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Why Field Researchers Are Just Like Roaming Mendicants [Part 1]

20/01/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Buddhist monk goes from door to door to collect food and provide prayers in return.

It is standard practice among aspiring writers to begin their essays with a quote from a famous person. I am no exception. The famous person who I shall quote in this essay is Winston Churchill. This is because I would like to believe that Churchill had PhD researchers[1] in mind when he remarked - "To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents." Allow me to explain why!

There invariably comes a time in the life of every PhD researcher when his (or her) dissertation committee offers him the chance to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life.

No, I am not talking about the "should I get married before my dissertation defence or after the confirmation of my tenure" decision. It is common knowledge that PhD researchers are married to their research. There is no disputing this fact -- the PhD process is a five-year labour. And no! There is no chance of giving birth to twins, forget triplets or quadruplets. PhD researchers are people of modest ambitions. They are happy with just one 500-page dissertation!

A field researcher has a higher purpose in life -- a dispassionate quest for the truth. There is only one truth: that independence in academia is an illusion.

The more crucial decision that the researcher's dissertation committee wants him to make is: what kind of researcher does he want to be -- does he want to spend most of his free time poring over excel sheets in the comforts of a small dingy windowless cubicle in a remote corner of a 300-year-old building? Or, does he want to spend all his free time, out on the streets, asking privacy-invading questions to a bunch of hot, sexy men and women?

If he answers "yes" to the first question, he is shackled to his desk all his life. But if he answers "yes" to the second question, he is destined for the fun, the adventure and the glories of field research!

Two years back, on that fateful day during my progress review meeting, I watched with trepidation as my committee members gravely pored over a 15-page report prepared by me. I could almost make out the faint outlines of Robert Frost's ghost sitting on the chair right opposite me - his soundless lips forming out the following words as he reproached me with an accusing finger -

"... two roads diverged out of academia, and you - ... you are taking the one fraught with adventure .... and that will make all the difference ." [2]

As I watched my committee sagely agree with my 15-page progress review report, I decided to ignore Frost's ghost (after all, hadn't Macbeth ignored Banquo's ghost too?). I let out a silent whoop of joy! I was destined to be a field researcher!

Today, two years later, here I am, a battle-hardened field researcher writing this article on a Windows machine in a small room with a large window and a view of leafless trees on a snowless El Nino winter morning.

I have come to the remarkable conclusion that the life of a field researcher is similar to that of an itinerant mendicant. Allow me to explain why! I shall do so in three parts. This is the first part of the series.

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There are at-least five different reasons why the life of a field researcher is similar to that of an itinerant mendicant.

1. They are always on the move

An itinerant mendicant is always on the move; he is restless; he is unable to settle down at any one place -- continuously travelling from one holy site to another - guided by the constant desire to collect more and more good karma so that he can aspire for a higher plane of existence once the current cycle of life gets over.

A field researcher is constantly on the move; he is restless; he is unable to settle down at any one place

A field researcher too is constantly on the move; he is restless; he is unable to settle down at any one place -- continuously travelling from one field site to another -- guided by the constant desire to collect more and more good data so that he can aspire for a hassle-free supply of grant-money once the current source of funding gets over.

2. They have a higher purpose

An itinerant mendicant has a higher purpose in life -- a dispassionate quest for the truth. There is only one truth: that freedom in life is an illusion. There could however be multiple paths to this truth -- he could be a Buddhist, a Jain or a Shaivite; he could be a Christian, a Mohameddan or a Jew; he could take any one of these many paths in his quest to realise that one ultimate truth -- freedom in life is an illusion.

A field researcher too has a higher purpose in life -- a dispassionate quest for the truth. There is only one truth: that independence in academia is an illusion. There could however be multiple paths to this truth - he could be an economist; a sociologist or an anthropologist; he could be a psychologist, a political scientist or an inter-disciplinary scholar; he could take any one of these many paths in his quest to realise that one ultimate truth -- independence in academia is an illusion.

3. They have a simple code of conduct

Itinerant mendicants live their lives according to a simple code of conduct: always seek approval from God before you try anything new.

Field researchers too live their lives according to a simple code of conduct: always seek approval from the IRB board before you research anything new.

4. They rely on charity

An itinerant mendicant depends completely on charitable donations for survival -- these charitable donations can be in the form of cash or kind.

A field researcher too depends completely on charitable donations for survival-- these charitable donations essentially are in the form of one-and-a-half hour interviews with requests for more.

5. They have a handy toolkit

Itinerant mendicants use a set of handy tools to go about their daily lives.

Field researchers too use a set of handy tools to go about doing their daily research.

While the nature of the tools could vary, the functions that these tools perform in the lives of the itinerant mendicants, is remarkably similar to those performed in the lives of field researchers.

.... to be continued...

Footnotes:

[1] Disclaimer: When I say PhD researchers, I am essentially referring to researchers pursuing their PhD in the social sciences.

[2] Adapted from Robert Frost' poem "The Road Not Taken".

[3] "Robes and Ray-Bans", accessed on the 15th of December, 2015

[4] "The wandering Tsampa from Mongaar", accessed on the 14th of December, 2015

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