I’m reflecting on an interesting discussion that some of my colleagues and I had over dinner last night. We were discussing the Demographic Surveillance Program (DSS) that I am currently managing.
For those not familiar, DSS programs, generally speaking, do what you local city hall and health department do. They track births, deaths and migration and keep track of specific health outcomes such as cause of death and incidence of particular diseases. It’s pretty basic stuff, but outside the capacity of many developing countries, and the focus on health issues allows for deeper investigation of public health outcomes.
One of us, who is Kenyan, remarked that the DSS program needs to coordinate with the Kenyan government to satisfy specific data needs. I took issue with this idea.
First, as a program sponsored by a research institution, our number one priority should be the accommodation of research projects. A university receives public money to perform research projects which benefit and are directed by the scientists who run them.
Second, a research institution is not a development NGO that seeks to provide public services that countries are unwilling or unable to provide themselves. It is a fact that the Kenyan Government, like many African governments, has a poor record of providing public services. I would argue that while we should certainly offer results of our activities to the government and local stakeholders, that a university sponsored DSS should not be considered a substitute for that which governments should be doing themselves. The assumption is often that African government are incapable of doing things like tracking births and deaths, but the reality is that they are simply unwilling and the activities of NGOs often exacerbate this problem.
Third, government involvement in foreign sponsored research is a slippery slope. Many African governments are wholly or partially autocratic. They do not exist or function to benefit their people, but rather exist only to enrich themselves and maintain power. Academic research should, in no way, contribute to keeping autocrats in power and should operate independently from any political body. In fact, academia has a duty to question power both domestically and internationally. Unnecessarily submitting to government demands opens up a number of potentially problematic issues, including the suppression of results which are inconvenient to government bodies.
While research projects require government approval to function, the power of government to influence the course and outcomes of research should be limited. While many bureaucrats would take issue with this, the reality is we can always just go somewhere else.
I was just screwing around with some data we collected a bit ago. In a nutshell, I’m working to try to improve the way we measure household wealth in developing countries. For the past 15 years, researchers have relied on a composite index based up easily observable household assets (a la Filmer/Pritchett, 2001).
Enumerators enter a households and quickly note the type of house construction, toilet facilities and the presence of things like radios, TVs, cars, bicycles, etc. Principal Components Analysis (PCA) is then used to create a single continuous measure of household wealth, which is then often broken into quantiles to somewhat appeal to our sense of class and privilege or lack thereof.
It’s a quick and dirty measure that’s almost universally used in large surveys in developing countries. It is the standard for quantifying wealth for Measure DHS, a USAID funded group which does large surveys in developing countries everywhere.
First, I take major issue with the use of PCA to create the composite. PCA assumes that inputs are continuous and normally distributed but the elements of the asset index are often dichotomous (yes/no) or categorical. Further, PCA is extremely sensitive to variations in the level of normality of the elements used, so that results will vary wildly depending on whether you induce normality in your variables or not.
It’s silly to use PCA on this kind of data, but people do it anyway and feel good about it. I’m sure that some of the reason for this is the inclusion of PCA in SPSS (why would anyone ever use SPSS (or PASW or whatever it is now)? a question for another day…)
So… we collected some data. I created a 220 question survey which asked questions typical of the DHS surveys, in addition to non-sensitive questions on household expenditures, income sources, non-observable assets like land and access to banking services and financial activity.
The DHS focuses exclusive on material assets mainly out of convenience, but also of the assumption that assets held today represent purchases in the past, which can act as pretty rough indicators of household income. So I started there and collected what they collect in addition to all my other stuff.
This time, however, I abandoned PCA and opted for Multiple Correspondence Analysis, a technique similar to PCA but intended for categorical data. The end result is similar. You get a set of weights for each item, which (in this case) are then tallied up to create a single continuous measure of wealth (or something like it) for each household in the data set.
Like PCA, the results are somewhat weak. The method only captured about 12% of the variation in the data set, which sort of begs the question as to what is happening with the other 88%. However, we got a cool graph which you can see up on the left. If you look closely, you can see that the variables used tend to follow an intuitive gradient of wealth, running from people who don’t have anything at all and shit in the shrubs to people who have cars and flush toilets.
We surveyed three areas, representing differing levels of development. Looking at how wealth varies by area. we can see that there is one very poor area, which very little variation to the others which have somewhat more spread, and a mean level of wealth that is considerably higher. All of this agreed with intuition.
“Area A” is known to be very rural, isolated and quite poor. Areas B and C are somewhat better though they are somewhat different contextually.
My biggest question, though, was whether a purely asset based index can truly represent a household’s financial status. I wondered if whether large expenditures on things like school fees and health care might actually depress the amount of money available to buy material items.
Thus, we also collected data on common expenditures such schools fees and health care, but also on weekly purchases of cell phone airtime. Interetinngly we found that over all the two were positively correlated with one another, suggesting that higher expenses do not depress the ability for households to make purchases, but found that this relationship does not hold among very poor households.
There is nothing to suggest that high expenses are having a negative effect on material assets among extremely poor households located in Area A at all. It might be the case that there is no relationship at all. This could indicate something else. Though overall there might not be a depressive effect of health care and school costs on material purchases, they might be preventing households from improving their situation. It might only be after a certain point that the two diverge from one another and households are then able to handle paying for both effectively.
Also of interest were the similar patterns found in the three areas.
But all part of my grand plan.
I now hold two titles, one as an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki Institute of Tropical Medicine and another as an adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan.
However, despite having positions in both America and Japan, I am based in Kenya.
This is pretty exciting, but I guess this means I have to do something now!
But as long as folks having this conversation feel free to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of others’ motives, I’ll throw out my own hypothesis about why so many academics in the blogosphere are drawn to the anticorruption-is-a-Western-obsession-that-doesn’t-matter-much-for-development canard: academics (and I speak as a member of the tribe) enjoy feeling like iconoclasts willing to speak uncomfortable truths to power. And in the development field, a certain type of academic particularly enjoys attacking anything that the major institutions (World Bank, U.S. government, OECD, etc.) seem to be for. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – a contrarian cast of mind is often conducive to questioning received wisdom and pointing out contradictions, self-serving justifications, and the like. But in this case, I think it’s lazy and counterproductive.
Well, yeah, it’s usually lazy and unproductive. As a member of the tribe, I feel vindicated. I find that too many academics aren’t as concerned with bettering to world so much as making themselves feel good about themselves by following a political script. If we’d worry more about pragmatics and less about ideology, we might be able to help make the world a better place.
Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.
Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?
College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.
You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?
I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.
It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90’s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?
What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.
I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00’s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?
I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.
I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?
I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.
What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.
What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.
It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.
It’s a reasonable question to which no one really has an answer. I work in a field site located on Lake Victoria, the office of which is based out of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) station on Mbita Point.
We do malaria field surveys and have a large health and demographic surveillance system that has monitored births, deaths, migration and health events of nearly 50,000 people over the past six years.
The goals of the project are to monitor changes in demographics, outbreaks and changes in the dynamics of the transmission of infectious diseases and gauge the effectiveness of interventions.
While I view those as scientifically important, I don’t think that people on the ground experience any immediate benefit from scientific research activities. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, unless they’re getting a free bednet, it’s mostly an annoyance. Of course, we appreciate their cooperation and they are free to tell us to bugger off at anytime.
We are seeing rapid declines in malaria incidence, infant mortality and fertility in the communities we study. This is, of course, cause for celebration. Less kids are dying and people are having fewer of them.
In fact, the shift in the age distribution was so dramatic from 2011 to 2012, that we thought it an aberration of the data: the mean age of 12,000 people rose nearly two years from the beginning of 2011 to the latter part of 2012. Old people died off, and fewer babies were there to replace them, resulting in an upward shift in the age distribution. Cause for celebration in an area where women normally have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, who often end up malnourished, poorly housed and uneducated.
But we have to ask ourselves, how much of this is representative of trends in communities similar to the ones we study and how much is directly influenced by the presence of the research station itself?
A recent article in Malaria Journal documents the positive impacts that a research facility had on the local community:
To make the community a real partner in the centre’s activities, a tacit agreement was made that priority would be given to local people, in a competitive manner, for all non-professional jobs (construction workers, drivers, cleaners, field workers, data clerks, and others). Of the 254 people employed at the CRUN, about one-third come from Nanoro. This has strengthened the sense of ownership of the centre’s activities by the community. Through the modest creation of new jobs, CRUN makes a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the community. In addition, staff members residing in Nanoro contribute to the micro-economy there.
Another crucial benefit for Nanoro and CRUN stemming from their productive engagement was electrification for the area. This was made possible by the mayor of Nanoro leading the negotiations for extending the national electrical grid to the CRUN, and with it, to the village of Nanoro. Electrification spurred a lot of economic activity and social amenities that enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as: (1) improved water supply through use electricity instead of generator; (2) ability to use electrical devices, such as fans during the hot season (when temperatures can reach 45-47°C), lighting so students can study at night, the use of refrigeration to safely store food and the extension of business hours past sunset.
Health care services have been improved through CRUN’s new microbiology laboratory. Before this laboratory was established, local patients had to travel about 100 km to the capital city, Ouagadougou, for the service.
This agrees with my experience on Lake Victoria. The presence of the research facility (built originally in the 1960’s) and the subsequent scale up of research activities has been transformative for the area. As more and more people have moved to the area, a bridge to Rusinga Island has been built, two new ferry routes have been installed, the existing ferries have been upgraded, power has been extended to the area and finally, after years of waiting, a paved road has been built from Kisumu to Mbita Point.
..which brings back me to my initial question. It is clear that the building of research facilities can be a major spur for economic development and economic activity in a previously desolate and marginalized area. In case of Mbita Point, it is possible that these gains can be sustained even following an eventual cessation of research activities and strangled funding. In this sense, field research projects are doing at least some of the world good.
However, the gains which these communities are experience really have little to do with the research projects themselves and more to do with the influx of employment and infrastructure that come with research stations and research projects. This is non-controversial and I’m sure that the locals appreciate it.
But the quality and goals of research need to be assessed. Are the results we are seeing truly representative of communities which may be similar to the Mbita Point of the past? Are we unnecessarily influencing the outcomes of the research and then perhaps inappropriately generalizing them to contexts which little resemble our target communities? From a scientific perspective, this is troubling.
Of greater concern, however, are we claiming that gains against malaria are being made, when in fact, morbidity and mortality in communities we haven’t looked at is increasing? This could result in a dangerous shift away from scaled up ITN distributions or even a total reduction in international funding. If this happens, kids will die.