By Joern Fischer
“I can’t afford to buy pencils for my daughter, who needs them for school.” – This was the response by a woman in our study area in the SW of Ethiopia when asked about her biggest challenges. The SW is one of the most food-secure parts of Ethiopia, and yet, by international standards, many people in this part of the country live in severe poverty, and are afraid of food insecurity in most years.
For me, engaging with issues of poverty first-hand stirs up a potent mix of strong emotions, including empathy, hurt, anger, impotence, and a sense of shame. It hurts to see people who deserve a good life have fundamentally worse access to things that I take for granted – material safety, schools, doctors. It makes me angry that the world is full of poverty, and yet, in the rich nations we still fiddle around the edges, and by and large, are happy to exploit the poverty of others to make our lives yet more comfortable. I feel a sense of impotence by not knowing what to do about it, and a sense of shame that I will be publishing research on these issues, yet I cannot help very well in tangible terms.
How can a researcher navigate such feelings? This question is work-in-progress for me, in the sense that I’m far better at offering a theory for this than living it in practice. My current understanding is that all of these feelings are worth experiencing. But being caught in them achieves nothing, and so they should be noted, but then left to settle. Caught up in strong emotions, we don’t function well as researchers, and both our science and potential to have real-world impact will suffer.
Ultimately, then, when the strong feelings have settled, they can turn into motivation: Motivation to question one’s research, frame problems in ways that are relevant to the “subjects” being studied, and motivation to generate impact. Impact, in this context, is likely to be diffuse. As researchers, we generate an understanding of complex challenges – we can’t single-handedly implement solutions, especially not in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to ideal-typical transdisciplinary research. Yet, even when it’s difficult, we can think about how to best engage a variety of different stakeholders so that we can be of use not only to the international scientific community but also to the stakeholders in the system under investigation.
I wrote about poverty in the above, but the same is true for other normative research endeavours. If I care about conservation, it hurts to see landscapes cleared of forest. If I care about climate change, it hurts to see policy failures. I argue that engaging with these feelings, and reflecting on them, is important to channel our energy wisely – to prioritise where to work, what to work on, and how to work on it.
PS: Why did I write this post? Because I figured I’m probably not the only person struggling with these issues; and because it’s the kind of thing that is not being talked about in (most) scientific papers. Yet, the context of science is just as important in shaping our science as the intellectual questions we are so much more used to debating.