1.4.3 Broad research

EAR researchers use a range of tools to build up a rich understanding of the initiative and its context, including communicative ecologies. By undertaking broad research, an EAR researcher can build up a picture of the main themes and issues relevant to the communities an ICT initiative is seeking to serve. By investigating those themes and issues, an EAR researcher will gain a general understanding of the place, its people and the role of the initiative.

This is broad based exploratory research, designed to generate an understanding of the location and the social and cultural structures and networks that exist, including the communicative ecology. Throughout the life of a project more and more will be understood about the communicative ecology of the area, and the ways in which a project brings about change.

This type of research can be called 'broad' because it is being used to build up a picture of the project and community which can be built upon and updated throughout the life of the project. The aim is not simply to measure things like needs or media use as a basis for measuring the impact of a project through a later survey. Instead, the focus is on learning about and understanding the community and building connections with it.

For example, to research an ICT initiative that aims to reduce poverty, we must first understand what poverty is in a particular place - how it is understood and how it is experienced? Poverty will involve many different social processes, take different forms in different places and effect different members of same communities differently. An E.A.R researcher will want to know how poverty is experienced in this place, so that he or she can also see what social processes and structures are most relevant to reducing poverty and how the ICT project can be effective in this regard.

If we only measure poverty in terms of income, this does NOT mean that we understand what poverty means and how it works in a particular place. That would give us just a part of the picture. In considering an ICT initiative that aims to reduce poverty, EAR will aim to understand:

  • how poverty is experienced in this place
  • how different people in this place define poverty
  • which issues about poverty are important to the poor
  • how local understandings of poverty relate to wider social structures
  • how the conditions of poverty influence the ICT project

At the same time, understanding the local communicative ecology will allow for an understanding of the role information and communication plays in people's lives - how does information circulate among people here, and especially among the most disadvantaged and marginalised? Consider how people communicate and access information about different issues that affect their lives. What sort of information is important to them? What sort of information do they need? How do they access this information?

The overall aim of broad research is to build the 'bigger picture' of the project and its social context. There will be specific outcomes of this type of broad research:

  1. Themes: A list of some major themes - relationships, problems and opportunities - impacting on a project. For example, research may show that much of what people say keeps coming back to particular health problems. Health would therefore become a major theme for the initiative's research, in order to investigate how the initiative can help address the health problems faced in the community? 'Health' would be one theme alongside others.
  2. Connections: Through the research process itself (talking, meeting, and contacting people) and through mapping themes and relationships, this research should result in building relationships with people and institutions and in enlisting participation in the research and in the initiative.
  3. Develop Strategies: An initiative may have quite general aims, like 'to empower the poorest members of the community'. Broad research should help you define clearly what you mean by empowerment in this context, who the poorest members of the community are, and how you might best work with them in order to change their situation. What kinds of empowerment would make a difference to these people in this place, taking into account the wider context in which they live? By answering these kinds of questions an initiative can develop strategies that address the aim of 'empowering the poorest' in terms of a specific understanding of how this particular community works.

In general, the objectives of broad research will include (and more specific objectives can be added):

  • The gathering of local demographic and statistical information
  • A description of communication and other service infrastructures
  • Building an understanding of the local communicative ecology
  • Building an understanding of local information and communication needs
  • The identification of stakeholders
  • The mapping of relationships
  • A reflective examination of the project and its structures and processes

Once an EAR researcher develops a broad understanding of the wider context, and once an initiative or intervention is underway, more focused research can take place on more specific issues and groups of people.