Research Methods

Our research in Timor-Leste employs a range of methods depending on the work that we are undertaking. Data produced through different methods, including surveys, tends to be treated qualitatively in our analysis as we work at the intersection of sociology, politics and anthropology. Following here is a brief outline of some of the main methods that have been used during different research projects.

Combined Questionnaires and Surveys

Despite their various limitations, surveys have been used extensively through the Timor-Leste Research Program's work. As part of broader projects and in tandem with other methods, we have found surveys provide a base-line of data as well as a good platform from which to start projects, and at times different surveys are used at different points across a project. For instance, during the Understanding Community project we used a combination of three different surveys. The first was undertaken with individuals and covered questions of people's conceptions of community, and had the benefit of providing an opportunity for the community and the researchers to become more familiar and trusting with one another. Towards the end of that project, two shorter questionnaires were delivered on a household-to-household basis, one about agriculture and one about perceptions of national political processes.

Due to low levels of literacy and also people's lack of familiarity with such forms of inquiry, surveys are typically undertaken with staff asking each of the questions rather than giving the surveys to people to fill out independently.

Semi-structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews are a central tool in the data-collection process, giving the participant space for narration, detail, deviation and opposition to questions. We find this serves as a good corrective opportunity for the researcher in terms of the data that has been gathered through quantitative methods, and gives the participant much greater latitude to use their own voice.


This method entails giving a camera to a person and asking them to take a limited number of photos of places or things of significance to them on a particular thematic (i.e. their community). This process is followed by a form of semi-structured interview which allows for a discussion of those photos. This method is used in that it can highlight local knowledge and subjective relations, and often allows for a discussion of matters (including places) that the researcher cannot have access to or is unaware of.  

Community Mapping and Movement Flows

Temporal and spatial mapping—in essence working out who is doing what when and where. These methods are still being developed, though thus far existing mapping, including aerial views of houses, GPS systems, stop-watches, as well as hand drawn maps and measuring wheels have all been utilised. These methods open up exciting possibilities such as getting a sense of gender differences in temporal and spatial relations. 

Observational Data Collection

This is an important technique that is almost always being employed while in Timor-Leste, from the observation of daily activities to attending political and cultural events. This method often provides a starting point for lines of inquiry, as observation on its own does little to answer much and can too easily be a void in which a researcher puts all their pre-conceived ideas. 

Document Analysis

Often there is little in the way of documentation in regards to the specific communities in which we work, even in the case of Dili. However, by sourcing what we can from materials written in English, Tetun, Indonesian and Portuguese, we are able to draw together some levels of information that assist our research. In this way, maps and census figures, as well as reports on local development projects, along with anthropological accounts, are all regularly drawn upon.