The other side of the mirror*

31May04

As a researcher, I am always meeting people and asking them questions. Questions ranging from the Stupid (so, what do you do in your free time), to the Difficult to answer (what were your thoughts and feelings when you saw the ad), to the Irritating (can you describe this again in detail) to downright Personal (which contraceptive method do you use). And surprisingly enough, I get answers.

I cannot imagine some stranger asking me such questions and getting any kind of polite reply. Yet, in project after project, I see people opening up in the course of a focus group / interview and revealing to me glimpses from their lives…. (A huge proportion of research in India is among housewives – the apparent decision-maker and I am talking about such respondents here).

Last week, after I ended a focus group in Madurai (a routine ad-testing study; what all people do for their bread and butter!), a woman came up to me and said, I really enjoyed this. I will go home and tell everyone about you. She held my hand tightly and said, I will never forget you. Thanks.

And this was not the first time I had heard that.

Imagine. She had just sat through one and half hours of mindless questions about an advertisement for a brand she has never used, for a product category that is so common and unexciting that I actually felt foolish asking certain questions. And she was thanking me for it.

I have wondered often enough how it feels to be a respondent. Surely, they were not doing this for the stainless steel kadhai that they get as a gift in return for their participation? (In India, it is unacceptable to offer cash for participating in research; instead gifts are given out at the end of the interview. These gifts depend on the profile of the respondent, and invariably housewives are given some kind of utensil, especially in the South).

Then why would anyone spend two hours of her time away from home, in a strange location, answering inane questions to a stranger?

The answer to this is in the question itself. Here is a woman (obviously educated and from the ‘big city’) come all the way to her town, seeking her out, asking for her opinions and listening to her for over an hour. If this sounds to you pompous, believe me, most of these women never go out on their own anywhere, nobody asks for their opinions ever or gives her so much attention. I have seldom faced resentment, impatience, boredom or even irritation….

Of course, as a researcher, the feeling is always not nice…. Knowing that your intentions were not all that noble …. And knowing that when you say thank you at the end of an interview, it is more from relief that the interview is over and that there is more data in hand…..

Am writing about that next, what is feels like to be a researcher…. And do read this from Dina on professional respondents
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An explanation of the title : In the West, two-ways mirrors are commonly used in the course of focus groups / interviews where the client(s) sits behind the mirror watching and listening to the discussion. In India however, mirrors are rarely used; instead the client observes the proceedings in another room through a CCTV.

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