I remember when I used to hear about Economists when young. I was pretty sure they dealt with money, and that their aim in life was to make people earn as much money as they could. Little did I know I was going to choose this ‘money maker’ career later in life, and that it was going to become so much more than that.
The thing about Economics is that it is a science, plain and direct. Like other types of science, an object of study is needed – and Economics happens to focus on the most complicated, convoluted and sophisticated of them all: human beings. These objects of study are not only different and unique in every way, but also constantly evolving. And one would ask, what is the best way to tackle these objects of study, these unpredictable and dynamic beings? India offers a scenario where many samples of human beings can be found, and during these past weeks, I’ve been able to test one of the best techniques to study human beings, and at the same type, arrive to some economic realizations.
Taylor and I were meant to find out if Naandi’s coffee project was guilty of murder. Not any kind of murder, but one of the most tragic kind: cultural murder. By introducing tribal farmers to the international market and by selling their organic coffee abroad, was Naandi taking them away from their Adivasi culture? Away from their native languages? From their customs? From their values of caring and sharing with each other? Away from the type of community where neighbors know each other stories, or where children are not fatherless, but fathermany (or is it fatherplus?), because children are taken care of by everyone in the village? Was Naandi taking them towards the mainstream culture? That one where individualism triumphs and were people don’t look at each other’s eyes anymore?
Was Naandi slowly killing the Adivasi culture?
The best way to get to a verdict was by immersing ourselves in these objects of study’ usual setting: the villages. After spending some days in the office planning our visits and building quantitative analysis based on coffee procurement information, we headed to the field to start our ethnographic study (and to observe our objects of study closer).
We had already visited their working places – the coffee plantations up the hill- so now we wanted to see them in their living places. We visited two villages, where we had long conversations sitting in
straw rugs by the cattle sheds. Sitaram, a Naandi employee, helped us in these endeavors by translating from English to Telugu, while other farmers helped him translate from Telugu to Oriya – the original tribal language.
Curious minds asked about the US and Peru – my home country-: about our crops, our food, and our marriage system. There were some instances where Taylor and I needed more than a few minutes to build a solid answer, especially those inquiries about race, skin color, the tax system and the education process. We spoke Spanish, French, Chinese, and even showed Sign Language, so that the farmers could hear and see how different languages can be. At the same time, Taylor and I asked about their families, their perspective of Naandi, their new opportunities, their desires to send their children to school, their clothes, their food, and more.
We toured some of the houses and admired their kitchen fueled by wood and their many shelves of tin pots. While eating mango with chili powder, we continued our relentless inquiry: we asked about their Bibles, their books, and their stored food; we asked about their traditional nose rings, about their wedding celebrations, their homemade cigarettes, and about their favorite TV program.
Although we still have more work ahead, Taylor and I got an initial idea of the final verdict by observing and listening. What is more, I realized that my numerical pre-conclusions did not show the whole picture. Based on calculation of a low average income, I expected a certain village to have no recent purchases; opposite to my pre-conclusions, this village turned out to be going through a “golden period”. Numbers had failed, while personal interaction hadn’t.
I realized that the most numerical side of Economics lies only in its name, and that the rest of it is centered in the complicated objects of study that humans are, and who are the ones that give sense to the science.
I also realized that lots of knowledge is acquired and is given through direct interaction between the scientist and the object of study, between us (although I wouldn’t call myself a scientist just yet) and the coffee farmers. Ethnography is a tool that requires the vanishing of any levels of separation, and turns the scientist into the object of study, and the object of study into the scientist. And this is the secret behind its effectiveness.
I realized this.
And that I choose my career well.