Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Snow and research methods

The snow is gone in Minnesota, at least in our garden.

No recent visits to Uzbekistan to report, and, alas, the Georgia trip planned for the summer I cancelled for want of time and money. (Luckily, there is the Dutch Queen's day to look forward to -April 30th) But we are still in touch with the people in Bonn and Urgench, and, yesterday the last of the Uzbek papers was sent out. At least, the last one of the main pile. Once things are fully accepted, I will share more details, in an attempt at shameless self- promotion.

We wrote on land consolidation, on the shifting roles of knowledge in rural governance, on transformation of organizations in the agro- support system, on the different forms of capital deployed in the ongoing rural transition and on patterns of policy integration.

While working on these papers in the last few months, I realized how much more there is to learn, about past and present in Uzbekistan. Much of the work I was/am involved in, has to do with an ongoing and uncertain restructuring of the rural economy, in a situation under many pressures, economic, environmental, political. Some changes are fast, others slow, some are systematically and consistently implemented, others not, some are emanating from the political center, others not, and all parties involved are cautious and ambiguous.

As to the point of learning, so in fact research method, I felt there are conundrums. No obstacles that are insurmountable, disabling research totally. But still. (ZEF people published a good book where many of them are analyzed: Wall & Mollinga, Fieldwork in difficult environments, LIT, 2008) Just a few observations.

Yes, I should have worked harder on my Russian. And I should have studied more on Uzbekistan itself before going there. But then, my relative ignorance was also helpful, probably made me less suspicious.

Going back, spending more time, talking to more people would be useful. Usually, once embedded in certain circles, it is easier to get better access to more and more people. But then, the opposite is also true. I noticed that too much time spent with a certain type of people made colleagues, superiors and other people wary. Doors opened, but at a certain point they closed again. More time did not translate in more trust and more connections.

Documents could have deepened the analysis. But then, many of those, from Soviet times and later are part of a system where the actual role of documents cannot be read or inferred from the documents themselves, whether one is dealing with policies, laws, scientific publications or maps. Finding a document might take so much time that other aspects of the research suffer, and looking too hard might make people suspicious, might squander precious and scarce social capital.

Without the support of the project and the people in Urgench, my work would have been impossible, without their accumulated experience and without their support and connections. Yet, spending more time there could also be a strain on them, and with the type of investigations I am interested in, they might also incur a 'debt' with many people in their network, just by asking them to talk to me or to find people to talk to me. Interviews are favors, sometimes perceived as risky.

Slower and deeper acquaintance with one community would have been helpful, more time in the village. Indeed, but talking to so many other actors in other places, necessary for the research, would look funny there.

On a positive note: talking to retired people proved very fruitful overall. Also, talking to people who were in similar roles in the Soviet era, brought insight. Looking back, I think risk was everywhere, the risk to be entirely wrong, but research method in environments like Khorezm entails spreading and sharing of risk. And a continuous reflection on such risk management.