Interpreting the Experiences of Indian Women Fieldworkers through a Culturally Responsive and Feminist Intersectional Framework
Abstract: Understanding intersectionality—the social dynamics rooted in the intersections of caste, gender, tribal/ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional identities—is essential to interpreting women’s experiences as they participate in contemporary Indian society. This roundtable discusses the development of a culturally responsive, feminist intersectional theoretical framework used for analyzing ethnographic data on Indian women’s fieldwork experiences. The women were engaged in a large-scale monitoring and evaluation effort of rural primary education in India. The theoretical framework draws on four academic literatures: 1) feminist evaluation, 2) culturally responsive evaluation, 3) women and gender in contemporary India, and 4) feminist and postcolonial standpoint theories. The framework is used for interpreting fieldnotes and interview data from a multi-state ethnographic study of the entire M&E process conducted in India to understand women’s fieldwork experiences via their own words, with sensitivity to their varied relationships to social norms and structures.
Empirical studies of evaluation (i.e., research on evaluation) can inform the field’s collective understanding of evaluation’s sociopolitical consequences. This roundtable presents (and poses questions about) a culturally responsive, feminist intersectional theoretical framework used for analyzing ethnographic data on a large-scale evaluation effort in India.
Ethnographic Case: The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is produced via a massive monitoring and evaluation process. Enlisting 25,000 volunteer fieldworkers, ASER has contributed the only continuous national data on Indian children’s schooling status and basic skills in reading and arithmetic. Executed independent of the government, ASER’s open dissemination of education data has been considered a public good—contributing to widespread dialogue on the quality of primary education. ASER is not only a technical endeavor but also a far-reaching social process promoting social accountability, shared responsibility, and evaluative thinking. ASER is produced through the substantial efforts of tens of thousands of people: ASER national and state staff members to district-level trainers and volunteers. These various ASER workers facilitate its citizen-engaged evaluation process that occurs within villages, schools, and homes in over 500 rural districts. For women, the work involves several activities that may seem atypical or even inappropriate in context of mainstream Indian society and their everyday social environments: such ASER activities include traveling far away from their homes to do independent work for long periods; meeting with or talking to men in a variety of spaces like on village roads, in private households, or in government schools; holding prominent positions within an organization that require speaking as representatives to authorities; designing and leading trainings for large peer groups; and supervising the work of others. Therefore, ASER may have the unintended consequence of shifting how people think about gender or the public roles and capacities of women: How can the spectrum of women’s experiences in ASER be understood? Are there social and political consequences for engaging vast numbers of women in ASER? Does women’s participation in ASER influence their gendered beliefs or the beliefs of others?
Theoretical framework: Understanding intersectionality—the social dynamics rooted in the intersections of caste, gender, tribal/ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional identities—is essential to interpreting Indian women’s experiences as they participate in contemporary society. This study’s theoretical framework draws on four literatures:
- Feminist evaluation principles and models, and insights on their application in South Asian contexts
- Culturally responsive evaluation, particularly its focus on evaluation’s role in fostering a democratic society, sensitivity to power, and conceptualization of evaluation as a sociopolitical process.
- Women and gender in contemporary India highlighting regional, economic, and other sociocultural differences, and the gendered norms that structure Indian women’s lives
- Feminist and postcolonial standpoint theories
Data Analysis: A multi-state ethnographic study of the ASER process was conducted in India. Utilizing this theoretical framework to analyze field notes and interview data enables exploration of women’s differing roles in facilitating ASER and their experiences via their own words, with sensitivity to their varied relationships to social norms and structures.