What are the costs of studying over-researched places?

Over at Twitter, Cat Button recently advertised a Call for Papers on “Over-researched Places”. Fascinating right? Wondering about research spaces that are revisited and researched repeatedly, she calls for reflexive interrogation of the issue of “researcher saturation and its consequences”.

Over-researched places in urban India

The idea immediately appealed to me. In development research across urban India, metropolitan regions — the big five of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta have been, in my opinion, over-researched. You have now oft-repeated narratives of Bangalore’s Silicon Valley story vs. it’s growing inequality; Mumbai’s flood management and inherent ‘resilience’; Delhi bastis and regular evictions. But we hear less of Tier II and Tier III cities which are also spaces of dynamism and aspirational change; spaces where ‘step-migrants’ often come to before moving to big cities; and sites where environmental problems have still not become the behemoths they have in our metropolitan cities.

Great CfP on #over-researched places! Reminds me of the Indian urban studies landscape and how our metropolitan cities are researched to death. What about the likes of Bidar, Begusarai, Banswara, Bomdila? https://t.co/NZop7m2hK3

— Chandni Singh (@_chandnisingh) January 4, 2018

In itself, repeated research in a place is not a negative methodological practice; in fact, development researchers often bemoan the lack of longitudinal studies and the diminishing practice of long-term village studies. However, conducting research in the same places, even if by different researchers, with different questions, and operating in different sectors, potentially drives what you look for and what you find. Some examples?

  • Over-researched as a process of obscuring: In climate change adaptation research in India’s cities, the over-researched are pretty conspicuous. The usual suspects are Surat, Gorakhpur, and Indore, regularly written about and quoted as ‘success stories’ mostly because of a long-term ACCRN project that funded research-based adaptation implementation in the cities. My concern is that such over-researched places tend to obscure other places which perhaps need more attention and, in some cases, can provide additional insights to the issue of implementing sustainable adaptation. Moreover, even if different PD students visit these sights, previous conceptual frames and methodological tools tend to colour their enquiries (similar to what Cat calls ‘Ghosts of Researchers Past’). 
  • Lacunae within the over-researched: As my colleague Amogh pointed out on Twitter, over-researched ‘places’ often lead to \’over-researched sectors’. For example, Bangalore’s water and transportation issues have received a tremendous amount of research attention, with much lower commentary on energy, food, or employment. Even within sectors such as water, he rightly points out that there are still big data gaps (such as on groundwater). In Delhi, (the lack of) equitable water provisioning and housing tend to overshadow issues around informal livelihoods, shrinking commons, etc. While there is a reason that the over-researched sectors are important (they have, over time, been identified as critical issues in the city), they might push researchers to continue to study what has been studied. The data is available, there is a discourse to embed one’s arguments into or against. Such peripheralisation of sectors and certain groups within the spaces that are over-researched means than not only change and dynamism but also creativity and novelty may get sidelined.  
  • Forgotten places or the un-researched: Finally, there are some places that remain completely un-researched. Here, I feel fit the smaller cities in India. Especially in climate change and environmental research, these spaces are seldom researched and if so, only as part of large-scale studies. The danger of the un-researched is that we end up telling half-stories and overlook critical spaces of challenges and opportunity.  

But what of under-researched places?

I went the other way in my PhD and researched a completely under-researched site in South Rajasthan. My choice was driven by the fact that water scarcity has been over-studied in Rajasthan\’s arid northern districts with lesser emphasis on the relatively wetter but nevertheless water-scarce southern districts. Even within South Rajasthan, some districts such as Udaipur, are over-researched and over-implemented in — NGO friends joked that each village in Udaipur has three NGOs operational — one each for education, environmental, and health issues.

One of the few unexpected things I found in under-researched places. Afeem (opium) plantations in Pratapgarh.

I enjoyed exploring new things in Pratapgarh, the under-researched place, which was the site of my PhD research. However, I did face issues specific to sites not studied before. Gaps in longitudinal data were a major challenge. There are no papers and very little grey literature on Pratapgarh’s history of socio-political marginalisation, its peculiar geography of basalt under-rock, its development trajectory, it’s agricultural transformation and pertinent for me, its response to drought and water scarcity. So triangulating as I went along, I followed my supervisor’s advice closely, “be like a bird, collect everything you can to make your nest”.

Despite liaising with a fantastic NGO that eased my entry into the research locations, the lack of previous research in the area meant gaining entry was much tougher. I did not have the social capital that researchers of over-researched places can draw upon, I built my networks and garnered local interest in my work as I went along. I did not have longer-term datasets that they can compare their findings to. I did not have a cohort of scholars already talking about and publishing research from the location.

And so, both over- and under-researched areas have their pitfalls and bonuses. What is crucial is to keep in mind that where one does one’s research critically shapes what we study, how we study it and perhaps, what we find. Any thoughts on this? Why not submit a paper to Cat Button’s RGS session?

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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