Monday, February 27, 2012

Inquiry Conference 2012 Part I

On Wednesday I attended the Keynote Lecture for this year's Inquiry Conference, delivered by Ralph Brown. It was entitled "Exposing Yourself: Why we need more and better world citizens and how serious international exposure facilitates this." This title sounded perfect to me, not just because I have loved the idea of being a 'citizen of the world' ever since my romantic high school days as an International Baccalaureate student, but also because I am feeling conflicted about the true value of going into the field to do research so I would love to hear some logical validation of my choice.

Brown gave a great overview of the effect of the observer on observed phenomena, the connections between language and culture, and how our perceptions are influenced by our backgrounds and experiences. I have to say though, I didn't really find the answers I was looking for. I think this is because the bulk of his argument was directed toward an entirely different person from me. Brown talked about the LDS cultural view (and this goes for lots of US citizens, not just Mormons) that the world is a "scary" or an "evil" place, and that we're much safer and happier here in the states, especially in a suburb, than anyone else in the world, so there is little to no reason to venture out and expose ourselves to the kind of danger (not to mention dirt and germ-ridden poverty) that exists in other countries.

I've heard this view in a lot of ways over the years, for example as a teenager when I would talk about how much I loved Indian culture and heard in response, "well, go ahead and go over there, you'll be pretty grateful when you get back." How much more ethnocentric can you get? Or one that I hear now if I talk about wanting to live in a large city which goes, "but what about your children?" That's right, there are no children in cities. Or at least none who aren't traumatized or in gangs, none who turn out to be decent adults? I don't even know. I do understand where these views come from and I want to say I can empathize, but ultimately it's not at all the way that I think about the world.

So when Brown addressed the fear of international travel, of having "bad things" happen to us as the thing that keeps us from going, and argued that the world is actually a wonderful place according to our shared religious beliefs, he was preaching to the choir. I'm already converted to international travel. But I still have a bit of nagging doubt, I still have fears that hold me back. Brown debunked the fear of having something 'newsworthy' happen to us with a statistical example, but I'm more afraid (in general) that I'm not going to live up to my own expectations, and (in terms of travel) that I'm not in it for the right reasons.

Brown mentioned briefly the idea of our perceptions as lenses, the fact that he views the world from the perspective of a bald white middle-aged male, while I for example view the world as a young white female American raised with means*, LDS values and an Air Force pilot for a father. But I'm all too aware of my own subjectivity already, in fact I think that was one of the main things I learned in the field last summer: I will never know what it is like to have been born into a different culture. And this matters to me especially because of my personality type I'm sure, my desire to understand others (evidence in the 3rd paragraph of this very entry) and also to be logical and right. Unfortunately this level of self-awareness isn't solving my problem just yet. And Brown didn't even begin to help me figure out what to do about the impossibility of objective research. I can think of a few responses to this issue (one from Language Shock which I will hopefully discuss in another post), but nothing truly satisfying.

I worry that I'm being self-centered and Western-minded to even think that the role of "researcher" is a legitimate pursuit, rather than just another word for a tourist or a xenophile. Maybe I just secretly wish to fulfill the Indiana Jones fantasies that I tell myself I don't have, or maybe I'm just a creep for wanting to know about other people's lives and cultures. Even if field research is a valuable activity, as I believe it is whenever I'm reading one of so many fascinating articles and books about linguistic and anthropological findings from the field, I have a few major problems to contend with. Like how is it justifiable to travel on a jet plane to a region with massive oil contamination? What if I see the world as more good than evil only because of my coddled upbringing? To tell the truth I wouldn't even argue whether there is more good or bad, joy or pain in the world. I don't see it as a measurable research question, which makes me doubt Brown's assertion just as I'm skeptical of his newsreel statistical analysis.

I want to at least believe that the good in the world is worth seeking after, that there is truth to be found and shared, and that the human relationships formed and the knowledge shared through international travel is worth the effort. But I'm still a little doubtful. And anyway what's the deal with the concept of truth when I just saw a Baskin Robbins sign proclaiming, "Ice cream makes you smarter"? I know I have pretty rigid expectations of truth and integrity, but a little example like this really makes me doubt the capacity of humankind. So for now I'm in a quandary. I'll try to keep thinking on this.

*On the word choice of "means." I wouldn't exactly say our family is part of the so-called 1%, but on a worldwide level we're probably pretty close. America's middle class doesn't like to think we are rich, but I never really wanted for anything as a kid. Just sayin'.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments about living in the "big, bad" city reminded me of an interview Jen had with a professor.