend the nature of changeover from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’ in a highly complex economic, technological and policy framework. The available literature on digitalization, especially from the standpoint of the users/viewers was meagre. The only literature available included niche cable and broadcast magazines (like Cable Quest) or TRAI documents.
The site of the fieldwork is a complex experience; one can never be certain what to expect. One of the frequent problems we face is difficulty in conveying the exact nature of our research project. Mainly this stems from the fact that digitalization of cable operations was never an organic development. It was imposed ‘from above’ and reluctantly accepted by the huge mass of TV viewers. There have been instances where the respondents have surprised the entire team by requesting – ‘’Madam please hamari naukri lagwa do’’ (‘Madam please get us a job’). Others are extremely suspicious about the interviewers/field workers. As a result they show extreme reluctance in getting interviewed and a real effort has to be mounted to elicit cooperation. For a productive interview it is important that we meet our respondents for the interview only when they are relatively free. Our questionnaire takes at least half an hour to conclude and it is important that the informant does not feel that he is being rushed.
Despite our best efforts sometimes fieldwork forays fail miserably. There have been instances when the interview had to be cancelled on the spot because of reasons that at best are piffling. Trying to convince interviewees about the necessity of their views on digitalization and about its all-round public utility is a challenging task in itself. A number of times the respondents promised interview over the phone, but changed their minds just as the interview was about to begin. ‘’Hamare pass bilkul time nahin hai’’ (‘we don’t have any time’) is a frequent refrain. Things can get really exasperating as it happened once when, after reaching somewhat close to the interviewer’s house following an appointment, he decided to switch off his mobile phone. But not all experiences are bleak. There are times when families receive us warmly, talk to us freely and even offer refreshments.
A well carried out fieldwork can be a rewarding experience. Firstly it gives us an insight into the everyday experiences of the viewer- especially how he leverages technology with varying degrees of proficiency to bring value to his leisure time. Secondly the scholar gets a perspective on how users remember TV viewing starting from the DD era. How did this change when satellite broadcast came to dominate the skies? Further, experiences relating to the acquisition of Set Top Boxes (STBs) by the subscribers for the first time gave insights into government policy formation. The results provide fascinating insights into the many-layered interface between technology and the human agency.
Though fieldwork episodes are filled with binaries like acceptance and rejection, awkwardness and the lack of it, yet they provide us with analytical tools to understand leisure time within the Indian context- both in terms of time and space. Till the fieldwork is completed, I have many challenges before me. One of my biggest challenges as a Project Associate is to find the connection between conducting interviews regularly without losing out on minute reflection on the emerging shape and the likely direction of my research project. I feel stressed, paranoid and sometimes unwell but an inner motivation and passion for an ‘objective’ account that may well be pioneering in the context of media studies keeps me going.