By Eva Ming, master student
Motivated by the first results of the FATE-team of Nepal about the manifold benefits of collective organizing, e.g. access to financial services and acquisition of new knowledge and skills (KC et al., 2016; Upreti et al., 2016), I set out to Nepal for my fieldwork. I had in mind an idea of collective organizing as a form of grassroots solidarity with strength in numbers. Results from the household survey revealed striking differences between the numbers of participants in collective organizing by gender, where 56% of the women and 18% of the men who were interviewed responded that they engage social groups like cooperatives, credit and saving associations or mother groups (Upreti et al., 2016, p. 140). This notable difference in the number of participants by gender that indicates a feminization of organizing aroused my interest. My master thesis thus aims to investigate the feminized space of collective organizing in cardamom farming based in Eastern Nepal.
The time in the field was very enriching. I learned about the way these cooperatives and social groups function, how the people engage with these groups and each other and how the involved people experience their participation. However, it was also challenging, as there were so many new things for me to experience and to learn. And then, there were these elusive moments of confusion, which I hardly noticed at first.
From the beginning, even before I went to the field, I struggled with the concept of group. There are many ways to look at them. From the point of view of organizational sociology, social groups can be conceptualized as organizations with elements like membership, aims, structures, decision-making processes and resources (Preisendörfer, 2005). However, the risk of embracing such an organizational perspective is that groups may be defined too mechanically and important contributing factors such as power relations may be overlooked Groups can also be understood in terms of collective action. Here, the focus is on the actions taken by a group of people, rather than on the groups themselves (Meinzen-Dick et al., 2004). Yet another approach considers groups as a bundling of individuals, who share similar characteristics in their social milieu. Groups are then considered as less of an assembly of people, who unite as a response to particular motivations, but as a categorization, imposed from outside. The categorization may not exist in social reality but only from a theoretical point of view (Bourdieu, 1985; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1996). For example, people with the same educational background and similar economic situation may be summarized as one class without the requirement that they know each other or share a sense of belonging to this class.
Based on this preliminary review, we can see that there are several important dimensions of collective organizing – the groups themselves (including elements like structure, resources, aims, etc.), the actors involved and the actions, which are conducted by the groups. These different dimensions are interlinked, yet, they are not the same.
Considering the scope of these interpretations, I thus struggled with the question about what I was examining: Do I look at the groups as entities or do I look at the individuals who form the groups? Are these individuals, who constitute the group, the group itself or is the group more than its parts? Sometimes, when I poured over my research concept, I had the feeling that I was looking at an ambiguous image. Depending on which aspect I focused on, I saw completely different images. In the end, I decided that, at least for the data collection, I needed to investigate both aspects – the groups and their internal structure as well as the individual actors and their involvement in the groups.
The moments of confusion continued to occur while I was in the field. First of all, two general observations in relation to collective organizing surprised me. The first observation is the importance of external actors. Even though, local cooperatives exist, collective organizing is strongly influenced by external actors (i.e. state officials, local governments and members of NGOs). They are involved in forming the groups and provide knowledge and other resources. The second observation is that almost every cooperative or social group is involved in financial services. Even if the group was originally formed with a different purpose in mind, today, most of them offer loans and encourage savings as a part of their main activities. So, I started to realize that collective organizing is not the bottom up process I imagined when I set out for the field, but far more complex with influences from many different actors with their own interests.
My confusion became stronger as I delved further into the subject. The experiences about their membership, which the women shared with me, revealed an ambivalence in the feminized space of collective organizing.
On the one hand, I’ve met strong, brave and very engaged women, who are proud to be part of a group and who told me about the benefits:
“Before, I used to work only at home. But now, I get the chance to attend meetings and to go to places, which are work-related with the cooperatives. And then, we have built the capacity to speak in a mass, which I did not use to do before.” (Female interview partner, 49 years).
“I have more friends now. I know people from other places. […] And there is no difference between poor and rich in the village. Everyone is part of it. We have also people from far away, like the neighbor village […]. And I don’t have to depend on my husband for household expenses. […] And then, if I need, I can take loans and use it.” (Female interview partner, 46 years)
Through their membership, the women gain access to financial services, which are sparsely accessible in remote areas, and independence from their husbands’ financial resources; they have the opportunity to network socially and exchange knowledge with other women. Through these opportunities, they development self-confidence and the courage to speak in public. In other words, the female cardamom farmers begin to claim participation in public spaces and social life.
On the other hand, the women told me of new dependencies that they become entangled in through their participation. They are bound to the groups through contracts and debts, often for a long time. Furthermore, there is a mutual dependency amongst the members, because they decide about loan applications from each other and because their own savings are used to provide loans. This is aggravated in groups, where members have to vouch for each other and then have to fulfil outstanding debts with their own monetary resources, if another member is unable to pay back the loan:
“These groups give money without putting any property down. But they have their own members as a witness. So, if the person takes a loan and cannot pay back in time, so they, the persons of the group, have to give their savings. They [the groups] will take the money, nevertheless what. They don’t care if I am poor or if I cannot pay back the loan. But the person, who had stayed, or all the group members, they take the savings from their own account, just to pay the loan back in time.” (Female interview partner, 49 years)
Linked to these dependencies, the potential threat of indebtedness weighs heavily. The women shared stories with me about family tragedies, because members had been caught in vicious cycles of indebtedness:
“I am not talking about me or my members. But it [the membership in credit and saving associations] has given like mental problem to other people also. Because they take loans and if they cannot pay back the loans, then someone has. Somebody had to run away and even, they have died. And they are in loss, because they take a big amount of loan and they cannot pay back.” (Female interview partner, 46 years)
In addition, many credit and saving associations are formed and run by NGOs. While these NGOs have helped to empower women, the organizations also profit from providing loans as they earn money with interest rates levied on the principal amounts borrowed. Most of these NGOs prefer women-only group, because women are considered to be more reliable in paying back the loans. So, not only do the NGOs profit at the expense of the women, but a situation is created where the responsibility of taking loans and paying them back lie mostly on the shoulders of women.
Considering all of these factors and interdependencies, every time I thought I understood something, another piece of information added a new way of understanding the complexities around collective organizing. Again, I had the feeling that I was looking at an ambiguous image. The longer I was in the field, the more often this image of collective organizing as ambiguous occurred to me. Then one day, I was conducting an interview with a member of a saving and credit group that took place in her living room. On the wall of this room was a drawing that attracted my attention. I like it and looked at it several times. Only after the interview, the research participant brought to my attention, that the drawing was an ambiguous image.
Ambiguous images are something fascinating and a broad range of people have dealt with it, as a brief web-based search reveals. Ambiguous images are images and figures that can be seen from at least two perspectives, thus encourage at least two different interpretations. It is not possible to see both interpretations simultaneously. Only one perspective appears at a time. Nevertheless, both perspectives are versions of one and the same picture.
What does it mean for my research, if I carry this analogy of collective organizing as an ambiguous image with me? Basically, it reminds me that there is neither an easy nor a final answer. The analogy points out that reality is (or may seem) contradictory, because there exist different perspectives and interpretations of the same picture. This does not imply that is impossible to resolve these contradictions. It might be that someone with more knowledge about the context is able to integrate the different perspectives into one coherent whole. However, in my case, with my background, conducting research within a context that is not very familiar to me, it means that I encounter contradictions, which I have to withstand. There is the ambition to arrive at a concise conclusion by the end of the thesis. You would like to set up a balance sheet to make a clear statement. However, reality is more complex than that and it may be that research, which aims at such precise statements, is incomplete and unable to capture the essential of a given phenomenon.
The analogy further reminds me that the perceived contradictions do not deny the truth of one perspective. For my research, this means that cooperatives and social groups may empower the women under certain conditions, while creating new sources of dependencies and vulnerabilities in other aspects. The analogy underlines that dual perspectives on groups may exist side by side and it implies that it is my duty as a researcher to keep an open mind and to try to uncover and include these different perspectives.
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