New ways of using science

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How important is the skill of listening in research? Plenty. Anyone who attended this week’s International dissemination workshop on ‘Qualitative methods for Research in Socially Inclusive and Sustainable Agricultural Intensification’, organized by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of IIT Kharagpur, could not have missed this obvious conclusion.

The workshop was part of the ongoing research project – “Promoting Socially Inclusive and Sustainable Agricultural Intensification in West Bengal and Bangladesh” or ‘SIAGI’ – sponsored by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Government of Australia.

Director, IIT KGP, talking to Prof. Christian Roth (right) of CSIRO

But the SIAGI team, drawn from Australia, India and Bangladesh (IIT Kharagpur is an integral part of it), attached a rider. It could not be just listening. It had to be what they called ‘ethical community engagement’ or ECE.

ECE is an overarching engagement strategy that the SIAGI team has developed in order to explore and understand how agricultural intensification affects disadvantaged rural communities in villages of West Bengal and Bangladesh, and how it can enable these people to access the benefits of agricultural intensification.

Some of the other key methods and concepts used by SIAGI, such as Theory of Change, Bio-economic modelling, Integrated Assessment Framework for Evaluating Interventions, Inclusive Agricultural Value Chains, Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture and Social Empowerment, were also introduced to the participants of the workshop by speakers from CSIRO (Dr. Christian Roth, Dr. Lilly Lim-Camacho, Dr. Lucy Carter, Dr. Uday Nidumolu), Australian National University (Dr. Wendy Merritt) and Livelihoods and Natural Resources Management Institute (Dr. V. Ratna Reddy).

But it is ECE that clearly lies at the heart of the SIAGI project, and it is ECE that informs the other concepts in SIAGI’s operational framework. The research project has also adopted another unique approach of disseminating the research outcomes to the academia, policy makers and government agencies and community based organizations.

Prof. Roth taking a question from Prof. Jenia Mukherjee, a participant at the workshop

Ms. Michaela Cosjin of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, Australia), which is the lead agency of SIAGI, explained ECE while talking about “Community Engagement and Changing Approach to Collection of Primary Data”: “In SIAGI, we have used a participatory approach. This builds on an approach developed in the late 1980s and we pushed it further so that it is much more based on the ethical principles of respect, dignity, inclusion and ensuring that there is equity between all participants.”

Researchers and experts, typically, go about their research using specialized methodologies that treat people as subjects and themselves as especially endowed experts with special qualifications and credentials capable of exploring and authenticating knowledge. Even in Western models of ethical research practice, the relationship between the researcher and the subject continues to mechanically draw from traditional paradigms set within biomedical contexts.

This often does irreparable harm to research partners. “Participation as research subjects rather than partners automatically triggers a risk averse approach to engagement, which impedes rather than empowers,” says a SIAGI report.

The Australian team with Prof. Pulak Mishra (right) at the workshop

Contrary to this, SIAGI holds the conviction that the community has the potential to understand, analyse and interpret dynamics of knowledge transaction as equal partners. It believes that the community can become a decisive partner and co-creator of knowledge and is able to use this knowledge for transforming and empowering themselves and their situation – which is often defined by others and not by themselves. Communities need to be able to identify what makes them, who they are and how they can change themselves from where they are.

But how to achieve this? This is where listening comes in. “At SIAGI we are embarking on a journey of ethical community engagement, where especially the NGO partners are trained to listen and work with households to create their own unique voice,” said Dr. Christian Roth of CSIRO, who heads the SIAGI project.

At the workshop at IIT Kharagpur on September 16-17, Ms Michaela Cosjin reiterated that inclusive engagement demanded specific skills and attitudes integral to the engagement. It  requires non-judgemental listening and very sophisticated interpersonal skills. It also involved employing qualitative methods, such as listening to stories and scenario analysis, careful thinking and careful planning before going to the community with questions. A flexible monitoring and evaluation process, creating circumstances for co-learning and co-creating with the communities involved is also needed.

Participants at the workshop

ECE has brought results. For example, in Uttar Chakuakheti of Alipurduar district of West Bengal, where two faculty members from IIT Kharagpur – Prof. Pulak Mishra  and Prof. Bhagirath Behera, as well as three PhD students have been actively involved in carrying out the research on agricultural intensification. It is observed that despite initial indifference from the community, persistent engagement by the SIAGI team has helped change the attitude of the tribal community of this village in Alipurduar into active participation and collaboration. The community has been able to intensify agriculture and simultaneously claim due entitlements from the government to establish their rights to land. Community engagement has catalysed the inclusion of farmers –men and women belonging to different socio-economic groups.

Working with NGOs, such as CDHI, PRADAN, and Sushilan (Bangladesh), has been able to gradually and systematically, mobilize and bring on board various stakeholders. The most important manifestation of this mutual trust has been the creation of water and silt management committee with visible representation from the community.

Dr. Christian Roth said, “We wish to take the results outside SIAGI and inform other academicians in Australia, India, Bangladesh, and NGOs so that they can replicate the lessons and practices that NGOs working with SIAGI have developed.” Thrilled to introduce to research scholars at IIT Kharagpur the “new way of using science”, he pointed out that “Qualitative methodologies may not be about numbers but they are a rigorous  scientific method and, in my mind, qualitative and quantitative methods complement each other.”

Prof. Jenia Mukherjee of the Department of Humanities and Social Science of IIT Kharagpur, who was a participant at the workshop, said of its efficacy, “The workshop gave us hands-on training on how to go to the field and talk to the community, not only to involve the community but also to engage it. It taught us about what methods can be used in ethical community engagement so that the legacy of the project goes on for a long time. And that is what is required in social science research…so that we can transcend our theoretical research to action research by deeply involving and engaging the community.”

[As part of SIAGI since its inception in 2016, Prof. Pulak Mishra and Prof. Bhagirath Behera and their team of students have been engaged in economic analysis of value chains, model policy implications, and mapping the institutional landscape of West Bengal]

Graphics : Suman Sutradhar

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