The Survey as a Social Event: What field notes tell us about the quality and contextuality of quantitative data

Thursday, 29 May, 2014 - 14:00

This seminar discusses some of the methodological concerns surrounding a large-scale ethnographic survey on religious difference and social identities among the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria, who have converted to both Islam and Christianity in large numbers. Drawing on the field notes produced by the team members who executed the survey, the seminar illustrates that even seemingly objective facts – such as survey results – are socially produced knowledge and therefore need to be considered in the context of their own production. After a short focus on some wider methodological concerns for survey work in most African countries, the seminar explores the survey as an encounter between socially situated researchers and research subjects in which access to data was shaped by struggles over status, respect and reciprocity, which also took place in the wider context of politicized religion in Nigeria, including fear of terrorism and state manipulation. Due to the public nature of survey work in most communities, data content was often explicitly shaped by the presence of local audiences. Implicitly, data content also reflected gender, and especially marital relations, which often represented female/ wifely as ‘having’ less religion than men/ husbands. Finally, the quality of our data strongly reflected the affinities and interpersonal relationships between survey workers and respondents. This aspect also strongly shaped the first stage of data ‘cleaning’, in which some questionnaires were withdrawn by team members. The conclusion offers a short reflection on the implications of these reflections both for quantitative research in Africa (and beyond) more generally, and for the growing engagement within the social sciences and humanities with quantitative data.

This seminar forms part of the investigation of the "The Meanings of Evidence" under the Mellon Funded Medical Humanities Project.

Insa Nolte is based at the Department of African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focuses on Nigeria and especially on Yoruba history, culture and politics. Insa is currently the Principal Investigator (PI) of an ERC Grant with the title 'Knowing Each Other: everyday religious encounters, social identities and tolerance in southwest Nigeria,' based both at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and at Osun State University in Nigeria. This research explores the relationships between Yoruba Muslims, Christians and traditionalists, and it investigates how the encounter with religious difference - rather than religion alone - shapes peoples' social identities and attitudes towards each other. Insa is the Reviews Editor of Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute. She is also the Vice President of the United Kingdom Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA), where she represents African Studies, and the Projects Officer of the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK), where she is responsible for the association's Writing Workshop Programme for early career Africanist researchers.