I have done research on peasant agriculture in Colombia for over 8 years now. In one project, I studied farmer decision-making to explain why peasants were adopting pesticide use patterns that were uneconomical and dangerous for their own health and for the environment. In a second project, I studied traditional informal institutions that were seemingly hindering, rather than supporting, adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations. These studies have led me to carry out fieldwork in two peasant communities in the Department of Boyacá, in the Eastern Andean Cordillera. Over 8 years I conducted a total of 5 fieldwork campaigns, each campaign requiring a stay of 4 to 10 weeks.
To conduct fieldwork in this region has been challenging in many ways, but the biggest challenge has been to engage with local peasants on equal footing.
When visiting households for face-to-face interviews, or in focus groups, I was initially surprised to hear myself called ingeniero (engineer) by the local peasants. People participating in my research would also respond to most of my questions with default affirmative answers such as “Si, ingeniero”, or “Si señor” (Yes, engineer; Yes sir). I soon learned that this is a quite common manner of interaction adopted by local peasants when interacting with supposed ‘experts’ (for example government officials and extension agents) coming from outside the local community. So, by calling me ingeniero the people participating in my research were manifesting their deference and respect for the scientific knowledge that I held and which, they thought, I must have considered superior to their experiential knowledge. But there is something subtler to it; this deferential and slightly submissive attitude is not quite what it seems. In fact, peasants most often believe they know farming better than ‘experts’, but tend to rehearse such deference to avoid gainsaying the experts, and to show instead –at least officially- that they comply with and accept the expert’s opinions or recommendations. To the British reader, this may bring back memories of the “Yes minister” TV series. Similarly to the sly bureaucrat in the TV series, in practice, peasants’ reverence hides practices of everyday resistance that include telling lies, incompliance with laws, and refusal to participate in communal schemes and projects. This attitude has been explained by various scholars (for example Orlando Fals-Borda) as being the legacy of centuries of colonial and post-colonial exploitation of peasants. In effect, it can be interpreted as a protective strategy adopted by marginal groups against the oppression and exploitation of more powerful actors (see for example the great “Weapons of the weak” by James Scott).
This was clearly a problem for my research. I wanted participants to engage in truthful conversations with me. It was not my aim to influence farming practices, and even less so to make recommendations to peasants, on the basis of what they thought I would consider my ‘expert’ knowledge, regarding their crops. For instance, regarding pesticide use or measures to adapt to increase climatic variability. In fact, these were exactly the things I wanted to understand from them, to make sense of the decision-making resulting in dangerous pesticide use patterns, and informal institutions seemingly hindering adaptation to external disturbances such as climate and market fluctuations.
Therefore, if I were to make sense of the social reality of those peasant communities, I needed to break open the protective layer that peasants were interposing between us. After more than 8 years of experience in the field, I can say that I have made significant progress in engaging Colombian peasants on more equal footing. This has not been easy, and if I’ve seen some success, it is only thanks to a long and continuing negotiation of my identity as a researcher in the field. In short, that is what I have learned:
– Written consent raises suspicions. Unsurprisingly, research participants often do not to understand the mechanisms researchers need to follow to fulfil ethical guidelines and best practices. Peasants tended to be very suspicious of anyone asking for a signature on any sheet of paper (i.e., their consent to participate in the research), as in their experience, there is only one category of people who does this, and by definition they are to be avoided: tax officers! Moreover, many peasants in the communities that I studied can barely read and write, and therefore dealing with written consent forms may cause some discomfort. Thus, I had to find other ways to record the consent to participate in my research (e.g., via a voice recorder).
– Technology is a barrier. It can be tempting to aid the data collection with various devices (hand held data capture devices, GPS, tablets, and so on). Technology can indeed be very helpful and increase the efficiency of data collection and processing. However, such devices reinforce the divide between the ‘expert’ and the laymen and women who are hardly familiar with such devices and may potentially be seeing them for the first time. Thus, whenever possible I used the simplest technology possible: pen and paper (and voice recorder). This resulted in more demanding data processing for me and my research assistants, but the trade off was higher data quality and enhanced personal connection with the participants.
– Looking and behaving like an ingeniero is counterproductive. The ‘experts’ who visit the community usually move around by car, dress smart casual (even in the field!), talk jargon and are sometimes very dismissive of peasants. I avoided doing these things and travelled by public (and often erratic!) transport and by foot rather than by private car (which also helps in getting to know people and getting a better feel of the place); dressed in more causal outfit (which is also more practical if you have to trek to get to the sparse households in these communities); avoided using difficult or technical terms (well, that was easy for me given my less than perfect Spanish); and, very importantly, did not fall into the trap of telling peasants what they should do, even–and especially–if they asked me.
– Time is crucial. First, the ingenieros normally do not take the time to understand the context, and do not spend much time with the local people, but rather work through short one-off visits. Peasants in one of the two communities where I conducted research were very surprised when they saw me come back the year after my first fieldwork. Second, it simply takes time to build trust and relationships. Peasants were sharing a wealth of experiences and information with me, but they were also curious about my trip, my origin and, of course, about agriculture in Europe.
– (Following from the above) Build relationships. As much as I could, the people I met and who participated in my research were not simply research ‘participants’. I had food at their place, sent them cards from Europe, helped them clean the local primary school, exchanged stories and experiences. Far from being a distraction from data collection, these things made fieldwork much more enjoyable and helped me understand them on a personal level rather than as simply ‘data’ for my research.
Finally, and giving meaning to all the above, what helped me to reach more equal engagement with Colombian peasants was an honest, sincere, open, sensitive and empathic approach to fieldwork. Without this, any of the above pieces of advice would be purely instrumental. Peasants, like anybody participating in research, feel the researcher’s honesty, sincerity, respect and enjoyment (or lack thereof) and in my experience, this has been the single most important ingredient for fruitfully engaging with Colombian peasants on more equal footing. Fieldwork is what makes research alive. It can change the researcher’s, as well as the participants’ life for the better beyond the impact that the research may, or may not, have. This change happens because fieldwork is more than mechanical data collection. For a researcher, fieldwork is about becoming part of other places and people’s life, and letting them become part of one’s own.
About today’s blogger: Giuseppe Feola
Giuseppe is interested in understanding the dynamics of change in coupled human and natural systems and to explore the social and social-ecological change required for a transition towards sustainability. His research is interdisciplinary and combines theoretical advancement and practical application. Giuseppe has got a particular, but not exclusive, interest in the Andean region in Latin America.
His areas of interest include:
- The dynamics of coupled socio-cultural and environmental change
- Grassroots innovations for sustainability
- Understanding the behaviour of social actors in coupled human-environmental systems
- Sustainability assessment