Qualitative Research Methodology – Mobile Telephony in Kenya

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    Dear all, 

    I am a doctoral student from Germany and I am writing on a doctoral thesis entitled (working title): “Mobile Communication as a strategy to ‘coping’ with everyday life in urban Kenya. A study of media appropriation with particular regard to usage motives, media competencies and aspects of ‘De-Westernization’.”

    The (very brief) research aims are to develop concepts of coping strategies, usage motives and media competencies (and their relation to one another) as well as understanding the appropriation process of the mobile technology. 

    I am intending to use focus groups first in order to refine and enrich my research questions, followed by a ‘mobile self documentation’ in order to get contextualization as well as a richer data set. On that basis, I am going to conduct semi-structured in depth-interviews, using a sample from the focus groups on the basis of theoretical considerations (contrasting cases, underrepresented cases, and so forth). The material from the ‘mobile self documentation’ will, depending on the data, be analyzed by using visual methods or content analysis. The latter will also be applied to the focus group and interview material. I will be using the Strauss coding paradigm (open, axial, and selective coding) in order to come up with the desired concepts outlined above. 

    Regarding that project, I would have several questions and I would very much appreciate reading your opinions on these: 

    1. I am strictly committed to a qualitative approach, using the methodological paradigm of triangulation. I do – for several reasons – not intend to use a full blown grounded theory methodology approach. Hence, my research is not guided by theory – I am more or less just guided by some research questions and let the categories emerge from the data. But, and that is the question, I do not really have a certain theoretical basis for my research, and I do not know whether this is a problem. Phenomenology is, in my modest opinion, not really appropriate, since I am not really looking for ‘sense making’. The same applies to symbolic interactionism. Maybe I could ‘label’ the research as an ethnography – but I am unsure whether this would be methodologically correct, since I do – also for several reasons – not employ participant observation (which would be ethnography’s main method). What do you think of that?
    2. I wonder, whether the research strategies that I intend to use will work in a Kenyan context. The culture is different to western cultures, and I do not know whether these ‘western research methods’ are validly applicable to such a context. Hence, I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on that, or whether there are experiences with what would work in Kenya and what most likely won’t. 
    3. I am very eager to going for a ‘de-westernizing’ approach, i.e. not trying to use western models, theory and methodology to conduct research in an ‘african context’. I am aware of the literature and ideas on afrocentricity, african philosophy (e.g. ubuntuism), post colonial theory, black and afrikana studies, the ‘Afrikan worldview concept’, and so on. I do understand the theoretical reasoning for being less ‘eurocentric’, but I do very much wonder about how all this theoretical ideas and assumptions could influence my research on a methodological basis, i.e. how to use ‘non-western’ research methods or at least adapt western research methods in order to be more ‘afrocentric’. On the other hand side, I would not really want to support this dualistic worldview of ‘afro vs. euro’ and hence, would be very much in favour of a ‘best of both worlds approach’, since I can not imagine (yet) whether the lifeworlds are that much different, that one cannot apply ‘western research methods’ here. I wonder, whether the intended qualitative approach suffices here, because by using that, I am trying to extract the ‘Kenyan way of thinking’ on my research questions – could that be a less eurocentric way of thinking? Since western epistemology is criticised by ‘afrocentrists’ for being too rational, too ‘colonial’ or too linear in thinking (in the end all these models of thought that have to do with or emerged from ‘the enlightenment’) I do also wonder what an ‘african epistemology’ could or should look like, and whether such a thing exists at all. Or are the whole afrocentric thoughts just theoretical considerations and there is no such a thing (yet) as african research methods or african epistemology, that could lead a research design to being different from mine (i.e. a ‘western research design’)?

    Thank you very much in advance for your thoughts. I am looking forward to having a lively discussion on these issues!



    Hi Michael:

    I am sure your research questions CAN guide your research methods. Recent researchers favor research design being guided by RQs. I don’t think (to my shallow knowledge) justifying paradigm or theoretical grounds is that important today.

    I should say that ethnography seems appropriate. But I (honestly) feel (please correct me if I am wrong) you might need to review a few authors on QualiTi R methods. It seems you’re not clear as to what is more appropriate for your research.You have also shown your plan on “using the methodological paradigm of triangulation”.

    To me, there can be various ways these three areas can be studies in Kenyan urban context (within qualiTI R). For instance, informal interviews followed by semi-structured in-depth interviews is another way. Further interaction analysis, text analysis, discourse discourse analysis etc.

    Honestly, I think CDA (critical discourse analysis) can most probably be the best option.

    Wondering if any studies show that Kenya shows any signs of de-westernization. You seem too attached to this concept. Mind elaborating a bit on it. Personally, I feel Kenya is a hybrid society at present.




    Hi Muhammad, 

    thank you very much for your thoughts! What is this QualiTi R method? It is the first time that I hear of that. 

    But I am in line with your argument, that it is most likely okay to be guided by the research questions and follow the methodology that most likely answers them best. 

    I do not know whether I am too attached to that de-westernization thing. I also do feel that Kenya is a hybrid society – but still: it is first and foremost an African society. And if there are a lot of calls for de-westernizing research methodology and theory in contemporary academic literature – not only in media studies – I feel that there must be something to it that I simply cannot ignore. But that is exactly where I am stuck: I have the feeling that all theses writings are just claims – and that there is no such a thing as a non-western research paradigm or methodology (at present); hence, qualitative research would do the job, I feel. 

    In the end, Ubuntusim, for instance, calls for a ‘more circular’ thinking and for making up room for emotions instead of ratio. I do just wonder, then, whether the scientific undertaking, then, becomes a ‘pseudo science’. But, of course, again, according to western scientific standards. 




    Hi Michael:

    Sorry it is the same QualiTI R (I write it as a short form for qualitative research) sorry about the confusion. I think you’re more concerned with the research methods i.e. African vs. western. I am sure you have read a lot of criticism of research methodology and empiricism, right?

    Thus, it’s important for you to review literature on African R methods. However, I don’t think there is much you’ll find. Have you reviewed some literature on Positionality Theory? I am sure it’s what  you should be looking for after I read your thoughts. Regards, Mazhar


    Hi Mazhaer,

    yes, as you say, there is absolutely no doubt that I have to employ qualitative research here. 

    And yes, my concern is in fact the methodological questions of African vs. western methods. I have read a lot of criticism of employing western theory and method in an African context. But, still, the thing is that all of that criticism is just that and nothing more. They all seem to be stuck at the level of criticising without offering ‘hands on’ alternatives. Everything that is being offered here is just very blurry hints. As you rightly anticipated, there is not much literature on that. There is e.g. a book “

    Bless, C & Higson-Smith, C (1995) Fundamentals of social research methods: An African perspective. (2nd edition). Cape Town: Juta.”.

    But if one reads this book – or reviews of it – one will find that it is nothing more than a – by the way very bad – wrap up of ‘standard research methods’ as we all know them, peppered with some examples of interviewing or experimenting in African countries. So, nothing that really helps. It seems like even the ones that claim to outline an ‘African perspective’ have nothing more to offer that the standards we already know. Hence, I wonder what all these claims for de-westernization are heading to. 

    I have already spoken to one of the contributes of this ‘de-westernizing’ paradigm. The final answer: “Yes, Michael, you are right. These issues are easier stated than done.”




    I have never heard of Positionality Theory. Maybe it is worth having a look at it. 


    It’s highly enlightening to read your commentary. I would suggest you overview the Positionality theory. I faced the same issue (north vs south) while conducting my MS study here in Karachi. Through positionality theory, I was able to clearly justify my position and R methods. You might also want to see positionality theory under feminism. Regards, Mazhar


    Thank you very much for your advice, Mazhar. I am curious to figure out, what I can do with positionality theory. Thank you so much for your efforts!


    Hi Michael:

    Positionality theory addresses all these issues you have been facing regarding your research design and employment of the methods in a different context/setting/culture.

    I am sure it will help you a lot situate your position as a researcher “using western methods”. I would recommend the following read to start with:

    V. Eubanks, Double-Bound: Putting the Power Back into Participatory Research, 30 Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 107-137 (2009). (the citation format is BlueBook).

    Added to it, is another very important concept “Reflexivity”. Literature suggests both go hand in hand contributing to the VALIDITY of a qualitative study. You might want to look at it:

    I. Aaltio & H. J Hopfl, Reflexivity in research: The role of the researcher, the research process, and the nature of facts in the study of organizations, 7 Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry (2010).


    Hi Mazahr, 

    Thank you very much for these invaluable hints. I will have a look at these readings and hope that they will help me to proceed with that issue!

    Regards and many many thanks



    You’re welcome.



    Hi Michael 

    Are you entered for a PhD?  If you are, then I suggest you reconsider your stance on philosophy.  The “Ph”, after all, stands for philosophy, so you pursue a doctorate in philosophy.  What philosophy, you may ask; and the answer is to be found in the philosophy of the field of study you find yourself in, more specifically, the philosophy of the research problem.  

    In this regard, you should follow  a building block approach. By that I mean you must first ask yourself the metaphysical/ontological questions of what is the most basic nature of the phenomenon/problem you want to examine, i.e. what is the most basic essence of this phenomenon and why is it important (ontology = what is it that I observe, and what is the essence of that I observe); 

    Next in sequence you must ask the epistemological questions, i.e. what is the nature of knowledge about this phenomenon, what is my relationship to it, how will science and practice benefit by expansion of knowledge about it (to list the most important ones);

    At the next level you must ask theoretical questions, i.e. how does my exploration of the problem, and my proposed solution, challenge existing theory, and is my effort  a new attempt to disconfirm existing theory, does my effort perhaps extend existing theory to new domains, or does it formulate new theory altogether? If the latter, be dead sure that existing theory does not already explain the phenomenon.  The

    Then ony you should ask methodological questions.  

    These building blocks all add up, from ontology, to episteme, then theory and finally method.   Study these requirements and attempt to answer them, guided by your supervisor.  Avoid at all costs asking questions on top if you have no clarity about the layers below.  Then it is a paper house blown away by the first examiner worth his/her salt.   

    Your instincts are right about transplanting Western thought/experience without qualification to an African context.  The answer to this problem is indeed to be found in the ontological (what is the African context for communications – absence of written history, role of verbal communications, etc, what is the African context for telecommunications – what is the essence of this – does it explain the quick adoption of mobile tech, etc.) and epistemological (what is what do African people know/feel/experience about communications, about the functionality and value of [mobile] telecoms, how does it compare to writing, how does mobile tech extend a rich culture of verbal communications and do they see it as such, or does it come instinctive, etc.) dimensions of your problem.

    Beware as well of using the term paradigm lightly, and out of context.  Although Thomas Kuhn has used at least 21 definitions for the term in his “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, a  paradigm is nothing less than an exemplary solution to a problem, adhered to, debated, discussed and applied by a group of practitioners in a manner which make the world a better place.  All research at doctoral level (whether PhD or otherwise) typically attempt to help with scientific progress.  Kuhn merely described how model theories, meeting the theoretical and empirical requirements of paradigms, challenge and topple each other in order to manifest that scientific progress in a theoretical and practical manner.

    I hope the above serves as guidance.


    Ferdie Lochner (PhD)

    Alette Schoon

    Hi Michael

     I have just done a qualitative study looking at the use of mobile phones in a low income neighbourhood in South Africa, and I used Silverstone Hirsch and Morley’s (1992) domestication approach as the backbone for the research interviews for my study, following other qualitative researchers studying mobile phones such as Ling and Horst & Miller. The domestication approach is based in material culture studies and argues that the device acquires meaning in a culture through various processes that are highly contextal which include how it is acquired, displayed to insiders, and used in this context and how these meanings are then again communicated to outsiders. This allowed me to look at for example how unemployed young people resist definitions of themselves as lazy and useless by engaging in activities on the mobile phone which enabled them to define themselves as creative and interested in education. If you look at Horst and Miller’s (2006) book The Cellphone, set in Jamaica, you will be able to read a fantastic study using this approach. (I recommend reading anything by Daniel Miller) The issue for me however, is how you define coping – is this a subjective state of mind defined by the users and which relates to values and identity, which would therefore be suitable for a qualitative study, or is it something that is best measured through psychological tests, for example, which would require different methods. You speak of your research questions, but you have not set them out in the post, which makes it difficult to understand what you mean by ‘coping’ and what exactly you are looking at. As qualitative studies are focused on describing the qualities of a term,  and the mental maps associated with such terms in different contexts, I would say that it is essential that you engage with theory that defines the history of the notion of ‘coping’ and then relate it to local meanings in Kenya. You will also need to look into how the term is translated into local languages. In terms of engaging with African philosophy you could look at what it means if you are ‘not coping’ in an African context – and how does this relate to a local sense of identity, social values and local hierarchies? I suggest you read the extensive literature on the mobile phone in developing countries by various authors e.g. Ureta, de Souza e Silva, Donner, Qui, who document how western notions of privacy and individual ownership do not apply in the developing world. I would say the notion of meaning as not centred in an individual but in relationships and collectives is a key tenet of African thought and may be a good starting point. The counterpoint to this of course is that in a collective one is perpetually visible to others. There was a special issue of New Media and Society dedicated to mobile phones in the global south which may also be good to get. In terms of African values and research methods you would need to be mindful of local notions of propriety and what this means in terms of social interactions between people of different genders and different ages particularly in setting up focus groups.

    Good luck with your research



    Hi Ferdie, 

    First of all, thank you very much for your extensive answer. 

    Yes, I am indeed conducting PhD-studies. Well, I have considered these facts, and that is exactly where I am stuck in a way. Let me try to get back to you in the same order that you have put your recommendations. 

    Ontologically, I would say the most basic phenomenon in that case is, of course, ‘social action’. This has led me – speaking in methodological terms – to an approach of ‘verstehen’ (understanding) – considering the dichotomy of ‘verstehen vs erklären’, (understanding vs. explaining) which is most commonly found in research methods books (even in the German wording). 

    The epistemological question, though, is not too easy to answer. Speaking in ‘western’ scientific terms, I would say that I would have to follow an interpretative paradigm, such as symbolic interactionism of essentials of Max Weber’s sociology – partly Alfred Schutz maybe. Here is where the problem is at heart: it as a western epistemology, i.e. a western way of constructing knowledge, which is precisely the circumstance that is subject to heavy criticism within the ‘movement’ of de-westernization. There are calls for using more indigenous epistemologies, i.e. African philosophy. Now, I am busy studying African philosophical literature, trying not to delve to deep onto that in order not to loose myself within these particularities while trying to find out, whether there is – apart from African philosophical considerations – such a thing as an African epistemology that can also be fruitful in order to generate ‘scientific knowledge’ different to the one that would come out when using a ‘western epistemology’.

    This leads us to the next to points of your recommendation: theoretical and methodological questions.

    First of all, my work is not too theoretically charged, since I do follow an inductive, qualitative approach. So I do more or less use my research questions to give me guidance, while trying to be as open to the phenomenon as possible. Of course, I do use some anthropological insights and some theory on how human beings behave as social beings, material culture, domestication, and so on. The research outcome is not really to generate new theory – that would be too optimistic. But it is at least, to come up with a concept of media behaviour (i.e. mobile phones) in a particular sociocultural context. Hence, in the end, my research is for sure not to test hypothesis. If, at all, it is to generate the latter, or else, (in ethnographic terms) to generate a ‘thick description’.   

    Secondly, methodology: I intend to use group discussion, elaborated forms of in-depth interviewing and some kind of visual methods. Though, I am not sure whether these methods will work in a Kenyan context – especially within the context of de-westernization outlined above. Hence, I am curious about experiences and best practices with these methods in Kenya. 

    All in all, I would say I have thought through the issues that you have mentioned. What would you think? 

    It is exactly the questions that you point out when recurring to the epistemological dimensions of my research problem within an African context that lay at heart of my studies. And some others. 

    All the best



    Thank you very much Tjamme. I will have a look at that and see, whether I can combine that analytically with my interviewing and group discussion methods. 

    All the best



    Hi Michael


    I am very pleased with your response, in particular to see that you are attuned to the philosophical substance of your problem statement.  Time unfortunately does not allow me to respond further at this particular moment, but I’d like to do so at a later stage – hopefully sooner rather than later.  For now, keep on interrogating, keep on to be the sceptical researcher who will only believe his research questions have been answered when done so via a rigorous process of stating assumptions, collecting data and analysing such data.  When your methods are grounded in logically acceptable method, whether inductive or deductive, and when the particular African context you pursue is approximated in a valid manner, and when the uptake of data is consistent and replicable, the results will be valuable and will help you come to conclusions.   We now have to help you find / determine what a valid approximation of that African value system is.   Until later, when I will further interrogate your initial understanding of the dichotomy between Western and African epistemology.  For now, allow me a view:  episteme is episteme is episteme, in contrast to “doxa”, or opinion.  So the structure of knowledge may / should be generic, but there may be a Western or an African interpretation of that knowledge.  For me, at least, that African version may be true if it complies to the generic structure of knowledge.  From a Western perspective it may appear as opinion, but when grounded in the generic structure of episteme, and based upon a valid ontological foundation, it should be usuable / testable and should be operationalised.  Ferdie.

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