Successful data collection: planning, perseverance, reflection, luck and serendipity

This blog is partly about the research process itself and the trip has offered up a range of ‘issues’ that show how research and research outcomes can be affected by various challenges.

The field-work element of this research has, thankfully, gone pretty well. Obviously this is what I would have hoped for. Achieving a successful outcome in research however is never straight-forward and in this case there were a number of parts that could have gone badly wrong that have involved a certain amount of continued fortune/luck despite extensive planning. Even the best laid plans can come unstuck so even though preparation for this tour of six Asian cities was many months in the making I think it is worth briefly reflecting on how it could all have gone so differently but also on how research develops over time and should respond to its context. What I’m going to do here therefore is briefly consider/reflect on, in turn, how planning, perseverance, reflection, luck and serendipity have affected the research and its outcomes to date.

Planning

Obviously all research should be as well planned out as possible, both the day-to-day schematics of what will be done, how and where, as well as contingency preparation for if things do not go so well. Planning for this trip was extensive and ranged from planning the route effectively so as to minimise jet lag as each leg was completed (see first post itinerary) and making sure that good guides and contacts were arranged for each location, to knowing about how to best try to avoid getting unwell during the course of the research and or contract unwanted diseases. On the latter, up to 60% of travellers to regions such as Asia can succumb to Travellers’ diarrhoea, and given that I was travelling to six Asian countries, only one of which has genuinely safe drinking water for travellers (Japan) then this was a clear priority as a bout of illness would disrupt the research and potentially undermine it completely. Preventing illness meant a restricted diet whilst travelling (no ice cubes at any time; no salads; no fish/seafood; vegetables dishes wherever possible and only meat, if unavoidable, that is freshly cooked and fried where possible. This was unfortunate to some degree as each of these countries has cuisine that was very tempting. Antibacterial hand gel was a common mainstay and applied regularly as was insect repellent and sunscreen. A number of inoculations were also needed.

Perseverance

To be honest this is just a ‘given’ in the research process. There were numerous times when the pace was overbearing. The trip could have been twice as long and still been insufficient/too short in many respects.

As for the occasionally overbearing pace – on four of the legs this involved: arriving, going straight in the field, walking and/or travelling for hours on end (in most cases even when using the subway standing room only was the norm) getting back to the hotel, preparing for the following day or travel to a new destination (often overnight). Blisters and sore feet became the norm (I knew I should have trained for this) as did tiredness. It was also exhilarating at points however so don’t get the impression that it was drudgery – it wasn’t, but it was demanding. Many of the days in the field consisted of around 7-8 hours walking, observing, moving around, with usually a short lunch break in between. Nearly every day in the field was undertaken in heat above 30 degrees centigrade and a number of them considerably so. Both myself and each of my wonderful guides/co-researchers felt the strain of these long, hot, draining days. It would have been easy (and understandable) to now and again have cut a day short or missed a day planned for the field but each new location visited added meaningfully to the research and data collection. Whether it is desk based research or research in new settings, persevering where possible and completing the planned data collection phases always brings its rewards and it did here.

Reflection

Well the blog has helped a lot here. It has operated in many ways like a mini research diary (which I have also kept and which contains many more notes about all of the observations made – spitting and non-spitting related both).This is mixed methods research (also involving an online survey) but this part of it is mostly qualitative; involving observations, conversations/feedback from locals and of course reflection on what I have seen and been told and how it fits with a better understanding of spitting in different contexts. In this sense the research is and has been dynamic – as new ideas or concepts have developed through what I have seen – I have recorded many of them on the blog to help me both formulate what my thinking/interpretations were and how they were evolving. Constant reflection on what I have seen and been told has therefore meant that ‘analysis’ has been, and is, on-going and that it isn’t something that only happens at the end when all the data is collected. Reflection during the data collection phase allows ideas to be followed up in next/future observations and discussions and if deemed to be helpful added to the ‘lens’ through which the research is being carried out. Specific examples of this were becoming aware of how each of the countries had examples of almost completely ‘hidden’ (to them) but common public spitting such as spitting around the edge of public swimming pools carried out by (those previously thought of as) ‘non-spitters’ as well as spitters, and seeing everyday public spitting, as found in China, as simply not heard/seen by both spitters and non-spitters alike in many cases, and then also considering why this is the case. My own views on spit and spitting have shifted meaningfully during the course of this research and as those views have shifted this has affected both how my observations have played out and interpretation of them.

Luck and serendipity

These are not the same although they can overlap. Some specific luck relates to the weather. I have no control over the weather at all (obviously) and although some planning could be done to avoid e.g. the rainy season in one region it is difficult marry up this in India with unproblematic weather in Malaysia or China.

Luck

It is difficult to relate exactly how lucky I was as poor weather could have potentially wiped out the whole trip or significant parts of it. I was however, very lucky: in Kuala Lumpur where I had only two opportunities to go out (the afternoon of the day I arrived and the afternoon of the following day – which followed a lecture at the University of Malaya and preceded me flying out early the next morning) on both days torrential lightning storms broke out just after we had finished our fieldwork for the day. Storms that flooded the streets of KL. In KL it had been raining every day for a number of days before I arrived and as related also did so whilst I was there. My fieldwork however was conducted in bright sunshine and cloudless skies! Jakarta / Indonesia was a similar tale except I had just one day to undertake fieldwork there but despite numerous days of rain preceding my arrival the sun was the only thing I saw in the sky. Similarly in Tokyo and Seoul – each day was clear and bright and in China, rain was only forecast for those days following the planned fieldwork (and again rain had been present on the days prior to my arrival) and that is how it worked out. I was very, very fortunate overall in this respect. Such a tight schedule really provided little leeway for weather inconveniences and in retrospect I should have thought about this more. I got away with it.

If the weather was one area in which I could only hope for some fortune another was around illness and travellers’ diarrhoea in particular. All you can do for this is try to minimise the risks and hope to avoid it – there are however, no guarantees. I have been lucky and avoided illness. All fieldwork has now been completed for each of the countries.

Again, although decent preparation (and perseverance – I really wanted those spicy King Pawns) no doubt helped I was also lucky to have avoided exposure that would have resulted in potentially huge disruption for the research.

Now what of serendipity?

Serendipity, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’ or as Wiki puts it ‘the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it’. This takes us full circle back to understanding the research process, preparation and how it is related to what you do and don’t do and how you do it.

In this research I arranged, through some helpful/supportive overseas (mostly) academic colleagues, for an English speaking ‘guide’ to help me in each city. In India of course I had the perfect advantage of being accompanied by Vivek who as a sociology academic and one with an interest in spitting gave me time, energy and collaboration. For the other sites however much more was uncertain. The’ quality’ of the arranged guides was unpredictable: how good would their English be; how well would they understand what I was trying to do and as such how well would they be able to help/facilitate me; how enthusiastic would they be when half way through a long hot day in the field; would they be easy to spend time with; did they just want the money; would they pull out at the last moment leaving me high and dry etc.? On each occasion, until I had met and spent time with a guide, this was an unknown.

Not only was I lucky in getting, in each case, a wonderfully enthusiastic individual (in Jakarta of course three enthusiastic individuals) but each location was enhanced by the contributions made by the guides/collaborators themselves. Each has in some way contributed to my developing interpretations / understanding of spitting in different countries. In each country this worked out unexpectedly well and in each case I was mostly reliant on the initiative and foresight of those that helped me from the construction of my various itineraries (different ones could have been chosen) to the insights and observations they also contributed (sometimes unknowingly) through long hot days in the field. I had not ‘relied’ on my guides as such and my fieldwork would have gone ahead regardless of whether they had been excellent or weak. I had prepared a process that would ensure data collection – I hadn’t however foreseen that I would be lucky enough to get such wonderful assistance that would bring genuine added value to the research (and to the research process and my trip through their friendly, supportive and helpful demeanour) and for that I am grateful to a slice of serendipitous fortune.

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