Conducting fieldwork in a highly stratified society

 – On the use of participatory visual methods to engage with the marginalised within Indian rural communities

by Tristan Berchoux

Social issues in rural India

Inequalities are omnipresent within Indian rural communities. They are perpetuated by the system of castes, which leads to a social stratification of India’s population. Moreover, vulnerability to external stresses is also driven by gender discrimination, which follows on from the systemic marginalisation of women and the differences of power relationships that exist between men and women, especially in India. In order to get an overview of communities, social scientists have to face the challenge of getting access to the views of such marginalised groups. This blog presents some of the methods I implemented to address this issue during a research fieldwork conducted in the Mahanadi Delta in India during winter 2016.

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Methods to get the voices of marginalised groups out

As part of our work associated with the characterisation of livelihood dynamics under the threat of external stresses, we’ve conducted an in-depth fieldwork in the Mahanadi Delta in India. First, the fieldwork team interviewed members of governmental agencies, NGO representatives and academics in Bhubaneswar. Then, the team spent 6 weeks conducting Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) in 10 rural communities in the Districts of Nayagarh, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara, spending 2 to 3 days in each community. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) was chosen as the main method for creating primary data as it enables rural communities to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge of life and condition. Different activities were used to cross-check the data collected and to cover all the aspects of livelihood systems, such as wealth ranking, seasonal calendar or community mapping. The PRAs were conducted by one researcher with the help of a translator and a facilitator who were trained before conducting the activities. The researcher monitored the evolution of the PRA and provided guidance to the translator and facilitator.

Implementing PRA in a class and gender-based structure

Focus groups conducted for each PRA activity were purposely held separately between men and women to capture gender differences and to give women, who suffer from a lack of recognition in India, the opportunity to express their opinions and issues. It enabled the women to express their opinions in an environment free from the power pressure of men, focus groups being conducted by a female translator. In some communities, implementing such an approach raised discussions amongst men, many arguing that “women should not be consulted because they don’t know anything”. This example of the social pressure existing between genders was also felt between castes and we also conducted PRAs with Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) separately. This enabled us to gain access to the opinions of women and socially marginalised groups.

Photovoice to increase participation during PRAs

However, we were also confronted to the ‘habitus’ of social stratification: even with homogenous groups of socially marginalised groups (women, SCs/STs), it appeared to be sometimes difficult to animate the focus group and to co-create the primary data. This lack of participation can be explained by the fact that such groups cannot express their opinions within the community and this pressure remains during focus groups. In order to get round this issue, we decided to add another activity during the PRAs. This activity, called photovoice (, is a participatory visual method that uses photography to initiate discussion within the focus groups. After a one-hour training course and the identification of a theme (“household and community assets that are important for their livelihoods), participants were given a camera each for two days so they could document the theme. After the two days, we met in a focus group to review the photos and discuss them. This method was a real success and marginalised participants (women, SCs/STs) got very involved. It led to very interesting discussions that had not been tackled within the previous activities and was a successful way to get the opinions of such groups out.


As a conclusion, it is necessary to extend the range of methods used in social sciences in order to capture the diversity of opinions that exist across the different social stratum within communities. As an example, we successfully used the visual method Photovoice to initiate discussion and get the opinion of marginalised groups such as women and scheduled castes and tribes. The challenge now is to integrate such methods in vulnerability assessment and to take such groups into account in the design of public policies.

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