Summer 2019 Field Research Grant – Can Rigorous Research Methods & Buddhism Coexist?

I traveled across oceans in three planes, cars, and shuttles to reach the Nawalparasi district of Nepal. I had one sole purpose for this trip – to conduct cognitive testing of a gender norms scale that I’m developing. Gender norms are a sub-set of social norms that describe how people of a particular gender are expected to behave, in a given social context. Cognitive testing is a fancy word for making sure that the questions that we plan to ask make sense to participants. In measurement jargon, this is called “content validity.” For example, one of my questions is, “In most families you know, women’s parents pay a dowry when their daughter gets married” with answer choices ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” I need to make sure that participants understand the word “dowry” as it’s translated in Nepali and that they understand that we’re asking about “most families,” not themselves. To do so, we asked open-ended questions about how they answered the question and what the dowry practice is like in their community.

A scale is a compendium of multiple items (survey questions) that as a whole represent a latent construct; they measure beliefs or attitudes we expect to exist as a result of our theoretical understanding of the world, but cannot directly measure. Different from measuring height and weight, gender norms cannot be directly measured. Creating and validating a scale helps to ensure that we are truly capturing this concept. Oftentimes, researchers simply hire data collectors to conduct cognitive testing. However, being present in Nepal allowed me to be a part of burgeoning questions about how to improve each question for clarity. For example, participants had a hard time differentiating between two important concepts, descriptive gender norms and injunctive gender norms. Perceived descriptive norms are what people are actually doing (e.g., most parents in this community pay a dowry when their daughter gets married) and perceived injunctive norms are perceptions about what someone should do (e.g., people in this community know that they should not pay a dowry and that it’s illegal but they still do it). One of the data collectors, Minakshi, suggested that we provide an example around hand washing to differentiate between the two types of questions. She suggested we add this example to the instructions, “we all know that we should wash our hands with soap and water before we eat but not everyone actually does that. For the next set of questions, I’m going to ask about what you think families believe they should do, not what they actually do.” Adding this vastly improved comprehension – a critical difference for this scale. By working closely with two data collectors for four days, they will be able to train the rest of the team on the questions, the importance of the scale, and how to answer questions, before the next round of data collection this fall.

Of course, another benefit of crossing oceans is that I get a glimpse into the lives of the women, or similar women, who will be helping to validate this scale with their responses. Since I don’t speak Nepali, I hang back with the driver as the data collectors conduct each interview. We sit in green plastic chairs under kind people’s roofs. Everyone welcomes us in. One family placed two water bottles and a bowl of sugar in front of me. I asked the driver what the sugar was for and he said that it’s a common welcome gesture for guests. The woman offered it to me directly and as I picked up the spoon to place some sugar in my palm, I realized there were tiny ants all over it. I was already midway to ladling the ant-infested sugar into my palm and the whole house was watching me so I just hoped that the ants didn’t hang on tight. I put a little in my mouth and kept the rest of the sugar tightly clenched in my fist for the next hour until the interview finished. When I was about to get into the car, I opened my palm to let the rest of the sugar fall to the ground but it was mostly melted into my clammy hand at the point. All in the name of science! The next day, sitting under a restaurant overhang, a family put me to work rolling and stuffing momos (Nepali dumplings). My dumplings were smaller and lopsided compared to the rest but they were patient with me and happy to have the help – or at least the entertainment.

Men, women, and children spend the day cooking, cleaning, washing, and selling things but life didn’t feel as harried as it does in Washington, D.C. The slow, languid pace in the Newalparasi District made me feel guilty when I’d open up my laptop to crank out the methods section of a paper while I waited for the data collectors to return. But this is what I know – checklists, accomplishments, efficiency. The Newalparasi district where we worked is only 35 kilometers from Buddha’s birthplace. Originally, Buddha was a Brahman man named Siddhartha Gautama, who left all of his possessions, money, and family to explore. He wanted to understand the world outside of his sheltered, privileged life and in the process, found enlightenment and internal peace. Buddhist philosophy may not include cranking out methods sections and keeping a list of how many publications I’ve produced. Rolling momos and sitting with families, albeit mostly in silence, is probably more Buddhist.

As a social scientist, I am proud of methodical attention to detail and I want to contribute a sound, rigorous gender norms instrument that the field can use to reduce gender inequity. At the same time, I want to slow down and appreciate the immeasurable part of life. As always, travel and a glimpse into another way of living helps me remember that.


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