III: The importance of diaries for researching hidden issues

Accessing silenced voices?: Diary method as a source of data for understanding higher education experiences of students from socially excluded groups

Nidhi S. Sabharwal, Roma Smart Joseph, Anil Chindha Bankar and Avinash Vasantrao Talmale


An unprecedented expansion of the higher education (HE) sector in recent decades has led India to reach a stage of massification (Varghese, 2015). With a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of25.8% and around 36.6 million students (MHRD, 2018), India has the second-largest HE system in the world. The expansion has been accompanied by diversification of the sector in terms of institutions, sources of financing, nature of programmes of study offered, and students’ social background. From homogenous campuses dominated by students from privileged population groups, HE campuses are now increasingly being accessed by diverse student groups who are non-elite social group learners. In 2014, close to 63% of the student population in HE belonged to the socially excluded groups (NSSO, 2014) such as the scheduled tribes (STs: indigenous groups), scheduled castes (SCs: former untouchables in the caste hierarchy) and other backward classes (OBCs: other lower castes). Affirmative action policies followed in admissions in the form of reservation of seats, and various support schemes have contributed to upholding the Constitutional commitment to social justice (GOI, 1950).

In order to translate opportunity of access to academic success, and truly ensure social justice, warrants an enquiry into the nature of HE experiences of students from the socially excluded groups (SEGs) and to study how higher education institutions (HEIs) in India are taking into account the socio-educational requirements of diverse learners on their campuses. Such an investigation is necessary, as insights from the literature inform us of vulnerabilities associated with social belonging of students from the SEGs, which indicate disadvantaged life processes experienced in their journeys to HE. The socially excluded groups tend to suffer from a high incidence of poverty', malnutrition, illiteracy, poor health outcomes (Thorat & Newman, 2010), and inequitable conditions of study (Sabharwal et al., 2014), compared to the rest of the population (non-SC/ST/OBCs). In addition, these groups face exclusion and discrimination in access to opportunities associated with the institution of caste and ethnic backgrounds (Thorat & Newman, 2010).

Existing studies show exclusionary social experiences of students from the SEGs continue to shape their HE access, retention and success (Rao, 2013; Ovichegan, 2013; Sabharwal et al., 2014; Thornton et al., 2011; Henry’ & Ferry', 2017). These studies have drawn attention to social challenges confronting students from the SEGs, prevailing practices of prejudice (negative beliefs based on social group membership), and, discriminatory' behaviours (differential treatment based upon social group membership) against these students on HE campuses. To examine forms of prejudice and exclusionary processes influencing HE experiences of students from the SEGs, some studies have made concerted efforts by' either employing qualitative research methods such as interviews (Rao, 2013), or combined qualitative methods with quantitative instruments, such as student surveys (Sabharwal et al., 2014). However, diaries as a research method have been under-utilised in India (except by' one study: Thornton et al., 2011), despite their potential to be a powerful medium of expression of sharing confidential insights, especially' by' those who are targets of everyday practices of social prejudices and discrimination (Swim et al., 2003).

The authors of this chapter included solicited diaries in a multi-institutional mixed method study' that combined reflections from the diary' data with other data sources (student survey' and focus group discussions) to understand the interactional nature of HE experiences of students from the SEGs in academic and social spheres, and to study the existing institutional mechanisms to support student diversity' (Sabharwal & Malish, 2016). We included solicited diaries largely' to explore the research objective to uncover the nature and forms of academic and social challenges faced by students from the SEGs in HEIs which were geographically dispersed across India. Importantly, diaries were used to overcome difficulties in reaching out to students from the SEGs who were hesitant to be visibly identified, when they' were approached to take part and interact in the focus group discussions (FGDs). These students were reluctant to reveal their identity in public, and participate in the FGDs. Their hesitation reflected a fear and a threat of discrimination. Fifty' students from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and women completed diaries to share their thoughts and emotions related to their everyday experiences of interactions in academic and social spheres, including with the administration.

Insights from this mixed method study showed a poor quality' of educational experience of students from the SEGs, in the form of lower levels of integration in academic sphere and marginalisation in social spheres, with administration in HEIs not succeeding in effectively supporting students from the SEGs on their campuses (Sabharwal 2020). Undoubtedly, the diary' method helped us in accessing spaces that we may' have not been able to reach: silenced voices of students from the SEGs studying in HEIs in geographically dispersed locations across India.

The next section of this chapter reviews the literature on the versatile use of the diary method in HE research, internationally' and in India. We then outline the methodology’ of the mixed methods study within which the diary method nests, its design and the process of data collection. After this, methodological reasons for using solicited diaries and the approach to data analysis are discussed, including challenges faced in the implementation process of the diary method. The chapter concludes by underlining the need for developing research capacities to fully explore the potential that the diary' method offers for studying SEGs in higher education.

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