This blog features information related to Asian Studies at GW. If you’re a student who’s gotten a job or internship, won an award, published a paper, won a fellowship or traveled someplace interesting, we want to know! We will also feature information about grants and fellowships you can apply for, jobs, internships, and relevant events in town, as well as information about courses, the Asian Studies program, and our faculty.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Sigur Center Grant for Field Research Summer 2012: Girls' Education in Rural India
The most important lesson gained
from my recent Qualitative Research Methods course is that all researchers must
own their subjectivity. Regardless of qualitative, quantitative, or mixed
method designs, your motivations, beliefs, and opinions will color your study
to some degree. Our professor encouraged us to reflect on these issues
throughout the semester, and it was a very worthwhile exercise. However, it is
something that I continue to struggle with during my research here in India,
particularly with regard to cultural differences.
I am navigating an ambiguous
boundary between cultural outsider and insider. My heritage is not Indian, but
I have gained insight into the country’s culture and traditions through
interactions with my Indian-born husband and his family. My mother-in-law’s strong
desire for me to learn her native language, Tulu, has resulted in hours of
study with flashcards and audio-recordings and the acquisition of key phrases.
In addition, I’ve been taught to respectfully address all Indian people older
than myself as “Auntie”, “Uncle”, “Anna” (brother), and “Akka” (sister),
regardless of our actual familial connection, and am cognizant of using my
right hand to handle money, hold books, and touch food.
While I am certainly no expert, in
the United States, I am often engaged in discussions about India, whether with
a stranger discussing my ungila wedding
ring (the traditional ring of my husband’s community) or explaining my marriage
to South Asians who inquire about my Indian last name. These conversations
inevitably lead to questions about my travels to India, of which there have
been none. Until now.
And the first thing I realized when
I stepped off the plane is that I truly know very little about this country
which has a mind-boggling diversity of religions, customs, languages, and food.
It was also immediately obvious that I will be viewed by everyone here as an
outsider, a ‘foreigner’. Whatever confidence I had in my ability to blend in
disappears as I struggle to roll my r’s when announcing my desired destination
to the bus conductor or fumble awkwardly when dancing to Bollywood songs with girls
at the schools that I’ve been researching. There have also been numerous
embarrassing moments as I attempt to eat rice and sambar using only my right
hand, often watched by an audience of people curious to see how Americans eat
and whether I can handle the spices.
All efforts to explain my connection
are met with confusion or hilarity, as in the case of a school administrator
who literally fell off her chair in fits of laughter when my husband’s cousin
called me his auntie-in-law, or disapproval, like the man at the flour shop
yesterday who tsk-tsked as our other cousin explained why she was with an
American. Strangers approach me at every tourist attraction, and even local
government offices, to request photos with me. It will be a long time before the
memory of my time at the Mysore Palace fades, as I spent 15 minutes in a
photo-shoot with a family of 20 people who expressed such excitement that I
could not deny them a few minutes of my time.
While I have travelled
internationally in the past, this is my first time spending an extended period
in areas where few foreigners have ventured, and my first experience collecting
data in such a context. Of course, I have taken measures to ensure that my data
collection and analysis is overseen by individuals who are intimately familiar
with these locations and their cultural practices, but I cannot erase the
feeling that perhaps it is inappropriate to do research out of one’s own
culture. The thought of “Othering” my research sites and participants concerns
me to a great extent.
Beyond the language barrier (many of
my participants speak Kannada, and I do not), this doubt has been most apparent
during classroom observations. The Indian education system differs in several
significant ways from the U.S. system. Numerous journal articles and books
illustrate this clearly. However, it is challenging to witness these
differences firsthand, while reserving judgment based on comparisons to the
U.S. and other western nations. My first observation of corporal punishment in
the classroom, for example, shocked me, and I intensively recorded the
interaction in my observation notes. The same event was recorded by my local
guide/interpreter as, simply, “typical behavior correction- teacher lightly
tapped student on her back.”
I’m not convinced that I will be
able to represent my participants as fairly or objectively as I wish, but
perhaps this is the case with every study. Even my local guides have struggled
during observations of non-formal education programs, as they have been raised
in the formal education system. In the end, I think it is a Catch-22-like
situation: one must have understanding to do the research, but one can only
truly understand by doing the research. It is a seemingly never-ending balancing act.
M.A. International Education, 2013 Sigur Center 2012 Field Research
Fellow Karnataka, India