"Our research experimented with a community-based strategy where we taught basic ethnographic techniques to a group of villagers in rural Bangladesh."
Assistant professor of international relations
Traveling to South Asia after his college graduation, Jason Cons, who grew up in Maine where there are about 43 people per square mile, experienced a culture entirely different from his own life experience. Now, at every opportunity, Cons visits Bangladesh to study this culture — working both with impoverished and landless rural populations and with groups in a near-constant state of flux between the borders of Bangladesh and India.
Through interviews and surveys, he studies border violence and instability and how agrarian change, processes like rapid growth of conservative Islamic institutions, new agricultural technologies and climate change issues, including growing worry over cyclones and flooding, are affecting the people who live there.
For his work on agrarian change, Cons partners with an organization called Nijera Kori, which means "We do it ourselves." Nijera Kori educates landless laborers in Bangladesh and helps them advocate for their own rights.
"Our research experimented with a community-based strategy where we taught basic ethnographic techniques to a group of villagers in rural Bangladesh," says Cons. The group interviewed neighbors about their experiences with microcredit, a system started in Bangladesh in the late 1970s offering extremely small loans to impoverished people to help them become self employed. Nijera Kori eschews the idea of microcredit, believing rather in empowerment of the poor through education, gender equality and self-advocating.
"The results were exciting," he says. "We saw how engaged people became, especially when they could relate their own experiences."
Allowing the people to tell their own stories gives them the ability to enunciate their struggles, situations and viewpoints in a way that advocacy on their behalf does not, says Cons.
Says Cons, "As an ethnographer, I feel like some of the most critical and important ways to understand various processes of global change are to try and understand them from the perspectives of people who are most directly affected." He is about to launch a project that will broaden the focus of his work from issues of microcredit to look at greater impacts of agrarian change: "I'm looking at community-based work opportunities to involve students in terms of reading data and planning new initiatives."
Posted October 2012