Doing social science research in Madagascar

One researcher discusses undertaking research in Madagascar:

My colleagues and I, from the UK, the US and South Africa, feel frustrated. It is December 2014 and we have gathered at a jungle lodge in the highlands of Madagascar with 25 academics and postgraduate students from Antananarivo’s departments of sociology and communication to hash out the methodology for a large-scale research study. However, our research partners’ greater apparent interest in discussing theoretical issues is slowing us down. It is also tough for the interpreters, grappling with three-way simultaneous translation from Malagasy to English, French to English and English to French. The day reaches a low point when I hear through my headphones: “The real problem is situated somewhere between the problematic and the problematisation.”

We feel like prisoners in a jungle of theory. However, over the next few months, I come to realise that the lecture on Weber – and other diversions into Marxist, literary or linguistic theory – are not mere academic posturing. They are – to use development jargon – capacity-building. Unicef has asked our team to build the capacity of Antananarivo staff and students to conduct social research. We know how to design a quantitative and qualitative study, do the data analysis and write the report. But we know little about Madagascar: its culture and turbulent history, or how our Malagasy colleagues regard research. Their priority for the seminar is not to draft survey questionnaires but to build an equal, trusting research partnership…

According to the research design, a quantitative study (two questionnaires, with about 1,500 respondents for each) is to be conducted first, to highlight issues to be explored in the subsequent qualitative research. Unfortunately, the eastern floods and southern drought put the project several months behind schedule, and the Antananarivo qualitative research teams go into the field at about the same time as the quantitative research is being conducted, working in different communities. They emerge with hundreds of hours of focus group and interview transcripts and field notes, and it is a formidable task to merge them with the quantitative data.

Ultimately, common sense and pragmatism prevail. We use geographic and economic criteria to classify communities into four types: interior, sub-coastal, coastal and urban. Some interior communities are two days by zebu cart from the main dirt road; including them would lengthen the research and strain the budget. We reduce the long list of variables to be analysed. Our Antananarivo colleagues have a therapeutic 15-minute debate over whether coding – or, indeed, any attempt to organise human experience – is a colonial imposition. And then everyone goes back to work.

Doing quality research in first-world countries is difficult enough and yet working through the obstacles to doing good research in the developing world could lead to many positive consequences. It would be nice to see a follow-up article that shows what came of all these efforts.

Traffic deaths predicted to be 5th leading cause of death in the developing world

Even as the conversation about safer autonomous cars picks up in the United States, traffic deaths are an increasing problem in the developing world:

It has a global death toll of 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

The victims tend to be poor, young and male.

In one country — Indonesia — the toll is now nearly 120 dead per day; in Nigeria, it is claiming 140 lives each day…

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” The goal is to stabilize and eventually reverse the upward trend in road fatalities, saving an estimated 5 million lives during the period. The World Bank and other regional development banks have made road safety a priority, but according to Irigoyen, donor funding lags “very far below” the $24 billion that has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It sounds like while diseases are well known and relatively well-funded, not many people have caught on to the problems of traffic deaths. This is all about social construction: where are the Bill Gates of the world to come in and tackle traffic problems in poorer nations?

Perhaps this gets less attention it is because cars are viewed as things that may help developing countries improve: owning them means citizens have more economic power and have more independence to get around as well as help their own economic chances (can carry things around, etc.). Particularly from an American point of view, cars are generally good things. But, of course, cars bring other problems in addition to safety concerns: pollution (a huge problem in many large cities), clogged streets, and an infrastructure that may not be able to handle lots of new cars on the roads (maintaining roads, having enough police, driver training, cities that have to redevelop areas to accommodate wider roads).

It will be interesting to see if this gets more attention in the coming years. It is one thing to discuss longer-term consequences of cars like increasing pollution but it is another to ignore large numbers of deaths each day.

Sociologist Saskia Sassen on a rapidly urbanizing Lagos

Sociologist Saskia Sassen is part of this 17 min BBC report on the changes taking place in Lagos, Nigeria.

While the average Westerner may not pay much attention to the megacities of the developing world, these cities are quite relevant as they are growing at an unbelievable pace (for example, check out the growth of many cities in China), present a whole host of new issues (shantytowns, joblessness, providing education and healthcare, etc.), and are quite connected to Western cities through financial markets, migration patterns, and cultural exchange.

Sociologist Dalton Conley to spend sabbatical working for the online University for the People

Sociologist Dalton Conley has an interesting sabbatical project: working to help the online University for the People up and going.

The international, tuition-free, nonprofit institution, founded in 2009, is a pioneering effort in e-learning and peer-to-peer learning. Using open-source technology and coursework provided gratis by well-regarded institutions, it offers two- and four-year degree programs in business administration and computer science. It has formed partnerships with Yale University, New York University, and Hewlett-Packard, and to date has enrolled 1,400 students from 130 countries.”Higher education is our best cultural product, as far as I’m concerned,” says Mr. Conley. “We also export our less-impressive cultural products, McDonald’s and Hollywood and so forth, so I think it’s a great idea to help folks who want to help themselves to increase their skill sets and help their own countries.”…

As University of the People’s dean of arts and sciences, Mr. Conley will work to expand course offerings. “We need to focus on pragmatic degrees that are going to help individuals in their societies, in developing countries,” he says. He hopes the next two majors will be in health, to train nurses and community-health workers, and education, to train teachers.

This sounds like it could be a very interesting project. However, isn’t access to this free online school still dependent on who has regular Internet access? Without that kind of infrastructure, will this school be best able to help those who most need the help?

Facebook loses users in the US, UK – what does it mean?

Facebook has had a meteoric rise – but there are some signs that the growth is slowing:

Fearing for their privacy or perhaps just bored with using the site, 100,000 Britons are said to have deactivated their accounts last month.

And Facebook fatigue seems to be catching. Six million logged off for good in the U.S. too, figures show.

Worldwide, the rate of growth has slowed for a second month in a row – and as it aims to reach its goal of one billion active users, Facebook is having to rely on developing countries to boost its numbers…

‘By the time Facebook reaches around 50 per cent of the total population in a given country, growth generally slows to a halt,’ [Eric Eldon] explained.

This article is rife with speculation: users could be upset with privacy, people could be fatigued or bored with Facebook, etc. Here are a few of these scenarios with my own thoughts:

1. There are only so many people in the world who will use Facebook anyway. It requires using the Internet consistently, whether this is by computer or some mobile device. While it may be “normal” for the younger generations (though the user rate is not 100% here either), it is used less by older generations (even though there has been growth among these sectors). I wonder what sort of saturation point Facebook itself predicted.

1a. Is it really a big deal if Facebook’s growth is now concentrated in developing countries? Is this really any different than many other American companies?

1b. Perhaps we have entered Facebook’s “mature” stage where they can no longer coast based on word-of-mouth and spectacular growth and now need to fight for new users. How long until we see Facebook TV ads trying to entice new users?

2. The article suggests the novelty of Facebook might be wearing off. Perhaps it doesn’t have enough new features – even though the changes in recent years have induced much hand-wringing, it really hasn’t changed that much. Perhaps it has too many people on there and is no longer exclusive enough – this point was driven home by The Social Network as the Winklevoss’ started with a plan to capitalize on the exclusivity of Harvard.

2a. I wonder if Facebook itself is happy with the progress it has made. On one hand, it could generate a lot of money based on targeted advertising. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Zuckerberg wishes it was much more open than it is now. Even though there are no more networks, many people are still tied to friends and acquaintances and don’t wander too far beyond this. How do you connect these newer users around the world to established users or would this be a no-go among users?

2b. The day-to-day novelty of the product should consist of what one’s friends add to the site. Without interesting status updates, pictures, news, and more, what else draws users? Farmville? Making a “friend” connection is one thing – but this is not too interesting if neither side adds new information. So beyond vanity, how can users be provoked to add more?

3. I don’t really buy the privacy argument. Some people are concerned but they are concerned about privacy in a lot of other places as well. If people were really worried about privacy, there would be a lot of things that they wouldn’t do on the Internet, let alone Facebook.

4. Perhaps some people are interested in the story of Facebook losing steam. After all, a narrative where Facebook keeps rising might not be that interesting. How long until we see more stories about competitors to Facebook, like Twitter in the US, or Orkut elsewhere?

5. These numbers regarding the loss of users have no context: how do they compare to similar figures from previous time periods? Is this an increase in the number of users who have left? Certainly, not all users have continued with Facebook after joining.

A mostly middle-class world by 2022

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have moved from poverty to the middle class. These numbers are only expected to grow in the coming years:

The world will, for the first time in history, move from being mostly poor to mostly middle-class by 2022, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects. Asians, by some predictions, could constitute as much as two-thirds of the global middle class, shifting the balance of economic power from West to East. Already, some analyses of International Monetary Fund data suggest that the size of the Chinese economy could eclipse that of the United States in just five years…

But today’s middle-class boom is unlike the Industrial Revolution, in which rising prosperity became a catalyst for increased individual and political freedom. Those in the emerging global middle classes – from an Indian acquiring a flush toilet at home to a Brazilian who can now afford private school to a Chinese lawyer with a new car in the driveway – are likely to redefine their traditional roles, and in doing so, redefine the world itself.

“I would expect that as the global middle class gets transformed by the entrance of hundreds of millions of Indian, Brazilian, and Chinese families, the concept of what we see as the middle-class values may change,” says Sonalde Desai, a sociologist with the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi (NCAER). “Historically, sociologists have defined ‘middle class’ as those with salaries…. I think ‘middle class’ is very much a state of mind.”

As the article suggests, it will be fascinating to see what this majority global middle class will act like: will they follow the individualistic and consumeristic American model or chart a new course? And might the American middle class also change in response to or in conjunction with these global changes?

It is interesting that this article contains very little discussion of why the global middle class is surging. Is it because of capitalism? Globalization? Specific policies from groups like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund?

In an editorial on the same topic, the Christian Science Monitor argues there is a need to maintain social values and avoid a “moral vacuum”:

A moral vacuum can strike any rising middle class. Battles for status erupt in a competition for consumption. (In China, it’s Louis Vuitton that defines prestige.) Material goods are seen as a ladder to upward mobility.

A consumer culture can also leave young people with a lack of purpose, as China knows well. And youth often have bicultural identities: one in tradition and one in the global market of high-tech communications and Western media. They may feel no kinship to either and can easily become alienated.

So cheers for the newly well-off. But they need a spiritual foundation before they build those McMansions.

It is revealing that the McMansion is the exemplar here of a soulless middle class.

Conference talks suggest future is bright for big cities

A number of mayors and planners from big cities around the world are meeting in France this week. According to one report, the future looks bright for big cities:

“The future of the world lies in cities,” London’s mayor Boris Johnson told a packed auditorium at the opening day of MIPIM Monday…

“We have to keep putting the village back into the city because that is fundamentally what human beings want and aspire to,” Johnson told the crowd, adapting a famous statement made by India’s Mahatma Gandhi that the future of India lay in its 70,000 villages.

“Cities are where people live longer, have better education outcomes, are more productive,” Johnson noted, adding that cities are also where people emit less polluting carbon dioxide per capita…

A recent study by Citigroup published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper forecast that mega-cities expected to have the fastest growing economies by the middle of the next decade include London, Chicago, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Mumbai and Moscow.

What is being said here is not just the optimism of big-city mayors: others agree about the benefits cities offer such as reduced carbon emissions and being centers of innovation.

A few questions about this conference:

1. Are people bullish about the prospect of big cities because they live and work in big cities and therefore have to be more optimistic? Is this simply boosterism?

2. Is there a distinction made at this conference between central cities and metropolitan regions? When Boris Johnson, mayor of Greater London, talks about London’s prospects, is it safe to assume that he is referring to the whole region and not just Central London? I assume this is really about full metropolitan regions and not just about central cities.

3. Do city leaders in the developing world see things in the same way as the mayors from First World countries cited in this story? For example, mayors of places like London or New York or Chicago or Tokyo are already in charge of world-class cities that have established their place at the top of the hierarchy. Would a mayor of Cairo or Calcutta or Sao Paulo have the same rosy perspective?