Aging, Biology and Attitude

National Geographic magazine’s May, 2013 issue runs an interesting story about long life, health and genetics of aging – “On Being 100” . The article takes the usual course of how genetic research is trying to unravel the mysteries of why some people live over 100 years and more. Not so appealingly, I find that the final goal post of this research is ‘learning how these genes work’ which ‘could help extend life for us all’. I mean, seriously? I thought the obsession with extending life was tapering off. And it takes a cover story like this in Nat Geo or Scientific American or Science to bring it back. Truly, sometimes I feel glad to have made a switch from life sciences to arts. It helps me put those test tubes and microscopes in a much larger perspective than its impression as world changing research.

But, the point of this post is the third word – attitude. It would be a fairly long time when biology would be able to account for this in any manner. Of course there is behaviour studies but that doesn’t quite deal with people’s attitudes in the same spirit in which it unfolds in real life. We could be talking psychology, psychoanalysis and some behavioural biology but an individual’s outlook to life, his habits formed over the years, his attitude and handling of situations in life – I think all this amounts to his well-being and longevity. And this is reflected by a ‘young’ lady covered in this Nat Geo piece – Marion Stehura who is 103 years old.

Marion Stehura, 103 (Image: National Geographic, May, 2013)

Marion Stehura, 103 (Image: National Geographic, May, 2013)

The brief describes her as:

Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Stehura wanted to “do the things boys do,” like play ball and “be rough.” Today, in Hemet, California, she gets a kick out of whistling loud and long in big-box stores when she shops with son John; it’s the way she used to call her sons home when they were young. Riding an electric cart provided by the store, she brags. “My whistle could blow this place to pieces.”

It probably can! If not her whistle, her attitude sure blows apart the general notions people carry about their lives. I strongly believe that self-preservation beyond the limits of disease and ailments is a poor channelization of human beings’ creative abilities. Probably, even she wouldn’t know what makes her go past 100 and still live at 103. Nor do I think her genetic constitution can be a reasonable answer.

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.

Field Notes from Kuppam- I


First in series is this ongoing field research (a descriptive sort) that I am doing with a team in Kuppam, a town near Bangalore. A detailed write up got to wait for a later time. Meanwhile, here is a short slidedeck about it (and this is team work).

(Updated on 07/11/12. An excerpt from the field report)

My team has been interested in experiencing the multi-layered interactions – law, livelihoods, rights and assertion of spaces, which play out in everyday life in India. A simpler question that we posed from an experiential point of view was “how does it feel to earn a livelihood selling wares on the streets or on trains?” and how do such apparently “insecure”, “uncertain” livelihoods exist in hundreds of towns across the country. A nearer case was that of hawkers on trains which our team had often noticed. This in a way gave us a ready ground to go out, experience and have a close quarter look at these individuals who haven’t probably meant much to people other than providing a service which again not many seem to care for. It is an early experiment in conducting a quick backyard variety of anthropological study. We were cognizant of the requirement that this exercise of field immersion required us to do. And in that vein, we only see ourselves furthering the goals and improving the potential outcomes of such an activity so that it is rewarding for us individually as well apart from serving the academic requirement.
The contested space as we see is located between the Indian Railways as an institution, which is asserting its right over property and hawkers who flout this property right every day to earn their livelihood. It was a conscious decision to venture out and strike alliances with the people on our own. Any mediation (via NGO, activists etc) we reasoned might dilute the nature of our experience and desire to test if we can take a green field approach and execute it or not. We focussed on the hawkers on the Bangalore-Chennai section of Southern Railways.

The hypothesis with which we begin with is:

  • Is criminalization of an act of plying livelihood on trains just? What are the underlying determinants of such a relationship?
  • Who are the claimants of this system?
  • What IS the nature of access rights in this form of livelihood?