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The University of Southampton
The India Centre for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development

The Importance of Fieldwork

The importance and value of on-the-ground fieldwork should not be underestimated. We look at two different trips and the enormous benefits derived for both Southampton students and partnering organisations.

Trip one to Kerala

In early 2018, the 2nd year BSc Population and Geography students from the Department of Social Statistics and Demography travelled to Kerala for their Applied Population Research Methods field trip.

3 smiling people set in Kerala, India
Kerala, India

Collaborating with the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram and working with the Department of Demography, the 18-strong cohort worked with Indian students and staff to gain on-the-ground experience of how demographic research is done in a real-world field context.

Dr Claire Bailey, Senior Teaching Fellow and Head of Teaching Programmes in Social Statistics and Demography, organised the trip,

"This fieldwork takes all the theoretical knowledge of research methods gained in the classroom and looks at how that knowledge is applied in the field.

"Our students undertook primary data collection for a qualitative project whilst in India called ‘The Educational Trajectories and Aspirations of Students at the University of Kerala."

In addition they learned about the collection of quantitative survey data by looking at a project by the Population Research Centre with funding from the Kerala Department of Social welfare entitled ‘Aging and its Implications in Kerala’.

One of the students, Alice Meen, talked us through the quantitative project,

"We visited two field sites which were used when conducting a survey about ageing in Kerala. We visited these sites in order to gain an understanding of how the surveys were carried out and also, to see what the places looked like. One site was rural and the other urban; we were surprised to find that the rural site in Trivandrum didn’t match our idea of a rural setting from the UK as the area was quite developed and on the edge of the city.

"When visiting the rural setting, we were invited into one of the respondents’ house, where we were able to discuss in detail the methodology of the study and also ask the respondent questions to gain their views on the survey data collection."

Undertaking qualitative interview was certainly an experience for the Southampton students, as Sunniva Anderson explains,

"We undertook interviews with people in-field as it is a valuable process for collecting data that can be observed and is rich in detail and description.

"On a particularly warm afternoon of the trip, we headed towards the entrance of campus, where groups of students were stood together. Here we managed to find our first interview candidate, as he showed us to a nearby bench. After a fair bit of fiddling with the dictaphone we finally got the show on the road. He was a very driven and enthusiastic student, and the interview was smooth for the most part. However, I may have accidentally piped up a couple of times to ask the interviewee some additional questions, which I shouldn’t have done because I was supposed to be the silent observer and it can confuse things within the interview process if the observer also asks questions. I simply couldn’t help myself! But alas, it is all part of the learning experience!

"Our second interviewee didn’t speak very good English and his friend sat in on the interview to help translate. This is not proper interview etiquette, as he was an unofficial translator. So this was another learning point, but we took this all in our stride and decided to try again the following day.

"For our final interview, we found a candidate who spoke very good English and was quite enthusiastic to take part. Luckily this interview process was much smoother, with less background noise, no unofficial translator and no interruptions to the interview. So although we had a rocky start, I am ultimately grateful for those experiences because I learnt from them and am now hopefully a more proficient interviewer. It was a pleasure to be able to work with the students from the University of Kerala, as they were extremely patient and friendly."

Dr Bailey summed up the experience by saying,

"This trip provided a valuable insight for students into how research is actually carried out and created for them a tangible link between undergraduate teaching and learning and academic research. In addition the students benefited greatly from getting to experience a new culture and networking and making friends with their counterparts at the University of Kerala."

Trip two to Kolkata

A recent project which partnered University of Southampton students with students from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, demonstrates the significant benefits of fieldwork for both research and student training.

Four University of Southampton students were connected with students from Jadavpur University through EU-India networking project CASCO (Climate Adaptation and Services Community), as part of the DEltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration & Adaptation (DECCMA) project. The aim of the collaboration was to enable the Southampton students to collect data for their dissertations as part of an MSc in Sustainability, and for Indian students to see different methods and approaches to data collection. DECCMA’s main Indian partner, Dr Tuhin Ghosh, facilitated the  collaboration.

Conducting fieldwork enables students to see applications of theory they have learned in the classroom, and is considered a high point of the  postgraduate experience. Lindsay Roberts, an MSc student at UoS, whose dissertation looked at the role of migration on women said,

"The opportunity to pursue my dissertation and undertake research in the Indian Bengal Delta was one of the highlights of my university experience. From the unique setting of the Sundarbans’ villages to the key insights on out-migration and women I found from my research, I feel incredibly lucky for this experience for developing and applying my knowledge surrounding climate change adaptation."

Martin Watts from UoS, whose research looked at agricultural adaptation added,

"It was an insightful cross-cultural experience into farmers’ adaptive behaviours. I realised the importance of collective action for sustainable and resilient farming practices."

As well as being useful for the visiting British students, student counterparts from Jadavpur University also found the experience valuable. As Purna Baduri explained,

"Most of our background is in quantitative data collection and analysis. Here I have learned a lot about qualitative data and the value that it can add to studies relating to population."

The whole team agreed that the opportunity to share perspectives on adaptation and migration in the Indian Bengal delta called into question some of their previously unquestioned assumptions.

Rosalyn Lloyd Haynes (UoS MSc student) said that this experience was made possible by the dedication of the DECCMA India team, who

"Provided endless support throughout the fieldwork process to ensure individual research goals were met. Sumana Banerjee was at the centre of organising the fieldwork, ensuring every aspect of the trip was well planned, and Dr Tuhin Ghosh provided valuable information on the Sundarbans and it was great to discuss my research with him."

The University of Southampton students were funded by DECCMA and the CASCO project, funded by the European Union delegation to India.

Authored by Dr Emma Tompkins, Professor within Geography and Environmental Science, and Katharine Vincent from Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, one of the DECCMA consortium.

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