Why am I blogging about this project? – Larry Stillman

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Why am I am others blogging about the PROTIC project? For my own part, it is about documenting some of the difficulties and complexities of such a large-scale project which is also attempting to follow participatory action research principles. It is an attempt to capture ‘moments’ of research and action activity. One of the great difficulties with the academic writing tradition is its artificial nature, that it can lead to a total reframing of events for a different purpose (such as analysis, or a theoretical frame). It is hard enough just write a what you think is a rich and thick reasonably accurate account, and then there is the very hard chore of academic production. Habermas has written thousands of pages on the complexity of speech acts and communication–how can we be expected to capture the amazing and spine-tinglings interactions that can flit by in a few seconds when we seen something incredible happy in human interaction. How can we preserve that for others to feel and learn from? The only metaphor I can think of is the feeling one gets when reading a great story or poem (Virgil’s description of ships on the crest of a wave, about to crash), or the excitement and emotion generated for a few seconds in a great film. And it can take years for an article to be published with leads to an extraordinary distance between what was and what is presented. What appears to go out the window is authenticity and the spark associated with real life, and worst of all personality. We can’t fall for the fiction that good research is neutral or neutralized (though much of that positivist push has gone out the window as well. as Giddens puts it, ‘all social research has a necessarily cultural ethnographic or ‘anthropological aspect to it , and we need to be honest about that fact, that we are engaging in some form of documentation of human action through our, and their lens, and inevitably we engage in some form of fiction and rationalization. To quote Giddens again, “The social scientist is a communicator, introducing frames of meaning associated with certain contexts of social life to those in others. Thus the social sciences draw upon the same sources of description (mutual knowledge) as novelists or others who write fictional accounts of social life. ” The Constitution of Society, pp. 284, 285. So–here is one example of what goes on.

I was provoked by seeing a huge, hand-drawn map by a student working for Oxfam, Juel Mahmud. It was almost a shock to have a tactile experience like this, instead of looking at a Google photo. Tiny hand-drawn boxes with each house number, carefully drawn fields and a box legend. The student had spent over a week drawing the map. The village of Borokpout is hundreds of miles away to the south from the Oxfam Dhaka office a series of settlements along the river, constituting a village. I remembered the brick dyke we had bounced over on the back of a little battery-driven flatbed rickshaw for about a kilometre until we reached the part of the village we were interested in over a year ago. It lay right on the edge of the river, with a long-tree-covered lane and houses several meters below at sea level. The Sundarbans mangroves were on the other side of the river and people cast nets for fry close to the river-bank. I spotted a Hindu shrine and some Muslim graves. When we went out on a boat to the edge of the Sundarbans we spotted a shrine set up in the water, with both Hindu and Muslim iconography. The student had drawn in a lovely legend of features. How do we appreciate such an artefact and its relationship to the physical world in the age of advanced technological and mechanical reproduction? Furthermore, how do we incorporate such minute, tactile and sensual feelings into what is required of academic production, the perfectly formed academic article with a strict structure and word limits? I have no easy answer. Not all of us are talented ethnographic anthropological writers. We can only try to become better word-smiths. Larry Stillman

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