Community perceptions about social research in informal settlements

Focus group discussion in Balurmath slum (Mongla), Bangladesh

‘What benefit will we get by talking to you?’ is one of the most common questions residents ask researchers in informal settlements in Bangladesh.

Both extreme and slow-onset climate change-induced events are increasing the vulnerability of people, especially those who are already socially and economically marginalised. As this trend is becoming more prominent globally, social research on climate change and its impacts on excluded communities is gaining attention. If well communicated, such research can provide the general public with information, so that they can not only make personal changes, but also hold their leaders to account.

The study of climate-induced/environmental migrants in urban informal settlements is an important area of social research, as these communities often leave a vulnerable place just to move into another insecure space. Research on the residents of urban informal settlements provides insights into their reasons for moving, as well as their wellbeing in their current residence, which can inform efforts to improve the living standards of these communities.

Yet since a wide range of potential projects and research opportunities are available in informal settlements, they are often buzzing with researchers. As a result, it is an everyday phenomenon for members of these communities to talk to several different people with different research or project agendas. In recent years, residents have more frequently raised the question of how research will benefit them. This is understandable, as residents in our research locations experience highly challenging living conditions where even basic services are difficult to access. Even though some settlers do get monetary incentives for their time when being interviewed, the amounts they receive do not make a big difference to their situation.

A noticeable distinction between settlers’ attitude towards non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and research-based organisations is often evident. The NGOs that work in informal settlements are warmly welcomed in these communities. NGOs like BRAC have provided money and food to families in these settlements during the COVID-19 pandemic; others like Dushtha Shasthya Kendra provide water and sanitation services in some areas. Residents are quickly able to see and benefit from such assistance and improvements. But it is harder for communities to understand what benefits research-based organisations can bring them, since direct linkages between data collection and implementation systems are not so apparent.

In my experience, people in informal settlements are growing more pessimistic towards social research. This can cause methodological difficulties for researchers, since respondents can be reluctant to participate or to give enough time even if they do participate. At times community members can demand that researchers take their names for listing (a system that NGOs use to provide goods or money), not really understanding the purpose of surveys.

As mentioned earlier, to increase the likelihood of getting survey participants, researchers often provide financial incentives to compensate for their time. While this has its own benefits, such as acquiring large numbers of responses and helping to establish longer-term relationships between researchers and community members, there have been ongoing arguments between scholars on the ethics and effectiveness of providing monetary incentives. Our research team has found that, when community members discover that they will get some financial rewards, many volunteer to participate, but some then rush through the survey or provide incorrect information (in an attempt to participate more than once).

For the success of social research, it is highly important that participants in interviews or surveys fully understand the benefits of their participation. Rather than just approaching people in informal settlements and asking them to participate for the greater good, it would be more beneficial to give them adequate and honest information regarding how the research may or may not be helpful for them. While this may reduce the number of responses, it will open space for more discussions regarding how and to what extent social research is beneficial for these vulnerable communities.

Samina Islam is Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and a member of Inclusive Urban Infrastructure (IUI) team. IUI is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund under the title ‘Towards Trajectories of Inclusion: Making infrastructure work for the most marginalised’ (grant reference number ES/T008067/1).

Originally this blog was published on 17 March 2022 on The Inclusive Urban Infrastructure project Website.