Friday, December 1, 2017

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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