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Shifting Our Gaze – Towards a Just, Inclusive Approach to Research in the Field

Shifting Our Gaze – Towards a Just, Inclusive Approach to Research in the Field

Every year, researchers report the ‘discovery’ of new species of animals from the Western Ghats (pictured here in Ghatikallu), but seldom discuss whether locals were already aware of them. Photo: bikashdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Over the last few years, there has been an increasing recognition of, and calls for, decolonising ecological research and conservation programmes (see here, here and here, for example). While it is easy to understand these topics in the context of researchers from the global north conducting research in the global south, and also of white researchers conducting research on indigenous lands, there has been much less discussion about these issues within the global south.

This is an important conversation we need to have in the Indian context as well, where tribal and casteist discrimination adds several layers of complexity to issues of field research. It is high time we cast a critical eye on the way we practice our research.

Dominant ideas in conservation and ecology include those that view nature and humans as separate entities, which value the exploration of “pristine” wild areas and the discovery of “new species”, and the need to create awareness of conservation issues among indigenous and local communities. However, these ideas contain implicit value judgments that many of us will have encountered, expressed with phrases like “my knowledge is better than yours”, “lazy and drunk natives” or “savage tribals”.

Researchers are also usually completely ignorant of the history of a landscape and its people. Since ecological research is frequently conducted with help from individuals belonging to ‘native communities’, it is important that we acknowledge how our ignorance can influence our own field research and practice.

It is often impossible to conduct field research without the guidance of these individuals, whom we commonly know as field assistants. Researchers’ attitudes towards them reflect the same colonial hangover and casteist prejudice that also afflict the rest of Indian society, and their contributions remain largely unacknowledged, even forgotten.

We strongly feel that there needs to be a paradigm shift – from this framework, and away from extractive practices, towards a culture of practice that is just, inclusive and collaborative. As ecological researchers ourselves, we have been complicit in propagating these ideas as well, and we would like to propose alternatives to break this chain.

Economic alternatives

Typically, field assistants receive daily wages, or monthly salaries that range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, for a few months each year. The payment decisions are influenced by many factors, including the level of formal education and the researcher’s sense of the skills required for a task. The assistants rarely have accident or health insurance, and cannot expect a steady income after a research project has been completed.

While we realise that financial decisions are often taken at the level of the granting body or an institution, we believe at least some of the onus also lies with us, the researchers, to demand these changes. There have been some examples of such initiatives. The Centre for Ecological Sciences (Indian Institute of Science) has created a formal position for field assistants to acknowledge their contributions to ecological research. The Nature Conservation Foundation has set up an emergency fund to support field assistants anywhere in India. These instances represent small but significant steps towards this goal.

Acknowledging intellectual contributions

To be sure, field research in India is highly extractive. We depend on the knowledge of local people to navigate landscapes that are unfamiliar to us, to help identify sites where animals and plants are likely to be found, and, perhaps most importantly, to keep us safe from potential threats.

Yet our own research ideas are often imposed on them, with no give-and-take between what seem to be widely disparate knowledge systems. This is often the case even in well-established institutional field stations that have employed local community members for many decades now.

What constitutes intellectual input? We argue that at the least, even guiding researchers through a landscape is intellectual input. If the research project could not have been conducted without the assistance of local individuals, then we propose that their contribution is to be recognised in academia by giving them co-authorship on papers that arise from the study.

There are already a few examples of such studies that include field staff and field collaborators as authors, but they remain far too rare (see here, here and here). We encourage students and faculty members to make it a habit to consider including the names of those who helped them in the field in every paper they publish.

A common rebuttal to this suggestion is that this is simple tokenism, and that giving co-authorship to field assistants will not bring about any meaningful change in their lives. We counter that this is a moot point – that it is important to acknowledge their intellectual contributions to the production of knowledge, irrespective of whether they derive any tangible benefits. Perhaps the co-authorship could help them network within the research community, and enhance their employment opportunities in future.

Whether one chooses to view one’s interactions with local communities as collaborative, it is imperative we make the effort to share our research questions and findings with them, and in the local language. We believe that this will also go a long way towards building trust and support for research. More equitable collaborations between different knowledge systems could also lead to new and interesting insights in ecology that might otherwise remain hidden.

What’s in a name?

Taking inspiration from Madhuri Ramesh’s call to redefine the “field” in order to reflect on the sociopolitical complexity of field sites, we advocate for the term ‘field assistant’ to be weaned out. Its use depicts – and indeed creates and reinforces – a power imbalance, that of the local person merely assisting the researcher, whereas they are often invaluable partners in the field. It is high time that ecology caught up with the fields of anthropology and linguistics in this regard, and we suggest alternative terms like ‘local consultant’, ‘collaborator’ or ‘researcher’.

As a corollary, we also recommend that publications or articles that claim to “discover new species” switch to “describing a species new to science” instead. In most cases, these species have been “discovered” with the help of local people who already know of the creatures’ existence. We also suggest that authors include the name of the local community in the scientific names of newly described species (as some researchers have done here and here).

Also read: Shifting Baselines: Our Elders’ Stories Can Tell Us How Good Our Future Can Be

Cultivating change

This article is not an exhaustive list of issues that afflict field research in India. Some of the questions that we as a community will need to address are:

* Who asks the research questions?

* Who gets access to the outputs of research?

* How can we provide equitable employment opportunities for local communities?

Addressing these questions will go a long way towards shifting the balance of power towards fairer field research in India.

It is possible to be overwhelmed by all the questions that arise from this process of decolonising our minds and our research, but the time has come to “un-paralyse”. We must, at this moment, work towards tearing down these statues of prejudice from their pedestals.

None of these alternatives will be sustainable unless we include them in the curricula of ecology and conservation programmes at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We urgently need to move beyond workshops or crash courses on “social science methods”, and work with historians, geographers, political ecologists and social anthropologists to design new pedagogies that inculcate a culture of self-reflexivity, and an awareness of our positions of privilege and power, in our practice of ecology and conservation research in India.

Bidyut Sarania, Krishnapriya Tamma, Samira Agnihotri, Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri are ecologists from various institutes in India who have been part of an online reading group in political ecology, especially as it relates to the process and practice of research.

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