After a long hiatus, I want to restart this blog. The absence of posts speaks to a part of research (one among many) that I find very challenging: Writing about it while you’re doing it. In part, my hesitation is a cautious approach. Many social researchers who have been in the business a long time complain about today’s research blogs and rapid-fire publications: They can amount to a lot of hot air blown around without much evidence to support it. And to an extent I agree. Over the last three months I’ve started to appreciate how much time it takes to understand a place at all, and to sift through the details that ethnography provides.

But fieldworkers (like those reviewed in my last, ancient post) also point out the importance of writing in the midst of your observations. Writing is a way of thinking. Often I don’t know what I have to say about something until I start writing about it. Halfway down the second page of my word document, I suddenly find the point I’ve been groping for. And writing for an audience (even an imagined internet audience) forces you to craft thoughts that are more coherent and of greater importance than the often personal details that fill my fieldnotes. That, in fact, was my original motivation for writing a research blog.

Writing while researching was also the reason I returned to the U.S. for two weeks in April to attend the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Washington, D.C. I signed up to present a paper on climate change and adaptation with some fellow students. Our idea was to compare the areas in which we work (India, Senegal, and Tanzania) to demonstrate the importance of history in understanding what climate changes – and other kinds of shocks – mean for rural people. The conference gave me a deadline which, like writing, does wonders for figuring out what you have to say.

In February and March I twice visited Medina, a village where I also spent several months in 2005. In 2005 I focused on learning about the unfolding of several community-based conservation projects in the village. Now, however, my concern with history led me to interview people of diverse occupations – cotton farmers, tenants on a banana plantation, fishermen, vegetable gardeners, etc. – and to ask an array of questions that seemed dizzyingly broad (at least at first). Where do different people farm and how did they come to farm there? How do farmers split their time between irrigating bananas on the plantation and growing their own crops in upland plots? How did the expansion of Senegal’s largest national park in the early 1970’s affect their activities? What emerged from these questions is a story about how some households have been able to buffer themselves against risks by combining plantation work with upland farming. But the story remains incomplete, and I will soon be returning to Medina to follow up.

In the meantime, I have been reconsidering my focus on climate change – so much for the title of this blog! – but more on that later. I have also been rethinking how I work. The Senegalese scholars I contacted before arriving have much bigger projects taking up their time. In other words, I find myself facing the puzzles and hurdles of fieldwork on my own. And one of my major goals in returning to Senegal was to try to work as part of a team. That’s how I do my best work. As importantly, though, it’s also a way to contribute to ongoing efforts here in Senegal. Otherwise knowledge returns home with the foreign researcher, to contribute to her/his career and, unfortunately often, to little else. What else am I bringing to the people who so graciously give me their time, put up with my strange questions, and give me a roof under which to sleep?

I am reconsidering what my research can offer to an organization based in Senegal. That question, too, will need to be addressed in a future post. So there’s more writing to do on this blog!

I’ve been reading a lot about ethnography in preparation for doing field research. Studying Geography and environmental politics over two and a half years, I’ve read countless articles derived from qualitative and ethnographic research. I’ve taken a course in qualitative research, and even spent time in unfamiliar social settings in order to observe activities, participating in meetings or services, and conduct interviews of my own. But ethnography has remained a mystery for me. How are ethnographic works related, undertaken for such different purposes and producing such different results results, written by people in diverse academic, professional, or non-professional careers, and conducted in such different places?

So far, I’m learning two things I should have suspected before I started. First, ethnography is mysterious in part because ethnographers don’t agree on exactly what it is, and what it can do. Second, you can’t tease ethnography out and deal with it separate of other sticky questions in social science. Or, put another way, ethnography is more than just the techniques and methods for gathering information. It’s also more than just the approach you use to understand the information you gather. (At least according to some authors) In the handful of sources I’ve looked at, I’ve noticed that although every one sets out to define different ways to use ethnography (or just their way), the ethnography they describe emerges from the broader assumptions about what the social world is and what questions are important. Some authors spell out these assumptions, other leave you to guess at them yourself (this makes me wish I had a lot more social theory under my belt). Overall, ethnography comes out looking very different depending on who’s painting its picture.

So what does this mean for studying the social dimensions of climate change? For one thing, it reminds us how little attention the climate change literature gives to how to do social research. Take terms like vulnerability or adaptation. An ethnographic perspective suggests that the meaning of these processes depends tremendously on how we learn how they work, to whom we apply them, and in which settings we look for them. Perhaps part of the problem is that we think about climate change as a global process. For a long time, studies of climate have been dominated by a large-scale form of natural science, focusing on global circulation models and advanced computer simulations. So when we discuss the social side of climate change, concepts like vulnerability and adaptation become similarly universalized. We assume they act the same way wherever we deploy them. Much ethnography, in contrast, has tried to induce concepts from the localized settings in which it works. This is related to the grounded theory approach.

So what does ethnography look like when related to climate change? I’m starting to suspect that the climate may play a smaller role in ethnographic studies than it does in global ones. When you look at a particular group of people, the effects of climate are wrapped up with a wealth of other local processes, and assigned diverse meanings. I think it is more appropriate to talk about ethnography and climate change, rather than ethnography of climate change. If we put climate at the center of our analysis, we don’t look at all the other factors that contribute to the processes we observe. At least some ethnographers argue that the most informative types of analysis focus on historical process rather than predictive causality (e.g. Becker 1995).

I’m trying to square all this with how I’m going to conduct my field observations. One practical decision was to remove the word ‘climate’ everywhere it appeared in my interview questions and consent forms. The international politics of climate change are well-known in many parts of rural Senegal, and people know how to work the dominant aid project story when they hear it. So talking about climate will make me appear as if I’ve come to hand out the money (even more than I appear so already). Of course there is a long-standing tension in qualitative research over how much theory to build into your observations from the start, and how much to allow the theory to ’emerge’ from the observations and the values of the people you study. I’m hoping to find a middle ground by not allowing climate to frame everything I look at, but still to prompt people to talk about risks to their activities and livelihoods, their responses and adaptations to these risks, and the organizations they are connected to. I’ll report back in a week or so with how this initial strategy appears to be working.

Ethnography Sources

Note: I should disclose that my interest in syntheses of adaptation case studies is not incidental. I am a contributor to a research project building a database of more than 120 published studies of local adaptation and institutions. See the link to one of our initial presentations on the ‘Research’ page of this blog.


Climate Frontline is a recent report depicting the rural people’s responses to climate change in several African locales. The turn towards larger scale comparisons and syntheses of climate adaptation is an interesting development for research, which until recently consisted primarily of individual case studies.

Compiled by several NGO, Climate Frontline aims to allow “African women and men describe, in their own words, how climate change is affecting their lives and how they are adapting to survive.” More specifically, perhaps, the project organizers aim to transmit stories from the “climate frontline” to major donors and aid organizations. Why else collect the experiences of a handful of farmers in a colorful English-language webpage? The organizers, it seems, hope to convince donors to provide “sufficient and reliable climate change adaptation support for these communities.”

The cases in the report and website are divided into five sections: Unpredictable rain, Deforestation, Agricultural methods, Knowledge and education. Each of section includes three cases, which generally follow a similar sequence: a) outline the climatic/environmental problems; b) describe the steps locals take to deal with them, and c) show how these steps alone are insufficient to lift people out of poverty, sustain soil quality, etc. A concluding section, titled ‘The way forward’ argues that adaptation funds should be channeled to these existing “community-based” adaptations, rather than government or NGO projects alone.

Surprisingly, (or perhaps not) only in a sub-section titled “What other issues require attention?” does the report stress how “climate change, poverty reduction, and resilience to shocks and stresses are very closely related.” Persistent poverty, discriminatory laws and cultural norms, and poor governance appear only as “other issues” on the climate frontline.

The report implicates climate and climate change as the cause of suffering and vulnerability of rural Africans. Although this position has received explosive coverage in the midst of the current media hype surrounding climate change, it is a familiar storyline.

The report provides interesting details on the range of activities rural people are undertaking related to climate, from novel farming techniques to new professions. It begins to explore the factors that might distinguish different kinds of ‘adaptation’ – whether they are externally-supported, spread through social networks, based on predicting the climate and weather, or not.

Climate Frontline points out the ubiquity and diversity of local adaptation responses, and the importance of these local actions in shaping the outcomes of development interventions. However, it also uncritically tows the NGO line that rural people can’t survive without external help. More troublesome, it joins the ranks of development reports that imply that it is climate-focused interventions that can “transform surviving communities into thriving communities.”

We need to remind ourselves of the obvious, in the current climate discourse: many people in these communities were not thriving before climate change. We can learn from existing collections of voices, in Africa and elsewhere, why people have only just survived and continue to only just survive, even as climates, environments, and markets change.

Vulnerability and adaptation are two terms that crop up everywhere in writing and projects related to climate change. They tend to be used in sweeping statements, declaring which countries/regions/people are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Or warning that more funding/projects/research is needed to assure that these countries/regions/people will have the capacity to adapt to the new hazards created by a changing climate. Occasionally, academics and NGOs mention how people have responded to and (with varying success) survived droughts/famines/disasters in the past. In the same breath, however, they often emphasize the unprecedented magnitude of climate changes, which will overwhelm strategies that may have worked in past disasters.

Needless to say, I think that it matters how we talk about climate change and how it affects people in developing countries. How we talk about it affects what we see as ‘the problems’ and what kinds of solutions we will use to address them. Commentators have long pointed out that different people define even central terms like vulnerability and adaptation very differently. But more important is whether our discussions about climate change are informed by previous work on the social dimensions of environmental problems, on the one hand, and how studying climate change can teach us something new, on the other.

This blog will explore the social side of climate change, drawing on academic research in political ecology, common property management, and social networks. I hope to move back and forth between theoretical ideas and the ethnographic fieldwork I am conducting in Senegal, and to learn useful at the same time.

I am currently preparing to visit Medina, a village in eastern Senegal where I spent two months in 2006. Returning to where I have established relationships, I hope I be able to quickly start to ask questions about different groups of people experience and deal with climate. Later on, I’ll compare my observations in Medina with at least one other site, where people make a living on a different set of activities and in different local environments.

Welcome! This is a new blog.

I will add content as I develop my research plans over the next few months. I will begin posting regularly once I arrive in Senegal in 2010.

Please share your ronn2 thoughts as this blog progresses by commenting on entries or by contacting me through the link above.


Bienvenue à mon blog de recherche!

Je le remettrai à jour alors que j’élabore mon projet dans les mois
suivants. J’y ajouterai régulièrement des que j’arrive au Sénégal en 2010.

Veuillez partager vos pensées en forme de commentaires à propos de mes notes ou en me contacter par le liens de << Contact >> ci-dessus.