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A Closer Look at Contexts in Development Research

By Supraja Parthasarathy

While designing a research model sounds exciting without any doubt, working at this lab has the ability to make one realize how contextual analysis plays a crucial role behind such a process. There have been a number of views on how important contexts are in order to analyze a research question, especially in a developing country like India. Though it is very simple to understand the same as a theoretical concept, seeing contexts shape research from ground zero is a completely different experience in itself.
For instance, while undertaking primary data collection, as a behavioral researcher it is straightforward to ask how rational thinking within human brains could be constrained by cognitive exercises. However, it is out of our general line of thought, to find that cognitive tasks performed in a place outside a female respondent’s house could potentially be seen as an aspect of freedom and empowerment. In India, where labor markets are characterized by low levels of participation among women, this is highly consequential.
Context also has the power to decide on who will be undertaking data collection. Given that, different sets of population (within a city like Chennai) have different sets of ideologies and sentiments when it comes to comfort levels regarding open communication, this becomes an important decision to make. In addition to that, gender sensitivity is a “never to be ignored” question during data collection for any given context. As an example, it is important to think twice about using just male surveyors to undertake a survey on women’s safety in an urban poor set up. It is possible that the surveyor is not welcomed, as it does not provide for an environment that is conducive to open communication given the beliefs of the population concerned. However, such communication might not be a major problem among the educated- upper class urban communities within the same city.

Further, one should also be ready to get surprised by an unexpectedly huge crowd during a field visit to a labor stand (a market type environment where daily wage laborers and recruiters meet), just because the Tamil calendar says it is an auspicious day to start business. Such correlations can never be thought of, without paying the required attention to contextual analysis. In this way, the lab continues to fascinate its researchers. It leads us from one fascinating concept to the next, which ultimately enables one to understand the story behind econometrically derived results.