The Importance of Contributing during Anthropological Research

Florence Scialom just got back from Totnes (UK) where she conducted her MA fieldwork. Her research is on whether those focused on building stronger local economies are rejecting growth as a sign of progress. She argues that researchers have a responsibility to reach beyond their own research interests wherever possible, and give back to the communities in which they do their fieldwork. She wrote the following blog. Florence Scialom

Anthropologists are well aware of the importance of participation; one of the primary research methods used in the field is participant observation. However, it was only during my own fieldwork that I experienced how important it can be not only to participate, but to actively contribute during research. The difference is subtle, but whilst the main aim of participation is to understand a research population in academic terms, I see the aim of contribution is to have a positive impact on a research population in social terms.

I am currently studying at Leiden for my Masters in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, and I recently undertook three months independent research in a small English town called Totnes. My research is based on whether those focused on building stronger local economies are rejecting economic growth as a sign of progress, and if so what kinds of alternative measures of progress are emerging.

Totnes stood out as a suitable research site because it is where the Transition movement started. Transition supports “community-led responses 
to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, whilst building resilience and happiness”. Transition Town Totnes has lots of projects and activities which seek to move away from an incessant focus on economic growth for growth’s sake. Instead they seek to strengthen local economies and improve community resilience by lessening reliance on non-renewable resources.

Due to the huge popularity of the Transition movement, many other researchers have previously wanted to find out more about the vibrant Totnes community. Unfortunately not all researchers have been able to make a positive contribution; some have tried to participate without offering to contribute at all, leaving many in Totnes skeptical of researchers.  The Transition Network website explains this perspective follows: “research is often undertaken as an extractive process with minimal benefit given back to the subject(s) being researched”.

I was keen to avoid being this kind of researcher myself, and therefore I focused on contributing to the community in as many ways as possible during my fieldwork. I did an internship with a new Totnes-based project called the Network of Wellbeing, and I volunteered to help out various other local projects, some related to Transition and others not. These projects included the Local Entrepreneur Forum, Skill Shares, Incredible Edible, and a Soup evening at the Local Children’s Centre. I also helped with reflecting on all of these experiences as a researcher by contributing to the Transition Research Primer, which aims to provide those involved in Transition projects with a guide on how they can work productively together with those researchers who are keen to contribute.

Florence ScialomMuch of this activity was useful participation for my research in some way, but beyond that it helped me to feel like a valued member of the Totnes community during my fieldwork. I think that anthropologists have a responsibility to try to reach beyond their own research interests wherever possible, and give back to the communities in which they do their fieldwork. I am not saying this is always possible; in some fieldwork contribution would not be suitable given the context of the research. Nor am I saying that where it is possible it’s easy, or that I was able to contribute perfectly. What I am saying is I wish I had prioritised this aspect of my research before I arrived so that I could have been more prepared to try to contribute as much as possible.

Of course this distinction – between the academic and social/ societal impact of my research – was highlighted to me before I left for the field. Yet it was always emphasised that the academic should be the priority over the societal. Whereas, based on my own research experience, I think that the academic and societal impact should be considered on much more equal terms.”

By Florence Scialom

Other posts written by Florence during her research include:

Hungry for Change? Transitioning to Local Food Supplies

Reclaiming power over our food systems: Inspirational talk from Vandana Shiva

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