Monday, January 13, 2014

6. The Value of Participatory, Qualitative Research for Coffee

Jan. 13, 2014
How would you define research? Something about uncovering truth? Finding new knowledge? My off-the-cuff definition is, "a systematic process for uncovering new knowledge." As I've re-entered the world of graduate school this past fall, I've been refreshed to see an appreciation of how valuable qualitative and participatory research can be. It seems I'm not the only economist trained during the 80s and 90s who decided that to really understand what happens in developing countries, we need more than predictive econometric models that come close to being randomly controlled trials.

Quantitative methods are important, but they can be more effective when combined with the insights one gets from open-ended questions and in-depth interviews. Ethnography and exploratory study has taken on new levels of competence and value in the world of market research and academic investigations.  What is particularly relevant to coffee are the ways in which we are including interviews and discussions with producers themselves. We are placing more value on the opportunities to talk with the people who have generations of knowledge about growing coffee and about the places, the environments and the cultures which surround and support their coffee-growing places.

Example and case in point -- the microlots research on which Counter Culture Coffee and Virmax have collaborated was designed from the ground up to include, not just limited choice type questions, but open ended questions also. (Get a preview of the upcoming study here.) The study is being done with a participatory approach to the extent that the results of the work are being presented and shared with all 122 producers who were surveyed back in January 2013. That, in and of itself, is a "research step" that is too often forgotten. Do we share the results of our research with those who contributed to making the research possible? It may not always be desirable or feasible, but I would suggest that in most cases where it involves coffee producers, it could be extremely valuable.

It seems so easy and so logical, but I think this is a relatively new phenomena: this effort to more comprehensively integrate the things we, as actors at one end of the coffee supply chain, know, with the knowledge producers and other actors at origin have. Qualitative and participatory research can help us get closer to an understanding of where solutions may lie.

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