Figuring out how to manage direct reports

Before starting with IDinsight, i had only limited managerial experience — mostly managing field managers and survey teams. i certainly had not given much thought to management or how to do it in a meaningful way, beyond a general sense of wanting to get good work out of my team as well as keep them happy. Nor had i really had what i considered to be a stellar experience of being managed. i had a great academic committee, for example, but i wouldn’t hold that up as the best way to manage people. And i have had an array of other less-than-fun managers, including micro-managers and credit-stealers, in organizations that didn’t necessarily put any value on spending time and effort on becoming a better manager. 

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i found it quite daunting, then, to find myself with one — and later two — direct reports in an organization that takes management, feedback, and professional development quite seriously (one of the things that makes IDinsight a fab place to work). (Note that the folks i manage are a few years out of undergrad, sometimes with a 1-year masters degree.) 

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i certainly talked to my direct reports every day (when i first started, there were only six of us sitting in a very open office, so it would have been quite hard to not talk to my direct report!) but i still felt it wasn’t enough: it neither (intentionally) set him up well to reflect on his work and his growth, nor set me up well to do performance reviews and other necessary things. 

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Early in my tenure with IDinsight, i had a very positive experience of working through the book Managing to Change the World with a colleague with more management experience inside and outside IDinsight. One of the big takeaways (for me) from the book and our conversations was the usefulness of setting aside explicit time/space for non-project check-ins — no matter how much you already talk to discuss project work or chat informally. The book, my colleague, and other colleagues helped provide a lot of great ideas that i crowdsourced…

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…and then i found myself totally overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to remember all those good questions. 

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So, as has become my management habit/style over the past 1.5 years, i created a spreadsheet, with rows for topics on which i want to check-in regularly and columns for each week. This functions as a semi-structured interview guide as well as a recording device for me, so that i can look at previous notes and patterns as well as have notes when i need to fill out performance reviews (i also find completing performance reviews very daunting and still struggle with recording peak areas and challenge areas on a daily or weekly basis!).

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At first, i worried it would seem too rigid, if i had my laptop out during our chats and i was obviously reminding myself of the questions i wanted to ask and typing down notes. But overall, this seems not to have been a major problem. And, actually, have heard from my direct reports that they like knowing some of the questions i’ll ask in advance, so that they can reflect on them before we meet.

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The system is certainly not perfect and is continuously updated. But one good sign (i think) is that my direct reports have started using a similar system with their direct reports (Field Managers, who are awesomely permanent staff at IDinsight) and use some of the questions that i generated and that they particularly like.

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Although i created the initial set of questions, over the weeks and months, some have been dropped and others have been suggested and added (e.g.“Heather, will you please check in with me about X each week to help hold me more accountable to it?”).

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One thing i have definitely learned over the past 1.5 years is that attempting to be a good manager takes time (and effort). These non-project check-ins, which we do weekly on Monday mornings or early afternoons (i strive for ‘management Mondays’), take about an hour and usually result in about 15 – 30 minutes of follow-up work based on the conversation (sending a paper i promised during our check-in, delivering a shout-out to someone i’ve discovered helped on our project in some unseen way, etc). i’ve had to learn to budget in that follow-up time so that the rest of my schedule isn’t thrown off.  

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Below are the questions i currently aim to ask every week, though we don’t always make it through all of them (which i think is ok); as noted above, it should be considered a semi-structured interview guide to help have a conversation on important topics that can easily be elided in favor of easier small talk or in favor of focusing strictly on the project work. As much as possible, my goal is to help raise important issues — but give my direct reports a chance to come with ideas of how to tackle those issues. Theoretically, this is good professional development for them and, ideally and honestly, a little less work for me! 

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Hope this post is useful to some other folks who are attempting to figure out how to be a good manager, despite not necessarily having had one before or not having worked in an organization that took it seriously before. The questions below reflect IDinsight’s focus on professional development, organizational contribution, mission-focus, and values — as well as things stolen from the aforementioned management book.

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Feedback is, as always, welcome — particularly if you try out this list of questions and want to share your experience or, especially, if you have a go-to check-in question that works well for you!

  • Are you keeping healthy/well?
  • Are you happy and motivated? Really? Why/not?
  • What is the best thing that happened over the weekend?
  • What are two things that will make this a successful week for you?
  • What’s the toughest thing coming up this week? Anything that would make you feel more confident about tackling it?
  • Is there one tweak we could make that would make this a more manageable week?
  • Did it feel like you had roughly the right amount of work / working hours last week? Does it feel like you are working at a sustainable pace? On sustainable topics? (What would be sustainable to you?)
    • Reflecting back on last week, how many nights, if any, did you lose sleep over work?
  • Last week you were worried about [X] as the toughest thing coming up. How did it go? What worked and what could have been improved?
  • What is one new thing you learned or did last week related to professional development? (Here sometimes i probe for lessons related to written and oral communication, management, organizational development — folks have a gut tendency to equate professional development only with coding, even though technical proficiency is only one of our six performance review categories.)
  • What is one new thing you learned or did last week related to technical professional development?
  • Did this week throw up any gaps that you feel in your technical and professional development? Any thoughts on how we might address these?
  • What is one professional development task or goal you feel you did not achieve last week? How might you be able to fit it in in the following week?
  • Did you try any new strategies to manage your time or engage in deep work last week? Were these successful? Why or why not? What might you try this week?
  • What was the most interesting or helpful piece of feedback or advice you received last week?
  • Which aspect of your work gave you the most joy or fulfillment last week?
  • Is there that I could have done this past week to better support or coach you? What could I have done differently?
  • Do you feel like there is anything else you could be contributing to organizational growth and development that you are currently not (but would be interested in doing)?
  • Do you feel like we influenced any decisions, actions & social impact last week? What worked or didn’t in that process?

Checking-in during field work

It is definitely not an easy transition to go from being the researcher in-the-‘field‘ to sending someone else off to do the work that often got you into the business in the first place (and that someone else may, in turn, be relying on field managers and other similar folks to do much of the data collection and logistics).

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Even though i check-in by phone at least once a week during field work and text/slack plenty with my direct reports, i often feel that these calls only focus on one or two urgent topics. Plus, phone calls can be frustrated and curtailed by poor connections, background noise, and other general distractions. Meanwhile, the weekly written updates i receive focus too squarely on just-the-numbers for my liking — tables of households or schools reached for first interviews or spot-checks relative to our goals.

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This means i often miss some of the really important stuff (whether important to me, to my direct report, or both). i also fail to get a flavor of ‘the field,’ which i miss.

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Curtailed written notes from my direct reports also mean that they are getting limited practice / professional development in writing field notes — which my background in anthropology deems imperative to doing good and reflective social science. (i should note that while i have tried to make a good practice of doing field notes myself, many (but not all) bosses and advisors never actually seemed interested in reading them, which was always a bummer. On the other hand, my parents were avid readers.)

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Finally, by-voice check-ins can put my direct reports slightly on-the-spot if they need to provide me some tough upward feedback in terms of improving how i am supporting them and the project.

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For all these reasons, i am going to trial a system of slightly more (semi-)structured written feedback during fieldwork times. Note that this does not replace our informal chats and texts, nor our weekly non-project check-ins (stay tuned for another post on that!). However, i am hoping that it (a) forces my direct reports to create time/space to reflect on the field week and (b) can aid with feelings of loneliness and under-appreciation while in the field.

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Though a lot of internal crowd-sourcing from IDinsight folks (one of the great things about working at IDinsight is how seriously we take good management, our values, and our mission — so people are brimming with good ideas!), i have come up with a nascent system. The ‘system’ consists of an excel sheet with rows of questions/topics on which i hope my direct report will reflect — and then a weekly column for the direct report to fill in his/her responses and a partner column for my responses. For now, i have budgeted in my calendar 30 minutes to review and respond weekly. i hope the excel sheet will help keep things organized as well as make it easier to spot trends in the ‘mood’ in the field.

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i will update on how it turns out but i also welcome thoughts and insights from folks in the meantime.

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One idea from my colleagues that i have not, for the moment, decided to take up consisted of a daily written update focused on three key reflective questions to be answered at the close of the day, hopefully not adding too much time and effort to what are already usually long and tiring days:

  1. What i did today 
  2. What i plan to do tomorrow 
  3. Something i am concerned about / a challenge i am confronting

 

For now, i am going to try to focus on the weekly written update, which is a bit longer and will hopefully provide an outlet for sharing a more holistic picture of the field experience. This is still very much a beta list, so we’ll see how it goes — but i am encouraged by early and enthusiastic crowdsourcing not just from leadership at IDinsight but from Associates as well.

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Bearing the beta-ness in mind, below please find the inaugural questions (in addition to the basic ones about survey and data quality progress) — and please make use of the comments section to suggest additional questions you have found powerful in making for good fieldwork and happy colleagues! Of course, it may be that in some weeks, the answers to these questions are simply “N/A,” but the benefit to keeping them in is, hopefully, to communicate that i am always open to hearing if something went wrong or was scary or troubling in the field.

  1. How is team morale (provide at least one piece of evidence to support that claim)?
  2. How is your morale and energy? Roughly how many hours did you work last week and how do you feel about that? What is one non-project/work thing you were able to do this week?
  3. Provide a brief update on your own and your field manager’s professional development — what is something new learned on-the-job this week and/or a gap in (tech or soft) skills that we should address? 
  4. What is one thing the field managers did exceptionally well this week? Did either face any specific challenges?
  5. Across the whole field team (from enumerators on up), what is one example of an organizational value-in-action that you have seen or heard about? 
  6. What is the most inspiring thing that happened this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team) that relates to our mission of driving action and social impact?
  7. What was the funniest thing that happened in the field this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? 
  8. What is your favorite photo you or a member of the field team took this week? Please share and explain why it was your favorite. 
  9. What was the most interesting thing that happened in the field this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? 
  10. What was the most disappointing and/or scariest thing that happened in the field this week that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? (If scary, does any action need to be taken?)
  11. Overall, how was respondent and gatekeeper/stakeholder morale this week? (h/t @urmy_shukla for this idea!)
  12. What is one mistake or misstep that happened in the field this week? What changes will you make to help guard against it happening again?
  13. What is one change, if any, the field team will make before starting work next week?
  14. Any budget surprises this week?
  15. Any implementer interactions or observations about which we should be aware? How is the morale of the implementation team?
  16. Are there any things that [us supervisors] need to do or prioritize in the coming week to support field work?

A small research agenda on political understanding in the U.S

From recent reading, like Strangers in their own land and The politics of resentment, three key themes keeps coming up, which suggest to me a possible research and/or journalistic agenda.

  1. An over-estimation of how many people work for the government in different forms and at different levels, how competently and efficiently they do their job, and what benefits they receive in exchange.
  2. A (continued) misconstrual of who receives different types of benefits from the government and whether they are ‘deserving,’ where dessert is tied in directly with conceptions of ‘hard work’ and whether or not they perform it.* Overall, showcasing the normalcy and neighborliness of such folks.**
  3. A misunderstanding or willful forgetting of the ‘good’ things that the government does in one’s everyday life (and how better government could do it better). This could include, for example, a sense that ‘folks like me’ don’t benefit from the ACA and other government efforts big and small — which may suggest ways forward on mitigating such views.

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*Note that in Politics of resentment, at least, it becomes clear that hard work is often equated with physical/manual work. This is another avenue for possible exploration.

*This is, of course, linked to (a need to contrast) media portrayals of folks that you don’t necessarily interact with in-person on a day-to-day basis. See, e.g., Aziz Ansari’s Muslims eating nachos pitch. Also, this except from Strangers in their own land:

The stock image of the early 20th century, the ‘Negro’ minstrel, a rural simpleton, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich notes, has now been upgraded, whitened, and continued in such television programs as Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. ‘Working class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyperarticulate, street smart… and rich’ (p 156).

Aside

Packard on History of Global Health: devastating first chapter (we need to do better)

While i intend to write more about Packard’s new book (delightfully if uncomfortably subtitled, interventions into the lives of others) once i am through with it, a paragraph in the opening chapter seemed both so important and accurate as to merit sharing immediately — particularly given the lessons it may hold for the Universal Health Coverage (e.g.) movement. It is not that what Packard has to say here is necessarily new but rather that he sums it up in a neat, indicting list of trends, on which we would all do well to reflect:

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There have been remarkable continuities in how health interventions have been conceived and implemented over the past century… [that] have worked against the development of effective basic-health systems to address social determinants of health:

  1. Health interventions have been largely developed outside the countries where the health problems exist, with few attempts to seriously incorporate local perspectives or community participation in the planning process…

  2. Health planning has privileged approaches based on the application of biomedical technologies that prevent or eliminate health problems one at a time.

  3. Little attention has been given to supporting the development of basic health services.

  4. The planning of health interventions has often occurred in a crisis environment, in which there was an imperative to act fast. This mindset has privileged interventions that are simple, easy to implement, and have potential to quickly make a significant impact…

  5. Global health interventions have been empowered by faith in the superioity of Western medical knowledge and technology…

  6. Health has been linked to social and economic development — but this connection has focused primarily on how improvements in health can stimulate economic development, while ignoring the impact that social and economic developments can have on health. The social determinants of health have received little attention.

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Packard notes that these trends have faltered a few times, such as with the rise in interest in learning about the “social and economic causes of ill health” in the 1920s and 30s and in the Alma Ata / health for all movement at the end of the 1970s. We seem to think of ourselves as standing at a new trend-breaking moment. Hopefully we can do better.

a hospital is no place to be sick (delhi summer illness 5)

While i have given some account of my symptoms in earlier posts, it seems useful to give a quick recap to contextualize why i found the hospital space so difficult to navigate. And let’s be clear from the outset: i am an extremely privileged patient in Delhi. i am physically inclined to get good service in hospitals; i can read and, moreover, can read English, the language of most hospital signs (at the hospital chain i attend, most signs seem to be in English only except for the one about not doing pre-natal sex determination); and i have enough medical knowledge and confidence to ask my doctors questions. My navigation issues were not about lack of comprehension but rather poor design and poor service.

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Though i had been feeling grungy for a few days, the distinct symptoms set in on a Monday morning. My alarm went off and i woke up, ready to push myself into a sitting position in bed, only to discover that my wrists and elbows were not interested in supporting my weight. On later mornings, they didn’t want to bend from being locked down by my sides and i would have to spend many minutes consciously willing my shoulders and elbows to cooperate so that i could get my hands to my face to wipe the sleep out of my eyes with my thumbs, since the rest of my fingers were stuff and against the idea of balling into fists.

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But that first morning, having had my arms joints turn to jelly, i tried to push the sheets off of me, only to discover that my fingers were not interested in pinching the sheet to move it. No doubt this all looked a bit funny, a bit like the Wolf of Wall Street quaaludes scene, but it is worth noting that it was actually terrifying. it is worth noting this because it is something that not a single doctor acknowledged over the course of this illness. Doctors: i don’t care how many patients you have coming in each day complaining about the same symptom set — overnight loss of functionality is scary to each of those patients and deserves to be acknowledged as such.

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In any case, on the first morning, i finally did some worm maneuvers to at least get myself sitting up and ready to try standing. This is when i learned that my legs and feet weren’t faring much better. The arches of my feet felt like they couldn’t support my weight and the rest of my toe joints didn’t want to bend to facilitate walking. My knees had gone to rubber while my hips were like the Tin Man in Oz. It was a long, slow, fairly ignoble shuffle to the bathroom. Once reaching, i learned that my fingers weren’t going to support gripping a toothbrush, a water bottle, a hair brush — really anything at all. My thumbs would work for texting but not much else.

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Just like that, i became a 90-year-old woman (crankiness included).

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When i finally got back to bed, my only interest was trying to get joints to pop, which seemed to hold the elusive promise of some pain relief. Besides napping, i am not sure i did anything the first day besides bending and extending my right leg in hopes of a knee pop and doing the same with my left elbow, which stubbornly refused to cooperate.

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All of this is to say that i wasn’t in much of a shape to walk by the time i decided to get to the doctor the next day — forcing me to recognize explicitly just how much mobility is expected of patients in a hospital. To leave my flat, i navigated the marble stairs down, relying mostly on weight put on my forearms on the railings, since i had as little faith in my wrists as i had in my ankles to support me. My mostly faithful autowalla Pankaj drove mercifully slow and cursed out another driver that tried to rush him.

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At the hospital branch (of a larger corporate chain) nearest my house, there isn’t a real drop-off and pick-up space, since the hospital is sort of nestled on a residential ‘slip road’ that runs parallel to the main road. This creates traffic jams and issues. Nevertheless, Mr. Traffic Mover, don’t yell at sick people to get out of the car faster or to walk faster. Of course, not all people who go to a hospital/clinic are sick and not all of those who are sick have mobility issues — but let’s make some basic assumptions about the types of people who are arriving to a hospital and try to accommodate.

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Walking to get into the clinic is hardly the only walking that you will need to do — indeed, i wondered multiple times if the the architects of clinic and patient-flow systems had ever considered the fact that patients might be sick in their design.

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First you go to a counter to get a token in order to go somewhere else to sit and wait to pay for your consultation. Then you’ll pay for your consult (also, attendants/receptionists, if someone asks for help getting their credit card or cash out of their wallet, bloody help them. Again, you work in a hospital, where people need help).

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Then you’ll go off to find, first, the queue at the ‘sisters’‘ station (though it is a secular hospital, the nursing aides are referred to as sisters) to get your vitals taken (where you may have to wait), then probably walk somewhere else to wait for your consult and then walk to the consult room itself. None of these are short distances around a central waiting room; some of the trips involve changing levels.

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You may also get lost along the way, since there are at least two ‘sisters’‘ stations that look identical but are on opposite ends of a large open space. Since the receptionist could only muster enough energy to vaguely wave that you need to go somewhere behind her, you don’t know whether to turn right or left. The signs indicate that both directions are legitimate options. Sick people, in general, are trying to conserve steps and don’t particularly appreciate getting themselves to one station only to be told that they should have gone to the identical looking one that offers the identical reading of blood pressure and temperature — but is located on the opposite side. Give reasonable instructions, as though you are trying to minimize the effort the patient needs to make.

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If you are prescribed a blood or other test, you make your way back to (wait in line for) the front reception to pay in advance for the test, then go off to find the samples collection station. And if, say, you were only charged for some but not all of the tests prescribed to you, you will have to walk back to reception (where you will not receive an apology) to pay and then back to the sample collection station.

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Then you can make your way to the pharmacy and finally, attempt to leave, after spending several minutes cajoling the fellows standing outside at a podium to help you flag down an auto.

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Surely there is way to streamline some of this back and forth or at least make it incumbent on hospital staff, not the patient, to do the some of the running around. There are, so far as i could tell, plenty of staff idling about.

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At one particularly low moment, i found myself in the west block (separate building) trying to pick up two sets of lab results, one taken in the west block and one taken in the east on two prior trips to the doctor. At first the receptionist explained that by entering my mobile number and patient ID (which apply throughout the whole hospital system, at least in order to make an appointment online), she would only be able to print the results from the west block sample and that i could walk over to east block to have someone put the exact same information in a computer over there and print out the other set of results. This is the moment when i lost my cool. As it turned out, yes, one of the idle staff could go over on my behalf and claim the other set of results.

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The question is: why, as a pretty clearly unfunctional person, i had to ask for basic assistance. Seriously, it’s a hospital, people are sick, they need help, and not every patient has 10 family members with them. Design your floor plan and your services to accommodate that.

 

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things to report about focus group data collection for social science reporting

For better or for worse, focus group discussions are a common way of gathering qualitative information in the social sciences, as a standalone activity or used in parallel or sequentially with other types of research activities. My general sense is that focus groups are used far too often when one-on-one interviews [do not use FGDs to attempt to try to ‘efficiently’ do many individual interviews at once] would have been more appropriate to the information sought (and the analysis done, if indeed it was done at all).

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This last point is important: certain ways of gathering qualitative data are more appropriate to gaining certain types of information (for example, are you collecting sensitive information? Are you actually relying on the power of group discussion and reflection to generate useful insights or are you trying to conduct several (slapdash) individual interviews at once?).

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For interpretation, it is quite helpful if researchers explained and justified their choice of qualitative data collection strategy given their research aims. (Surely appropriate justification and description of methods is part of the research transparency agenda, regardless of whether we are discussing quantitative or qualitative data?)

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More generally, as part of my work with IDinsight, i have been putting together a guidance document on making apt use of qualitative data and qualitative approaches to research for the aims of evaluation and learning. It is still very much a work-in-progress but a small sub-section is “stuff you should about data collection include in your write-up if you opt to use focus groups.”

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Here’s my working list of what i would want to know about your data collection activities in order to render your presented results from group discussions far more interpret-able, believable, and useful in informing future work [note that much of this can be written up before data collection begins and could even be part of a commitment to (pre-) analysis & reporting plan! Deviations from the plan could also be reported after data collection is complete]:

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Objectives, justification, sequencing

  • How do the focus group discussions fit in the overall research strategy? What informed the questions asked (theory, a prior research stage, etc)?
    • For example, is the work being done to inform the intervention design or is it being used to understand a previous result?
  • What were the main questions/topics/themes intended to be covered in the groups and were these meaningful in the given overall research aims? (Please say something more useful than ‘to add context or color.’)
    • Was the intention to be hypothesis generating, hypothesis testing, or both? Clarify if different topics/themes were pursued for different purposes.
    • Was the intention to be inductive, deductive, or both?
  • Why were focus group discussions selected as the data collection strategy given the research objectives (and practical constraints)?

 

Positionality and placement

  • Who (in the sense of positionality) was part of the moderating team (such as a facilitator, a note-taker, and an interpreter if relevant)? Why did this make sense given the research setting and questions? Was the team the same for all groups conducted? If not, what dictated the differences?
  • Where were focus group discussions held? (this can be general, such as ‘a community space was identified in each village with the help of a local elected official’)? Was the space sufficiently private and free of distraction in most or all locations?

 

Composition and other group details

  • Who comprised the group (in a general sense, such as ‘women with children’)? How were these people selected? Did people in the groups generally know each other or not? Why was this composition strategy seen as the appropriate composition given the research objectives?
  • If different compositions of groups were sought (such as interviewing men and women separately or program participants and non-participants separately), why did this make sense in this context for the given research objectives (and how did it connect to a broader theory of change and/or expectations about heterogeneous experiences)?
  • How many groups were conducted all together? Why was this seen as a sufficient number? (Ideally, the answer will include some reference to saturation on key themes.)
  • What as the minimum, mean, and minimum size of all the groups conducted?
  • What was the minimum, mean, and maximum duration of all of the groups conducted?

 

Iteration throughout data collection

  • Did the goal of the focus group discussions change over the course of the work? If so, how and why?
  • What main changes were made to the interview guide / key topics explored over the course of the data collection? (And, if not obvious, why were these changes made, such as being too contentious or an unconsidered angle emerged?) Any key lessons about questions that ‘worked’ or did not?

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More to follow on details to report for data organization and analysis, including elements of capturing power dynamics during groups… In the meantime, thoughts welcome on this list. i’m updating the list as ideas come — so far, many thanks to @urmy_shukla and @_alice_evans for some additional ideas (added 19 Sept 2016).

inverted quarantines, mosquitoes & the common man in delhi

This post has been some time in the making, ever since Raul Pacheco-Vega introduced me to Andrew Szasz’s concept of an ‘inverted quarantine,’ defined further below, and fabulous Manpreet Singh and i started kicking around how the idea applied to our lives in Delhi. This week, a few events, including a desperate effort to stay awake to fend off jetlag, have conspired to help this post come together.

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i’ll start with the idea of a quarantine, since it has such a delightful etymological origin. The phrase comes from the Italian for ’40,’ the number of days a ship needed to stay in the Venetian harbor before its booty or crew came ashore, a practice put in place during the Black Death of the later 1300s. Specifically, the ships subjected to quarantine (or forced isolation) were those returning from plague-stricken countries. The idea, as Szasz elaborates, implies the following set-up: we (Venetians) are mostly in a healthy environment, from which (potentially) diseased individuals need to be kept out. It is a collective (if enforced) action to preserve the health of the environs and, therefore, the people living in it.

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An inverted quarantine is a response to a reversed scenario: an unhealthy environment in which individuals wish to stay healthy. Worse, these individuals have become “fatalistically resigned to it being a dangerous world” (2006). The response is a middle-class or elite response (in general) with two components intended to isolate individuals and their households/immediate environments from harm:

  • An individual response: Despite ‘the environment’ (air & water, in particular) having a generally public good quality, those constructing inverted quarantines are engaged in a response that “is individualistic in both goal and method.”
  • A consumeristic response: A sense that the way to isolate oneself and one’s family from harm requires the purchase of specialized commodities, such as bottled water.

It is the latter point, in particular, that converts a citizen (a political actor) into a consumer, who exercises a certain form of exit (to the market) rather than (political/public) voice, thus functioning as a political anesthesia.

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This idea of building bubbles through consumer purchases has many examples in Delhi, with bottled/canister or water filters as a prime example. The air quality in Delhi has recently taken on a similar, if (deplorably) much less wide-spread, response. If you haven’t been paying attention, the air quality in Delhi is real bad (as in, the worst by measures) and air pollution is real bad in general.

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To illustrate, here is a typical workday morning for me in Delhi, which has only been made more extreme by my recent acquisition of an air quality monitor for my house.

  1. Leave the house with my air filters (n=3) running
  2. Hope that my maid (because… India) doesn’t turn off the filters during the day
  3. Wonder how much electricity I use and therefore pollution I cause running my air filters all the time. Then promptly forget about this.
  4. Wish my maid wouldn’t leave the doors open after she makes breakfast.
  5. Chuckle about how my landlords believe that the air in their small front yard is ‘fresh’ even if the rest of the city is dirty.
  6. Get into an auto-rickshaw (open-side 3-wheeler). auto.jpg
  7. Put on my fancy, Paris-ready vog mask (mine is actually plain black — but).mask
  8. Think about how i should buy masks for my mostly faithful autowalla and then wonder if he would use them (curse my non-existant Hindi).
  9. Arrive at office, where air filters are running most of the time, except during skype calls.

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This is not a perfect bubble but it is certainly an attempt at insulating myself nevertheless: an inverted quarantine that i have tried to construct to protect me at home, at work, and in between. i have tried to make myself part of an air-istocracy.

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And, it is worth noting that there is relatively little political action around air quality. The government has experimented with car-reduction measures but, at least anecdotally, folks were far more interested in whether this reduced their commute time than whether it lowered the particulate matter in their air.

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The idea of an inverted quarantine, as presented by Szasz, rests on both the individual and the consumer response. Given both my research and the current outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya and other viral fevers in Delhi, i have been thinking about mosquitoes and whether the concept applies — both whether mosquitoes constitute the sort of unsafe air/water/land of which Szasz writes and also whether the individual/household response is sufficiently consumeristic to count as an inverted quaratine.

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To be glib, we could lump mosquitoes and the diseases they carry in with ‘bad air’ (literally the origin of ‘malaria’) and solve the first problem.

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And the idea of a consumeristic response to mosquitoes may apply to at least some of the options available. Purchasing a bednet allows me to protect my sleeping space from most night-biting mosquitoes, though we have all had the experience that one always manages to get it. Various sprays, creams, bracelets, coils, plug-ins, and electrified tennis racquets can help to ward off mosquitoes but none of them seem to keep all of them away.

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There are also non-consumer responses to limiting mosquitoes and therefore mosquito-borne diseases in the confines of one’s house and grounds, such as covering or draining standing water, as recommended by the government in posters, including this one from my neighborhood:

moquito

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It is not quite clear how to classify these individual / private-good responses to larger public health problems that don’t have a strictly product-based bent within a framework of inverted quarantines — but they are certainly an important type of response in India. A similar idea can be found in the constant cleaning of private spaces but the dirtiness of public spaces (as catalogued in Maximum City, inter alia), the intense faith put in ‘home [prepared] food’ as opposed to dirty and dangerous ‘outside food’ and other ideas that mix real ideas of toxins and pathogens with older ideas of purity and pollution (i believe relating to ideas of protecting oneself from social threat, as Szasz discusses).

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In any case, mosquitoes, unlike air quality, are getting political attention in Delhi — or at least, people are calling out the lack of political action and the over-reliance on promoting individual preventative measures in the face of an outbreak. Mosquitoes are annoying little buggers and can (visibly) get through any inverted quarantines we might construct, so perhaps this call for more public, preventative action is not surprising.

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For my thesis research in Ghana, to better understand the context in which a new malaria treatment program was being introduced, i undertook a media content analysis of how the term ‘malaria’ was deployed and discussed in online newspapers during the relevant time period. Most of the discussion was around specific malaria donations that had come in, reporting of malaria numbers at different state health facilities, or actions that the government had or would soon take around malaria prevention and ‘environmental hygiene.’ One of the presidential candidates being covered during that time was particularly concerned about environmental cleanliness and ‘filth.’

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But a few mentions cast malaria as a disease of common humanity, from which neither rich nor poor could make themselves perfectly safe — an actual or imagined inverted quarantine does not exist (especially against day-biting mosquitoes). It (vulnerability to malaria, mosquitoes) was used as a political symbol of issues that affected all Ghanaians. This idea of malaria and the mosquito as threatening a common humanity — the common man — has a slightly funny resonance with the current political situation in Delhi, where the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (literally, ‘the common man party’) has come under fire for insufficient public health action (rightly or wrongly) in the face of an outbreak of mosquito-borne viral fevers.

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The idea of the non-availability of inverted quarantines in the face of the biting mosquito as a source of political action deserves more attention, as does trying to shake people out of believing that their inverted quarantines against polluted air are sufficient (or indeed, that the air is something from which one requires protection) — ideally stimulating meaningful political action. Just thinking about Delhi, i am not yet convinced that measures need to be both individual and consumeristic to act as a political anesthesia. If the goal is to explain a lack of political action, then more conceptual work is needed. For example, as long as my landlords believe their front yard is fresh/unpolluted because they keep a nice garden (and others at their club start to get worried as well), it is unlikely they will be taking any political action about air pollution. Nevertheless, the idea of an inverted quarantine and how it limits public outrage and civic response seems like a useful concept for studying urban (perhaps in particular?) responses to environmental (and pathogen?) threats, not just in the US, where Szasz focuses, but far beyond.

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To close with a small piece from Szasz’s 2006 presentation paper for the Sustainable Consumption and Society Conference:

Inverted quarantine is a twisted and perverse sort of environmentalism. The person who engages in it clearly recognizes that there is a problem [even if misdiagnosed?], is in fact quite distressed by the problem, and intent on doing something about it. Such a person, however, is deeply pessimistic about real change, unable to imagine that things can actually improve, and therefore fatalistically resigned to it being a dangerous world.

Sounds like a lot of Dilliwallas to me.