This post will be a mini sharing on the development of theoretical thoughts (i.e. emergent theory) from the interviews thus far. Writing this after a morning of manuscript editing (a painful chore for me) and afternoon of axial coding/diagramming the emergent theory, I can truly see why PhD is also known as ‘Permanent Head Damage’ 😂 So I thought it’d get my creative juices flowing and be inspired again through writing what I have learnt about civil participation in Singapore thus far through my interviewees (if you are reading this, thank you again 😊).
N.B. While I am in the final stages of my qualitative research, what is presented henceforth is provisional, and will most definitely assume a different form in my published dissertation/work!
Firstly, what is my research about? I am studying civil participation in Singapore, amidst COVID-19. A brief insert on what civil participation is- individuals engaging in participatory behaviours to address problems in the community and to influence policies or programs that affect well-being. The questions from the exploratory study on this topic include: What is the nature of civil participation? How is it shaped by different factors/conditions, and particularly by COVID-19?
Secondly, before sharing some interesting themes that have surfaced, a brief methods mention so that the information can be evaluated accordingly: This exploratory study utilises mixed methods (qualitative –> quantitative), and the Grounded Theory Method is employed in this current phase to analyse interview data. The product would be a theoretical framework which would then be tested in the quantitative phase.
Quotations in italics are the interviewees’ own words.
Okay, time for the real interesting stuff!! 🎉
Responding to the latent effects of social structures | “How can we as a community, provide support?” The interviewees shared different thoughts on how they saw the state of society or issues. However, their participation seems to be answering this question which was voiced in response to me asking what she thought the underlying issues are.
Interviewees shared different thoughts about what the ‘problem’ is, and they as diverse as society is composed of diverse social structures and relationships. The issues identified seem to be latent effects of social structures created and maintained by the state, neoliberal market system and civil society. This sounds pretty abstract and broad, I’d admit 😅 In essence, what I am getting at is the reciprocal interaction of individual agents in society who respond to the prevailing environment, and these broader entities that are also shaped by the agentic responses. Some examples of latent effects that have surfaced in the interviews are the resource gap within and between societies, hierarchical relationship between formal charitable organizations and beneficiary, and the lack of community ownership. What I have termed ‘latent effects’ have various root causes, which is beyond the scope of the theory.
Therefore, civil participation of the interviewees can be seen as an outworking of their beliefs of healthier social bonds, with different expressions of this depending on their passions or personal experiences. Some examples include rendering help in a dignified way, bridging gaps in society (be it resource, digital, intergenerational), and improving the welfare of migrant workers. In essence, their participation is an agentic response addressed towards ‘problematic’ aspects of the social bonds within Singapore society.
Yet, these issues and needs are existent before COVID-19. Thus my curiosity of, what difference did COVID-19 make?
COVID-19 precipitated sidelined needs and inequality; compelling people to act | “I guess like in a way COVID-19 was like a silver lining where it brought to light, a lot of issues that Singaporeans should not only look and bother about their own life, like really directly around their circle, but wider issues as well.”
There was a shared sentiment that COVID-19 had an adverse impact on groups already less-privileged or less visible in mainstream society. This included migrant workers, seniors, and low-income households. There was an important contribution of news, social media and NGOs in highlighting these issues.
At the same time, what was really interesting was that COVID-19 also created a lacuna in people’s normal routines especially during the Circuit Breaker, representing Freed up time for productive engagement | “I think the only thing about COVID right, that helped is freeing up time. And I guess that really give people more time to engage in in volunteering; ya I think time is really a big factor because in the house really nothing to do.”
This explained the observation that volunteering has dropped when Singapore exited the most restrictive phase 1 of Circuit Breaker, and some interviewees’ perception that the increased participation is going to be short-lived. Underlying this sentiment was the perception that the mindsets towards participation has not changed, but rather that the unwelcome lacuna created made volunteering more attractive during that time. There seemed to be a sense of deriving personal benefit from one’s participation.
However, this motivation does not always lead to short-lived participation. The interviewees themselves shared reasons for their volunteering/participation that were for self-benefit, like personal learning/growth and building meaningful connections with people. It could also be that how people experience their own participation that keeps them continuing on-
Subjective experience of participation’s significance | “Cos I think volunteers have shared like, like when they go to certain larger organizations, if you like a very, like small and their, contribution is very, like, negligible. If they weren’t there it doesn’t matter.” | “And they said… there are people who are around the same age group as I am, as opposed to other organizations all these you have a supervisor or manager so… we have all these young people so that is quite vibrant, its quite appealing to see that there are people like them.”
From these two quotes, you might be able to pick out different aspects of what contributes to that experience of significance, or meaningfulness of the participation. What I found interesting is the alluding to a positive participation milieu– especially the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers. Another important theme is having authentic connection with the target group, which gives people that sense of fulfillment.
Finally, the most surprising theme that emerged was the idea of privilege voiced by interviewees when I explored what could be driving both their participation and participation in general-
Realisation of privilege and thus working to ‘give back’| “I see how little they have. So yeah, motivation is to just give back and also hopefully, that my children can see and and also realise how privileged they are… And also, I think the fundamental thing that with privilege, there has to be some responsibility.”
One interviewee also pointed to the role of COVID-19 in getting people to see their own privilege: “So there’s a lot more gratitude that comes from- I think when you live in Singapore and things are kind of given to you, you can take em, you can take a lot of like these privileges or these benefits for granted right. So I think during this time is when people start realizing that I can’t really take a lot these, for granted. And then they sort of find that sort of gratitude and support for one another.”
More needs to be understood on how privilege is seen, but a repeated phrase was ‘not taking things for granted’. There seems to be an underlying belief of the ‘unfairness’ of one’s resources and opportunities in society- which should be ‘given back’ to the less privileged to balance out.
I always skim through qualitative results when I can’t visualise the relationships between themes or when there isn’t a diagram… so you are forgiven if you skimmed past this 😉 Evidently, this piece does not form a coherent theory and the process of writing has already surfaced some unclear links. But I hope it makes for a tasty appetizer for the future finished work… and I promise there will be a visual diagram!