The Joy of Uprooting (One’s Own) Assumptions

Editor’s Note: There’s much to find on the Internet that is either ethnographically-inspired or that may inspire ethnographers.  Here our guest contributor Luisa Beck offers some comments on a blog post and a TED talk. She presents them in the style of the original weblogs that curated good finds from around the Internet. – Jenna

This week, a bit of browsing indulgence led me to discover a blog post and TED talk with a common theme – the delight of having one’s own assumptions undone.  It’s an experience ethnographers often seek out. But it’s refreshing to hear it described by others as something positive, even joyful.

In a recent blogpost, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Civic Media Lab and co-founder of Global Voices, an international blogging platform, describes a trip to Kenya in which he and his students wanted to test out an idea for a piece of hardware designed to help people in nations where electric power is scarce sell power to their neighbors. Once in Kenya, Ethan and his grad students travel to Baba Dogo, an intended industrial area on the outskirts of Nairobi where thousands of people live (the people Ethan talks to call it an “upscale slum”, using terms that have become common in a place where slum tourism is a lucrative business). They discover that their assumptions about power scarcity, people’s reluctance to pay for power, and the effort it would take to convince people to start micro-scale power businesses, were wrong. People living in Baba Dogo had ways of dealing with power scarcity that made sense only in the cultural, social and economic context particular to the place.  “We had to understand that not all commerce in the neighborhood was about the exchange of money for goods or services – often businesses provide favors to one another in complex webs of obligation,” Ethan writes.

He is candid about the potential difficulty of trying to wear the engineer and ethnographer’s hat. The engineer must necessarily simplify a problem in her lab in order to find a solution. But that simplification can stand at odds with the complexity of the environment her solution is meant to improve. “For me, the visit to Baba Dogo – and other visits my students took while we were in Kenya – is a helpful counterbalance to the unlimited possibilities of the Media Lab. I’ve argued for years that culture matters as much as technology when you’re designing new products. Being surrounded by roboticists and synthetic biologists is a great inspiration to look for novel technical inspirations, but it’s worth trying these ideas out in the field early and often.” Ethan is a master at wearing multiple hats. By candidly describing his experiences in Baba Dogo, he gains insights that lead to alternative strategies that then lead to better solutions.

Now to the TED talk.

[ted id=652]

I’ve never heard anyone describe the experience of having their assumptions uprooted quite as as beautifully as Chimamanda Adichie does. Through her storytelling, the Nigerian writer finds a way of turning what could be a finger-wagging “don’t simplify” into something positive and encouraging. Chimamanda describes the comfortable life she had growing up in a middle-class Nigerian family and the single story she had of Fide, the family’s houseboy. She shares her story of Fide’s poverty and his family’s life in a rural village. It had never occurred to her that someone in Fide’s family could actually make something. Chimamanda celebrates how startled she was when she visited the family and Fide’s brother presented the beautifully patterned basket he made with dyed raffia.  Then she turns the table on her American audience. She tells us that after moving to the US to attend college there, her roommate once asked her to play her “tribal music” and was only too surprised to see Chimamanda pull out her Mariah Carey tape. With humor and an underlying incredulity, she challenges the story Americans tell about Africa. Too often, it’s a single story of catastrophe. But with her talent for storytelling, Chimamanda manages to make those listening to her talk feel sheer fascination just by imagining the many complex stories yet to be told. She ends by saying that “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

In the worlds of research, journalism, business (well actually, in American society in general), it’s virtuous to abstract, shave off, simplify. And to a problem solver, that makes perfect intuitive sense. Solutions emerge once they’re distilled from a sea of complexity. What I like so much about Ethan’s blog and Chimamanda’s talk, is that both step back and discover complexity without abandoning the problem they’re up against. They navigate a space that throws open questions. It’s a space that’s uncertain and fragile but also the only one in which long-term, sustainable solutions can be found.

Luisa likes to wear the hat of a student, a researcher, a journalist, an activist and traveler (in no particular order). In fact, she is happiest when she manages to fit all those hats onto her rather curious head. (This is the part of the bio where Luisa should list her blogs and websites. Sadly, Luisa is still stuck in the lovely green comforts of Evernote. But she hopes to soon publish her projects and musings in a publicly accessible format. In the meantime, you are more than welcome to reach her via Email ( and keep bugging her to finally get on that.)

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