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.


A methodological note on field work & research

A woman draws water from a beri (a traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan

A woman draws water from a beri (traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan. Image: Praveena Sridhar

On conducting research in development sector and doing field work it appears that there are divergent views on how a question of interest (enquiry) should be pursued. These academic concerns – epistemological and ontological, were clearly unknown to us in our comapny where we have done contract research for small businesses, funding agencies and NGOs. We had a question, we had an agreed structure of enquiry and then we proceeded to the field to find out whats going on and we sought observations guided by our pre-decided structure. At one level it appeared intuitive to us. Of course, it requires domain knowledge and prior experience in that field of research but then that is all. We did have it. Also that we have persistently worked on it over the years.

The findings we came out with and the reports we developed during these research assignments always seemed to find acceptance with the client and was done to the client’s satisfaction. A testimony of this fact is that our company has grown solely on word of mouth and our image as well meaning, ethical researchers with a good value for money proposition. In our humble opinion we are just another cog in the wheel who try to do their job and learn from every single one of them.

This idea of ‘applied’ work (that we thought we were doing fairly well) complicated as one of us (I) entered academics. I am attending a course on research methods to take the quality of our work in our business to the next level. This next level we see as a widening of scope, depth and offer greater value to the clients in terms of insights and actionable knowledge.

In conducting academic research projects the knowledge framework, methods and final use perspective of the research are divergent from how one may conduct research in business. I am not entirely sure if the divergence that I am noticing here is universal or it is merely coincidental that we in our company have operated differently! Here is an instance –

In March 2012, we documented a small NGO’s work on using traditional methods of harvesting water in desert regions of Rajasthan, India. This NGO felt that it had a rather unique approach where it was not organizing the water scarcity affected community by using any external or ‘western’ approach of implementing projects but work with the community to mobilize them, drawing on their own, inherent societal values. There are no ‘timelines’ and no ‘plans’ in such mode of operation. In some ways this was a very fuzzy and unclear mode of working for an observer outside of the cultural and social realm of the people living in these deserts regions of Rajasthan.  The organization now wanted this work documented because they had been successful in helping the people of the villages in this region to address their own water security by reviving the traditional water harvesting structures that have existed in the region for centuries. They felt this approach should be shared with a wider network of organizations and that they too could draw some learning from this experience.

We toured the region for over three weeks and actively observed the deliberative process and village meetings that happened between people. The staff at the NGO also constituted our subject of enquiry as their motivations mattered to the outcome of this NGO’s endeavour.  The report was prepared and the NGO as well as its funding partner find it articulate and insightful, for now they had an identified process in place which could be shared with organizations. In short, they felt it was a practical guide to working in revival of traditional water harvesting systems.

When I presented the same study (in greater detail) to a group of academic researchers, I was questioned on the ‘knowledge constructs’ and ‘implicit assumption’ that our approach carried. No objection that we would like to raise to such questions of theoretical merit but we would like to ask ‘whats the point?’ . Too many good quality studies which actually help organizations benefit from clearly identifiable method to accomplish a change or implement a project are criticized on their epistemological considerations. While for a larger pursuit such questions may be of value and many a times they are (like they say ‘some research questions should have never been asked’ as in case of scoring human intelligence (IQ)). But in development sector it would perhaps be equally important not to score a research study only and primarily on theoretical basis. Examples of such theoretical, hard to identify what is being said and what was the point kind of research abound in academics.

Bottom line: There is a dire need of applied and practical variety of research as well, which serves the interested of NGOs who seek understanding and implementation knowledge of development issues and workable solutions to them.