Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field
Nineteen Harvard College students received summer 2012 travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in August, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research environment. Early in the 2013 spring semester, the students will present their research in a conference (February 7–9, 2013) that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field:
From January to May, I worked in Cairo, Egypt, as a legal assistant at a non-profit law firm dedicated to helping Egypt’s refugee population. My time assisting impoverished refugees in Egypt fostered an interest in Egypt’s economic policies in the contemporary era. After receiving a grant from Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, I returned to Egypt during the summer months to conduct thesis research. My thesis analyzes Egyptian political and economic history of the past twenty years. It intends to prove the following: Egypt’s political elite made a calculated gamble in the period from 2002 to 2005 to manipulate the tenets of international free-market economic development to entrench their political position. However, their reforms exacerbated income inequalities and weakened government accountability to social ills, unintentionally creating an environment ripe for revolution.
For a twenty-year-old, I was fortunate to obtain excellent access to many of Egypt’s top political figures. As Egypt’s first-ever legitimate presidential election was happening, I interviewed nearly thirty individuals to test my hypothesis. The interview subjects ranged from politicians, like presidential candidates Amr Mousa and Ayman Nour, to labor activists, like Ahmed Meher, to renowned Egyptian economists, prominent union leaders, and journalists. Benefiting from my knowledge of the Egyptian dialect, I interviewed some of these figures entirely in Arabic without the aid of an interpreter.
In a few important regards my thesis topic evolved as I conducted my interviews. My original thesis topic was to understand the deep economic networks between the state (including the military) and the economic sphere. I sought to address how those networks developed over the last decade and how international institutions like the IMF and multi-national corporations prevented or assisted in the formation of this marriage of political and economic interests.
Most elements of this intended thesis subject did not change. Because Egypt’s political elite drastically shifted their stance on the economy during the period from 2002 to 2005, I continued to focus on the last decade. However, I also chose to analyze Egypt’s economic policies and political structures of the previous decade from 1991 to 2002. Also, owing to the ongoing revolution and concerns about my personal safety, I specifically decided not to include the military’s economic benefits within my interview questions. Similarly, I planned to analyze the period following the January 25, 2011, uprising. Through my studies and interviews I quickly realized not only the challenges of studying ongoing events, but also that asking those questions could be potentially dangerous.
Frankly, I learned more valuable lessons during my seven months in Egypt than I learned in the previous two-and-a-half years at Harvard. My time as a thesis researcher provided both a sense of academic accomplishment and an aspiration to live an adventurous and fulfilling life.
This summer, with the support of the Weatherhead Center, I traveled to South Africa to interview stakeholders involved in the government’s response to climate change. My time in South Africa widened my perspectives on the economics of climate change, and the world more generally, in ways that I did not expect but for which I am deeply grateful.
When I arrived in Johannesburg, I encountered what proved to be an endless stream of good luck. My first few interviewees referred me to their friends and colleagues and I gained access to a wide range of leaders in government, civil society, business, and academia. Between January and my return trip in August, I met with more than fifty people willing to discuss the policy debate: top government officials concerned with managing agency capacity and the nation’s vast mineral wealth; mining and industry executives mapping out plans for carbon-constrained investments; economists and scientists devising models for government contracts; engineers describing South Africa’s electricity grid or opportunities for renewable energy with contagious enthusiasm; and activists working towards new paradigms of environmental justice.
The places I had the chance to visit in the course of my research also gave me a material and visual sense of climate politics and policy. The electric-fenced corporate headquarters of major mining firms in Johannesburg and the World Bank; the vast office complex home to 30,000 employees of the state-owned electricity utility, Eskom; and the towering campus-home to the former state-owned chemical company, Sasol, impressed upon me the centrality of coaldriven development to South African economic history.
I also walked through Pretoria to interview stakeholders at the National Treasury, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Environmental Affairs—all buildings that used to house the apartheid government. Towards the end of my visit, one of my interviewees invited me to Parliament’s release of a landmark planning document intended to map out South Africa’s future to 2030, where I saw President Zuma endorse the document and the subsequent parliamentary debates. These visits made it impossible for me to separate South African climate policy from the legacy of apartheid and the country’s recent democratization.
I visited the economics departments at South Africa’s major universities: the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria, and the University of the Witwatersrand. I also visited the offices of private environmental and economic consulting firms and the campus of the Council on Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the apartheid government’s major hub for research and development. In particular, I had the chance to spend some time at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Center (ERC)—a central part of South African climate change economics and policy research. Attending research seminars and talking with ERC researchers forced me to think harder about the ways in which universities participate in public life and decision making. It also allowed me to discuss my preliminary research with experts in the field.
My motivation to travel to South Africa derives from the fact that the country faces an especially tricky balancing act when it comes to climate change. As the world’s most coal-dependent economy, with severe unemployment and a legacy of energy-intensive mining and industry, South Africa faces steep costs to climate mitigation. Stopping global warming will depend on the choices made by developing countries like South Africa to balance the dual imperatives of economic growth and carbon pollution reductions. In particular, my thesis aims to answer a single question: What arguments dominate the South African government’s climate change strategy in the energy sector, and why? I had hoped to isolate “economic science” as a contributor—materially (with models and empirical research) and conceptually (as a framing device)—relative to other arguments rooted in climate science, politics, ethics, business, or risk aversion. But as I talked with stakeholders, I realized that separating economic arguments from other arguments is more difficult in government than in a university.
In particular, the conversations I had with stakeholders taught me that we need not only good ideas but also people with the vision, willingness, and diplomatic skill to apply them. It helped me to see how solving climate change requires intellectual resources to define sets of economically viable futures and political resources—the endless conversations, negotiations, and debates—that can help us provisionally to select between them. I left South Africa with tremendous respect for the country—inspired by the honesty, energy, and kindness that I encountered in many of the people who opened their doors for me.
While talking with South African economists, government leaders, and activists, I learned more about the dense networks of people, ideas, and objects that structure the field for climate mitigation than I could have envisioned from my laptop in Cambridge. I look forward to taking what I learned to write my thesis.
“So how long will you be here?” asked another member of my new family, the Hmong American host family I would be staying with for the next eight weeks. It was the first time in three years that I had returned to my home state of Minnesota during the summer. I aimed to develop an understanding of the ways in which Hmong American young adults make healthcare decisions. The Hmong American community tends to be private, and I wondered if I would find enough interviewees, engage adequately with community members to really do ethnography, or ever truly feel at home with my host family.
Eight weeks later, at the close of the summer, I had conducted sixty-six interviews and attended an intergenerational Hmong women’s retreat, a Hmong breast cancer awareness forum, a funeral, three weddings, two birthday parties, five services at two Hmong churches, and a shamanic blessing ceremony—always with my host family or other Hmong American friends I had embarked on my research with pregnancy and mental health as topical starting points and the concepts of “cultural competency,” “popular, professional, and folk sectors” of healthcare, and “local moral worlds” as theoretical starting points. With assistance from the Hmong Cultural Center, Hmong Women Achieving Together, the Lao Family Community, and a variety of Hmong American friends and contacts, I was able to interview Hmong American young adults seeking healthcare, their family members and friends, Hmong physicians, Caucasian physicians predominantly seeing Hmong patients, interpreters, social workers, acupuncturists, herbalists, shamans, and community leaders. Across these interviews, the research developed into a broader exploration of the historical, social, economic, political, and, as many interviewees mentioned, “cultural” influences on the healthcare decisions of Hmong American young adults.
I have been working to transform the enormous amount of data and experience I have accumulated into a comprehensive outline for my thesis. A miniature library of Hmong books and a towering stack of research papers, pamphlets, and articles sit willing to assist. I have discussed my initial findings with some of my final interviewees and with other Hmong American individuals who have also reflected deeply on the issues I have engaged with in research. The “local moral worlds” concept effectively serves to replace a concept of “culture” that is too constrained and isolated to reflect the enormous diversity of perspectives and situations of Hmong American young adults in St. Paul and the ways in which the Hmong have adapted to change in their environments over time.
I realize now that my background enables me more effectively to orient my research toward contributions to health policy, health program development, and medical practice. Growing up blocks away from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the worldview I held since childhood was largely biomedical. As I engaged more deeply with the sciences in my pre-medical coursework, my worldview became dominated by the biomedical perspective, to the near exclusion of a spiritual perspective. Now, after conducting my field research, I recognize some common assumptions in American society and among healthcare professionals that impede interactions between providers and many Hmong Americans who are relatively unfamiliar with modern medicine and do not give the same authority to medical professionals as most Americans do. The melting-pot ideology assumes that newcomers will smoothly integrate into American society, adopting typical beliefs and practices, but our society is not yet equipped to adequately assist refugees who arrive without English language skills or a background of interaction with similar work, social services, and healthcare institutions.
A particularly problematic assumption I encountered is that if a person speaks English fluently and has education and work similar to his or her peers, then that person will also have a worldview that coincides with the worldviews of his or her peers. This assumption seems especially dominant among medical professionals. Most of the Hmong American young adults I interviewed, however—whether they identified as animist, Christian, both, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist—had some views on illness causation and treatment that differed markedly from biomedical views. Of these persons who spoke English fluently and most often had at least some college education, many explained that they preferred to seek herbal or spiritual remedies rather than visit the doctor when illness arose. Church- and clan-based communication networks, patriarchal and group-based decision- making processes, spiritual explanations for illnesses, and instances of perceived and actual racial discrimination notably influence the healthcare decisions of the younger generation.
I recognize that, through well over 100 hours of conversations with Hmong Americans, I can now acknowledge the powerful interlinkages between mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health and the real structural violence that operates on underprivileged minority groups in our society, even in healthcare systems I once believed provided high-quality care to all.
With my understanding of the challenges that the Hmong and other refugee populations have faced in seeking healthcare in the United States, I plan to pursue further studies in healthcare disparities and healthcare delivery. I plan to work in healthcare policy, management, and program development as I practice medicine, angling my Global Health and Health Policy secondary concentration more towards the local.
This summer, I conducted research in Toronto, Canada, on the effect of housing conditions on the quality of life of recent immigrants. In addition to maturing me as an academic researcher, the experience showed me a beautifully vibrant side of my hometown that I have never seen in such depth before. The lessons I learned were personal, substantive, and methodological—a few of which I will detail below.
When I initially entered the field in May, I expected things to come together a lot more easily and quickly than they did. Toronto was, after all, my hometown and I thought that would give me an edge in simply getting around town, and more importantly, approaching community leaders to lend me a hand. I soon realized I should have cultivated key contacts in my field sites before I arrived in the city, seeing as these relationships were highly dependent on trust and credibility— in other words, they took time to incubate. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to encounter individuals who volunteered to connect me with members of the communities I was studying.
The subsequent lesson I learned was to beware of research fatigue. Owing to their notoriety as low-income, high-crime neighborhoods in a relatively peaceful city, both of my field sites have been heavily researched by local scholars and institutes. However, I was told that most of these researchers never report their findings to those whom they have interviewed, or to those who have helped them in their projects. As a result, many community leaders and members were quite skeptical toward my presence in the field sites, and getting them to warm up to me took a lot of time and intentional effort. I had to reassure everyone I met that they would hear back from me after the completion of my project and that I would use it to give back to these neighborhoods however I could.
Lastly, I discovered the importance of saying “yes.” Since scheduling interviews is dependent on the availability of both the interviewer and the interviewee, taking advantage of people’s free time was essential. Throughout my time in the field, I practiced recognizing opportunities to obtain unique information, as well as catching people on the spot to capture memorable moments. Since my interviews were qualitative and very conversational in nature, I had to think on my feet and read my subjects before, during, and after the recorded interview. I learned to say “yes” to hospitable people who invited me to walk around the neighborhood with them, and welcomed me into their homes and gardens—saying “yes” helped me add relevant ethnographic elements to paint a more dynamic picture of these communities. My interaction with the people I met gave life to every interview, and seeing them live and work in their neighborhoods was a reward in and of itself.
I am in the process of transcribing interviews and reviewing field notes. I will continue to look for recurring themes and begin to summarize my findings soon. I am also taking courses to supplement my analysis, such as a mapping class that would allow me to represent my research spatially. As I complete my senior thesis this year, I look forward to giving back to the communities that supported me throughout the summer and hope to maintain relationships with the wonderful people I met in a city that seems like home to me now more than ever before.