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Designing Research in Context

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

By Caroline Khene

When you start as a research student, you can often have mixed feelings of excitement, feeling challenged, and feeling that you are going to make a contribution that provides solutions to many issues you have seen in business or society. But then you start, and one of the first things your supervisor says is: “Your research is NOT meant to change the world!” – this certainly sounds like a disempowering statement. However, I realised as a supervisor and academic later in life that this is a common saying among supervisors. Research students are often quite enthusiastic about their research, they often decide on research topics that can be huge in scope or beyond their ability and time to complete within their study period. They often jump onto the trendiest topic (AI, Blockchain, Quantum computing), which is not a bad thing – but what research problem is relevant and needs to be addressed in the context you are conducting research in – in the current times. What matters in your research context now, instead of catching up to the trend? How do you establish positionality as a research student, to engage with your supervisor around his/her statement, in that your research is not meant to change the world, but certainly make some contribution to changing it, and this is how or why you postulate it could happen?

Artist: Annett Seidler

The Need for Immersion

In this article, I first focus on the importance of immersion in the research context, from which the design of research unfolds. When you immerse yourself in the context, you begin to identify with the relevance of your study and its complexity – and perhaps at times the irrelevance of what you thought was a relevant topic for your research context in the first place. You may also uncover other methods of discovery in your context, which at times may differ from conventional research methods. On the other hand you also begin to understand the relevance of conventional research methods chosen, and are in a position to justify their suitability for you study. We need to have an open mind, when designing research of relevance. Why is this especially important to South researchers in digital development or digital transformation – the author Arturo Escobar in his book ‘Designs for the Pluriverse’ explains it so well:

“As Fry puts it, “the world of the South has in large been part an ontological designing consequence of the Eurocentric world of the North” (2017, 49). Thus, it is necessary to liberate design from this imagination in order to relocate it within the multiple onto-epistemic formations of the South, so as to redefine design questions, problems, and practices in ways more appropriate to the South’s contexts.” (2018, page 6)

To be fully engaged in understanding a context, especially as a researcher from outside that context, one has to immerse themselves in the environment with participants. You need to experience and understand the environment and what people really value – don’t make things superficial and too assumed – as you are engaging with human beings and not hard products. Positivist quantitative researchers may think differently when it comes to immersion, but even so, how does one design a quantitative study without understanding the context one wishes to explore. Yes, relying on previous studies may feed into the study – but if we thought that was sufficient why do we continue to have ‘re-invent the wheel studies’ that don’t really address the research problem – whether quantitatively or qualitatively. Go to the city, the street, the private business, the household, the shop, the clinic, and even the coast if you have to – and when you go there, become vulnerable in opening your mind to the richness individuals or communities have to share. Make time for it!

I found much value in this, as we continuously visited Dwesa for 5 years throughout my Masters and PhD studies, a beautiful rural community in the wild coast of the Eastern Cape of South Africa. With my narrow view of reality, even as an African, I began to appreciate the value of the voice of individuals and communities in shaping the design of digital development in their environment. We had positive and negative experiences – the positives more in the relationships built, and respect for local perspectives. My experience shaped the topics of my research studies, from ‘how we should do project management in ICT4D’, to the need to evaluate and question our decisions before, during, and post-implementation (comprehensive evaluation of digital development). I also observed how we [my students and colleagues] experienced this in the MobiSAM and MobiSAfAIDS projects in Southern Africa, that focused on digital citizen engagement. In embarking on these research projects, I realised dominant views of interpretivism or positivism (typical in information systems) were insufficient to describe how we did the research – we were applying pragmatism, with design science, but with some interpretivism, and at some point consideration for critical realism. We still have not written a paper on our method – perhaps because we are still exploring possibilities of how to explain our experience. Out of our experience, we also see the value in framing a methodology that empowers researchers in the South who live the day-to-day experience in the practice and design of digital development and digital transformation in their contexts.

Start contextualising…

As a supervisor and research lead, I have always pushed my team and research students to consider the following when trying to understand a context:

  1. Engagement by immersion in research design – to develop empathy for your research contexts, and understand the experiences of research participants in their context.

  2. Self-awareness – be aware of who you are as an external individual in a context; you bring in many assumptions from participants, in addition to your own assumptions. Understand your own limitations and develop trust first – if you want your participants to truthfully reveal their experiences. If you fail to develop trust, always work with a local researcher or organisation to induct you, and also become a sounding board to discuss your initial findings in the field.

  3. Navigating Theory – Search for theory (this means read a lot!), that provides some clarity around your initial discovery in the context. People we need theory!! Our ideas and worldviews do not come out of nothing, but have been passed down through our lived experiences. They can be relatable across different disciplines, and not necessarily rely on one; e.g. Feminist theory has been proposed in digital development to better understand the plight of vulnerable groups. As a journal reviewer/editor academic, I have often come across research papers that focus too much on commonly used theories – many from the IS Theory Wiki. In my frustration, I once titled my presentation at an ICT4D research seminar I was invited to present at: ‘Not another TAM Model!’ (Technology Acceptance Model). As South researchers we need to explore other theories that challenge us to develop new theory and propose new paradigms that best explain our context.

  4. Build your understanding: Our background (personal or professional) is often always not sufficient to address a research problem. The nature of digital development and digital transformation is transdisciplinary in nature. We need to leverage off other knowledge areas and skills that support us in conducting research and at times implementing change. Do a short course, read books, attend local events, learn a language, socialise in the context, etc.

In closing, for a more academic-like discussion on the value of context, I invite you to read an editorial paper I wrote with Silvia Masiero (University of Oslo) titled ‘From research to action: The practice of decolonizing ICT4D’. The decolonization of ICT4D is discussed in this paper as: “a practice of research, which deconstructs Western-based concepts and rebuilds them through Indigenous value systems”. We are still learning, but let’s set an agenda to build on, as we share and develop new methodologies, theories, paradigms, and experiences.

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