Trickster on NPR

Eileen Kane was featured on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. Click here for the full programme.

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By the mid-1980s, I had many years of field research behind me; in fact, six years after my time with the Paiutes, I became director of a National Science Foundation Field Training Program myself, and trained about sixty graduate students. But I'd never lost the concerns I'd had with the Paiutes- seeing people as "subjects", doing research "on" people, claiming "objectivity." How often can a community be raided for academic purposes?  Flying in, flying out, inconveniencing baffled people, writing stuff up under a catchy title, a colon and a less-than-catchy subtitle: "This Little Piggy Had None: Effects of Law Reform Commission Changes on Traditional Piglet Feeding Practices in Papua New Guinea." Publishing in a journal that the "subjects" will never see, reading the paper, re-done in precious post-modernist language, dozens of times at conferences to other researchers.

For me, and for many anthropologists, this kind of research had become increasingly problematic in today's world, where we're sharing the planet with nearly seven billion companions. A billion of us are going hungry; 100 million are homeless, and 14 million of our young children die needlessly each year. Every five seconds, a child dies of hunger. The fabric of entire countries has been wrecked by HIV/AIDS: the whole middle generation of Zambia, for example, has died.

For many of us, our minds are as parched as our bodies: nearly a billion of us can't read and write, and about 77 million of our grade-school-aged children are not in school. The majority of these children are little girls-they're out not just for the day, but forever. Even the girls who are in school are far more likely to drop out than boys.

Research shows that if you don't complete five grades of school, in later life you will lose it all-even the ability to read and write. And true enough, one billion adults are illiterate today, and two-thirds of them are women.

And for sheer numbers, Africa is home to half the world's out-of -school girls. Worldwide, for every 100 boys out of school, there are 122 girls. But in India, for every 100 boys out of school, there are 426 girls. In Benin, in Africa, there are 257 girls.

So I wanted to take a new approach, and use it on real problems, such as the challenge of getting girls into primary school.  But the charges made by Robert Chambers (see Robert Chambers ) of the University of Sussex ring true: we've been caught between two banes of Third World research--"long and dirty research" (Ph.D. theses, etc., completed long after the people to be helped are dead, emigrated, or permanently unhealthy); or "short and dirty research" (usually done by overworked representatives of international organizations who fly in a three-day "mission", often scurrying between the points in their "Golden Triangle"--their local office, the hotel, and whatever government ministry they're working with); and emerging with a hothouse strategy that they've developed in the bar. Next year it could sweep the development world, maybe bringing inappropriate solutions not only to that country, but also to many others.

Given those choices, I'd rather not do fieldwork at all. I also distrusted some of what I found out myself, and I came to distrust the research results of others.  The incongruity was that I loved teaching anthropology: it still answered important questions for me and for everyone else. Research on "piglet feeding practices in New Guinea" is important if we are to continue to add to anthropology's larger lessons, the lessons that drew me into the field in the first place.  But it's also important that some of these lessons, and the methods we have for studying them, are put to practical use on today's calamitous problems. All my research since the Paiutes has been "applied"-practical and action-oriented. It isn't an "either-or" situation for anthropology but for me, it is. Even so, I still didn't like the role I often found myself in: the "objective expert", extracting the data, quibbling over the hair-splitting analysis, and dispensing the findings from a height.

Fortunately, in the mid-1980s, I learned about a multidisciplinary approach called "participatory research" and started training teams to do it.  Done well, participatory research can help a group-villagers, a neighborhood, members of a organization-to identify their own problems, discuss solutions, and create practical action, either alone or with some outside help. But it's easy for the inexperienced to be seduced too quickly by the aesthetics of some of the techniques, almost all of which are visual and crowd-drawing in a way that feeds the needy researcher.  Done badly, it's a serious betrayal, because, being action-premised, failure to know how to work through the process leaves a community worse off.

The approach and many of the techniques draw heavily on anthropology and related fields, but the philosophy is uniquely its own. "Hand over the stick-let them do it"; "You don't have to know everything to know something," (a caution to the "long and dirty" researchers); "it's better to be approximately right than precisely wrong."

And it appealed to some of the major international development agencies, as well.  The World Bank, for instance, had had some unexpected project failures; they'd called on anthropologists such as Conrad Kottak to look at social factors as possible causes. [1]  There was no objection from the international agencies, or from the government of The Gambia, our first pilot location, when I suggested looking at the social factors that might stop girls going to school in developing countries.

A colleague, Mary O'Reilly-de Brun, and I trained our first team-a 'mixed" Gambian group, some in mid-life and older, some in their early twenties; some men, some women, Muslim and Christian, some urban, some rural, mixed disciplines, mixed languages, some from the "study" community itself.  Soon we were off to a Gambian village, the first in a series. Click here to read an account of what happened. 

 


[1] Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 1991. "When People Don't Come First: Some Sociological Lessons from Completed Projects." In Michael Cernea, ed., Putting People First. New York: Oxford University Press. Kottak shows here, with evidence from World Bank projects, that projects that don't incorporate local perspectives cost more and are far more likely to fail.