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Thoughts on Rural Research

Musanze: rural research

This article summarises the issues in conducting corporate ethnographic research in rural locations covering logistics to research dynamics. Rural communities are far from homongenous.

Over the last decade I’ve seen an increasing number of multinationals target highly financially constrained consumers in countries like India, China, Brazil, Nigeria and Rwanda (where these pictures where taken) reflecting both a wider awareness and appreciation of business opportunities of this market segment. The very particular ethical issues of working in financially constrained communities are covered in this essay and suffice to say that these consumers are arguably, some of the most demanding consumers on the planet. Given that these countries have significant agrarian populations, how does ethnographic, corporate rural research differ from similar contextual research conducted in urban settings?


A “rural” community spans a significantly wide diversity of peoples, cultures, faiths and ethnicities. The infrastructure can vary considerably from dirt roads to paved, electricity to off-grid, cell towers and data connectivity, water from jerry cans or the mains. A single farming community can encompass a wide range of incomes from subsistence living through to satellite TVs and four-wheel drives. The size of farms; the crops that are planted, the livestock that is tended; the extent to which agricultural or husbandry expertise is available; whether it has been a good season; the timing of the next harvest; flows of knowledge and income relating to the level of urban or international migration (especially near border areas); access to credit; can all have an impact on who the research team will engage with, and how the research will be conducted.

The first issues arise during the project planning and relate to logistics.


Assuming the country has already been selected, how to choose one rural location over another?

Tapping the knowledge of organisations that already operate on the ground can help feel out the nuances of different geographic regions and can provide invaluable advise on access, introductions and existing authority structures an provide a sense of who is already doing what on the ground. An organisation’s willingness to share often includes an element of quid quo pro with the promise of some form of share back at a later date – this spirit is not always apparent in commercial projects.

Before the team arrives Google maps and its ilk are good for remote sensing a country to understand the type of roads (asphalted, dirt) the dynamics of a city, town or village right down to the type and density of neighbourhoods, homes, communities, farms. Backed up by analogous on-the-ground experience satellite images can be very effective at cross-checking other data sources. Commercially available photos from satellites or planes can be obtained if the team requires something specific, including very high resolution imagery. Having a sense of the terrain helps focus the research planning and provides an early taste of ‘being there’, especially useful in acclimatising team members that haven’t travelled to the region.

On the ground the primary logistical issues relates to the amount of time and effort in getting into the rural contexts within the corporate timescale – with a week or weeks on the ground conducting research, certainly not months in field. The main traffic arteries are likely to be asphalted so driving to regional urban hubs takes hours, but moving beyond these hubs much of the country is dirt-road with varying degrees of accessibility. I’m writing this from South Sudan, a country with only 160km of asphalted roads, 100km kilometers on dirt roads can take half a day. In larger countries with more remote regions the journey can be measured in days, and heavy rains can make some roads impassable. Check the seasonal weather forecasts before you arrive – monsoon, typhoon and hurricane seasons can all be highly disruptive.

It is useful to think in terms of the friction that is inherent in the locale that will impact the type and volume of research that the team wishes to conduct. Some people associate friction with graft/bribery but I prefer to use a broader definition that adds up to additional amount of time and effort required to get things done – language, dialects, costs, local transport options, weather variability, an ability to hire competent local guides all impact what can be achieved day-to-day. The margin of error for a journey across Tokyo can be calculated to the minute, in London 20 minutes, in Jakarta an hour or more. Indian cities have a friction of about 20%, whereas rural India like mant rural locations falls into the 25 to 40% range. Some friction such as using time waiting at a checkpoint to chat with the local police can create opportunities for research but generally speaking it is useful to think of friction as unproductive time. Friction can be partially mitigated with the right local team, a shared awareness of the that day’s goals, and knowing how to make the most of a flexible schedule.

The rural tempo is generally slower which affords numerous opportunities for turning intercept interviews into long discussions, but will frustrate a team that is still running on by-the-clock corporate time. More traditional rural locales are more likely to run on event time where the current activity or event takes precedence what might appear on a watch face or in a calendar. While you may be used to scheduling appointments within a fifteen minute window, your participants may be more used to thinking in terms of an hour, or two, or three. (There is significant cultural and personal differences in how people deal with time – your local crew should give you a heads up on local norms). Schedule less, build in more time between research activities and work opportunities when they arise. The team will do well to get their heads and hearts around local scheduling norms.

In some countries government permission is required to conduct research, a process that can take days or months to obtain depending on the research topic and the region. Successful applicants will receive a letter of approval which, if playing by the rules should be shown to local authorities on arrival. It doesn’t take long for news of the research team to spread and while it is always possible to get away with researching without formal approval, the consequences of discovery may impact the client. Our team was recently based out of Musanze Rwanda, close to the Democratic Republic of Congo border where the where the M23 rebels are very active in the area (the team tried to cross into Goma were turned away at the border without too much hustle). There was, understandably a heightened sense of awareness of outsiders.

Even with the official letter approval at the village or district level may take a couple of days, making it desirable to have an advance party that arrives before the rest of the team. At the village level it is anyway common to pay respects to the local authority figures before commencing. Other advanced party responsibilities include finding just the right accommodation and scouting suitable participants. Official approval may come with the assumption that the team is aligned with and reporting back to the authorities.

Take essential supplies: drinking water; batteries for at least two days work; sunblock and energy food. These days internet access is often available through the mobile phone network and setting up a wifi hotspot, and many operators supply cellular dongles for local data-only plans. Egypt can deliver high-speed 3G internet in the middle of the desert whereas many parts of South Sudan still have limited or no connectivity.

Musanze: rural research

Research Dynamics

Compared to more urban settings rural dwellers tend to have a more polarised expectation of “outsiders” (The “outsider” label may be designated by any number of factors including nationality, skin colour, accent, place of birth, caste, the list goes on. (In Afghanistan “foreigners” can include anyone from outside their province). Interactions with locals will be framed by their touch points with outsiders – whether aid workers, missionaries, NGO staff, backpackers, television, and slowly but surely entrepreneurs. How might the dynamics of an interaction change if a local villager’s only experience with a blonde female came through Baywatch?

My principle is that the team only needs to find one person in a community to be able to build out a meaningful local network, so the only question is finding that one person. The research is rarely about finding statistically representative participants but rather people that that fit within relatively broad criteria. Leave room for interesting outliers. A good team knows how to turn the outsider status to their advantage (or at least minimise negativities) using this status to gain access.

Research doesn’t always flow well and it is natural course of events for interactions or requests for interview to be rejected. In urban centers there are plenty of opportunities to move the team to another location even in the same neighbourhood. In rural locations the ripples of rejection can spread tainting the team within the community, and forcing them to move on.

Rural locales tend to have lower levels of literacy and within this, females are generally less formally educated than males – if there is not enough money to educate all of children girls are the ones that receive less investment. Literacy can become an issue when it comes to data consent, since participants are being asked to sign something that is being communicated orally, putting a greater onus on the team to communicate. From experience this can seconds or take up to half an hour. By keeping the participant’s welfare a primary concern the team should devote whatever time is required to ensuring that the consent is understood to ensure consent is informed. My priority is participant’s first, team second, client third – and keeping to this eventually does the best by the client. Where a model release is being obtained (allowing external use of data including photos) the research team needs to exercise an additional moral pass to ensure that data (mostly photos) is used in the spirit in which the data was obtained.

In contexts where the partipant is put at risk (or may feel they might be put at risk) there will be a natural reluctance to sign any official document. Oral consent can be obtained, but this too will impact how data will be used.

I have an aversion to large team sizes in any given context, too many bodies in the room feels like tourbus ethnography. I generally work with a translator/guide, lead interviewer/photographer and notetaker, with the translator/guide being an appropriate bridge to the community being explored (we rarely have time to transcribe audio-recorded notes in field, and tend to have a dedicated note-taker in interviews). Typically this means hiring a mixed gender, mixed ethnicity local team with a good range of languages and dialects.

Overnighting in rural locales can be problematic given that most of the formal sleeping space is already taken – often 3 or 4 to a bed in a two-room hut. Host participants may feel significant pressure to do right by their guest offering up valuable food and drink.


Final thought is this: even if the focus of the research is on urban dwellers, in agrarian societies you need to understand rural dynamics to understand what is happening in the city.

Above photo: a rabbit hutch that sit above a fish farm pond: feed the rabbit cut stalks and grass and they supply the fish with digested food pellets.

Below photo: view across the valley near Musanze Northern Rwanda. The team took an early morning hike of our popup studio to conduct a long-half day’s research in one of the nearby villages. Hit the trail head by 7:30 for a 2 hour walk into the valley, a breakfast of kings of passion fruit, mango, a thermos of coffee, shared with a gaggle of local kids picked up on the way.