Should non-necessary research go into hibernation during the pandemic?

Should non-necessary research go into hibernation during the pandemic?
Text: Selma Fastrup Lyngsø, Bachelor in International Development Studies
Photo: Magdalena Kula Manchee //

Is your life story worth four sodas at the street cafeteria? I am writing this shortly after having conducted my first online interview with Naeku.

Naeku is sitting on a bench outside the house, the newly green steppe of northern Tanzania behind her. The interview is about how the modernization of Tanzania has affected the semi-nomadic people of the region, the Maasai.

I am currently in the first year of my bachelor’s degree in international de-velopment. International development students usually travel somewhere during the degree to conduct five weeks of field research. Due to the global pandemic we can no longer travel, but we still do the research from home using digital means.

My question is now, have we reduced the role of such research to solely be for our own benefit? How did the Maasai woman that I interviewed benefit the experience?

I asked her some questions, she answered. She got a token of appreciation afterwards in the form of money. All Naeku received was something rooted in the capitalistic system, that was been forced upon her people by colonialists. The same capitalist system that has completely destroyed their traditional way of life.

The Maasai, a semi-nomadic, pastoralist people, flourished in the vast and fertile Great Rift Valley for centuries. Serious threats to the Maasai culture have arisen over the past 75 years, first upon the arrival of European colonial powers, and later in the name of conservation and due to foreign investments which disregarded the Maasai and repeatedly evicted them from their land. The Oakland Institute Think Tank states that the displacements are due to government policy which favors the interests of private operations involved in conservation tourism and wildlife hunting. This has led to a loss of liveli-hood and undernourishment as the Maasai have been driven into smaller and smaller areas. Their settlements have been burned to the ground on numerous occasions.

We should only continue to conduct research if it is possible to do it in an ethical manner.

Arguably, the displacement of indigenous groups such as the Maasai demon-strates extensive and embedded discrimination and constitutes a violation of human rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights guarantees all citizens the right to life which is linked to the right of food, health and shelter; all of which have been undermined in the case of the Maasai.

Over time, environmental conservation has bought with it serious costs for indigenous communities worldwide. There is an immense overlap between traditional indigenous lands and lands that have undergone conservational protection. And in numerous instances land given to governments for conservation has led to agribusiness expansion, the extraction of natural resources, large-scale infrastructure development, illegal logging, and other anti-conservation practices.

Yet studies show that indigenous groups are often superior to governments when it comes to the conservation of land. For centuries, the Maasai have been protectors of the land in the Great Rift Valley and they depend on the thriving of the surrounding ecosystems. They have been observing changes and patterns in their environment for generations; long before the modern conservation movement started. British Zoologist, Marcus Colchester, put it like this: “It is exactly because the areas that indigenous people inhabit have not been degraded by their traditional resource practices that they are now coveted by conservationists who seek to limit their activities or expel them altogether from their customary land.”

We give them four sodas for their life story, their challenges, their viewpoints

When the Germans arrived in Tanzania, they rode through the streets of Arusha on the backs of Maasai. When the British took over Tanzania after World War I, they enforced land rights, something completely unfamiliar to the pastoralists who are dependent on not being locked in one area. They forcibly evicted the Maasai to create parks for themselves where they could go on big game hunts and drive around in scenic nature. They then capitalized these parks.

We pay Naeku for her life story, with the same coin has been taking away her way of life for generations.

I gathered some information through the interview that I am now analyzing – just like a biologist brings home plants to test in the lab. We were suggested to use photos of the informant’s feet as identification – just like a biologist labelling finds. “We give them four sodas for their life story, their challenges, their viewpoints”.

In my opinion field research is always questionable, due to such impersonal approaches, but by reducing the interaction to one hour on Whatsapp, we take away the only aspect that I believe has the opportunity to make this mutually beneficial: the humane, reciprocal sharing of life experience. We must give back what we take. And what we take is life experience.

The ultimate thing people can share with each other is their life experience.

We take people’s life experience and pay them seven Norwegian crowns (2000 Tanzanian shillings). Of course, this is of higher value in Tanzania than in Norway, but you can still only buy four sodas at a street cafeteria for this amount of money. We give them four sodas for their life story, their challenges, their viewpoints. We reduce the value of their life stories to something that sustainably speaking is worth less. And not only worth less. The nature of money is destructive. We thank the people for their life stories with the same thing that for generations has been and continues to be harmful to exactly these life stories. The reason we are conducting the interviews is to shed light on how foreign investors are buying up Maasai land to use for hunting and tourism; they capitalize on the people’s land. But my research is capitalizing on the Maasai’s life stories.

I find this degrading and inhumane.

Photo: David Clode //

In my opinion, for research to be ethical one requirement is that we must give something of similar value back. The closest we get to ethical research is therefore the reciprocal sharing of human experience. This is not completely ethical in itself, as I am the one who chooses to conduct the field work. I choose the situation and can therefore never guarantee complete equality. But even this is no longer possible, and my current field research project is therefore reduced to be of only egocentric value: I do this to get a degree.

I see three ways in which research can be objectively meaningful. Firstly most valuably, if it manages to change something on a larger scale, regional, national or global. Secondly, if it manages to create value on the individual level, for example through the reciprocal sharing of life experiences. And thirdly, it can be meaningful to myself, the person conducting the research.

As my first year’s field research will not be read by many, its value will not be found in its ability to change things on a larger scale. I can never say for sure that the woman I interviewed did not feel that she gained something of value, but I cannot say that what she gained is equal to what she gave me. The only possibility my field research has for creating something of value is therefore the value it creates to my life: I get a degree.

I therefore believe that we should not conduct such research projects while the pandemic is ongoing. We should only continue to conduct research if it is possible to do it in an ethical manner. All other types of research should go into hibernation.

The universities must work to reconstruct their programs. There is a large amount of information online that we can analyze. We can conduct trial interviews with our classmates that can still be beneficial if probably followed up and reflected upon by teachers and fellow students, just as psychology students sit with other psychology students and thereby gain insights into both sides of the therapeutic table. This is how we should be spending the global hibernation state: working with ourselves at home. ■