Paula Holmes-Eber shared her research and fieldwork experiences in different cultures, which later resulted in two published books-“Daughters of Tunis-Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City (Westview Press, 2002)” and “Culture in Conflict – Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy, and the Marine Corps (Stanford University Press, 2014)”. Both studies used mixed-method approaches, specifically participant-observation, semi-standard qualitative interviews, and surveys.
Paula Homes-Eber is an Affiliate Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. In her past academic experiences, she served as Professor of Operational Culture at Marine Corps University and Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As an anthropologist, her research focuses on women and family in the Middle East, culture in conflict and cross-cultural competency.
Challenges in Fieldwork – Language, and Culture
Holmes-Eber noted that the fieldwork conducted in two totally different spaces and time – one in Tunisia in the late 1990s and later the schools for Marine Corps in the U.S. in the 2000s – interestingly, shared some common challenges: language barrier and culture shock. In both places, a certain degree of language barriers existed, which she needed to adapt to and overcome. She said, for researchers, the language barrier is not so much about fluency as understanding specific usage of a language within an interested community.
In carrying out interviews and surveys with the Marine Corps, who were speaking English, Holmes-Eber had to learn their way of using military lexicons, and a certain level of meaning which permeated their everyday language. Culture shock also existed in both cases. For example, the Islamic culture prevented her ability to conduct door-to-door surveys, as she could not get answers directly from Tunisian women; she learned that typically the male adults, husbands or fathers, responded to the surveys on behalf of their female family members. Holmes-Eber needed to find a new outlet to meet Tunisian women with two conditions in mind – first, where a researcher could randomly select survey participants, and second, in an open setting where Tunisian women could answer freely, without being restricted in talking to a “foreign” researcher like herself. Holmes-Eber ended up getting her survey answers in two beaches where family members hung out freely.
In the Marine setting, the specific cultural tone of military schools– strict hierarchical rank order, getting directions from authority figures – was something that Holmes-Eber had to learn to work with. Understanding of military school systems and their culture was important in formulating the right questions and coming up with strategies to get candid answers from the Marine Corps soldiers.
Holmes-Eber emphasized that the mixed-method approach– a combination of interviews, participant observation, and surveys which would create large N data – corroborates the validity of researchers’ findings and arguments. Qualitative interviews provide a deep understanding of the overall social environment and context, especially where a population of interest is embedded, and thus yield valuable findings which textual or figurative data alone cannot produce.
The representativeness of a few interviews can be secured when structured or semi-structured survey questions are given to randomly selected respondents who belong to the same population as the interviewees. In conducting fieldwork for Tunisian women, Holmes-Eber wanted to cross examine her findings based on participant-observation and interviews, with the survey from a random sample of Tunisian women. This way, she could check whether her findings resonated in the population, which can lead to more generalizable conclusions. If the results of a survey buttress the contents of interviews, it adds to the validity of the interviews and signals the research is headed in the right direction. If the two do not quite match, then it is a good chance to reevaluate research questions or methods. It can even be a good opportunity to generate a new research question.
Holmes-Eber recommended designing survey questions carefully, meaning the questions get to the heart of what researchers mean to ask. More often than not, the wording of the questions can be misleading or confusing. This happens because of simple mistakes, lack of understanding of the specific use of language or a particular culture. Holmes-Eber said that she is aware of numerous cases where questions on the survey are generated out of limited knowledge of what actually happens on the ground; this meant respondents’ answers were out of touch with or distorted the reality, rather than reflecting it.
In this light, one takeaway from Holmes-Eber was that it is necessary to conduct a qualitative interview first before formulating questions in any survey. She shared her own experience of vetting the questions in her survey with a number of Tunisian women who could supposedly be participants of that survey down the line.