The “why” lady

When a four-year old toddler run towards you and ask you why the sky is blue, why the chicken can’t fly and how we make babies, these questions will give you a headache. Still you feel you have to answer to the kid and to find a reliable response that will probably trigger many more questions. The “why” and “how” questions period is tricky and will make you sweat. However in my country, this headache is probably also a very sweet moment, when one discovers the world around him and wants to understand it.

Many different types of formal education exist and I am not here to judge which one is better or worse. However the place of the “why” into the education seemed to me, before moving here to Laos, highly important.

And then the culture shock came. Working in the academia is very enriching; we keep on learning every day we keep on challenging our mind and trying to find answers for problems, we want to uncover. To find solutions, we need to know the context, the environment, the action and the issues surrounding those actions. To know all of these elements in a new culture, we need to live with it, to try to understand it and we need lots of observation. Thus, my favorite question, or the one, like a four-year old toddler I am constantly asking is “why” or “how”. How do you cook papaya salad? Very important since I have craving for that. Or how do you communicate with your superior? Another very crucial one when discussing about planning and budget. Or simply while doing field work, why do people act in such ways?

However these questions, here, are very few raised. Few academics will ask why and how when doing their field work. Also the list of the facts they will get, often very good, will not trigger any kind of understanding on the reasons behind. Local people are also showing very little interest in understanding the motives. The way they think and their culture do not drive them to question but more to observe. Another very strong shock I faced was understanding the questions. Some questions that made lots of sense to me were totally unclear to my interlocutor. The mind has then to run for another way of asking and thus it becomes very important to understand the context in order to try to find out how the people will understand the question.

Focus group meeting in Lak 35, Paksong District, Laos

Focus group meeting in Lak 35, Paksong District, Laos

So when I go to the field or correct a proposal, my strong push to ask “why” and “how” every two sentences is often disturbing my counterpart and this is the way I got the nice nickname of the “why” lady.

Eventually, since I love to do that and to discover different cultures in academia, I would ask you, How do you cope with understanding the motives when the situation is different from what you know? When doing field work in your own country, would you face such issue, and how do you feel about it?

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One Response to The “why” lady

  1. Elizabeth Jimenez says:

    I think the “why” question is always present when we interact in a context “other” than our own. I recall an anthropologist friend who said: “when doing field work, try to capture as much as you can the “open mouth” moment” that is the first moment when everything seems “different” (when the why question arises). Cultural norms and local institutions determine what is right to “ask” and what is not. My experience in rural communities in Bolivia is that in general they are very understanding and willing to accept “why” questions that might arise from more “urbanized” students and researchers from Bolivia and from other parts of the world as well. The duality between urban and rural populations in Bolivia has been so sharp that for a long time urban students and researches could address rural populations as “the other.” This has changed in the last few years, as universities have more students coming from rural populations, indigenous populations are well represented in political spheres and more research and publications are done by local actors and representatives of rural populations. Thus, it is no longer clear who “the other” is. Which leads me to conclude that it is no necessary to approach research in the old “anthropologist” style that needed to analyze “the other” in the most convencional way.
    Back to the “why question,” I myself experience many “why” questions when visiting Switzerland for instances, I am just learning how to ask them so I do not look “totally strange” 🙂


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