Doing interviews, coproducing groundwater: tracing the spatial, temporal and vertical (Part 1)

When interview research method meets groundwater

Interviewing is cornerstone of any qualitative research. There are many different approaches to organising and conducting these and I would not go into the details about their typologies as that is not the intention of this article. My key interest here is- what happens when the interview as a research method meets hydrogeology? What happens when interviews themselves and through them enable groundwater understanding? I trace these questions and put down my observations based on my experiences of using un/semi structured interviews during my PhD fieldwork. 

Before I dive in further into the article, I need to highlight that I am no expert when it comes to qualitative research or for that matter using/deploying research tools. Much of what is presented here is through my use of interviews ‘in the field’ and ‘through the process’ of evolving the approach. When I began the fieldwork, much of the discussions were unstructured that evolved into semi-structured method of interviews. However, the linearity as the earlier sentence suggests may not be visible in the process. 

I interviewed farmers, community members, Krushi mitra (agriculture extension officers), Jalsurakshak (water extension officer) and elected members of various village level committees. While I also interviewed scientists, government officials, and practitioners from NGOs as well as subject experts, much of the focus of this article and the emerging understanding is based on my interactions in the villages. I did much of this fieldwork in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, although I also ventured in other districts a bit like Jalna and Ahmednagar. 

Doing interviews, coproducing groundwater

The reason I describe this as coproduction of groundwater is for two key reasons: as a researcher, I position myself with a background of working in this sector which brings in my own understanding to the field as well as to the process. In turn, this has led to shaping the approach I took for these interviews, the way questions were shaped and organised in the interviews and while conducting the interviews how the responses led to emerging questions which were again shaped by my understanding of the subject and field. Thus, at the outset, I want to shed the image of an ‘objective researcher’ towards the one of an ‘active researchers’ who equally contributed to the coproduction of this understanding presented here. 

Secondly, participant farmers and members of the community engaged with me through a certain notion of my background and identity- a urban, upper caste, researcher doing some research in a faraway university and someone, who possibly, may contribute to some beneficial work in the community/village. Having introduced through an NGO, this further escalated expectations that I did best to address but not quell. Recognising this mutual relationship was important in collectivising understanding of groundwater that led to its coproduction. 

The key contribution I wish to make through this article is to establish an approach that can inform ways of understanding groundwater beyond the ‘techniques of hydrogeology’- to develop understanding of groundwater through qualitative research methods that relies on oral histories, memories (individual and collective), everyday practices, experiential and traditional knowledge. Doing so, I hope it will contribute, through epistemological intervention, a shift from a techno-scientific discourse towards a more grounded and engaging process that values groundwater knowledge making as an everyday process . In doing so, I hope it also quells the dichotomy of indigenous vs modern knowledge, of good vs bad data, of scientific and superstition. 

Experiences across space and time

Like most interview situations, there are certain characteristics that determine the nature of the interview. I identify three: place where the interview is conducted, time of the year when the interview happens, and participant background, although, I think there may be many more. While participants background has been identified as an important criterion while doing and assessing interviews in many other settings, I would like to emphasize on the place and time of interviews from groundwater perspective. 

Water moves, stops, percolates, evaporates and saturates rocks. Water is pumped, contaminated, transported and stored. These things make it important to acknowledge and value the place and time of the interviews. I conducted most of the interview in the farms, near the wells, walking along the farm bunds, near the standing crops. I spoke to some farmers across the watershed, in upstream and downstream areas, near the stream and away from them, in irrigated farms, and in rainfed farms, near storage structures (like percolation tanks, storage tanks), and away from them. I did speak to some in their home, in their kitchen, understanding how water is brought in, or is supplied, how it is stored and used. These proved important as places determined the spaces that groundwater occupies and shapes- its flows, the porous rocks, directions of flow, behaviour of wells, ways of storing it, getting the infrastructure in place etc. 

At the same time, during what time of the year I conducted the interviews also shaped the discussions. While I began the discussions in the field as the summer of 2022 set in, many of the in-depth interviews began with the onset of monsoon. For example, interviews conducted in the summer consisted of observations and experiences during that period of the year- borewells stopping and starting, dug-wells being filled up from borewells, recovery of the well, new borewells being drilled etc. Interviews during the onset of monsoon focused on soil moisture, making land eligible for sowing, percolation from storages into dug-wells etc. Such diverse discussions meant a spectrum of groundwater practices and knowledges being dwelled upon. 

In the next part of the article, I will outline the key learning that has emerged from this experience. I have certain aspects that I have come to focus as I have begun re-hearing these interviews and in the process being transported back to those places and times of the year 2022. 

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