March 25, 2013

Things I've learned about field research

About half-way into my time in India, I feel like I am making pretty good progress on my research. To estimate, I'd say I'm about 50% done with my field research (interviews with scientists, farmers, policy-makers) and maybe 50% or slightly less done with my historical research (part of that is because I plan on continuing my archival research back in the US, but also I feel accomplished because I've collected a lot of documents from the archives and online so far).

Since I'm thinking in numbers, something that keeps popping up in my head lately is that I feel like my research is maybe 80-90% "good," if that makes sense. The missing 10-20% is due to mistakes on my part-- including lack of preparation, forgetfulness, oversights, etc.-- and uncontrollable factors-- barriers to fieldwork, data, etc. I think part of writing my dissertation will be carefully screening for these errors and missteps and taking them into account.

I've been deeply engaged in my fieldwork for about a solid month now, and if I could go back in time and warn myself/congratulate myself, here's what I would say:

-Narrow your research question down. Cannot stress this enough.

-Have a good local institutional contact. Meet them before deciding for sure. You may be desperate, but don't settle for things like people not responding to your emails in a timely fashion. (In my case, things have worked out very well with my host institution.)

-Prepare as much as possible before going to your fieldsite. Test your interview questions, have them translated, know what sources you're looking for. Anticipate what types of analysis you will do and how your methods will answer your questions and be amenable to analysis.

-Understand some of the local cultural context, especially with regards to interpersonal communication.

-Have a very specific set of requirements for what you want to accomplish during your fieldwork; one that you can communicate with others. In my case, this means clarifying: what type of scientists I want to talk to; what exact books/reports I'm looking for; how many farmers I want to talk to; etc. People cannot psychic-ly know what you need. Be open to suggestions and negotiations with your local hosts, but firm about why you want to do certain things.

-Related, don't be afraid to ask for things. Things which I've had to ask for, which seem stupid to me but otherwise I would have no other way of getting, and eventually I have mostly gotten over the awkwardness: bottled water, please make the food less spicy, please no more aloo parathas for breakfast, hygiene products, money, etc. Relevant article about asking for things and being an introvert.

-Make a budget. Try your darndest to get someone else to pay for it.

-Take notes, edit notes, back-up notes, read notes often.

-Network. Don't be afraid to talk to people. Talk to the big-wigs. Talk to the maid.

-Be patient! Be flexible. Take what you perceive as set-backs in stride. Have faith in people who are helping you. Do not lose your calm.

I'm sure I have many more lessons left to learn! Also if anyone reading this has any agricultural research/India specific questions about fieldwork preparation, I have a whole host of answers. Rule number one being: bring your own toilet paper, a hat, and bug spray.

March 1, 2013

When housewives and food policy get mixed up

Oh my god you guys, what did I just read? I'll tell you: a New York Times article about how women doing less housework leads to obesity. Really??? Really.

First, let's ignore that the study the article cites, published in PLOS ONE, is based on research funded by the Coca-Cola company. Let's also ignore this entire article in the Sunday Times, a adaptation from the new book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," which completely explains why a soda company might be interested in, say, shifting the blame for obesity from soda and junk food to an easy target: women's declining caloric expenditures in housework and increased participation in the workplace. And let's also ignore other research that shows that even though women's heavy labor and drudgery of the "golden years" have decreased, there are now increased expectations and societal norms about keeping a spotless house and the perfect body.

I suspect some bunkery. I don't disagree that lifestyle changes have an impact on our overall health; but what I do question is the reductionist connections between housework, energy expenditures, and obesity. But as someone who keeps up with the food policy literature, it seems to me that the overall "food environment" plays more of a role in obesity. Consider what might have been on the shelves of a 1960s housewife: probably a lot of ingredients, some pre-packaged mixes, etc., but certainly less snack foods than you might find in a modern home. Also consider: the study finds that a modern working woman burns 132 kcal less each day than a 1960s housewife. Certainly, a decrease in caloric expenditure can add up and result in weight gain if you keep all other factors constant. But do you think it even compares to the impact of snacking at work; office birthday cakes; Starbucks; and the ever-increasing medley of high-calorie snacks that are marketed towards exactly this segment of the working population?

This article troubles me for two main reasons: 1) the implicit value-judgement that women's increased participation in the workforce is responsible for an increase in obesity, and 2) the corporate incentive to deflect critiques away from high-calorie sodas and snacks and onto other issues, such as decrease in physical activity or framing obesity as an issue of  "self control" and individual responsibility. Or in this case, the not-so-hidden message that if women got back in the kitchen, we'd all be healthy and happy like in the good-ol-days.