I’ve just read a good book, which has given me cause to reflect – “Fieldwork in Developing Countries” (edited by S. Devereux and J. Hoddinott, 1993 – table of contents here) is far from new, but then how much has the concept of cultural sensitivity changed lately? I single that topic out because though their collection of essays stretches from data collection methods to whether to learn the language or not (yes, if you have time!), the continuing theme that appeals to me is “How do we create the good rapport with the community that we need in order for our efforts to be useful and appreciated?” All of the authors are economists, interested in arcane information that might just disappear into dry academic journals. But even economists have to engage the people that they are studying so that they have confidence that their numbers are reliable. Some of the chapters are narrow case studies scattered with useful tidbits, and others are just treasures of generality. For example, in “Thinking About the Ethics of Fieldwork” we ask: are covert methods permissible? Instead of just asking/listening, are we allowed to also draw conclusions from what we see? Can we determine ability to pay from what luxury possessions we somewhat surreptitiously see in houses or from what treats we observe children buying from the local store (with their family’s scarce disposable income)?
We can always ask people any old question and hope for the best, but how do we ask in a way that does not suggest to them what answer we might like to hear – what should we expect when we ask someone whether they need a new cookstove? Or whether the smoke in their kitchen is the very worst of their daily challenges? Whereas Western cultures favor bluntness, many others have a natural tendency to want to please and will often provide you with the answer they think you want to hear, even if is an untruth (or more politely, a bending of the truth). Developing good interviewing techniques that account for those cultural differences is an important early step in working with a community. For example, you might focus on using more open ended questions or discussions – “Can you tell me about how you cook?” or “Please teach me how to cook with your stove.” Better yet, try to create your own learning opportunities. For example, I sharpen peoples’ knives and offer to cook for them (any way to get to spend time in their kitchen), while someone else may knit socks in public in order to engage people. Go collect firewood with someone to see how they interact with their environment; chop wood with them to see why their pieces are the size they are. Spend more time listening than asking questions and you’ll get a better picture of the problem you are trying to solve. One author comments that we should make the process as enjoyable to all as possible – “share genuinely of yourself, be prepared to grow together with people, and develop your sense of humor”.
Worth considering regularly is the inherently odd relationship between the foreigner and the local, and if we examine it even a little we see that there is a very strong tendency for observer bias to exist. Our research is not “value-free,” we all have personal and institutional values which can’t help but shape our work. Even our opinion of the meaning of “poor” or “poverty” comes from who we are and where we have come from culturally – the people we work with may not have much disposable income, so the choices they have are reduced compared to yours. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the basics required for a happy and fulfilling lives. To us, a state of impoverishment means not having a job/money and suffering because of this, but in some parts of the world this might mean more time that can be spent with family and is not viewed as negatively. When we devise ethnocentric and probably arbitrary metrics and opinions (such as “earning less than $1.25/day is always a bad thing, invariably resulting in misery”) we risk drawing inappropriate conclusions instead of learning from our experiences.
People want to know why we want to wander about in their villages, and even live in them – an alien concept to people who may never leave their village, and often have little desire to ever be separated from their family. We must be prepared to be continually explaining to people (individually and collectively) why we need certain kinds of data. People also appreciate some back-story – what other studies have shown, what people are saying now, what is happening in this research area in the greater world, etc. All this is part of the general process of forming genuine relationships and making your work a collaborative effort. We also need to explain what our constraints are – e.g. we are not a charity so we cannot pay for everything or distribute gifts constantly. Gifts, if we are not careful, can take a relationship from one of equality to one of patronage. Most places we visit will have already had some experience with NGOs and their presents of candy/toys/electronics, so we have to regularly examine what we want to accomplish with them, and whether other ways of sharing might be more productive (music, demonstrating your talents, entertainment, etc.).
Finally, the process of preparing for a trip is never easy – you want to be ready, but don’t know what you need to be ready for. Have you done your literature review and contacted experienced people who might be able to help you in this geographical area or field of expertise? Don’t try and re-invent the wheel! If you are using a questionnaire, have you thought it out so that it hopefully results in reliable answers? What other formats have other people used (there are often examples online)? Are you ready to modify it in the field, once you have done a small pilot survey to make sure it is an effective communication tool? Role-playing exercises before you leave can often help you anticipate problems, so enlist friends to help you practice probable conversations. And it’s always good to prepare a vocabulary list, with local translations of words that relate to your project (sometimes I’m worried that I speak mostly cookstove oriented Spanish, since that is what I use most).
When we are introducing new technology and would like to persuade people to spend their hard earned money on things that provide “future benefits” – LED lights, solar panels, items related to health care or the education of their children – how can we determine how much they are willing to pay? How do you assign a time and cost value to an improved cookstove that reduces a household firewood budget? Are you prepared to ferret out how much people really value your new idea or widget? I recently attended a economist’s talk on financial incentives in the health field and it changed the way I look at how I ask people about what they can afford – I advise investigating ahead of time concepts like present bias (why the future is less important than right now) and incentive compatibility (and even the Becker-DeGroot-Marschak method, for determining willingness to pay) so that you can design your approach appropriately. For those of us who tend to be too technical, learning from those outside our narrow field – like from anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, etc. – is hard work, and you have to do it before you reach the field.