Stories from the field

Author Jennifer Mateer

Jennifer Mateer – Blog Post 2: Closed – but open for some

Everything happens over chai - social gatherings are important research opportunities! 

I’ve noticed that I consistently get things wrong in India – cultural cues are pretty much over my head. People are nice about it, understanding my foreign-ness and helping me muddle through social situations. I always thought of this as being an issue of intercultural communications, but recently I’ve recognized that there is a privilege being afforded me during this process of “getting it wrong”.  

Recently I went to dinner around 6:40pm, the lights were dim and there was no one inside, but I took little notice of it when I entered the restaurant. Most places in Chandigarh keep their lights low in order to conserve energy and inhibit the production of heat. I went inside, and the staff rushed to turn lights and music on, seat me, and bring me a menu. I ordered and had a nice meal and was well taken care of.  

About half way through dinner, a couple came in and sat down close to me. They had a lengthy discussion with the waiter before leaving in what I would consider a bad mood. Again, my cross-cultural understandings are limited so I assumed this was just another thing I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I left the restaurant that I realized I had been eating at the restaurant during a time they were closed between lunch and dinner. One more error culturally – darn! But it was more than that. I had been afforded a certain privilege of eating during closed times, one which the Indian couple was not afforded. Whether based on social, cultural, or economic capital I had been given something I wanted when other people were denied.  

I get that this is just a dinner, but I wonder how far this extends – will some of my results be impacted by this privilege? Will people tell me what I want to hear – give me the data I want – at the expense of honesty? Something to consider…     

I know that even within my research context I have been provided to opportunities that not all scholars will/would have. Recently I was invited to attend a meeting in the city of Bernala within the state of Punjab on water issues and organic farming. Not only was I given a seat at the table (both literal and figurative), but I was also provided with a translator and time to ask my questions of the group there. This included Rajendra Singh (a Stockholm water prize winner, commonly known as the “Water Man of India”), as well as community leaders and organic farmers. I was basically allowed and encouraged to turn their meeting into a focus groups to ask my questions for my research – what an opportunity! There were other Indian Ph.D. and MA students there who did not have the same opportunity as myself.  

I have also just recently returned from some rural villages in Punjab to interview more farmers on their water consumption both domestically and agriculturally. Although it is paddy planting season, I will still given a privilege of interviewing the farmers (for 30minutes up to an hour), and was allowed to go see the fields and different water management practices. 

I think as commonwealth scholars we need to go into the field knowing that we are being given an incredible opportunity, and this opportunity needs to be really well considered within our own reflexivity and research more generally. We are getting so much out of this – are we giving back enough? 



Jennifer Mateer – Blog Post 1: Free Flow of Power

I was recently reading a response to the influx of boats in the Meditteranean Sea bringing refugees into Europe. The author, Fatou Diome, discusses which people are considered valuable and which are not and how this means that certain individuals are left to die at sea instead of being helped by various Navy and other military resources.  

I thought this spoke to our discussion on the commonwealth, and in particular the way in which the “big 4” would like to have a more relaxed visa process, without including the rest of the commonwealth country. In this instance, the “big 4” “have the right passport… [and with this] passport, you go anywhere around the world, and act like you run those place, with your pretentious demeanor”.  Diome is discussing this in relation to the EU, however with a similar commonwealth migration plan, there would be “the free flow of the powerful, the ones who have the money, and the right kind of passports” and restrictions for those individuals without the same power. This reinforces the problematic and neocolonial hierarchy of the commonwealth and is something to be deeply considered.  We “see on the headline the flow of African migrants arriving in Europe but you don’t speak of the Europeans going in Africa” – how could we ensure the commonwealth migration was different? I know from my time in Rwanda, the influx of Europeans hindered the formal economy in many ways (volunteers on gap years taking jobs away from Africans because they would do the work for free), while also increasing the tourist economy (restaurants geared at foreigners were doing well and employing Rwandans). 

Being in India currently really highlights this for me as India and Canada are both commonwealth countries, and I would have certainly enjoyed an easier Visa process for entry into the country. In fact, there was a lot of drama around getting a Visa! I wonder though if Indians would be given the same advantage if there were a more relaxed system in place? Are Indian bodies considered more of a threat to Canada (ie. they’ll use up social resources without adding to the country… they will bring antiquated customs and social norms etc) than my Canadian body in India? To be clear, I do not hold this fears about Indians in Canada, but the xenophobia in Canada exists.       

I think this also relates to the idea of worth – the worth people hold either intrinsically or not. Within resource management and water rights framework that I work in, worth plays into how decisions around allocation are made. In many ways, those people who have limited water access are considered unimportant or unworthy of political attention and as such water flows away from them (metaphorically). Water instead flows towards power, towards money, and in-effect flows towards those considered “worthy” by the state. Rather than privileging some with visas and water rights, shouldn’t we strive towards a more equitable relationship within the commonwealth and the world more generally?


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