Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cues, clues, conjectures and non-evident evidence.

At the Fulbright conference in Jaipur, and a wonderful opportunity it is to meet US scholars who have been placed all over South and Central Asia. Most of the scholars are younger than me, putting together their dissertation research, but all are doing fascinating work. As I meet new people I find myself putting together a sort of elevator talk to describe my own research over these past five months. Interestingly the words "cues, clues, and conjecture" hold a central position in my narrative. I've realized that the research I undertook, an analysis of irrigation landscapes in Sri Lanka, is supported by very little in the way of tangible evidence. And it's this truism that I have to convey in my short description of the research. In that case you might ask, how valuable is the research?

I'm biased of course. The research I've been up to seems very valuable indeed as I search for a way to understand the cultural role of irrigation landscapes in Sri Lanka life. Talks that I've heard so far mirror in a surprising way my own modalities (I can hardly call them "methodologies") of study. The talks that have been the most interesting to me are talks where people reflect on the lacunae of knowledge rather than the hard and fast "facts." It's those lacunae I think, places that you explore that lack clear "information," that make research and the Fulbright experience most valuable. 

Let me give you one example, a very fine talk I heard was given by a young scholar who literally read between the lines in her approach to a public health problem. She stressed her attempt to listen, to observe, and to develop questions. Her questions were seen by her to be as valuable, if not more so than the "solutions" she is starting to formulate. And she mentioned, very pertinently I think, her desire to not introduce interventions that she thinks may bring about unexpected consequences. 

How do we trod this research landscape, a landscape fraught with human frailty, in a way that is both immersive and light on its feet? I think she accomplished this, very much more effectively than the next speaker, who introduced surveys to her research population but highlighted the numbers in her survey findings rather than the glaring problems of unanswered questions or people who dropped out of her survey for various reasons. The first speaker focused on cues, clues, and to an extent, conjectures. The second speaker depended on her own imposed ideas. Which project will take us to unexpected places? Which will move us forward into more unknowns?

As I face the second half of my Fulbright experience, an experience that has held amazement and challenge almost every day, I question how I can develop or continue to pursue a program of exploration that depends more on intangibles, cues and clues that fall into place across a broad spectrum of experience, perception, and non-evident evidence. I want to continue to build a narrative from these intangibles. 

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