24 January 2013

The value of fieldwork (an early morning rant)

Since embarking on my time in the Blue Nile and Ethiopia for field work, I have had an unique experience. Before leaving to engage in fieldwork from my university, I was met with a bit of confusion and surprise from my colleagues and professors as to why I needed to actually go to the places I wanted to study, why I had chosen Ethiopia, why I needed months instead of weeks.

Anthropologists still get it. And geologists. Fieldwork is essential for understanding systems, and if you are a geographer, you should not gain a degree without it - fieldwork should be required.

I formerly worked as a environmental and energy security analysts. I focused on water. I used remote sensing tools coupled with computer-based mapping tools (GIS) to tell a story about change or a particular situation in a place. Added to this I would scour the news and websites to better understand what was happening on the ground. In our current age we rely on the internet too much. Although you can find news stories, blogs, or websites describing something, this by no means replaces the essential nature of actually seeing and experiencing for yourself. This is why I left my job and went back to university - I wanted to my hands dirty and better understand the nature of the questions I ask.

I have been steadily contacted by journalists, students, and NGOs since starting this work, identifying themselves as someone who researches the Grand Renaissance Dam. They are interested to speak with me about the data I have collected and my interest in the dam. Until this morning, I did not realize why I was meeting these requests with suspicion. The people in question are falsely representing themselves. How could they claim to be researchers on a dam they have not seen, the specs of which are not publicly available, and in some cases, have not even visited Ethiopia and in so doing, missed reality on the ground. And that is at least half of the story. The technical bits matter for a background section of a paper, the speculation may as well go into a fiction novel - and certainly not be a basis for a decision-making model! - but certainly if you are going to be responsible for moving and sharing information, you should do the work properly. Go to your field site. Spend months before you make a decision about what you think you know. Speak to the locals, the officials, give respect where it is due. People who live in a place and work in a system tend to know much more about that place and system than an "expert" (who are self-proclaimed) that parachutes in and impatiently insists they know what is happening there by spending a few days looking around, speaking with a few folks, and inevitably enjoying something like a good meal or boat ride to wrap up the trip. They then write a report and perpetuate irresponsibly gathered data that is probably largely erroneous, or correct without context.

It is all well and good that we have this fancy technology today of satellites and computer-based mapping that allows for analysis and remote understanding of things, like water systems. But academics and general researchers alike have become too reliant on their expensive sensors and technical gadgets. These things tell only part of the story, and they capture a snapshot in time. To make a point, in the academy there are terms for ground-truth: local knowledge, TEK or traditional ecological knowledge. The use of modifiers before the word knowledge indicates that these are considered types of knowledge, but not the main body of knowledge itself. The main body is simply the brilliance of the usually remote researcher to understand a system, write a paper, and be applauded by other researchers who use the same half-baked techniques. And I am talking about spendings some months collecting data. A sociologist or anthropologist would consider me a parachutest - someone who jumps in and jumps out. An American anthropolgist working in Africa, based in Ethiopia scoffed at me when I showed up in her office with my research in hand. She told me I'd never gain trust of Ethiopians in such a short project and they would lie to me, too afraid to tell the truth. That I should revisit my design and make a specifically worded survey, or some such thing.

I believe it is exactly these mistakes that have spilled over into our decision-making processes in government, in the international community, in banks...the world cannot be reduced to numbers and spatial trends detected on a computer screen. And on the other hand, to fully understand a situation, one does not need years - thus deterring your average researcher from embarking in the first place. To understand a system, you must take the time, but be reasonable. If you do not have the time, make the time. Be responsible for the information and data you profess to have and understand - gut-check. If you do not have the funds, save and improvise. Half of my current research is self-funded on my meager student assistanceship stipend - I think less than $10K in a year. I improvised and trusted that my efforts to move forward would be met with some hassle, but that everything is temporary. I also prayed a lot.

Field work is not always convenient or easy, but the value of seeing or hearing for yourself is enormous. And may be the only responsible course for research.