Stanford students find challenges and rewards while doing field research for center Faculty Affiliates
Many Stanford undergraduates travel during their summer vacations.
But for some, their travels are more about work than leisure. Rhea Karuturi and Daniel Crisóstomo Wainstock spent ten weeks during their summer vacation conducting field research in India and Côte d’Ivoire through the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development’s Summer Undergraduate Field Research Assistant Program.
Karuturi is a junior majoring in Science, Technology, and Society and who writes for the Stanford Daily. She traveled to Channapatna, India, to work with Graduate School of Business Associate Professor Aruna Ranganathan with the project “Innovation and Product Design by Handicraft Artisans in a Context of Global Markets.” Stanford junior Crisóstomo Wainstock, majoring in economics with a minor in mathematics, spent his time in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, working on “Socioeconomic Impacts of Urbanization in Côte d’Ivoire,” a project that is part of the Stanford Economic Development Research Initiative led by Stanford economists Marcel Fafchamps and Pascaline Dupas. Ranganathan, Fafchamps, and Dupas are all faculty affiliates of the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development.
For undergraduates interested in global poverty and development, the Summer RA program offers the invaluable opportunity to conduct real fieldwork while working with Stanford faculty. “I learned a lot about how to conduct research with people instead of just aggregating what I find curated in books already,” said Karuturi.
Her time in Channapatna was spent among artisan shops, learning how traditional craftsmanship is changing. Handicraft artisans in India have long relied on a few, traditional product designs in their production process. However, innovating and adopting new product designs could improve their economic livelihoods by opening up new markets.
The exploratory research Karuturi conducted involved interviewing dozens of local wood and lacquerware artisan toy makers to find under what conditions artisans innovate to expand their sales to an urban and global audience.
During her time in Channapatna, a couple of hours outside of Karnataka’s capital, Bangalore, she realized how different fieldwork is from studying in a classroom or library.
“Going out and approaching people with a set of prepared questions seems like a plan but in reality, it is much more complicated than that,” she learned, especially when communicating with people without much experience with surveys and controlled experiments. Even more surprising, however, was the fact that even though she grew up speaking the languages in and around the Bangalore area, she realized that “it was different to get adjusted to a situation where conversation was primarily in the local language and not at all in English.”
To top it all, fieldwork also comes with some technical surprises. “Due to the temperature and the wood dust in the artisans’ workshops, my phone, which I used for recording videos of the process and audio for the interviews, would die after a few hours,” she recalled, noting that the one item she wished she had packed before her trip was an extra battery pack for her phone.
But the challenges she encountered were all part of the valuable learning experience, Karuturi noted. This experience “made me more interested in sociology and more specifically, it gave me a better understanding of what working in India would entail. Because this was always my goal, I really valued the chance to get hands on experience navigating a new town in India and interacting with people I never would have run into otherwise.”
According to Karuturi, the opportunity for the unexpected was the biggest benefit of fieldwork. “People are complicated and surprising, and I would often go into an interview with ten questions and leave with thirty,” she remembered. “Just being present in the artisans’ homes and workshops, or visiting the shops where the designers sold their products meant I met people I would not have thought to contact, and had conversations that took on directions that I could never have anticipated.”
For Crisóstomo Wainstock, working in Abidjan meant first-hand involvement with “designing and adapting research to the local context.” As an undergraduate, it is not common to get this depth of experience with field research. “I was able to help design a questionnaire, to work with the SurveyCTO data collection software, do data analysis,” all valuable things for someone who wants to be involved with research, he said.
He spent his time in Côte d’Ivoire conducting exploratory interviews with people living in informal settlement areas in and around Abidjan, gathering administrative data in local government and public utility offices around the city, and then analyzing the information gathered. Ultimately, Crisóstomo Wainstock’s fieldwork efforts were part of an “advance party,” the first time SEDRI researchers spent time in Côte d’Ivoire. As a future economist himself, he gained valuable experience while informing SEDRI’s goal of gathering data on topics including urbanization and the impacts of migration on household welfare and economic growth from multiple African countries.
“All of the work orbited around the same goal: understanding the environment where the research would be done to make the necessary adjustments to SEDRI in order to adapt it to the local context,” he explained. Understanding the environment, in this case, meant traveling within Abidjan and to the surrounding areas, eating the local cuisine including fried bananas and the fermented cassava dish attiéké, and most importantly meeting as many people as possible.
“Talking to people is an incredible source of knowledge about a given region,” he realized. It is also a great way of making new friends, like the taxi driver who drove Crisóstomo Wainstock and his fellow researchers to an unfamiliar part of Abidjan. “He was a super cool guy from whom we learned a lot about Côte d'Ivoire. We have stayed in touch ever since,” he said.
For Crisóstomo Wainstock, doing fieldwork in Abidjan was not only one of the best experiences of his life, the experience also “strengthened the confidence that I am on the right career path of pursuing advanced research in economics.” For now, he continues to work closely with Professor Dupas as her research assistant.
The summer research assistants clearly gained valuable experience in their intended fields, but their faculty advisors also benefited from their partnership. “With Rhea in the field,” said Ranganathan, “we could make more progress on an early-stage project. She was creative and offered many ideas and suggestions that informed the direction of the project.”
Karuturi’s summer was formative to her future plans. “This project made me more interested in considering graduate school and gave me a more realistic idea of what working in the field entails. It helped curb my idealism and at the same time made me more excited because I know how interesting, challenging and rewarding it can be!”
Please note that prior to May 2019, the Stanford King Center on Global Development was known as the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development.