2.6 Diaries, feedback and 'self-documentation'

Very rich material can be gathered by asking participants to document their own lives through diaries, photography projects, sound recording and other media. This is also an excellent way of combining research with project development, by getting people to use media actively and creatively, and learn many technical and communications skills in the process.

Diaries can take many different forms:

  • They may be simply records of a person's day ('I woke up at 6.00; made breakfast for the family and got the children ready for school..')
  • They may be more extended discussion of the person's thoughts and feelings, or the writer may choose to write about one important event in each entry.
  • They may be more like short essays on particular themes. Participants might be asked and encouraged to write diary entries every day, once a week, or whenever they feel like it.

Some ICT initiatives have asked people to keep diaries of what they did each day; in others they have set topics for everyone to write about ('What is a woman?', 'What is poverty?'). In other cases, researchers simply hand out notebooks and ask people to write a paragraph a day on whatever they feel like discussing.

Multi-media self-documentation, using audio visual media, is excellent for both individual and group work. It is also a good way to work with non-literate people. Participants might, for example, be asked to photograph the ICT centre, or their family or street, or take pictures that address a particular issue. They can then write or voice-record a commentary, or simply discuss the images with researchers. Similarly, they could record sound and assemble it into a short programme.

Diaries, both text-based and multimedia, can form part of the local content of a project. Projects can think about ways in which they can use (with the contributor's permission of course) such content within their project's work.

An initiative in West Bengal has used the diary method to great effect. They initially asked participating women to keep diaries on any topic that they wished, things that were significant to the women themselves. The amount and richness of the data that they collected astonished them.

The example shows the kinds of insights that diaries can provide - and how such data can help you to identify that need further exploration through other methods. On their own, diaries cannot allow you to reach firm research conclusions. That is because they are extremely intimate and subjective. Nevertheless, as part of an EAR approach that uses this kind of data alongside other types of data, diaries can add a very personal touch to your analysis and findings. They can help you to gain richer understandings of a place and its populations, and in particular, different points of view and life experiences.