Rethinking Buzzwords: “In the Field”
In her blog ‘Blood and Milk,’ Alanna Shaikh initiates a provocative discussion about the term “the field.” The crux of her argument is that calling time in the developing world “field time” implies two main things: that it is temporary, and that it is difficult and she contends that both of those are often false.
While it can be argued that the problem with the term “the field” is simply a matter of semantics and can be used interchangeably with phrases such as “real world,” “on the ground” or “country offices” I think that misses the bigger picture – it’s not really about the jargon but rather what it signifies.
I started thinking more about the issue and how we conceptualize what being “in the field” entails when I observed conversations at LSE regarding whether simply having been born and brought up in a developing country constitutes having “field experience.” This relates exactly to the point Alanna Shaikh makes. We often don’t consider those who have grown up in countries such as India or Ghana or Bolivia for instance as having field experience per se because we don’t perceive their lives as being difficult or their stay as temporary. I think this is a highly problematic assumption because it essentially undervalues the knowledge of the local context these individuals hold and creates a sense that outsiders have a more objective view about being in “the field” rather than those who live there and experience it everyday. What to outsiders is “the field” is the space in which millions of people negotiate the complexities of their day to day lives. This process of “othering” is ultimately self-defeating.
Last night, this topic came up in conversation with a friend who has worked in Tanzania with CHAI for about a year and he shared a perspective I hadn’t thought of earlier. According to him, he would view someone who had grown up in a developing country but has not worked in the development sector per se as having relevant field experience…the difference is it would be more on the “consumer” side than the “producer” side e.g. in the context of education, the person would have gone through the education system as a student but not as a policy maker.
What really constitutes “the field” anyway? In her blog, Shaikh reveals (not surprisingly) that most of the capital cities she has lived in have had better living conditions than she experienced living as a grad student on a budget in Boston. While, of course, this depends greatly on individual circumstances and for those just starting a career in international development this may not be the case, it really does bring home the point that being in the field is not always about adversity. Is the experience of the field not having access to basic sanitation or is it living in a capital city with access to world cuisines and five-star hotels? Is living in Buenos Aires the same as living in rural Nepal? The term “the field” is problematic because in a way it standardizes a variety of experiences that are actually worlds apart.
While I’m skeptical of “the field,” both as a concept and as a buzzword I am also unsure about what other alternatives can be used if at all. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not really just about the vocabulary but more so the connotation. Perhaps, a way forward is to change mindsets rather than dictionaries.