Monday, March 17, 2008

Field work: Answering questions

Firstly, I wanna thank everyone who has been patiently reading my posts. And I'm LOVING the comments, so please keep them coming. I'm learning so much from everyone!

So yesterday, after my post on "the importance of field work," one of my friends (on google talk) and I got into a discussion regarding the following questions. These are excellent questions and important ones. So I'll do my best to address what I consider very difficult topics, largely because of how subjective they are. So in order:

1. What constitutes good field work?
I think its important for everyone experienced or not to weigh in on this one. I'm curious to know what other people think.

All good field work starts with a good personal attitude. You can have the best field experience set up for you, but if you have a bad attitude, you won't learn a thing! I have also known people who have gone into the field for a week and have come away with a greater knowledge of their clients, than people who have spent years in the field (might explain why so many international development agencies are inefficient). Its about your attitude. Have a good attitude, be open and be willing to learn. I'll tell you this...I've learned one thing from being in the field, and its that I don't know squat. People who go in thinking they know the solution to every problem, often are the problem and create more problems. I've been in the field with these folks, and it is a pain in the behind that I can't quite describe. It rarely has anything to do with someone's education. You can be book-educated all you want, but if you don't know your consumer, your product or what they want, you aren't going to get anywhere. BE OPEN, LISTEN AND LEARN.

Good field experience is all about quality more than quality. It doesn't necessarily involve lengthy periods of time. If you are a sponge soaking in the culture, observing and absorbing everything around you, and processing it, you will likely need lesser than the vast majority of others (and there are lots!) who spend years in the field and get nothing. Of course, the more time you spend in the field, the more you learn. Like I said in my previous post, there is still SO little theoretical information on BOP markets, technologies, and consumer habits, that you unfortunately have to learn it from scratch. And because of the extreme variability that becomes so pronounced in these communities, you need a lot of exposure to different places and circumstances to adapt and be more effective.

Seek experiences that allow you time to really spend with the people you are helping (not just the agencies you are working with or the people in them); learn how to communicate with your clients. Communication doesn't require spoken language (though this is IMMENSELY helpful); body language, music, dance, laughter are equally valuable for connecting and learning from them. If you aren't learning about your clients, you are in the wrong field experience.

Expect field work to be immensely frustrating, and rewarding. If you aren't banging your head against the wall, losing sleep, or racking your brains about an issue regarding your work, then you are probably not having the right field experience (atleast initially). Its important that novices understand this, because it prepares you well for the future.

2. Are there any substitutes for time in the field?
Absolutely. Good mentors who have "been there and done that" can teach you a great deal and prepare you better for an assignment, so that you are more effective. You can tell a good mentor by how clearly they teach, and how much experience they themselves have had. They will be equally candid about success and failure, and quick to have learned from both. The reason field work is so necessary is because so little is documented. But as that changes, we can hopefully shorten initial field experience some. Still, theory only takes you so far. Nothing quite compares to the real thing.

3. How does working through an organization like the Peace Corps or Hosteling International, help in any way?
Another good question. Besides mitigating financial and health risks, the biggest way in which a good international organization can help is by setting you up with a legitimate project in the field. There are a zillion international agencies out there, all claiming to be legitimate and working for the poor. I'd say that maybe a tenth (if that!) of those are really legitimate. I have come across too many unwitting good samaritans who wandered into an illegitimate lot, and came out miserable and jaded. DON"T do this. It takes a lot of homework, and can be extremely time consuming and exhausting. So go with someone who has already done the grunt work for you. They also provide good support systems. Should anything go wrong, you have a way out.

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