IGP Stories

The Human Side of Data Collection: An Ethnographic Narrative

RELIEF Middle East

Soheila Shourbaji

Citizen social science opens up an ethnographically intriguing space. In 2019, I worked with RELIEF’s citizen science team in Hamra while they carried out a household survey about prosperity and its different dimensions. My aim was to get a glimpse of what the surveying process looked like, and to understand the social interactions and emotions that are involved in data collection – experiences that ultimately get lost in the quantitative data that comes out on the other end of the process. RELIEF’s work on prosperity is grounded in citizen social science in order to produce community-based research findings that are owned by, and intended for the use of, local residents and organizations.

Soon after my first household interview with the Hamra Prosperity Index Project, I proposed to write an ethnographic account of the dynamics of the interview. I imagined gleaning such qualitative data would help contextualize the project’s output with anecdotes of self-narrated life in Hamra. And it did.

In a previous blog post I described some of my work on this project specifically with regard to the themes of mapping, anxieties and reconceptions that emerged during the ethnographic fieldwork. In this entry, I follow up and build on my earlier post by presenting an ethnographic account of a field survey for the Hamra Prosperity project.

Different survey questions require different types of thinking, recollection and emotional work on behalf of the respondent

One July afternoon, Kareem, a citizen scientist, and I interviewed Mona, a middle-aged Beiruti woman. We had entered a relatively new residential building and after a few failed attempts at door knocking (with some people declining to be interviewed and others not being home), we were welcomed into Mona’s apartment. She was very quick to let us in and immediately expressed an interest in our research. (She later said that she trusted us because of our name tags.)

As soon as we sat down on an old but well-kept couch that carried the aesthetics of the early 2000s, Mona offered us coffee. Because it is a habit to ask whether guests prefer sugar in their coffee, she jokingly added a twist saying “No sugar? No coffee beans?” Later, she offered us cigarettes while she lit one for herself.

When Kareem started asking the survey questions, Mona said, “My husband is bald. Write that down.” The atmosphere was generally light and funny.

Mona’s responses during the survey highlighted the ways in which different survey questions require different types of thinking, recollection and emotional work on behalf of the respondent. When Kareem asked about the number of household members, Mona counted the people that live in the house on her fingers recalling their names, ages and random things about them. At the same time, some questions had a striking emotive potential. While the weight of these emotionally charged questions changes from one household to another, they seem to follow a trend related to the income level of the household. Respondents who were better off answered questions about quality of life with a greater sense of lightness.

In Mona’s house, the atmosphere took a heavier turn after questions about access to healthcare, employment and medical insurance. When Mona’s husband lost his job, he also lost his medical insurance. Access to healthcare has been a struggle for them ever since.

At the end of the interview, Kareem asked Mona how we can get in touch with another woman in the building who served as the head of tenants. It turned out that she and Mona were related. “My husband’s cousin does not open the door.” Mona’s statement reminded me of a remark she had made earlier in response to a survey question, where she used a door metaphor – “All doors are closed // كل الأبواب مسكّرة” – to signal that people in the neighborhood are unhelpful to one another.

However, she also said at a later point that “Paradise without people is not worth living in // الجنة بلا ناس ما بتنداس” to indicate the importance she attributed to community life. She implied that community is crucial for a collective prosperous life, but also that prosperity was strongly contingent on interpersonal relationships that are harder to make and maintain under hard socioeconomic conditions. Prosperity was a door that remained half-closed and half-open.

Mona expressed this ambivalence and complexity of ideas in some other intermittent comments she made about life in Hamra. One comment was “Life is horrible. Hamra or not // المعيشة زفت. حمرا وغير حمرا. ” Another remark was that “We are only going backwards// كل مالنا عم نرجع لورا.” Eventually, Mona resolved to “Life is beautiful, but it’s expensive //الحياة حلوة بس كلها غلا.”

Even though such remarks might seem like “noise” in the data, my view is that they are exactly the opposite. They are evidence of the difficulty people experience in the psychological navigation of challenging economic situations in addition to a range of other issues. They are expressions of an effort to maintain a positive attitude towards the world, even at a time when doing so is itself a challenge. Prosperity is about the affirmation, hope and commitment to building a better future for ourselves and our communities.

Bio: Soheila Shourbaji is an intersectional ecofeminist anthropologist in the making.

Image credit: Annelise Andersen

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