Monday, May 15, 2006

methods and research questions

Hi Everybody,

It's Sunday night, and for one of the first times since I've been in
Nicaragua, I can't sleep. I've had an exciting day—practicing my
motorcycle and an electrical blow out at my house with dramatic sparks
due to some generator being run next door—but I think I'm awake mostly
because I'm thinking about my research. I've been here almost a month
now. Have I made any progress towards answering my research
questions? Am I heading in the right direction? What, in fact, ARE
my research questions?

I spent a lot of the entire year and a half or so before leaving New
York working on writing grant proposals. During this time, I wrote
many research questions, most of them more oriented towards research
that sounded fund-able rather than questions I thought needed
answering, or that I was interested in researching. I was not worried
about this, maybe because of The Anthropology Fieldwork Mystique.
This Mystique goes something along the lines of: nobody ever starts
out with the same questions that they end up answering. The best
research findings come about by accident, luck, and maybe an ineffable
talent on the part of the researcher—certainly nothing to do with
methodical, plodding work. The plodding work is what you do until
you're hit with the good luck, or the inspiration. I've written
before about a different aspect of this mystique, that of the total
denial of self in fieldwork, and how much I reject it. But I seem to
have fallen a bit into this other aspect of the Mystique.

Towards the end of my grant-writing process, I came on a set of
questions that was both interesting to me and possible to write up as
a proposal. These questions had to do with whether fair trade
certified cooperatives, or maybe cooperatives in general, were likely
to increase or decrease inequality in their local communities. This
seems to me an important thing that I would like to both know and
share with the world. Fair trade as a movement tends to make claims
to the effect that it is promoting more equitable development at all
levels, in sharp contrast to conventional coffee trading, which makes
some people rich and other people destitute. Is this really true? Or
is fair trade not really that different from many other development
projects, which have been shown to often lift a select few up into the
middle class, while imposing arbitrary-seeming requirements on the
majority of the population for the few years while the project is
active, and then drifting away, leaving things largely unchanged, but
more unequal.

In the Nicaraguan context, too, I am also interested in asking about
the viability of cooperatives in general. Although cooperatives, I
think, are in style in international development right now, in
Nicaragua there is a particular historical resonance with this
organizational form. During the decade of the 1980s, under the
revolutionary, quasi-socialist (depending on who you talk to)
Sandinista government, most agriculture was collectivized, either by
creating state farms with de jure collective ownership by the workers,
or by having small land owners join together for the purposes of
collective purchasing and marketing. This latter form was called a
cooperative, and cooperatives are today associated by many with the
military draft, the war, the rationing and shortages, and the
hyper-inflation of that decade. For others, it is also associated
with the sense of new possibilities after decades of repressive
dictatorship, and with the social programs put into effect, despite
the economic hardships: a country-wide rural literacy campaign taught
by university students, universal health care, the redistribution of
unoccupied land, and new mobilization for women's rights. This
memory, or vision, is one of a couple reason why there is a
possibility, at least, of the Sandinistas winning the presidential
elections coming up this fall, despite the many uglinesses of the
candidate, Daniel Ortega. (The heavy-handed threats uttered by the
United States ambassador to Nicaragua about what will happen if Daniel
wins may actually be spurring more people to support him.) I wonder
what it would be like to be here if the Sandinistas actually take
power again? Certainly it would be an accident, or luck, which would
qualify me for a piece of the Mystique.

But I was busy fretting about my research questions. As I was saying,
I'm interested in equality and inequality as affected by fair trade
and cooperatives generally. I'm also interested in some more
conventionally "cultural" questions—like what are the differences in
the ways that charity and aid are seen by United States-eans and
Nicaraguans, and how does this affect their ties formed through fair
trade? And what does it mean to people and the economy in the
Matagalpa area that there is an absolutely incredible density of NGOs
and development projects and aid in this area? (All Nicaragua is not
like this, it's just in Matagalpa and surrounds. The more remote you
get, the fewer NGOs. But around here, after learning that I'm
foreign--usually before I even open my mouth--most people want to know
what organization I work for.)

All right, I've written myself into sleepiness now. Maybe tomorrow
I'll post again with some thoughts on how to actually research these
questions, and an evaluation of how I'm doing.


1 comment:

Noah H. Enelow said...

First off I love your observations on the anthro mystique and the fieldwork. I thought about being an anthropologist but was turned off by some of the classical anthro assumptions, plus a really boring intro teacher. I ended up being an economist, a field with even worse classical assumptions, but I still believe that the human element is always, always important in doing any kind of research, in any country. Now I have an extremely innovative and inspiring heterodox anthropologist on my dissertation committee (for my heterodox economics dissertation.) Kudos to you for sticking with the field.

Second off, your Q's are great. The effect of FT on inequality is one of the biggest ones out there, so so important. If I felt like I could get adequate local level human development data I might try to attempt such an undertaking here in Perú. Instead I am looking at the system's effects on the quality of service provision by the co-operatives (an insight I just derived ten minutes ago thanks to my brilliant colleagues here at the National Coffee Association.)

The charity question is a big one too, especially in light of your observations on gift-giving and power. I look forward to hearing your continuing musings on it.

Take care, and while you're online I'd love it if you stopped by my blog sometime: