To continue the series on my PhD project, today's post sketches my methodological plans. Like all research plans in decent disciplines, this one is bound to be changed. Indeed, this post might well turn out as a reminder of what I thought at my naive beginnings, very much like today's picture, which shows me - naively - in Jaipur three years ago, starting my first fieldwork ever...

Apart from this post on my methodology, there are:
An introductory post to my topic
A post on my conceptual framework
Finally a post on why I chose Lucknow as a fieldsite

What I thought so far is to explore the two sets of questions guiding my research - about discourses of belonging and their navigation through individual persons - in three major steps. Each step is distinct in its goals, methods of data collection, logic of inquiry, sampling strategy, and writing schedule. The first phase concentrates on participant and non-participant observation and network mapping to sketch the discursive landscape of Muslim belonging in Lucknow, the second phase uses walking interviews to grasp personal experiences of belonging, and the third phase reintroduces normative discourse to these experiences through group discussions. All three phases share the heuristic definition of religious belonging developed in my last post.

The sequence of three steps is of course more an ideal model than a hard and fast separation. This would neither be feasable nor desirable given the dynamics of both the field itself - where key events like Ramadan, Ashura, etc. require multiple perspectives - and of ethnographic knowledge production - in which circular moves are the norm, not sequences. Yet separating three ideal-typical steps arguably helps to flesh out the distinct logics of inquiry which intersect in my research, even if reality will always be messier. The following is a rough sketch of what I hope to do:

First phase: sketching a broader picture. The main method used in this phase is participant and non-participant observation as a "temporary citizen" of Lucknow: stay at any given locality over a couple of days, get a feeling for what goes on there, who comes and goes when, how and why, what is the talk, what are the practices - both in everyday situations and at significant occasions such as festivals (during this phase in particular Baqr Id and of course Ashura). Observation would extend into qutbas in the local mosque, hadith guidance given in madrassahs (or archived in madrassah libraries), instructional sessions in Shia majlis etc. During such participation, I would also try to collect grey or archival material where available (to reconstruct local variations of national Indo-Islamic discourses), and strike up casual conversations about what it means to be Muslim in contemporary Lucknow. This latter is probably the most important method for me: getting to know people, if I am very fortunate making some friends, and assembling interlocutors who can guide me.

Analytically speaking, this phase operates mainly in synchronic perspective, emphasizing the spatiality of belonging over its temporality. My key strategy is to start from places to discover people (rather than the other way round), and to continue from these people to their differential social networks (including other individual Muslims, Islamic institutions, and the numinous). I would then attempt to map the emerging social network(s) and see to what extent they connect, transforming "ego-centered" into "full relational" representations.1

Second phase: Case studies of personal experience. Because (and if) I want to take individuals seriously, "a person's identity is [...] not to be found in his or her behavior [alone], nor even in the reaction of other people, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going" 2. Thus in-depth narrative interviews with a theoretically stratified sample of about 20 to 30 Muslims are key to my overall research design. During a second phase, I would embed such interviews in walks across Lucknow, inspired in part by a recent post I read on Savage Minds. I intend to meet with each interlocutor for about half a day, construct mental maps,3 and then let them show me their Lucknow while talking about what it means to belong, to relate to other Muslims and to long for the numinous. During each walk, I intend to combine unstructured narrative interviews with informant-directed photography and a mapping of the route taken. While walking together, physical space and material artefacts act as triggers for the conversation. I for one think better when I walk...

In this second phase, my unit of analysis shifts from social networks to individual persons inside these networks. Also, rather than staying at places and see who drops by, I would proceed the other way round and follow individuals to their places, i.e. places meaningful to them in their experience of being Muslim in Lucknow. Rather than mapping "naturally occurring" everyday spatial practices, however, I am interested in the mental maps as they are enacted on physical space in an explicitly "artificial" setting, set up for the sole purpose of reflecting on these mental maps (on "the everyday", see my earlier post. My conversations will put particular emphasis on the role of ambivalence and ambiguity in the digestion and navigation of discourses; my sampling strategy would be to create wide diversity as a precondition for typologizing analysis.4

Third phase: Reintroducing discourse. During my last months in Lucknow, I hope to invite some of those guiding me through so far for dinner, to draw it all together. More technically speaking, I would conduct several focus group conversations with around six particpants in each round.5 To guide the discussion, I would devise a rough set of topics based on outcomes from the first two phases of research. I would also rely on photographs of certain spaces or material artefacts as triggers (esp. those which turned out most prominently and/or controversially during the walking interviews). The discussion could probably be combined with traditional PRA methods (participatory mental mapping, ranking exercises, collaborative mindmapping etc), especially as a way to feed back my preliminary analytical narratives.

The key assumption during this phase is that focus group discussions allow me to observe "discourse in the making", since such groups form an in-between space of the public and the private and demonstrate exemplary processes by which personal experiences of belonging translate into (and are framed by) wider discourses. In this phase, the unit of analysis shifts again; of interest is now the group and its dynamics rather than the individual participants. 6. But really? I want to invite an interesting collection of people whom I met over the year for dinner - and see what happens...

Well that's the plan, then. I shall be back in a year to tell you how it turned out - and in the meantime, feel free to comment below...