Strangers in strange lands

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McGill Reporter
January 11, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 08
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > January 11, 2001 > Strangers in strange lands

Slice of life:
Strangers in strange lands

What sets McGill apart from other universities? One of the first things that comes to mind is the University's international orientation.

We send our researchers to the four corners of the planet to study all sorts of people, places and things.

Pursuing research in other lands and interacting with the people who live there poses a variety of challenges. Malaria shots, lost luggage and unexpected culinary revelations (I'm eating what?!), for instance.

There are other twists and turns to be navigated. Alienate the people you hope to study, or offend your prospective research partners there -- the people with the contacts you need to get started -- and you risk seeing months of preparatory work go up in flames.

Seasoned veterans of research conducted in other countries offer the following advice: establish solid contacts in the country you're going to well before you leave; be flexible about how you do your research once you get there; and do a lot more listening than talking when you embark on your project.

"Ask questions, don't make statements. I grew up in a developing country so I knew more than most Canadians [about other cultures]. Even so, I made a mess of blunders," says biology professor Amanda Vincent.

"You can't just take a topic that interests you, go abroad and expect it's going to be a perfect fit. You have to be ready to make adjustments," says Dr. Charles Larson, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

The conditions you find in another country often don't meet the expectations you had before you left McGill. And unexpected events can knock you off course.

"If there is a malaria outbreak in the country, the people you hoped to work with suddenly have more important things to worry about than what you want to do," notes dietetics and human nutrition professor Timothy Johns, who has done research in Africa and South America.

Larson led a multi-year McGill health care project in Ethiopia in the 1990s and now plays a major role in a Chelyabinsk-McGill partnership in child health in one of Russia's more isolated regions.

Asthma is one of the leading causes of death among children in the area and Larson and other McGill researchers are collaborating with hospitals and health authorities in Chelyabinsk to find ways to bring those numbers down.

While Ethiopian and Russian authorities sought out the McGill people for their expertise, Larson says the skills McGill brings to these projects have to be married to the resources and cultural context of the countries in question.

"You're not out to reinvent McGill in another country.

"I'm always looking for people to take the lead in the countries I go into. I want the research to be useful to them, to meet their needs. It shouldn't be just about your agenda."

Anthropology professor Philip Salzman has lived among nomadic societies in Baluchistan (Iran), Rajasthan (India), and Sardinia (Italy).

Because Salzman's research is aimed at understanding how these people live and interact with one another, "it's necessary to live with them as much as you can for a substantial amount of time -- at least a year." Salzman says learning the language of the people there is also essential.

"You can't really trust interpreters. It's much better to hear things for yourself. You really want to be able to understand [the people under study] when they talk to each other. You can't trust what people are saying to you as the researcher. That's very separate from what their day-to-day life is all about and that's what you're there to see."

Larson agrees that you have to be sensitive to the nuances of the language wherever you go.

"One of the things we focused on in Ethiopia was diarrhea, which is a major health issue there. In Ethiopia there are three or four different terms for diarrhea." Each one relates to something significant and it's important to know the differences.

Vincent, who has taken on several projects in Asia, says that Western-based researchers have to pay close attention to what's being said by their partners in other countries even when the communication is taking place in English.

"In Asian cultures, you must ask the right questions to get the right answers. A lot of information is reserved until you ask for it specifically."

For their part, research partners in developing countries are caught off guard by their Western colleagues' approaches.

"They're surprised at how much we focus on fundamental questions as opposed to taking action," says Vincent. With serious resource management and socioeconomic problems to contend with, "they don't have that luxury."

Salzman says his research projects work best when he makes repeated trips to the places he studies.

"What knocked me out was that every time I went to Sardinia, some major event was taking place that had everything in an upheaval. One year it was droughts, another year it was a series of murders and kidnappings. Each time I went, it was something different.

"Had I only gone once, I might have concluded that this was the way things always were. It would be like someone coming here to study Montreal right now and thinking that we're always talking about mergers and municipalities."

Johns has often been to Tanzania and Kenya where he studies the Masai. Despite a high fat diet, the Masai enjoy low rates of heart disease. Johns attributes much of their good health to the medicinal plants that they eat regularly.

He suggests that it's wise for a researcher interested in working internationally not to depend too much on access to any one country.

"It's a good idea to diversify. Circumstances change. When I first started working in Kenya, it seemed like such a tranquil place." A soaring crime rate and political unrest have changed that. "No place is perfect. It's rare now that someone will work in one place forever."

Research in other countries can be dangerous.

"While I was in Tanzania once, the local police chief was murdered a few miles from where I was working. There were bandits holding people up and extorting money." Johns knows of one researcher who was raped while working on a project overseas.

Salzman believes such risks are rare.

"Almost always you're safe.

"There is a very strong sense of hospitality and local honour in the places I've gone to. It would reflect badly on them if anything happened to you. As a guest, you're off limits."

A marine biologist generally regarded to be the world's foremost authority on seahorses, Vincent's work isn't restricted to simply watching the graceful creatures in action and analyzing their behaviours.

She is also the co-director of Project Seahorse, an organization that works with fishing communities to develop conservation practices that meet the fishers' needs while protecting seahorses and related sea-life from habitat loss and overfishing.

She counsels Canadian researchers working in developing countries to avoid being in a rush. The pace of life is different and the people there won't change to suit your purposes.

"You must take it slowly, so slowly you feel like you're not moving sometimes.

"In one Philippine fishing community, I put forward an idea for revising their management practices. The fishers seemed receptive, but my research partners from the Philippines told me the fishers weren't ready for it.

"I pushed for it anyway. The plan was established, but the fishers hadn't really understood what I was talking about; they saw it as something to try out for a while, not as a long-term commitment. It was built on a very shaky foundation. Had I waited a year it would have been much more robust."

Getting the kind of informed consent from research subjects that is typically expected of Western researchers can also be tricky.

"The people from that country who are doing the research are often from a very different social class than the people who are being researched," says Larson. "They aren't used to having to ask for permission.

"The people being asked don't know why they're being asked." They find it unnerving. "Their reaction can be, 'Why are you asking? What's wrong?'"

"People in African villages are very reluctant to sign things," says Johns of consent forms. When villagers, who are often illiterate, sign things, they often find out later that they'll be taxed or conscripted into the army as a result.

"It's still something you have to do," he says of gaining informed consent. One strategy is to hold community meetings presided over by elders where everyone has a chance to ask questions about the project at once.

Communities, however, aren't always receptive to research projects.

Psychiatry professor Laurence Kirmayer works on mental health issues with aboriginal communities in Nunavut and Northern Quebec. He is currently looking at suicide rates in northern communities.

"There is a deep mistrust of researchers from the south in some aboriginal communities. There's been a lot of research done up north and problems still persist. There's a feeling that the research hasn't contributed to answers for their problems."

Salzman's experience is different.

"The reaction I've seen is, 'Someone cares enough about us to come here and show us respect.'

"The rural poor often don't get that from their governments or from tourists. They see you making an effort to learn their culture and they're touched."

"The challenge is that is we are responsible to two different sets of needs," says Vincent of research done in developing countries.

Funding agencies, universities and journals in the West often don't consider how a project in the developing world has to follow a different set of rules.

"Once you embark on work in a developing country, it's difficult to confine your engagement with it," says Vincent. "It's difficult to turn your back if something happens in a neighbouring village. You can't say, 'Well, I'm only funded to work in this village.'"

"You have to make them feel a part of it," Johns says of the communities under study. "They have to get something back. You have to share your findings. You can offer training opportunities. Another way is to pay people as research assistants. Money greases the wheels."

Vincent and Kirmayer agree it's essential to share your research results with the people you study.

So what's the payoff for this type of research?

"The payoff is knowing that you're helping to make a difference. It's the joy of working in glorious places with quite wonderful people," says Vincent.

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