Teaching social research skills in the field: Some pedagogical insights

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Teaching social research skills in the field: Some pedagogical insights
Teaching social research skills in the field: Some pedagogical insights

Dr Mani Ram Banjade

We recently took MA Sociology students of NIMS College and two other researchers to the rural areas of Sindhupalchowk with an objective of providing them hands-on training on social research skills.

Under Tribhuvan University’s MA sociology curriculum, students in each semester are required to study five courses, and one of these is social science research methodology. The University’s teaching strategy encourages Colleges to provide students with both theoretical knowledge and practical skills in conducting social research.

Accordingly, the research camp was designed for students to grasp social realities from the lens of theories they studied in the classroom.

Preparing for the field camp

Considering students’ interests and relevance to the course, we divided students into six groups looking at migration, caste, class, youths, impact of NGOs/INGOs and Western cultural influence. Two students worked in each group.

Before leaving for the research camp, the students chose a theory such as ‘Marxism’ for class relationships; Rostow’s ‘modernisation theory’ and ‘path dependency theory’ for understanding the impact of NGOs and INGOs; and Ghurye’s ‘segmented division of society’ for caste relationship. They were asked to identify specific concepts and variables to be explored empirically during the field work. They also developed checklists and questionnaire, and reviewed and selected research tools to be used.

Field work

They covered a range of activities during the research camp such as key informant interviews, household surveys, focus group discussions, and observation of community settings, agricultural practices and forest management activities. In addition, some of them worked on the agricultural field and cooked food in local fire stoves, interacting closely with the local people at their homes and farms. They also reflected on their activities and experience every day in the evening.

It was indeed a first of its kind activity to lead for me too, though I had the experience of conducting non-academic field-based trainings.

In order to further ignite sociological curiosity, I had booked a mini lecture slot by Dr Hemant Ojha (University of Canberra, Australia) who delivered his mini lecture from Sydney to students in the hills of Sindhupalchowk in Nepal.  He outlined how a qualitative research can be conducted effectively in the field and also highlighted the need to think of the Himalayan dimension in sociological research.

In the entire field work, I was also joined in by Mr Kamal Bhandari, a researcher and veteran community development specialist in Nepal, with particular expertise in the fields of natural resource management, social mobilization and inclusive social planning. He offered guidance and motivation to students in field work. Ms Gyanu Tamang, another researcher working on community forestry, also accompanied us.



On reflection, it occurs to me that at least five important pedagogical insights are identifiable from this experience, which could be relevant across the Tribhuvan University and social sciences teaching in Nepal:

  1. First, the arrangement to have students pre-selected a theoretical lens and then use it to observe social realities from that lens was very helpful and insightful to them. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how students could capture local realities using a variety of theoretical standpoints. A key outcome of this exercise has been to inculcate a sense of theoretical inquiry among students.
  2. Second, the students gained hands on skills on identifying and adapting relevant research methods and tools and apply them in practice. I was quite amazed to see how quickly they were able to appreciate the significance of different research tools in capturing various kinds of data.
  3. Third, related to above, students could see the value of data in answering the research questions. At the end of the first day of data collection, students realized the mismatch of some of their questions and the data gathered. Recognising this, they revised their questions and adapted techniques so they could obtain data more effectively. Some even changed the questions instantly in the field when they found that these were not relevant in the village.
  4. Fourth, the research camp on the mountains were very much adventurous, especially for the students coming from cities. They had a whole new experience in life of visiting a remote village, and more so on communicating with rural people of their research agenda. The data collection in the field was challenging this time of the year due to monsoon making the group travel really difficult. Besides, rural people were also busy with their agricultural field activities related to planting millet and paddy.
  5. Fifth, I was amazed by the energy and learning enthusiasm that the students exhibited throughout the camp. I encouraged them to be open minded and be ready to challenge the theoretical lens they have applied, based on the evidence they gathered from the field work. The students have realised the value of learning through interaction with people.

Post-Camp Reflections

After returning from the research camp, the students presented their reflections connecting their chosen theory, methodology, and findings. Presenters invariably opined that the trip was unprecedented, and was going to be a noted, lifetime experience for them. In particular, they mentioned how theory can be applied in practical inquiry. Some of the students who could not join the trip also attended the seminars delivered by those who participated. The students who could not join felt that they missed the great opportunity.

This research camp has reinforced our commitment at NIMS College to adopt innovative pedagogical approaches for teaching and learning. The effectiveness of this research camp justifies our plans for organizing more frequent camps for students of business and social science streams.

Dr Banjade is the MD and Principal of NIMS College.


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