Riz has been doing immersion research since 2014 and is an Empatika core team member. His first experience was as an interpreter for Empatika’s former technical advisor, Dee Jupp, conducting fieldwork on Buton island in Sulawesi for a social assistance study. At that time he had just graduated from college and didn’t really know what immersion research was. “I just knew it was qualitative research and the research model would be like doing KKN (university community service project).” Riz admits that, especially with his limited research experience, he also had many assumptions about life outside Java. Riz was surprised right away at how informal the immersion process was as he and Dee went around chatting casually with people in the community, looking for a family to stay with. Riz says that this method of collecting ‘data’ by staying with a family, following their daily activities, learning and building on each piece of learning in the field made him want to take immersion seriously. “With immersion, I like the little things. I remember that the first time I met Dee, she said we should try to reduce the power gap between us and people [in the community] as much as possible.” Dee explained to Riz that, for example, you shouldn’t wear clothes that might carry status such as a jacket from your university or a company shirt. “I hadn’t thought of that before at all. It’s research, what does that have to do with your appearance? But those things do bring status.” Riz was familiar with social development issues from his political science education background, but immersion brought a different perspective. “[At school] we focused on the functional and structural arrangements. So for example, when looking at poverty, it was more about looking at poverty data…for immersion research, it’s kind of reversed. You learn directly from people who experience it everyday.”
Doing immersion research has had a big influence on Riz’s own life as well. “In the past, my friends only came from Garut, my hometown and school friends, but now my friends are more diverse.” His values have also changed - where previously he might look at someone’s education level or school, now he tries to see a person's effort in their everyday life. He is also more open and more daring to try new things. “I think I’m also more neutral in how I see things. With something new, I'll examine it first and try it before thinking about whether it’s good or bad.”
For Riz, what's most interesting about immersion research is the exploration. “The process of learning is interesting, because qualitative research is about depth, diving deep, and in my opinion, there isn’t a bottom. If there is, I have never reached the bottom, the earth's crust. When I dive into immersion, I am always at different depths. And that's what is fun for me."
One of the big challenges for qualitative research according to Riz is the influence or role of the researcher. “With qualitative research, the researcher is also one of the research tools. So, when two or three different researchers go to the same location, talk about the same things, each will definitely bring different insights.” The depth of the insights from each researcher will also depend on their technique, which Riz says takes time to develop. With a rapid immersion approach like Empatika uses, it is also technique and practice which helps people feel comfortable to open up to researchers and allows us to gain a lot of insights in just a few days. “But being a tool of research is not easy,” Riz says. “I’ve also learned about taking care of myself both before and after an immersion.” Additionally, Riz says that one of the biggest challenges doing immersions is acknowledging and dealing with our own assumptions as researchers. “Researchers must be able to challenge their biases when reality in the field is different with their own assumptions.” But don’t worry, Riz says, “when you’re doing an immersion you’re not alone. You have a team helping you. When you have any doubts, you can talk with your team members.”
Riz explains that one thing that surprises many people with immersion research is how open people can be with researchers in such a short time. “When we first introduced immersion research in Indonesia, some people were skeptical about its approach. They would ask, ‘Is it really possible to be accepted to stay with a family in their home like that?’ ‘Is it safe?’ These questions make sense because it has never been tried, right?” But Riz thinks there are also a lot of assumptions or old habits behind this type of skepticism, and that we need to respond by asking them, for example, ‘Why can't research be informal like this?’ When people are worried that doing immersion research is dangerous, or that people won’t be accepting of researchers, is this really the reality, or is this about our own biases as researchers or organizations?
One challenging situation that Riz experienced was when he was in Pakistan with one of our lead researchers, Neha, for our first study in that country. It’s always a challenge in a new country to form a new team of local researchers, but in Pakistan the security situation also made ensuring the quality of the insights more difficult than usual. Riz explains, “the security officer initially told Neha and I that [as non-Pakistanis] we were not allowed to go to the field, but we negotiated with him to at least let us go out for a day.” It was an extra challenge, Riz says, to adapt the immersion style, which is very informal, to the less stable context in Pakistan. “But we did it. And the study insights were also good. So that was fun.”
In the end, Riz says that he feels privileged to do immersions. “I feel like doing this is a life-long thing…so I think I’d like to still be doing this when I’m old.”