Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tales from the field: the dawn of day 3

It is a refreshing morning, the birds are chirping in the trees, a gentle breeze is playing with the banana leaves and the village roosters are advertising the blood red sun over the sea. 

Today is the day that turned yesterday into a strange and nearly frustrating experience. The local world does not play by the rules of the minds of the Western educated, science-oriented aliens that descended upon this little island to study their strange customs. A pre-test a few days ago revealed that the main measure is likely to be contaminated – a beautiful word for saying that somebody had worked out what the main dependent measure of the field study was and is likely to have instructed people how to answer it. A major debacle for the motley crew of international researchers hoping to study a fascinating religious ritual, with the high hopes to help humanity understand why engaging in seemingly insane and dangerous things (think of getting pierced, walking 4 to 6 hours in the tropical heat to finish off the day with a nice stroll over some gentle burning fire – who in their right Western mind would want to do something like this?). 

However, the one thing that should have sealed the study, the brilliantly devised and simple variable to measure how truly connected people feel to their religion and their religious fellows may not work anymore. The frustration turned into a heated debate about behavioural economics, a field of science that most villagers probably will never encounter in their whole life. Hours passed debating the pros and cons of games with the appealing names like dictator or prisoner dilemma game. 

It is fascinating to see the research work and weeks of preparation descend into an abyss of confusion, personal convictions, Western bias and scientific despair. One thing that I am wondering is, we don’t understand what these economic games are measuring with well-educated Western participants, despite nearly a century of research. What will it show us in a group that has problems understanding our humble attempts to ask them ‘how do you feel right now’? It makes me wonder how some famous studies published (like the famous series of studies by Joseph Henrich and others, see managed to explain complex games that take a page to describe in their widely cited publications to nomadic hunter and gatherer groups in the African bush. The appeal of our measure was its elegant simplicity and meaningfulness in a local community context. Yet, it might have been too easy and too transparent for the smart minds of some local people.

Now it is the dawn of day 3. A new day and a gentle breeze that calms the jetlag and insomnia. The debate was settled in the end late last night over some dinner and beer, we are going to use a similarly simple design, focusing on an unknown local entity, a potential Mead’esque faux pax, but the best that can be done within the time constraints of the study and better than other measures. It will be an exciting study nonetheless. 

The meeting last night hammering out the details, nine curious minds bent on making it work, 70 heart rate monitors to be connected to people participating in the ritual, a pre-post design with control groups and a multi-method design to study a fascinating ritual. And best of all – despite over 12 hours of tormenting debates and tiring preparations – the sun is shining, it is nice and warm and the sea is just meters away. 

And most importantly, it will be a fascinating day following new won local friends in their religious quests. The true beauty of field work. 

1 comment:

  1. Mmmmh! sounds vaguely familiar. The last minute hitches, the sea, the sun and lovely locals. Hallmarks of fieldwork in tropical islands stressful yet captivating.