Dr. Hans van den Breemer

Fieldwork and globalisation: Eastern Senegal and the Gambia

Discussant: Gerti Hesseling

- Summary by Pascal van Nugteren


The aim of this contribution is to consider wether or not the objectives of the research training, conducted by students of the department of cultural anthropology and development sociology of Leiden University. First, the objective of this fieldwork training will be presented. After this, some information will be given about the way in which the globalization process expresses itself in eastern Senegal. The possible influences of the local process of globalization on communication between researcher and the local people will then be consideedr, as well as the validity of the objectives of the fieldwork training in light of these supposed changes.

 

Objectives of the fieldwork training

In the department's leaflet Doctoraal Leeronderzoek, two objectives are presented. The first objective is "to put into practice the acquired theoretical knowledge", the second is to provide "an introduction into other cultures and understanding of other ways of life". Dr. Van den Breemer used these two given objectives to form his own specification.

 

1. Personal exposition to, and immersion into an other culture, so that the researcher becomes conscious of his or her own culture, which is a codetermining factor in the production of knowledge;

2. To learn how to do an exploratory research by using a combination of research techniques;

3. To experience that data gathering is often a struggle for access to information;

4. To gain experience in evaluating, interpreting and translating information

 

Globalization in eastern Senegal

The city of Tambacounda is situated on the intersection of asphalted roads, and has its own railway station. Many government services, international projects and NGO's can be found in the center of Tambacounda, as well as religious fraternities, Roman Catholic and Protestant missions. The region attracts many tourists, who come to visit the National Park of Niokolo Koba, as well as French hunters, who reside in hunting settlements close to the park. Tambacounda itself has five hotels, and more hotels can be found along the Gambia river.

 

In 1986, Tambacounda had already electricity and telephone, the latter became a big success and resulted in the building of many private telecentres, around 1990. These telecentres do not only offer telephone services, but also faxing machines and copiers. In 1999, the first internet cafés where started up, giving the population of Tambacounda even more possibilities to connect to the "modern world".

 

Another success story is the distribution of TV sets: many households bought a set, and neighbours, friends and family frequently visit these households to watch movies and series. This allows them to observe the daily life of rich westerners. They understand that the West imposes democracy and free market, but on the other hand they can see that these principles are subordinated to western economic interests. Although the Senegalese government presents itself as being active and dynamic, in Tambacounda the opinion seems to prevail that the government does nothing for the population. There is overall unemployment, and many people consider emigration as the only solution.

 

Implications for the relationship between local people and the researcher

The process of globalization sharpens the contrast and competition between the Senegalese who have richness and status, and those who haven't. Two reasons can be given for this.

 

In the first place, through the process of emigration, many families now have sons or daughters abroad, very often in Europe. These children send money to their family in Senegal, as well as things like second hand cars, a tractor or sewing machines. When they visit Senegal for their holidays, they bring European goods, as presents. Other families, who do not have children abroad, feel excluded from this flow of means and money. Although cases of solidarity may be hidden, rivalry and jealousy can now very often be observed.

 

Secondly, as a result of the increased communication, many local people have become aware of an alternative, "Western" lifestyle. They have become more used to things like cigarettes, rice, radio, mopeds etc. All these commodities are very sought after, because they are regarded as givers of a high status, as proof of a successful communication with the modern world.

 

In other words, the individual and family aspirations have increased considerably, while the means to realize these aspirations have not. Given this growing discrepancy between aspirations and means, people look for individual benefits in the contact with Europeans, or they try to become mediators in attracting projects for their village or region.

 

The combination of the envy of the wealth of neighbours and relatives, and the personal discrepancy between aspirations and means seems to be responsible for the fact that the researcher is nowadays confronted almost daily with people who seek their own advantage, very often at the expense of the researcher. Examples of this phenomenon are: tenaciously asking for help, imposing unreasonably high prices on which hardly any negotiation is possible, or sometimes even fraud or theft. As a consequence, the student is constantly in need of protection, or at least he or she has that feeling. This can severely restrict the freedom of movement of many students, as they will always need to be accompanied, if not by their interpreter, then by member of the host family.

 

Also, as a result of the globalization process, many people do not only master their own cultural discourse, but also to a certain extent western ones. This means that they have become experts in attentively praising the merits of the researchers giving them a good feeling about themselves. However, many of them have also become clever in constructing and presenting problems to which western people are especially susceptible. In this way they seek to profit from the power of the already established relationship.

 

This ambiguous social context, in which the student must conduct his or her research, can thus provide a feeling of socially satisfying and useful communication with people from another culture; on the other hand, students often have the feeling that they are being exploited or put under strong pressure to give or to share. It is every researcher's excercise to handle this situation: to mentally survive under this stress and to carry out the proposed research.

 

The objectives of the research training under increasing globalisation

1. Exposition to, and immersion in an other culture

 

Overall, most students still find the differences in ideas and customs quite overwhelming. Many of them face unfamiliar customs and ideas like the polygynous marriage, the frequent appeals on marabouts at different occasions (in order to protect oneself against evil influences), the inferior position of women etc.

 

Personal exposition to, and immersion in an other culture is therefore still quite feasable, even in a globalised world.

 

2. To learn how to do an exploratory research by using a combination of research techniques

 

The progressive globalisation seems to make the local social relationships much more complicated, because of the jealousy and rivalry between persons and families, and because of processes of emancipation and politisation. The researcher may easily become involved, as he lives in the compound of the village head, works with an interpreter from the same family and is considered to be a rich person who selectively distibutes the means at his disposal. Such situations may have several conesquences for data gathering. People may avoid or withdraw from being interviewed, or they answer to the questions with complete disregard in giving half-truths or inadequate arguments. Moreover, the interpreter may try to prevent such problems by concealing them from the researcher. Therefore, before all the researcher has to take time to become aware of these processes around him. This means he has to do exploratory research. Interviewing, asking direct questions on certain phenomena, without having first learned by experience the local social situation and the position of the different families, seems to be fairly senseless. In order to discover the local social relationships and rivalries, participant observation seems to be more indispensable than ever before.

 

3. To experience that data gathering is often a struggle for access to information

 

The access to informants and information on certain sectors of social life has become more difficult under conditions of increasing globalisation. As argued above, local rivalries and the tendency to monopolise the realtionship with the researcher, may negatively affect the accessibility of information. In addition to this, the domains of local politics, local government and trade seem to have become less accessible, mainly on account of external demands by the international community, for example free elections, free market and transparency. The imposition of these international demands which national and local stakeholders do not always like to meet, evokes manipulation and the practice of keeping up appearances.

 

4. To gain experience in evaluating, interpreting and translating information

 

In translating into French, the interpreter has to explain many concepts to the researcher. These explanations can have their origin in the colonial period, or before, and they may be defective and selective. So, it is the task of the researcher to re-examine the content of such notions. For example, must we speak of "castes", traditional craft groups or hierarchical status groups? Must we speak of "race", "tribu" or ethnic group?

 

As far as it concerns this last objective, globalisation certainly offers the researcher promising perspectives. The number of French speaking people is rapidly increasing, at least in Mandinka villages. This makes it easier to consult informants without intervention of the interpreter. As the scope of formal education is growing, there will be local experts and Senegalese sociologists to discuss with the researcher conceptual circumscriptions of the kind discussed above. Also, with the arrival of telephone and internet, the researcher is able to contact these informants easily after his return home.