Place and Power in QLR: anything special about international development contexts?
03 Dec 2012
It is ironic that at a meeting focused on themes of time and duration, I managed to run out of time in delivering the final section of my comments on the role of qualitative longitudinal research (QLR) in international development. In this blog I pick-up on one of the points I wanted raise, based both on my reading of Jeannine Anderson’s paper (‘Cycles of value, waves of recognition: analyzing the dynamics of prestige at micro and macro levels in urban Peru’), and experiences co-ordinating the QLR component of Young Lives, a fifteen-year survey and qualitative study of childhood poverty (www.younglives.org.uk).
It was a pleasure to be discussant for Jeannine’s paper; it got me thinking about the importance of power (relationships) and place in qualitative longitudinal research (QLR), and whether there is anything ‘special’ about doing QLR in international development contexts. ‘Special’ probably isn’t the right word, and what I really want to point to are opportunities for sharing learning across the widely diverse contexts in which we carry out QLR of different types.
The QL research we have been carrying out since 2007 with 200+ children and families as part of the Young Lives study in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam has shown the value of QLR beyond the ‘data’ produced by the research. What has become clear over the years is the great potential of QLR for ethical learningthat is both inward- and outward-looking.
It is ‘inward’ because we try to reflect on the power imbalances underlying the research process, both interpersonal (gender, class, ethnicity/caste, education) and structural (from who funds, directs, manages, produces and uses the data). Young Lives is not an intervention or charity organization; it is a study. The long-term survey (‘panel’) element requires careful consideration that the study is not impacting (positively or negatively) on the study participants. One of the key contributions of QLR has been to document narratives from children and families capturing their views on the study, often in the form of interview transcripts which are later ‘coded’ to pick up themes, including on ethical learning. The majority of comments are reassuringly positive, but there are plenty other instances that demand serious reflection as a research team. For example, one mother in the study who, by 2010, had been a part of three survey rounds and three rounds of qualitative research, asked the researcher:
‘What do you do for us…you come every year…you come take notes and go…what do you do for us…we are forlorn…what support are you going to provide to us…you just come and take information about us and go…if not you…whom else are we to ask?’
Jeannine Anderson’s paper pointed to the importance placed on respect and value in the poor shanty town she has researched on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, over a period of four decades. Respect and value extend to research relationships, and in the communities we work in, relationships of trust and respect are crucial for the vitality of the ongoing research endeavour. Local partnerships and collaboration have been essential to maintaining the relationships underpinning rigorous research. What then does meaningful ‘research reciprocity’ look like in these QLR contexts?
The second type of ethical learning has been outward-looking, exploring the way international development is experienced by children and families, and the ethical questions this raises. Both policy and research agendas in the field of child protection tend to be internationally generated and donor-led. Policy agendas reflect particular values of childhood, often championing the role of school education in contrast to the dangers of child work. But what are the ethics of eliminating child labour when families are so dependent on their children’s work? What are the ethics of policies that are devised without consultation with children and families? QLR work by Young Lives is showing the need for contextually-rooted, evidence-based approaches to developing policy and practice.
There are many other positive developments in the field. One example is a recent scoping study commissioned by World Vision UK (a major player in international development and child protection) which explored the added value of using a longitudinal study to evaluate the impact of their programming. They are also considering how a longitudinal approach might enhance their organization’s ‘theories of change’ and their public engagement. Whether World Vision UK follows through is secondary, in my mind at least, to the primary importance of the questions they raise. I hope this is an indication of the future role of QLR in international development as a whole.
I’ll end with questions for the network members: given our varied disciplinary backgrounds, experience, research questions, funding stability, sources of data, and geographical spread, what might be the essential commonalities between us, as QL researchers, if any? Are ‘power’ and ‘place’ a potential lens into this question?
I’m looking forward to many more exchanges, both virtual and in-person.
PS. If you’d like to read more about ethical challenges and the way we’re dealing with them in Young Lives, Ginny Morrow (also a part of this network) has written a paper, available for free at: http://www.younglives.org.uk/files/working-papers/wp53-the-ethics-of-social-research-with-children-and-families-in-young-lives-practical-experiences