First Learnings – Reading Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)

Anthropology from late 1940s to 1960s serves a useful starting point to understand how the growing breed of sociologists and anthropologists encountered experiences, people and cultures strikingly different from those which they came from. This could be true in any century, rather more so when the first Portuguese sailors arrived at the western coast of India or when the Dutch merchants disembarked on the eastern coast of India. But the post WW II period is particularly interesting and perhaps the phase when anthropology as a discipline began rising up the ladder of scientific importance and recognition.

The language used to put these cultural encounters into words, methods of observation, analytical understanding, which was largely comparative (us vs. them) – of the studies during this period reveal an exercise in building social understanding in a simple, progressive and incremental. This should be of interest now several decades later, because the current works in social sciences have left such approaches far behind discarding them as too simple.  A critique of methods in anthropology is a longer discussion. The intent here is to share the stunning clarity and analytical knife with which Mead works up her observations and experiences while studying the Pacific communities.  When in doubt about your sense of purpose in doing something, give Margaret Mead a chance to reignite the flickering flame of excitement and writing. One of her works I have immensely enjoyed reading is “Male and Female”. In First Learnings and the entire book she draws from the seven Pacific peoples she lived and worked with – the Samoans, Manus, Arapesh, Mundugumor, Tchambuli, Iatmul and Balinese. These folks in the pacific live by a completely different set of values, norms and practices. The contrast can be so strong that it can potentially throw your mental order and cognition so off balance that one may not find himself any different from those we sent to the mental asylums.

Here is an instance of her clarity as she begins to make sense of practices of the Pacific communities with that of her own – American society in 1950s. She writes,

Civilization depends on an orderly transformation of the primary experiences of childhood into the disciplined symbolism of adult life, in which walking-sticks are decorations of class or individuality, umbrellas keep the rain off, hand-bags contain everything one needs for the day, and the distinctions between food and not food are clear enough to make sword-swallowing an amusing vaudeville turn. Those who have not succeeded in making such transformations go mad, and fill our insane asylums.

She goes on to pen a masterful stroke of explanation of just what these artists, creative types, authoritarian leaders and similar types might be.

Those who keep an easy access to their own early memories but who have also talent and skill become our artists and our actors; those who can combine these early basically human experiences with vision and love of mankind become prophets; those who combine this ready access to early images with hate become dangerous demagogues – Hitlers and Mussolinis.

Mead concerns herself with the transformations that societies force upon themselves – a transformation of primary body experience into culturally approved elaborations. In less elegant words, this blog contest realities is an attempt to think and discuss such realities which seem to be conflicting yet in their own relative orders seem to be just the way the people who devised them want their social, cultural and perceptional order to be.

The paucity of ideas in the current practice in anthropology appears very confined to a few stock methods and approaches to studying society. A delightful passage in her book, looks like a fairly cool imagination of academic research in anthropology today:

Long ago in a New England village one of the villagers received a revelation from God that every one was to do exactly as he wished. Sadly, with exemplary rambunctiousness, the villagers took of their clothes and ran around on all fours like animals, making animal sounds. No one had a better idea.

The other front, on which Mead’s works score very high is the merit of her ideas about social transformation and civilizational trajectories with respect to the interaction between men and women. The problem graduate students today face is that the professors of social sciences and others which have an intersection with anthropology (like legal studies) seem to lack an appreciation for simple, logical and analytically limited methods of study. Papers not too loud on their methods get nothing better than a C or at best a B grade. This rather curious behaviour is making me read these early works with a closer eye. And I find that I can understand as well as appreciate the weight of their findings. Isn’t that an achievement of the author herself? By this I do not mean to cast early works as beyond doubt or criticism. Mead’s observations have been questioned a good deal and greater criticism was made of her inferences. While that goes on, one can at least learn from her style of writing, approach in studying Pacific communities and her extensive recording of field work.




M & E Primer for Development Foot Soldiers

Development sector tends to be ‘expert’ driven. At least so it seems in our little experience consulting in this space. These experts carry out research, set processes in place, jump start initiatives or programs for organizations and other such things which are usually seen as jobs which require considerable expertise. As we have seen here in India, sometimes even seemingly routine activities like monitoring and evaluation (M & E) is done by people from outside the organization who are hired specially for the job. Except external evaluations which require the evaluating individual or team to be a third party, to prevent biases of any sort.

If organizations develop an in-house capability, within their teams to be able to conduct M & E of their own projects then this can have two major benefits – a) saving costs on hiring consultants/experts; b) improved quality of program implementation and outcome. What is being suggested here is that  if those who are implementing a program and also manage it over time are able to conduct small and specific M & E exercises on their own, it would yield significant benefits for the organization. It is these people that I call foot soldiers.

This post shares a simple (and of course limited) template of how project teams can begin to think about M & E in their own programs and offers steps to conduct an evaluation of their own. The concern was shared by the economics professor as well in a lecture on socio-economic analysis. We seemed to agree that this little gap in project teams’ skills can go a long way in driving high quality outcome and learning. He comes with a long experience in consulting aid agencies and large philanthropic foundations. The framework here was presented by him in a lecture this morning. I found it useful because it is application oriented approach.

The framework assumes monitoring and evaluation in a specific sense. Monitoring can be seen under following analytical categories –

  • Impact
  • Outcome
  • Output

Evaluation can have the following objectives –

  • Measure/assess effectiveness: this is to assess significance of the impact that the project set out to achieve
  • Measure/assess efficiency: this is a cost – benefit analysis of the resources used in the project

The framework in Table 1 considers a hypothetical program which aims to reduce Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in an area (village, town etc). We carry out M&E of this project using the framework. It should be noted that the output-outcome-impact and the indicators are linked to each other. One flows from the other. So the project design team should have developed reasonably good explanations for selecting the set of indicators, outcome, output etc that are used in the framework. Indicators that should be a part of the design are considered based on information about the project area, demographics etc.



Until I figure out how to get a table inside wordpress, I will have to use inserted images.

The table is to be read with first row and first column in conjugation. We begin with listing down what is the intended output (or could be multiple), outcome and impact of the program. The next column will include what are the possible indicators to measure each of these row parameters. The next column indicates data sources used to measure the respective indicator. And finally, the last column lists the assumptions that have been made while developing the given indicator. The assumptions are an important aspect because it helps in gaining a clarity on what does the program assumes will work (or will be as given).  I found that when attempted for other programs, this approach helped me gain a sharper understanding of outcomes, indicators and how do measure the indicators.

Some might argue that this is an oversimplified approach to M & E. They would be correct in saying so. But what is suggested here is its use as a diagnostic tool. It is to be an exercise in gaining preliminary understanding and a sense of progress of your program. It sure cannot be a theoretically and academically correct M & E exercise involving recognized methods.


The Fall of a Sparrow – Salim Ali




The Fall of a Sparrow – my current read, is an autobiography of the maverick Indian Ornithologist Dr Salim Ali. He borrows the title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “…there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Striking is the man’s spirit for adventure and passion for studying birds. Birwatching, he writes is one of the most ‘peaceable pursuits of the out-of-doors’. With a field trip to a tiger reserve in BR Hills, I couldn’t agree more. The excitement for him lies in ‘ferreting clues and then following them up step by step to the discovery or confirmation of a fact or facts, of which one has obtained a suspicion or hunch’. Years back we named our startup after the Baya Weaver bird. It was good to know that it was Dr Salim Ali who first came up with the first correct interpretation of the extraordinary breeding biology of the Baya Weaver bird. He attributes this to the time he was ‘living jobless in the seaside cottage’ of a family.

He studied birds of the subcontinent and beyond. He does that from Tibet to Nilgiris down south of India and further to Indochina and onwards to Europe. Then on one of those conferences, he rides all the way to Uppasala, Sweden!

Riding through France, he writes –

“I had ample experience also of some other unlovable traits of the Frenchman- at least the Frenchman of the capital. It happened to me so many times before I decided to quit Paris that I cannot believe it was just individual lack of friendliness and courtesy, but perhaps a crude and deliberate display of the Frenchman’s notorious linguistic chauvinism. Paris was new to me, and in spite of a close study of the city’s road map before I started out each day, when one suddenly came upon a diversion for road repair, it was easy to get completely lost in that maze of streets and boulevards. Unfortunately I speak no French, and every time I pulled up by a pedestrian for help in the politest English I knew, he looked at me, then turned his back and walked away without even pretending to be apologetic.”

Many such delightful accounts and tales of admirable enthusiasm make up this biography. ‘A rattling good read’ as a review said.