Yesterday, I came across this story by Malcolm Gladwell on BBC News about how the Vietnam War might have followed a dramatically different course if those in charge had, essentially, listened.

The core of the story was how two individuals interpreted interviews with the Vietcong, as part of an effort to assess their morale and likelihood of US victory over them.  Goure (somewhat the antagonist of the story) was convinced, from his readings of interview transcripts, that the Vietcong were on the cusp of surrendering, and he convincingly presented his “findings” to the U.S. military.  However, Kellen (the protagonist) was more circumspect:

Years later, he would say that his rethinking began with one memorable interview with a senior Vietcong captain. He was asked very early in the interview if he thought the Vietcong could win the war, and he said no.

 But pages later, he was asked if he thought that the US could win the war, and he said no.

 The second answer profoundly changes the meaning of the first. He didn’t think in terms of winning or losing at all, which is a very different proposition. An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.”

This exemplifies the need for close attention and an open mind when trying to assess people’s viewpoints. Gladwell’s article describes a far more dramatic context than most of us studying small-scale fisheries will ever experience.  However, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my relatively brief time “playing social scientist” is that important, fascinating nuances in interviews and direct observations are easily missed.  I’ve noticed a strong tendency, in myself and others, to let preconceived notions lull us into complacency during such fieldwork; when we hear or see something that supports our (often superficial and oversimplified) assumptions, it’s very tempting to say, “Well, there you go! I knew it. It makes sense, of course. All so neat and easy!”

well, we’ve confirmed all of our preconceived notions – that was fast! time for coconuts!

Diverse assumptions and misconceptions have popped up during my own fieldwork and my observations of other field projects.  “Fishers don’t pay attention to the type of scales the sea turtles have!”; “Fisheries must be declining at this spot!”; “Indigenous people fish more sustainably!”; “People don’t want to fish – give them money or something else to do, and they’ll stop fishing!”; “I can tell if the fisher thinks something is ‘Important’ versus ‘Very important’ by his tone of voice!”; “Women don’t fish!”  Clint, a coral reef researchers who is an active member of SAFRN, details a related revelation in his recent blog post here.

Additionally, I’ve often witnessed interviewers not paying close enough attention to how the interview is going.  They don’t think critically through the process; they don’t stop and think, “Wait…that answer seems a bit odd…let me make sure the fisher understood the question.”   Reliable interviewers need to be fully present and actively engaged in the interview.  It’s more than reading out questions and jotting down the answers – it’s an organic, high-effort, intensive activity that requires attention to detail, common sense, and adaptability.

Interviewing a fishers' association member, with my right-hand-man Ely - he soon learned how my mind works during interviews, and was fantastic at anticipating follow-up questions and points of clarification.
Interviewing a fishers’ association member, with my right-hand-man Ely – he soon learned how my mind works during interviews, and was fantastic at anticipating follow-up questions and points of clarification.

Fortunately, I suppose, two of my more stressful tendencies – (over)analyzing what people say and a hyperactive mind – has proven very helpful for me in my interviews.  Even though my language skills have been conversational at best for most of my field sites, I keep my ears perked for key or unusual words, my eyes open for visual cues of how the interviewee is responding, and my mind churning as I assess each nugget of information as it comes, searching for connotations and implications and complications.

It’s a state of mind that I’ve tried to teach my field assistants; part of that training process includes providing examples where “lazy listening” has resulted in misinterpretations.  It is not an easy thing to teach, as these skills seem somewhat intangible.  Perhaps the best resource I’ve come across for this is H. Russell Bernard’s text, “Research Methods in Anthropology.”  Recommended to me by a fellow student (thanks, Jill!) when I was just starting interdisciplinary research, this book provided a fantastic introduction far beyond instructions on “how to do anthropology.”

Tela – one of the best interviewers I’ve worked with – makes sure that she and the fisher understand each other while she asks him about dolphins in the area.

There are times in the field when you’ll be exhausted and overworked, and you won’t feel like dealing with the potential complexities that are revealed by careful listening (well, it was certainly true for me many times).  To quote Gladwell’s story again, “Listening is hard because the more you listen, the more unsettling the world becomes. It’s a lot easier just to place your hands over your ears and not listen at all.”  Small-scale fisheries are almost bewilderingly complex, and it can be frustrating when a simiple question – such as gear use – balloons out into something immensely time- and effort-consuming.  But, the real reason we’re out there in the first place is to learn more about these valuable, critical fisheries, and whatever our motivation, be it “science for the sake of science” or management to ensure food security for a community, thoughtful and responsible listening is a necessity.

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