February 19, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid while attempting to be an unbiased researcher

I realized today that I’ve spend the past week and a half drinking the Bioversity Kool-Aid; meaning that I’ve been surrounded by great ideas like “custodian farmers”; researchers who are really interested in “farmer first” technologies, networks, and access to resources; and in the past few days, getting a chance to talk to farmers who are involved in Bioversity’s projects here in India. Which is all great, especially considering that Bioversity’s mission aligns with my own ideological commitments. But this is something my academic committee has pushed me to think about: how will I deal with my own pro-farmer, pro-local biases when conducting my research?

One of the things I’m studying is the difference between/evolution of the scientific paradigms of “wide adaptation of crops/top-down technology transfer” and “location-specific adaptation/participatory research.” The first approach is dominant in the state-run agricultural organizations; the second (I’m hypothesizing) is more likely to crop up among NGOs and individual researchers. But, is one approach necessarily “better”? My own bias pushes me towards thinking the second approach is better, because it takes into account the local socio-economic as well as environmental conditions of farmers. But from an innovation systems perspective, we probably need some combination of both approaches. The first approach works well for large farmers on productive lands; the second works better for marginal farmers/areas. I think if I’m able to take a more even-handed (or “academically agnostic”) approach to my research, my scholarship will be better. One step I can take to reduce my bias is to be very careful in my interviews, and to carefully consider what my respondents say. In my historical research, I think the best strategy for now is just to document all relevant material, and then sort out my theoretical argument later.

Theoretically, I find the correlation of the “wide adaptation/top-down” approach with a socialized political system extremely interesting. This would require me digging into more political science than I currently have under my belt, but I think it would be really interesting to compare 20th century agricultural development in the US, Soviet Russia, and India. For example, what was the political context; proportion of public vs. private research investment; scientific paradigms; and ultimately the success of agricultural technologies in each of these nation-states during critical periods of agricultural development? Maybe I can find someone already working on this stuff and collaborate…

In other news, baby goats are the cutest things ever and I want one!


  1. Hello, I'm not a stalker, just Twitter makes the right people very easy to find! You've probably already seen it/read it but 'Seeing Like a State' by James C. Scott would be good for your international comparison angle regarding development:


    It's very interdisciplinary and written with an eye on the present (you policy types tend to dislike straight history, and for this, we historians know you will suffer in the long run).

  2. Hey, well I'm glad you found my blog, that's what the link is for! I'm definitely into Seeing Like a State! I will have my ideas sorted out a bit more once I do more historical research (1965 to present), but basically I have the idea that participatory research isn't legible, which is why scientists are having such a hard time implementing it. Anyway shoot me an email (marci dot baranski at gmail dot com) and I can send you my prospectus if you want. I've got a long section on participatory research in it.

  3. Love the idea of academic agnosticism -- I think perhaps biomedical researchers aren't as well trained to identify and deal with biases (that exist outside the limitations of a particular technique).


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