Saturday, June 12, 2010

Some Things You Can't Put On Your Resume

In earlier posts I have talked about studies I conducted on "hotels", traditional crops and sacred groves. These three studies (and more!) were all conducted during the same one year period, for a social enterprise that was interested in using enterprise to preserve certain elements of the local culture.

I was recently amused when I happened to notice the many ways in which I had tried to capture this experience on my resume. I tailor my resume to the job that I'm applying for, which in principle is a good thing, but sometimes I think I overdo it. Here is a sampling.

"Documented the organization's history and interviewed local people and staff members to understand how community-based enterprises in alternative energy, medicinal plants and nutrition were defined and developed".

What is an enterprise in nutrition? What did I mean by defining enterprises?

"Conducted a series of case studies to assess the economic viability, environmental sustainability and social impact of pastoral livelihoods, and of developing enterprises for organic crops".

It might make sense to assess the social impact of a pastoral livelihood on a people who have recently taken to livestock. But if a community has been pastoral for as long as they remember, and if I couldn't find any documentary evidence to suggest otherwise, how would I go about assessing the social impact of their way of life?

And some were just impossibly broad:

"Conducted research amongst small-scale farmers and pastoral nomads on socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable natural resource management systems".

"Led project to research the interdependence of livelihood strategies based on pastoral nomadism and agriculture".

Yet I learnt more from these studies than I have from any other experience in the development sector. One of my first memories of this period was of sitting in a room full of rural women. Introducing myself, I said that in my previous assignment, I'd been working with women's groups in another state.

"What did they grow there?" was the immediate response.

I confessed that I didn't know.

"Why not?"

"Because I wasn't working on agricultural issues".

I was as embarassed by not knowing what the women I'd worked with had grown, as my reason for not knowing. It spoke of such a blinkered attitude.

With these studies, however, it was different. Perhaps the difference was that I didn't really know what I was supposed to be researching, so I gave my interviewees a relatively free hand to talk about whatever interested them. But I also think it was that most of the people I talked to were only "potential beneficiaries / clients".

Anthropology had already disabused me of the notion that you could ever expect to hear the "pure truth" from anyone, or that there is such a thing as the pure truth at all. My mother never tires of a cartoon in which a man in "tribal gear" runs home, shouting to his family, "Quick! Hide the TV! The anthropologists are coming!" Yet, perhaps only because my interviewees were not sure what I wanted to hear, I often heard things that contradicted my assumptions.

I've already talked about the contradictions within the sacred groves in an earlier post. Similarly, I found that while hotel owners all over the state of Tamil Nadu traced their roots to one village near Madurai, and would donate to and attend its temple festival every year, there was nothing traditional about the food they made, and they were in fact eager to innovate. I found out that while millets may be grown organically, the same land is used to grow cotton, which is notorious for its fertilizer and pesticide consumption.

But mostly, I just let people talk. My colleagues who showed me around were also, largely, willing to let people talk, and showed remarkable restraint in not jumping into the nitty-gritty of the enterprises they were planning. And I think if there was one large lesson I learnt here, it was to be much more aware of what lessons I was learning and from whom. The "Lessons Learnt" documents that I had written earlier, upon reflection, now seem to mirror much more closely the lessons we the organization wanted to learn, than the lessons that were actually being learnt.

In the course of these studies, I also learnt to be more firm with colleagues who I felt, often with the best of intentions, were nevertheless trying to twist the words of our interviewees. However, as for my resume, I'm still not sure how to capture what I learnt in two bullet points.

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