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I started graduate school in rural sociology with a simple goal in mind: I wanted to save the world. It became clear that this was a bit of a stretch; however, I remained undeterred, as in the meantime I had gotten hooked on field research. For one thing, there’s nothing quite like being met at a front door by an angry, shotgun-toting upstate New York farmer, or being stuck in the mud and lost, or reducing most of an African village to helpless laughter as you attempt to milk a cow. Your world is constantly expanding. Your assumptions are always being challenged. Your learning curve is steep every day. What a great way to live!
Doing field research can also make things visible that are important for policy and programs, not to mention to rural people themselves. In the 1970s the fact that African women were farmers and agricultural decision makers was a revelation to government policy makers and international donors (who thought all women were housewives). In five years of research in Tanzania and four years of research in Botswana, my systematic documentation of women’s agricultural roles contributed to efforts to change agricultural policy and projects to include and benefit women. Bad policies, programs, and projects provide a constant reminder of the need to do research that can illuminate these problems and offer alternative approaches.
Rather than starting with the assumption that professional researchers are the only people who really have knowledge or really can do science, I am motivated by the imperative of undertaking collaborative research with local people in order to provide venues for local knowledge and civil (or local) science to be recognized and used. In pursuing collaborative research, I hope I have come full circle, closer to the kind of scientific processes that may save the planet.
Louise Fortmann is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, and holds the Rudy Grah Chair in Forestry and Sustainable Development. This summer she was honored with the 2012 Distinguished Rural Sociologist Award for her commitment to scholarship aimed at improving rural livelihoods, mentoring students, and championing participatory natural resource management.