Saturday, December 2, 2017

NIRDPR Diaries Part IV : Day Three of Workshop on Research Methodology

Finally, in this post I share my lessons from the third and the final day of the wonderful workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research" which I attended at National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad. The final day had limited sessions and I was excited for that meant more free time to explore and relax in the vastness of NIRDPR :P

Immediately after my daily workout and breakfast I headed towards the conference hall I where the workshop was being held. The first session of the day was on "Ethical Issues in Social Sciences Research" by Prof. T.V.Sekher. Prof. Sekher arrived in the hall before time and was interacting with students, going to them personally and trying to understand where they came from and what they were studying. This gesture from sir taught me something, his personal attempt to talk to us individually spoke volumes about his warm demeanor. Prof. Sekher talked about empathy towards survey/interview respondents and helped us understand the need for treating the respondents with respect and dignity even in face of overt ignorance or negligence. He informed us that respondents have the right to behave in ways they deem fit and just because a researcher wants to have information does not give him the right to haggle the respondent to meet the ends. While acknowledging the tough conversations which often seem to be going nowhere, he stressed onto the fact that protecting the interest of respondent is more important and that we must be mindful of the favor that respondents do to us by helping us garner information. He discussed about the importance of being open to criticism, he talked about maintaining transparency with the respondent about the research objective and its importance. In fact, throughout his address he reiterated the fact that respondent is a resource person who should be respected and treated well and even if he/she does not want to respond, the researcher must not indulge into coercion of any form or manner. He gave a litany of caveats. For instance, it is unethical to use collected blood sample to test for HIV/AIDS when it has been collected to test Diabetes, that no one should be able to make out the identify of the respondent by reading his/her answers or comments and an informed consent is mandatory. Prof. Sekher's session was very enlightening and it did add to my knowledge reservoir on ethics in research and as always, there is a huge scope to learn more. 

The second session of the day was taken by Prof. D.P.Singh on "Quantitative Data Analysis". His session was fun, interspersed with jokes here and there. It was a highly mathematical session and I could sense that some students found it hard to connect. I was distracted by a problem during his session. He had mentioned about normal distribution, z-curves and exactly then, a conceptual confusion arose in my mind about z-curve and I became engrossed in solving it. After that, I paid my full attention to sir. Interestingly, two days after his session during my morning workout on the football field (a change from the gym), I saw him jogging and then doing yoga for one  whole hour starting from 6 am in the morning. I was really very inspired by that moment. It is always  encouraging to see elder people working out, sweating, grinding and exercising; I believe that when people elder to us exercise we can be sure about the immense importance of physical activity. Even now, as I write about the session taken by him, I think about his morning workout that day and it totally adds to the respect I have for him. In fact, more than the session his morning ritual impacted me more, to say in a little humorous tone. 

The third session was taken by Dr. Anil Chandran on "Sampling Techniques". This was an addition to the existing sessions. Initially, this unexpected session caused me an unwarranted itch but gradually as the learning unfolded did I realize   that it was a well-thought of addition. I must admit that I understood very clearly what was so random about random sampling and how to ensure that random sampling is quintessentially random, after his address. Using interesting examples he explained to all of us the concept of random sampling. He talked about multiple ways to create a sample out of the population. An important call from office led me to miss out on some parts of this session, but notwithstanding that, I did take back the importance of spending sometime deliberating on the size of the sample for study. 

The fourth and the last session of the day and of the workshop was taken by Prof. N. Audinarayana on "Writing Thesis and Publication of Research Papers". I believe as a research scholar everyone reads this time and again and especially while preparing a manuscript. Most of the facts were known but important to be reminded. He stressed on the distinction between description and interpretation of the results. He also stated that when it comes to writing, reading plays an important part and that he who aspires to become a better writer of scientific genre must read journals and research papers voraciously. He also talked about handling research correspondences when communicating with the conference or even organizing committee. He mentioned that while inquiring about the paper, we must use the reference number and on receiving rejection letter we must reply back with grace and honor. Little things, he emphasized, go a long way in cementing the etiquette of communication in research circles. 

With this the workshop came to an end and it was followed by certificate distribution to all the participants of the workshop. After the valedictory ceremony, me and four of my friends set out to explore Rural Technology Park (RTP). I must admit that the top peak at RTP has totally bewitched me and even today when I think about it, I am overcome by unfathomable peace and warmth. That particular place has done something to me and that alone warrants a separate blogpost. My readers might think that I begin with knowledge-dispersion and end up invariably talking about nature and its glory. I cannot help it, nature always seems more fascinating and mysterious to me. I do not have any photograph of that peak point, yet its image on my heart is more enduring than any digital image can ever capture. 

The pre-conference workshop was an intellectually stimulating event, I felt like a college going student, only this time I enjoyed the lectures more than ever :P I strongly encourage attending such kind of events outside of our daily jobs and responsibilities, they broaden our horizons, our network increases and it is always great to come out of our silos to participate in knowledge sharing and dissemination. The best part is that you always come back with a lot, and I do mean A LOT , of ideas.

I thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association of Social Sciences and Health) wholeheartedly for coming together and organizing such an event. It did all of us an inestimable good.

NIRDPR Diaries Part III : Day Two of Workshop on Research Methodology

In the previous two posts (NIRDPR Diaries Part I and Part II) I discussed my experience at NIRDPR and the lessons from the first day of the three day workshop on research methodology. In this post, I will elaborate on my lessons from the second day of the workshop. For those, who have not read the previous posts, I wish to provide a little background. I was at NIRDPR(National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj) to attend a conference on Health, Gender and Rural Development; as part of this conference was also a pre-conference workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research". 

Day II of the workshop was engaging and very informative. The first session was by Dr. T. Vijaya Kumar who talked to us about the "Relevance of Policy Research". He talked about the importance of problem definition, agenda setting and gave example of "Mission Antyodaya" to support his assertions. From this session I understood that a good research has some (ought to have) policy implications because that way the work can find its relevance in the society and augur meaningful changes. But this is no news that policy implementation, formulation, evaluation and observation pose a huge challenge. I raised a question on difference between Law and Policy; I somehow had got confused between the two. He made an attempt to make some clarity but the void of explanation was filled by my fellow friends and mentors who explained to me during the tea break the difference in detail. A woman told me that law is something which citizens have to abide by and in case of any breach, there is punishment, whereas in the case of policy no such incumbency exists. This explanation definitely helped me gain some clarity. Actually, I was thinking from the point of view of Marital Rape when I asked the question to demystify the equation between law and policy. Nevertheless, the session was interactive, Dr. Kumar asked questions and we responded to the best of our knowledge. Later on, Dr. Kumar was to introduce me to a women team who were being trained at NIRDPR to improve the cleanliness in schools. I talked to these women and expressed how proud I was of them and their decision to work towards the improvement of health. It was important to let them know that they are not just a cog in this journey of ensuring healthier India. The grassroots workers are often under-appreciated, un-acknowledged and therefore, I always feel that it is important to remind them of the great responsibility they are shouldering and how it is impacting the bigger vision. 

The second session of the day was by Prof. K.N.M. Raju on "Framing Survey Questions and Coding the Data". This was my favorite session of the day because there was a lot of talk around mathematics, statistics and data analysis. He began with a simple question to understand the distinction between "rate and ratio" (I encourage the readers to pay attention to this question, it is really a doorway to a better understanding). He also asked why the infant mortality rate was called as 'rate' and not 'ratio', he further stressed that it should rather be called as a ratio. I tried to reason in his class and this is what I had said, "Sir, it is called rate because when extrapolated to the population of a country, we have to multiply the value of this rate with the population concerned". I believe that rate is the appropriate usage. I have, during the many events that I attend on health and its allied fields,  noticed about me that the nature of my arguments has improved, that I can reason now and actually think objectively on statements I hear in the realm of mathematics, public health or biostatistics (there is still a long way to go). I believe this is a very natural thing that happens when one is passionate about his/her area of interests, very liberating indeed. Prof. K.N.M.Raju stressed on the importance of theoretical understanding to plan the type of questions to be framed for a survey. I believe that all the experienced professors who addressed us, heavily emphasized on the indispensability of theoretical understanding before going to quantitative analysis. I also understand the logic behind such approach. A sound knowledge in theory leads to questions, doubts and potential topics of future research. Overall, he actually talked about the basic fundamentals of quantitative research, independent and dependent variables, etc. I indisputably enjoyed his session and if I have to sum up the nature of his session then I would say that, "Simple things are the most complex to understand". During his session he ensured that we put our minds to work, occasionally he used the whiteboard to make concepts clear. A humble man of erudition in his field, Prof. Raju. 

The next session was by Dr. Ramesh on "Case Study applications: How and what to report". The session reminded me of multiple books that I have come across which have followed the approach of case studies to elucidate the salient points. He mentioned, which I believe is an extremely significant point, that context is of paramount importance in case study based approach to dissemination of results or information. Well, this would seem a no-brainer but we often assume that our readers know background which we are using to prepare our work (calls for some self-assessment and introspection). Imagine coming across a book which suddenly talks about women and their rights without forming a background on why it is important to talk about it. Point taken sir, thank you. He told us about the village names which have been at the focus of some phenomenal work related to social development - Punsari, Anna Hazare's village (Ralegan Siddhi), Mednipur (Midnapore) village, to name a few. I still have to read about these three villages and understand why they are termed as "model villages". The best part of his session? He gave references of books to substantiate his point, the point of writing the best case studies : Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Looking Away, Bio-innovation and Poverty alleviation: Case studies from AsiaUnheard Voices.  I believe it is extremely significant to use reference of books when we address an audience, they must always go back with atleast five books to read and learn from; books, which I feel are the most companionable of companions. Somehow I feel that addition of a reading list adds to the credibility of the speaker and trust in his/her awareness with the topic about which he/she is talking about. Quintessentially, I thoroughly enjoyed this session. It was different than all the sessions which had happened and yet it was clearly noticeable how pertinent it was to the case of social sciences research or any research for that matter. Documentation is certainly an art and a good research work stands the danger of being termed "thoughtless"  if it is not properly documented. It was an intellectually rejuvenating session and I do not think I would have got any other better opportunity to learn the nuances of writing case studies and their relationship with research work than this one at NIRDPR. 

The final session of the day was by Dr. Sucharita Pujari, the linchpin of all activities during this six day research based extravangaza at NIRDPR. The topic was "Qualitative Research Methods". Dr. Pujari talked in detail about the role qualitative research plays in informing the ground realities of a situation at a particular location (by taking example of health programs), the way to conduct conversations with respondents and how to handle their skepticism and distrust. Since, most of the students in the workshop had experiences of field work, they felt very comfortable discussing their ideas and opinions with Dr. Pujari who brings with herself a litany of such experiences. She patiently answered the queries of students and the nods of agreement interspersed with light moments of laughter made the session an informative one without making it too much didactic or pedagogic in nature. I too believe in the utmost importance of qualitative research work but I also feel that that results of such work ought to be quantified(wherever possible) so that they are easier to understand and that way people can be made to understand the implications of the study. After the session, I asked Dr. Pujari about the significance of qualitative role in policy formulation. She enthusiastically stated that qualitative research has a tremendous role to play in policy formulation and remarked that the results of flawed policy making are testimony to the shoddy work done in relation to qualitative research. Intrigued, I ensured to read more about it. (Any suggestions are welcome.)

With this,  the second day of the workshop came to another beautiful end. After the sessions, I spent some time in the library trying to capture every book in the magnificent library at NIRDPR in the brief time I had. Soon it was 6pm and I rushed to badminton court to play with my new friends. 

NIRDPR is the kind of place where I feel everyone must spend some time of their lives. It is really imparting education in the sense which can be translated into real world and to address, if not solve, its challenges. Shefali, who is a student of PGDRDM (Post Graduate Diploma in Rural Development) often shares about her lessons from the class and how her perception has been broadened in a brief time at NIRDPR. When I talk to her, I can see how different my thinking is from her in multiple ways. While she talks from social point of view in relation to multiple problems, I often wonder if these issues need attention at all. It is like learning vicariously from the conversations I have with her. Thank you Shefali, you are patient in answering my queries. 

I would like to thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association for Social Sciences and Health) for organizing such an event and being mindful of the needs of budding scientists and researchers. I cannot admire this step enough, as much corny as it may sound, but I must not flinch from stating categorically that , those days from 12th November till 18th November 2017 are definitely etched in my memory and for long.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Remembering two women of courage on this day

Today is World AIDS day and I want to write about two women with whom I have interacted closely. Both of them HIV+ve , infected from their husbands, husbands who died long back leaving these women in the uber judgemental traditional Indian society to fend for themselves, not only financially but also to preserve their dignity. I met Lekha ( name changed) during my field trips to villages in Jamkhed; she used to accompany me and was there to answer all my queries. While it was summer season, she always wore some sweater and always had a handkerchief ready in case she felt like sneezing or cold. I never paid attention to it until one day during a little break we started chatting and I began to inquire about her family. It was during that conversation that she told me about her family, her husband, his forced sexual intercourse on her despite her excessive attempts to make him understand about the transmission of virus and his subsequent death. She rejoices that her children are not infected and she has dreams for both of them. She also told me that her children know about it and that she made sure that they know about it. I believe this has brought the three of them closer to each other. Lekha helped me understand what happens to immunity when one is infected by HIV. Slowly, as she made me understand I could fathom why she caught cold so easily while no one of us did, why she felt cold all the time and that her wearing sweater was a conscious attempt to keep cold at bay. She had told me that immunity plummets rapidly but she is taking anti-retroviral therapy and that is helpful to her. Lekha is a very lanky woman, but a woman who has seen a lot in her life and that has made her  extremely tough. Day and night, she toils hard to not only ensure literacy to her children but to also make them educated and socially conscious. Humble and polite, Lekha touched my heart and there was not a single tear in her eyes while she was explaining things to me, or should I say,she was successful in not restraining the heart to come in eyes.

The second woman was Bhakti (name changed) whom I met at an organic farm. She was married off to an HIV+ve man, her mother-in-law knew about it and despite that went ahead with her son's marriage. Later on Bhakti discovered on her own about her husband's infection, got herself checked and was diagnosed as HIV positive. Her husband died, she was pregnant, her child was still an infant when she was ostracised from both her and her in-laws family. Left, dejected, hopeless and amidst the worst storm of her life, she became a labor. In lunch hours she used to visit her small house to breastfeed her son, until one day when she discovered that he too had succumbed to the virus. Her life came to a brutal halt and right when it seemed to be ending, she came across a village health worker who asked her to render her service in improving the health of the villagers. Today Bhakti is the head of an organic farm and has adopted a girl who studies in 7th class. Me and my American friend were listening to her life story together, while Shayla had tears in her eyes and was comforting Bhakti by holding her tight and hugging her, I could not but salute the courage in the woman in front of me. Broken, tossed, betrayed, humiliated and yet she has managed to survive and survive with dignity and grace. I know she is the beacon of  power inherent in women. 

I remember these two women today; they are the only HIV+ve people I have met in my life. They live their lives very normally; obviously they had to cope up with a lot of resistance from the society and their fellow workers when they began to arrange the pieces of their shattered lives. Knowledge from the leaders and guides in the public health journey has helped in elimination and now total absence of any such prejudice. Both of them are an apostle of something much more than courage. To be in India and live life as a single woman infected with a disease which has such high amount of stigma attached to it is nothing short of a nightmare. But I also know that these women understand the meaning of life much better than anyone of us, who live as if we are immortals. In fact, Bhakti had told me that she lives her days happily because she wants to spend whatever time she has remaining with gratitude and laughter. It is difficult to understand this because only she is living the reality and no amount of my imagination can help me put self into her shoes. The closest I have been to death so far has been a scooty accident which made me unconscious for 30 minutes, even today I remember nothing. And I sulk all the time at injuries, being a sportsperson injuries are my allies yet I always find it tough to behave sanely in those times. On the other hand, here are these two women who have chosen to look beyond their chronic pain & suffering and  decided  to spend their lives creating meaning in the society in ways they can. 

I salute them.

NIRDPR Diaries Part II : Day One of Workshop on Research Methodology

In this post, I will consolidate all the lessons that I learned on the first day of the three days pre-conference workshop on research methodology that I had attended at NIRDPR (National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj), Hyderabad. A background to this post can be found here

  1.  The first session was taken by Prof. S. Siva Raju on "Overview of Social Sciences Research". Very elegantly he explained that there is a journey that has to be taken from identification of problem to the generation of its solution and that every step in this research journey is important in its own way and also in relation to the entire project. He had enthusiastically emphasized the importance of literature while performing research experiments. According to him, theoretical understanding is imperative for research problem investigation and opens avenues to explore a problem in multitude of ways. Linking research to context, according to him, is one of the best exploratory of ways to perform research. Most importantly what I remember are the little anecdotes he had shared of his own experiences in research, especially of the "aging" study in which he had to read extensively the research conducted in past on the health of elderly population. Overall, his session was interactive, small research anecdotes did help in maintaining alertness in the class :P   
  2. I believe one of the most significant lessons came to me in the class of Prof. R. Siva Prasad. He had delivered a session on "Research Design and Selection of Research Problem". At the outset of his address he had mentioned categorically that "unless one feels excited about research , his/her job will become monotonous". I also feel that this is a very important and often neglected fact. Unless one really enjoys what he/she does, he/she won't be able to give their best and as a result there will no great work but only cookie-cutter approach based work. He had also shared that a good research supervisor provides freedom to research students. I cannot overemphasize this. Having mentored 4 students in their research and internship projects I can totally relate to this. Giving freedom is, needless to say, a tough task; one has to forget about self in the moments when we provide freedom to others and that can be discomforting if proper perspective is not maintained. But one must acknowledge that innovation & creativity flourish when the mind is unbridled, when there is little coercion and a clear respect towards the ideas an individual brings to the table. What good it would be if everyone thought in similar veins? Prof. Prasad made a very interesting case. He mentioned that just because some work has been done before does not mean that it cannot be researched. According to him, there is no such thing called as "finality" in research and that the attitude of "I know it is done, but I am doing it differently" goes a long way in refining the researcher instincts of a budding scientific investigator. This really clicked me. Often times, our own mentors very hastily reject our ideas or proposals citing that there is no novelty and virtually no chance of discovering one if pursued, but such outright rejection can be an impediment to a great work. I see this often times around myself also, but I have also learnt that results speak for themselves. If one believes in his/her approach, they must work towards it because faith can unleash great work. I had asked him a question on handling confounding results. Often times it so happens that we assume the results to be in a certain fashion but some times they just turn out to be completely unexpected, my question was then, how to handle such situations. He very gracefully answered that we must accept confounding results as much as we would not want to,  otherwise what we'd be involved in doing would be manufacturing some work for self-convenience which by any means can never be termed as research. Pretty simple thought, yet takes a lot of courage while applying. Some times in my work earlier confounding results used to almost challenge my ego but then I read something in a research paper that completely transformed my perspective. "Not getting desired results could also be the beginning of another research" - this simple yet powerful thought has taught me about the importance of being an open and an unbiased investigator while conducting research. I am still learning how to, it is a very conscious and arduous effort.
  3. The third session was on "Quantitative and Qualitative Research" by Prof. M. Gopinath Reddy. Prof. Reddy emphasized that it was not always about the quantitative or qualitative approach. Essentially, according to him, both are required and that theoretical understanding is tremendously important to understand the research problem and then convert it into praxis. He mentioned about a book related to the conversations between an economist and an anthropologist. (Book) I was looking forward to much more from this lecture yet had to satiate self with less. A recurrent statement during the conference was that social scientists play a role in investigating "why" a situation is like a certain way while "statisticians" can only help with the "how much". But I differ on this. I believe that mathematicians and biostatisticians can also contribute towards the why. The classic case of epidemiology of cholera and John Snow comes to my mind. He could find out why the residents of a particular locality were dying increasingly of cholera by investigating the number of deaths segregated by geography and the location of hand pumps. In fact, given an equation and a dependent variable, we can always change the independent variables or their values and observe which independent variable (or which value) causes the dependent variable to behave in a particular way. I also do not understand the premise which is widely and implicitly supported that social emancipation is the prerogative of only the degree holders in the related disciplines; this way we only widen the chasm. If someone were to ask me, I'd say that everyone who is socially conscious is a social scientist and a potential investigator. It is the inter-disciplinary nature of transformation in society which calls for people from different disciplines  to come together to usher  "just and lasting changes". Overall, I was not much satisfied with the content of the lecture, it was more of a digression from the relevant topic yet insightful in myriad of other ways.
  4. The final session of the day was delivered by Dr. Akanksha Shukla on "Writing Research Proposal". Well, this session was different; she was brimming with energy and her enthusiasm was visible. She began her address by asking questions to all of us with an objective to make the session more interactive. I did not know the difference between a research synopsis and a research proposal. After her class, at least I have a brief idea now. She also talked about the distinguishing factors between research gap and research limitation. Although I understood its meaning, but I still find it hard to write in words, but I will make an attempt here. Research limitation is something which could not be accomplished in a research project owing to resource constraints or knowledge unavailability. For example: If I am a researcher involved in making a health index based on lifestyle habits of a person and I am not able to include food data while doing this, then it would be a research limitation. Owing to unavailability of appropriate data, its consequent non-inclusion can be called as a research limitation. Research gap on other hand would be a situation in the same example if I am not able to provide the proof as to why certain set of variables is taken into account to calculate the health index. That is, in this case lack of a legitimate evidence would amount to research gap. (Anyone please correct me, if this is wrongly put). Then she shed some light on difference between methodology and methods. All of her questions were  making wonder all the time; these were small and seemingly insignificant things to which I had hardly paid any attention yet they were activating my brain to think and gain clarity. She was to explain later that methodology was not about methods but the logic behind the methods. Methodology, in that case then, was constituted by underlying methods. There was one thing that she had said which continues to bring a smile to my face. She had mentioned that, "PhD is a door". I think she meant that it was not the end, that a PhD was only a beginning to sailing in unknown waters and perform experiments. I must say that this statement could only come from someone who has been very conscious in her journey post PhD. Dr. Shukla was an excellent speaker and was able to create a rapport with her audience, which is definitely a talent. She had the toughest task of taking the final session of the day when the energy had plummeted, but never for a moment did it seem that there was any plateau in the energy. She takes all the credits.
Overall, first day was very informative, I was alert throughout the sessions. The experience for me was like that of a person deprived of water for long discovers a fountain of an elixir.  We also received a book on Research Methodology. NIRDPR made sure that there was no holding back while sharing knowledge and that everything was duly transmitted to the young minds. As I write this post, I cannot help re-visiting my days spent at NIRDPR. 

Every morning when I wake up in Bangalore, I invariably remember the mornings I woke up at NIRDPR without any noise, with silence all over, without honking noise of UBERs or OLAs, where I could recline to my own self in the comforting solitude before dawn and before the worldly responsibilities took over me.

I would like to thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association of Social Sciences and Health) for organizing this workshop and also to the speakers who took time out from their busy schedules and job responsibilities to share their lessons and experiences with budding researchers and aspiring leaders. 

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