Monday, February 14, 2011

Random responses...(and realities?)
---[Guest post by Arshiya Bose]

I'm writing from a small village in Konkan (Western India), where I'm doing PhD fieldwork. I have just started a survey/interview process in 8 villages and am quickly realizing that this PhD is not going to be as pretty as I had originally hoped! Yet the process of unravelling this mystery is exciting and I often feel like a detective trying to find small clues that fit together parts of a huge puzzle. However, dilemmas come in plenty and though I love the 'there's no right way' philosophy - I wish I could sneak a peak at a damned textbook one of these days!

Yesterday, I was chatting with a farmer about his forest and asked him about environmental NGOs working in the region. What were these organisations like? Were they crooked? Had they helped lift small, marginal farmers out of abject poverty? And most of all, why did this man choose not to participate in one particular big conservation project? I waited patiently, ready to start scribbling down his response at supersonic speed. His reply could have been "Forest protection is only for rich people" or "We don't need NGOs to tell us how to look after our forest." But he said, "I was traveling on my bike when these NGO people came to our village. You can't talk properly on the main road!"

Frankly, many farmers have responded in similar ways. "My friend participates in forest protection I participate," is the most common reply to my fancy questionnaire.

Is it a lack of trust between researcher and respondent that inhibits the real response? Or are realities genuinely this contingent? Do such responses come from skepticism, a thought pops into my head and immediately, I feel selfish and mercenary. How many lunches, teas and social 'soft' visits will it take before I can collect data? It's been 2 months in the village, day after day, and last week I found out about a rumour (among many!) going around that I could be a terrorist!

But if it is the latter and realities are genuinely random - dependent on the whims and fancies of individuals without any larger pattern - then what happens to prospective PhDs? How do you explain in the words of lofty political ecology that environmental circumstances are as dependent on a person's daily routine (departures, mealtimes...bowel movements?) as they are on 'resource partitioning', 'elite-capture' or climate change?

That said, last evening, I conducted a 20 minute interview with a woodcutter in his underwear. He offered me tea and everything. I guess fieldwork has its share of rather delightful moments!

[Arshiya Bose has oddly decided that a PhD is the best way to resolve her existential crisis and she is currently registered at Cambridge University. Read more here...]