Monday, May 10, 2010

Experimental Ethnography

My apologies for the silence. I've been fine, mostly in Bangui due to the recent rebel attack in Ndele and a spate of highway bandit activity on the roads around there.

Partly, my no-post laziness has stemmed from plunging into reading in the wake of encouragement, thanks to a friend in Bangui , to explore the new world of economics – Nathan Nunn (who, incidentally, cites my adviser, Charles Piot, on multiple occasions), Edward Miguel, Stathis Kalyvas...(I welcome further recommendations!) I even caught myself thinking like an economist the other day, trying to draw little diagrams of potential causal relations and wondering how one could isolate the factors and determine the links.

As I approach the end of this chunk of fieldwork I'm filled with mixed feelings including, yes, some regret.

Though the idea of fieldwork as a rite of passage is oft-critiqued in anthropology, it nevertheless persists. My department, for instance, offers no methods course. Throw 'em in the deep end and see how they do. Most people swim, even if just dog-paddling. So on one level this rite of passage practice is fine. But I have started to notice myself developing a certain anxiety over the lack of structure in ethnographic research. This lack of structure was less apparent when anthropologists worked in small villages and immersed themselves in every detail of their social structure. The (artificial) geographic boundary of the village provided the contours for the study. But now as multi-sited ethnography has become common (my own research has been more multi-sited than I had envisioned, simply because the places I had hoped to do research have been intermittently unsafe, forcing me to find other options), there is a risk that the great strength of anthropology – its receptiveness and openness – will make for watered-down research unless one has years in which to do fieldwork, which for most of us is impractical. (The most common question I get from ex-pats these days is, “So, are you done with that dissertation?” Sigh. That's not quite the pace of these things.)

All of this is a rambling prelude to my main point: the methodology-envy that hit me upon reading about Elizabeth Levy Paluck's experimental ethnography.

Paluck sought to assess the impacts of encouraging listening to a conflict resolution-themed soap opera in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She randomly assigned villages to either receive the broadcasts or not and then designed an evaluation survey that used both quantitative and qualitative measures. At the end of each respondent's interview, the interviewer offered a bag of salt as a thank you. The interviewer then explained that a local humanitarian group had drawn attention to a needy group in the community and asked whether the respondent would share any salt. “Which group?” was the most usual reply. The interviewers asked whether there was a group the person would not feel comfortable giving to. Most people in this area plagued by recent years of violent conflict responded affirmatively. The interviewer then measured the quantity the person said s/he would give, depending on the group. As expected, people gave less salt to members of their rival group. Surprisingly, the results showed, tentatively, that those who had listened to the soap operas were less willing to donate than those who had not.

How fascinating to make social norms and relationships materially visible. I have tried, in my limited capacity as a solo researcher, to do similar things myself, but have bumped into frustration each time because, I think, of my failure to materialize the hypothetical examples I set out.

In my next project, whatever it might be, I would love to systematically integrate some experimental methods. But I have much to learn.

No comments:

Post a Comment