Wednesday, 17 January 2018

What are the costs of studying over-researched places?

Over at Twitter, Cat Button recently advertised a Call for Papers on "Over-researched Places". Fascinating right? Wondering about research spaces that are revisited and researched repeatedly, she calls for reflexive interrogation of the issue of "researcher saturation and its consequences".

Over-researched places in urban India

The idea immediately appealed to me. In development research across urban India, metropolitan regions — the big five of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta have been, in my opinion, over-researched. You have now oft-repeated narratives of Bangalore's Silicon Valley story vs. it's growing inequality; Mumbai's flood management and inherent 'resilience'; Delhi bastis and regular evictions. But we hear less of Tier II and Tier III cities which are also spaces of dynamism and aspirational change; spaces where 'step-migrants' often come to before moving to big cities; and sites where environmental problems have still not become the behemoths they have in our metropolitan cities.
In itself, repeated research in a place is not a negative methodological practice; in fact, development researchers often bemoan the lack of longitudinal studies and the diminishing practice of long-term village studies. However, conducting research in the same places, even if by different researchers, with different questions, and operating in different sectors, potentially drives what you look for and what you find. Some examples?
  • Over-researched as a process of obscuring: In climate change adaptation research in India's cities, the over-researched are pretty conspicuous. The usual suspects are Surat, Gorakhpur, and Indore, regularly written about and quoted as 'success stories' mostly because of a long-term ACCRN project that funded research-based adaptation implementation in the cities. My concern is that such over-researched places tend to obscure other places which perhaps need more attention and, in some cases, can provide additional insights to the issue of implementing sustainable adaptation. Moreover, even if different PD students visit these sights, previous conceptual frames and methodological tools tend to colour their enquiries (similar to what Cat calls 'Ghosts of Researchers Past'). 
  • Lacunae within the over-researched: As my colleague Amogh pointed out on Twitter, over-researched 'places' often lead to 'over-researched sectors'. For example, Bangalore's water and transportation issues have received a tremendous amount of research attention, with much lower commentary on energy, food, or employment. Even within sectors such as water, he rightly points out that there are still big data gaps (such as on groundwater). In Delhi, (the lack of) equitable water provisioning and housing tend to overshadow issues around informal livelihoods, shrinking commons, etc. While there is a reason that the over-researched sectors are important (they have, over time, been identified as critical issues in the city), they might push researchers to continue to study what has been studied. The data is available, there is a discourse to embed one's arguments into or against. Such peripheralisation of sectors and certain groups within the spaces that are over-researched means than not only change and dynamism but also creativity and novelty may get sidelined.  
  • Forgotten places or the un-researched: Finally, there are some places that remain completely un-researched. Here, I feel fit the smaller cities in India. Especially in climate change and environmental research, these spaces are seldom researched and if so, only as part of large-scale studies. The danger of the un-researched is that we end up telling half-stories and overlook critical spaces of challenges and opportunity.  
But what of under-researched places?

I went the other way in my PhD and researched a completely under-researched site in South Rajasthan. My choice was driven by the fact that water scarcity has been over-studied in Rajasthan's arid northern districts with lesser emphasis on the relatively wetter but nevertheless water-scarce southern districts. Even within South Rajasthan, some districts such as Udaipur, are over-researched and over-implemented in — NGO friends joked that each village in Udaipur has three NGOs operational — one each for education, environmental, and health issues.

One of the few unexpected things I found in under-researched
places. Afeem (opium) plantations in Pratapgarh.
I enjoyed exploring new things in Pratapgarh, the under-researched place, which was the site of my PhD research. However, I did face issues specific to sites not studied before. Gaps in longitudinal data were a major challenge. There are no papers and very little grey literature on Pratapgarh's history of socio-political marginalisation, its peculiar geography of basalt under-rock, its development trajectory, it's agricultural transformation and pertinent for me, its response to drought and water scarcity. So triangulating as I went along, I followed my supervisor's advice closely, "be like a bird, collect everything you can to make your nest".

Despite liaising with a fantastic NGO that eased my entry into the research locations, the lack of previous research in the area meant gaining entry was much tougher. I did not have the social capital that researchers of over-researched places can draw upon, I built my networks and garnered local interest in my work as I went along. I did not have longer-term datasets that they can compare their findings to. I did not have a cohort of scholars already talking about and publishing research from the location.

And so, both over- and under-researched areas have their pitfalls and bonuses. What is crucial is to keep in mind that where one does one's research critically shapes what we study, how we study it and perhaps, what we find. Any thoughts on this? Why not submit a paper to Cat Button's RGS session?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Adaptation pathways: two recent papers and implications for maladaptation

In the climate change adaptation literature, pathways thinking seems to be cropping up everywhere. A quick search I did for papers published 2014 onwards threw up 25 distinct case studies engaging with adaptation pathways-speak, with examples ranging from 'priming' multiple stakeholders to find transformational solutions to climatic risks in Indonesia (Butler et al., 2016), to ethnographic research examining pathways of past adaptation in Eastern Europe (Campeanu et al., 2014).

This was not the case in the summer of 2013, when I took a break from writing up my PhD thesis to attend the STEPS Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability in Brighton. Bringing together a stimulating mix of PhD students in varying stages of their research, the summer school first introduced me to pathways thinking. Or the STEPS Pathways Approach.

The Rivers of Life exercise at the STEPS Summer School where we charted our personal pathways (complete with obstacles, leaps forward, histories, and aspirations).

That exposure shaped a key part of my thesis and I went on to write about conceptualising household responses to climate variability and change as intersecting and internally messy pathways. More recently, I have been arguing for examining how past trajectories of development open up or close down the adaptation options space available to people, hinging the pathways approach to a justice lens of winner and losers and tradeoffs.

Households facing multiple risks can undertake different response pathways. Source Singh et al. (2016).

But what are adaptation pathways and do they offer anything radical? Two key papers I read recently, offer some insights. 

In his sweeping literature review of four adaptation pathways approaches, Eisenhauer (2016) argues for more robust engagement with the political aspects of adaptation. He argues that meeting the ‘adaptive challenge’ of climate change (described by Karen O'Brien, 2012 as 'addressing the beliefs and world views that contribute to how individuals and groups approach the problem of change') requires rethinking politics within the context of adaptation. He finds that none of the four approaches critically engage with 'antagonistic political relations' — all of them seem to assume that problems can be solved through rational consensus processes, which is often not the case in complex problems riddles with issues of uncertainty. Second, he emphasises that none of the approaches forefront challenges posed by intersectionality and relational political ecologies.

The second, empirical paper I read was Fazey et al. (2015) who examine "past adaptation to provide new insights about how future-oriented adaptation path-ways might be approached." They helpfully differentiate between adaptation pathways approaches which map out possible future adaptation option trajectories vs. pathways lenses, defined as "an approach to frame understanding of past change and response dynamics." Importantly, a pathways lens interrogates:
"how and why change and responses may have occurred, the different ways different groups have perceived, responded to or navigated change, contextual issues (e.g. politics, social norms, values) that affect change dynamics and the role of power in shaping change and human agency." p 28
This work is close to a paper I presented last year on using historical trajectories of development to chart adaptation opportunity in fast growing and increasingly unequal countries such as India. Fazey et al. examine adaptive action in four cases: the Solomon Islands, Canada, Romania, and Australia, to suggest past actions have implications for how and at what pace communities transition, what adaptation options are undertaken in the present and available in the future, and the dynamic rubric of social differentiation and power within communities. They go onto suggest that "understanding past change provides inspiration for new and transformative futures".

Contrary to this hopeful tone, colleagues and I have recently argued that "understanding the past provides warnings to not make the same mistakes and jeopardise new and transformative futures". While more ominous in its tone, our way of interrogating historical pathways to diagnose current adaptation inaction and future adaptation options might be the wake up called needed in today's India.

There is a reason why Indian farming is the way it is. Looking back and tracing its development pathways helps us understand the narrow 'adaptation space' we have today. For more read our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures". [Picture taken in Gulbarga, Karnataka]

I leave you with a final, fascinating, if somewhat sombre, quote:
"One of the negative effects of enhanced adaptive capacity or flexibility may therefore be that it reinforces change, which in turn requires more adaptive responses or flexibility, partly explaining acceleration of global change. More transformative forms of adaptation therefore require some ways of stepping off the accelerating treadmill." (Fazey et al. (2015, p 15)
Our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures" is soon to be published in Climate and Development. Email me at csingh[AT]iihs[DOT]ac[DOT]in for a PDF. Comments/feedback most welcome!