Not these boring spaghetti all over again….

picture by Rachel Ray

Roberta Amaral de Andrade from Brazil used Net-Map to get a better understanding of ” conflicts and opportunities for developing Jequitiba’s Forest Settlement Project”. She took the time to write a reflection  (323 KB) of her experience and allowed me to share it. Two of the struggles she describes are actually rather typical, they are things that often happen to us in our pre-tests so I’ve developed some ideas of how to deal with them so that they aren’t carried over into the actual research.

Let’s call the problem:

BORING SPAGHETTI

Your interviews are boring (for your interview partner and after the first three or so also for you) because the maps are all more or less the same. And they look like a bowl of spaghetti, because there are so many links between the actors. Drawing the links takes up a lot of time but doesn’t generate much new insight. So your data doesn’t tell you much beyond, well, everyone somehow interacts with everyone, but it is also a pain to collect, because it takes hours to draw and even more hours to enter the data.

What happened? I would guess you asked commonly known and agreed upon networks and / or low effort links. Low effort links are for example “exchange information” while a high effort link might be “gives money to” or “fights with”. Commonly agreed upon links are often those that are formal (such as “reports to”).

So why, if I know this can happen and I claim to have a remedy for it, do we commonly run into it in our pre-tests? That’s because you have to know the specific situation, to actually know which links are boring or common and how far you have to up the stakes to get to something more interesting. And to get a first overview over the situation, it makes a lot of sense to look at the formal hierarchy system, general information exchange and similar links that are boring and / or cumbersome if done too often. But if you see that it’s just boring spaghetti all over again, see how you can make it more difficult for your respondent do connect actors with links:

  • ask for more specific links: instead of “information flow” this could be “research findings”,  “information about farmer’s performance” or “information about corruption”.
  • ask for less formalized links: that’s why you do interviews instead of reading a document, because the different interview partners can tell you about the kinds of friendships, family relations, work coalitions, enemies and information shortcuts that an outsider can’t see.
  • ask for links that take more effort: we can greet a lot of people each day but won’t be close friends with all of them, we can give presentations (share information) to a big group of people but will only work closely with few… If the links you ask for require more effort, you will be less likely to link everyone to everyone.
  • ask for very different links: I have spent a lot of time drawing funding links in one direction and reporting links between the same actors in the opposite direction… if you realize that two links appear together most of the time, just ask for one of them and substitute the second one for something completely different.
  • ask for hot links: When pre-testing, observe which issues (links or aspects of the discussion) heat up the discussion and add some spice to the interview. Follow your intuition and look for things that stir up the interview, that confuse you or make you curious.
  • ask for riskier links: this is a recommendation that you have to follow only very carefully, depending on the trust you can develop and the openness with which your interview partners can talk, but sometimes it has proven very interesting to ask for “who annoys whom” or “where are informal money flows”

One final recommendation: Pre-test and take your pre-test seriously. Be aware that you might not know which questions to ask before you actually asked them. It’s so much better to change your questions after a pre-test than to collect a set of boring spaghetti data.

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