May 11, 2014

My dissertation niche

I've spent the past two weeks in the Rockefeller Archive Center, on my final dissertation research collection trip. Archive trips (especially funded archive trips) are a time to dive completely into research: supporting (or conflating) what I've already collected and analyzed; discovering new pathways; and reflecting on my experiences in the past 18 months from New Delhi and north India to Iowa and New York.

Taking advantage of my break in routine, I've started re-reading the secondary sources that I've collected over the past four years. Now that my dissertation topic (which I'll get to in a minute) is much more narrow from when I started, I'm reading my sources for their overall scope down to the detail of each relevant archive source.

I started my research with a general interest in the scientific, social, and political issues of the Green Revolution as well as the contemporary research trajectories of climate change adaptation in India. Each of those topics are incredibly broad, and the history of the Green Revolution is already documented, in detail, by researchers with much more experience, insight, and resources (archival, personal contacts, funding) at their disposal.

But on my first research trip to India, I had an insight that brought all of my interests together. I heard a scientist use the phrase "wide adaptation" to describe a particular crop variety, and I thought back to something I've ruminated on since doing research in Bangladesh, as well as what I'd read in the historical literature. Wide adaptation means the stability of a crop variety over different environments; but why did "wide adaptation" or "yield stability" become a thing that scientists wanted in a crop? Throughout my research I found that wide adaptation, and the ideas correlated with it, is incredibly controversial, even today. Yet it remains the main goal of India's wheat program, and the main "public good" oriented wheat research center, CIMMYT, in Mexico.

My dissertation research now focuses on the history of crop adaptation studies, globally, as well as their manifestation in Indian wheat science in the 1960s. Much of my research traces the international influence of Rockefeller Foundation scientists such as Norman Borlaug, Keith Finlay, R. Glenn Anderson, and Charles Krull. I also look at how Indian and Rockefeller scientists re-organized Indian wheat research around wide adaptation.

I now feel incredibly satisfied that my research brings a new perspective to the history of Green Revolution science. Drawing from histories by authors such as Nick Cullather, John H. Perkins, and Madhumita Saha, agricultural and social scientists such as Salvatore Ceccarelli and David Cleveland, and my primary sources (which include archives, historical reports and conference proceedings, and scientific articles), I look at what influenced agricultural scientists to discover, adapt, and promote wide adaptation.

It's been so much fun for me to study the complex scientific and social backgrounds of my research, though it can be boring to sift through document after document looking for relevant data. The point is, I'm making a unique contribution to a topic I've followed for a long time, and I feel good about it. I can't wait to see how my dissertation will end up!

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