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Improving Surveys Through Ethnography: Insights from India’s Urban Periphery


How can ethnographic research improve surveys? I illustrate the benefit of sustained qualitative research on survey design and implementation with reference to my own study of a neglected urban population: internal migrants. Such migrants are an important part of expanding South Asian and African cities. The informality and circular mobility of these populations prevent researchers from accessing them through traditional residence-based surveys. Scant existing knowledge weakens our ability to design theoretically precise and contextually appropriate survey instruments for these understudied communities, particularly cognitively demanding survey experiments to assess political attitudes. I argue that ethnographic fieldwork can help researchers address insufficient access and weak ecological and construct validity. I substantiate these arguments with data and insights from 15 months of fieldwork among circular urban migrants in India. First, I show how ethnography can help design context-sensitive sampling strategies that mitigate concerns of inadequate coverage, high non-response, and inefficiency. Second, I show how ethnography can be used to improve the ecological and construct validity of survey-based experiments. Finally, I show how such ethnographic innovations can be applied beyond the study population that inspired them. Sustained qualitative fieldwork can thus improve survey-based research on political behavior on neglected communities across the global south.

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  1. Extensive circular migration has been documented in countries ranging from Ethiopia (Dercon and Krishnan 2000), to Madagascar (Dostie et al. 2002), to Thailand (Paxson 1993). My survey sample of circular Indian migrants found they made an average of 2.55 trips to their home village each year.

  2. Morton and Williams (2010: 260–261) define construct validity as relating to “how valid the inferences of the data are for the theory the researcher is evaluating… In experimental research, the question is whether the design of the experiment is such that the variables investigated are closely equivalent to the variables the theory is concerned with.”

  3. Morton and Williams (2010: 265) define ecological validity as “whether the environment constructed in the research is similar to that in the target environment.”

  4. In sub-Saharan Africa, geographically bounded ethnic divisions ensure relatively homogenous village communities (McCauley 2014). In South Asia, villages are ethnically diverse, but ascriptive differences are “ranked” and correlate strongly with economic status (Horowitz 1985).

  5. In my migrant sample, only 21.44% of respondents had migrated with their wife to the city.

  6. My approach is similar to, but distinct from, the idea of “participatory econometrics” (Jha et al. 2007). Ethnographic surveys are based on direct qualitative fieldwork conducted by the principal researcher, and presume a period of sustained qualitative fieldwork. By contrast, participatory econometrics can be based on relatively short stints of fieldwork that can be delegated to research teams.

  7. Current Indian census protocols classify a person as a migrant if her place of birth is different from where she is being enumerated. This definition is highly inadequate for capturing circular migrants, who cycle between village and city several times a year. Employment statistics suggest the number of circular migrants in India as close to 100 million, nearly 10 times some official government estimates (Deshingkar and Farrington 2009). Similar undercounting occurs in other Asian countries, notably Indonesia (Hugo 1977).

  8. This figure likely reflects coverage errors stemming from definitions of migrants that do not capture circularity, rather than the true size of these populations.

  9. Author interview, Delhi, 9/15/2013.

  10. See Supplement Figure 2. There is general agreement that construction is the leading employer of circular migrants. NSS (2008), Deshingkar and Farrington (2009), and UNESCO (2012) all estimate roughly 45–55% of such migrants work in this sector.

  11. There were five drawings, so each draw was for 1/5th of the market’s size (observed by the scout team).

  12. The peak of labor market hiring is from 7:30 to 11 a.m., and many markets vanish by noon.

  13. As noted on page 10 of the supplement, 520 workers abandoned the survey for work opportunities (the bulk of the 788 refusals we received).

  14. Unfortunately, data constraints force me to rely on the flawed NSS data for these distributions, even as I have discussed why this data is highly inadequate in capturing circular migrant flows.

  15. Field notes, Rani Nagar Chowk, 9/22/2013.

  16. Interview, Tilak Nagar, 10/29/2013.

  17. Interview, Rani Nagar, 9/18/2013.

  18. Interview, Rani Nagar, 11/10/2013.

  19. Author field notes, Tilak Nagar, 11/20/2013.

  20. Lupu (2017) notes such implicit mediation analysis can analyze if the mediator is correlated with the independent variable whose effect it may mediate, the outcome variable (controlling for the independent variable of interest), and whether both of these relationships are in the same direction. For an alternative methodology based on Bayesian estimation methods, see Imai et al. 2010, 2011.

  21. Interview, Tilak Nagar Chowk, 11/27/2013.

  22. Interview, Tilak Nagar, 9/25/ 2013.

  23. Interview, Tilak Nagar Chowk 11/21/2013.

  24. Interview, Tilak Nagar Chowk, 11/23/2013.


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Thachil, T. Improving Surveys Through Ethnography: Insights from India’s Urban Periphery. St Comp Int Dev 53, 281–299 (2018).

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  • Migration
  • Behavior
  • Surveys
  • Ethnography
  • Urbanization