Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

The Nepal Project

Kontaktperson: Steen Wackerhausen (filsw@hum.au.dk) | professor | RUML/Institut for Filosofi & Idéhistorie

Description of the project (Sept. 2008, abridged version)

Community living, human flourishing, and the infrastructure of communication. A case study of Solukhumbu’s transition from isolation towards globalization, by Poul Erik Nielsen, Nina B. Schriver (project manager), and Steen Wackerhausen (head of project).

(A) Project background, motivation, and relevance

1. Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu in Solukhumbu: from isolation towards globalization

Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu in the Solukhumbu district of Nepal are very isolated places. There are no roads and trains to connect the people of these remote areas in Solukhumbu to other parts of Nepal or the outside world. A traveler’s only option is to walk the steep and narrow mountain trails and this requires good health and physical fitness. Even then, this is only an option certain times each year and not in the winter or the rainy season. Assuming the weather conditions are acceptable, it takes 2 to 5 full days of mountain walking to reach the nearest bigger village where other means of transportation besides walking are possible. But Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu, are not only physically isolated, but also isolated in the sense that the regions lack other significant means of communication with the outside world. Only a small minority of the residents have access to radio, and hardly any at all have access to a telephone or satellite television. The remoteness, inaccessibility, and mountainous character of the three regions in Solukhumbu – combined with the general lack of electricity – have made radio or other avenues of electronic communication physically or practically impossible for the vast majority of the residents. Consequently, the inhabitants (comprised of Hindus and Buddhists) of the three regions are still living in pronounced isolation from the outside world (and to a higher degree than nearly all other substantially populated areas in present-day Nepal). But all this will change radically in the next few years, beginning in the late autumn of 2008 with the NGO-supported introduction of widespread community radio facilities in Solukhumbu, followed by other expansions of the infra-structure of communication the coming years. Whatever the consequences will be, the people of Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu will experience a rapid and complex process of transformation from isolation towards globalization.

2. The distribution of radio in the process of globalization and knowledge dissemination

The widespread availability of community radio in Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu in Solukhumbu will be a new phenomenon, but the endeavors by many NGOs to make community radio available (and to help expand the infra-structure of communication in other ways) in remote areas in Third World Countries are not new. In Nepal alone, over 140 community radios have been established, many with the support of NGOs. Also in Africa and in remote areas of South America similar endeavors to “distribute” community radio as well as television and mobile phones have and are taking place. A basic motivation for developing community radios is often to increase the poorly educated peoples’ level of knowledge with respect to health, business, children and school, women’s rights and so on. In this connection, the idea is also to give people in remote areas “a voice”. Not only to create a framework for dialog between the inhabitants, but also to bring their “voices” to the politicians. Another (supplementary) motivation concerns the fact that we live in the age of globalization when local communities and countries become/need to become increasingly interconnected and interdependent in numerous ways. Consequently, if a community, however remotely located, does not join the modern world then it will be “left behind” and gradually disempowered due its lack of the necessary resources and competences required for human and community flourishing in the future. Therefore, many activities are undertaken by governments, the UN, and NGOs, as well as local communities themselves, to integrate the geographically or otherwise isolated and remote communities into the modern globalized world. As communication technologies play constitutive roles in globalization and knowledge dissemination, making radio available in remote communities has often been a priority and hence implemented.

3. A lack of longitudinal research

Given the widespread “distribution” of radio and other modern means of communication by NGOs and other organizations in Third World Countries, surprisingly few scientific studies have been done, and those that have are often “postfactum” studies. Hardly any in-depth, longitudinal (before-after) studies have been done, and none at all have had the scope and magnitude of the present project. Though there is a lack of scientific studies in the field, we have seen many semi-scientific (“internal” and not formally published) reports, often initiated or executed by the funding (or financially dependent) institutions themselves. It should therefore come as no surprise if the (potentially biased) conclusion is often that the availability of community radios (made possible by the funding NGOs, institutions, etc. in question) has been very successful in creating the intended positive effects (typically evaluated in terms of number of listeners, numbers of programs “on air,” types of programs and hours of listening). But even if the reports are true and the availability of radio (and other supplementary expansions of the infrastructure of communication) shows positive effects in the surveys undertaken, the question is still how the community radios affect human flourishing. A central issue to discuss in this respect is who can define – and who is in a legitimate position to define – the criteria of positive community life and human flourishing, etc. Are the criteria (explicitly or implicitly) defined by the NGOs or governmental institutions involved? And if so, are these criteria adequate and warranted, not least in relation to the local community in question? And even if, according to members of the local community, the introduction of community radios does contribute very positively to community living, it (and other means of communication) might also generate a destabilizing process that creates new conflicts, aggravates old ones, and destabilizes established communal norms and practices. And consequently, according to differently positioned members of the local community, the availability of radio deteriorates community living and human flourishing significantly. More often than not, questions like these are not raised or discussed in depth in the reports in question.

4. The present research project: urgency and importance

Only counting Nepal, more than 140 community radios (many of which were introduced or are supported by (western) NGOs) are now established and widely “distributed” geographically. But no longitudinal and broadly-based scientific study of the multiple social processes, changes, states of affair, conflicts and so forth initiated or influenced by the introduction of community radio (and other new means of communication) has yet been made. And the opportunity to do so is coming to an end: Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu in Solukhumbu are some of the very last isolated geographical regions (with a substantial population) in Nepal without widespread radio and other modern means of communication. So the intention of the present project is exactly to grasp this (last and unique) chance and undertake a longitudinal, broadly-based, and multi-disciplinary study of the social phenomena and changes initiated or influenced by the availability of community radio (and other expansions of the local infrastructure of communication) in these regions of Solukhumbu.

A research project like the present one will provide not only knowledge of academic interest in several disciplines, but also valuable and useable knowledge relevant to the local communities, initiators of community radios, radio managers, NGOs, governmental institutions and the like.

We have been planning the present longitudinal and broadly-based research project for nearly 10 months (including several trips to Nepal and weeks of planning locally there). The overwhelming interest that this project has already generated in the planning period from NGOs, radio managers, official institutions, and representatives of the local communities in Nepal clearly testifies to the relevance and practical value of the project.

(B) Project purpose and research clusters

The potential effects of Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu’s forthcoming and swift transition from elative isolation towards globalization, caused by radical changes in the intra-structure of communication, are indeed numerous. Though the project is wide in scope and of an interdisciplinary as well as multidisciplinary character, we are fully aware that the final battery of research questions posed does not cover all the potentially relevant phenomena in the field. The selected research questions are “biased” in the sense that they are an expression of the shared or individual interests of the project members, the project’s associates, and our close partners in Nepal.

The research questions of the project are organized into a series of research clusters (“semi-projects”), each with its main focus, research interests, and “family” of questions. As will be clear below, the different clusters (and their associated focus, interests, and questions) overlap to some extent and are nearly all complementary. Consequently, answers to several research questions in one cluster will often be of relevance to the research interests of other clusters. And as each cluster typically represents research interests of an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary character, a group of researchers with different educational and disciplinary backgrounds is associated with each cluster. Given the scope, complexity, and interdependent character of the phenomena found in our field of research, we consider the “overlapping” and supplementary nature of the research clusters, as well as the multi-disciplinary character of the research groups associated with each cluster, to lend significant practical, methodological, and theoretical momentum to the present project.

All the clusters below can be subsumed under the headings of ‘community living’ and ‘human flourishing’ (in the broad sense of these terms). This is, of course, no coincidence, in that precisely improved community living (however this is defined) and, consequently, improved conditions for human flourishing (however this is defined) are often claimed (in more or less similar wordings) to be the values motivating NGOs, governmental institutions, local committees and the like in their endeavors to develop and expand the local infrastructure of communication in order to help the presently isolated and “left-behind” communities to move from relative isolation towards globalization. We fully acknowledge, though, that the selected clusters include neither all aspects of community living nor all phenomena and activities of significance to the possibilities of human flourishing.

The overall purpose of the project is to study the character of and changes in community living and the conditions of human flourishing caused by the widespread availability of community radio and other changes in the infra-structure of communication in three regions (Mukli, Deusa and Jubu) in Solukhumbu while these regions are undergoing rapid transition from relative isolation towards globalization.

The project’s complementary research clusters and goals

(1) The social and demographic data. Vital in itself but also highly relevant to the other research clusters is the knowledge that will be provided by a quantitative survey and mapping of essential social and demographic data in Solukhumbu, both before and after the widespread availability of community radio (and other new means of communication). Variables in the baseline study include age, gender, education, income, and disease.

(2) The infra-structure of communication. Given the essential role that the coming widespread availability of community radio plays in this project, it is essential to understand the character and changes of the infra-structure of communication from the beginning of this project to its completion. Not only is a detailed mapping included of current inter-personal communication and current radio (levels of availability, listener surveys and ratings, type of programs aired, languages used, etc.), but also a mapping and an analysis of the potential arrival and availability of other means of communication (television, mobile phones, etc.). We expect that the availability of satellite television, mobile phones and related technology in Solukhumbu will increase in the coming 3-4 years, starting with the regions less geographically isolated than the three regions we are studying. In contrast, community radio will be available to the residents of all three regions in Solukhumbu at the same time (November 2008). The research methods used will be both quantitative and qualitative.

(3) Social perception and imagination. The primary aim is to acquire knowledge about (i) how residents with different social positions perceive (understand, conceptualize, value) essential social “categories” in the community (gender, cast, religion, education, etc.), (ii) what they hope for or fear in the future, and (iii) if there will be major changes in answers given regarding (i) and (ii) as the community quickly moves from relative isolation towards globalization. On a more concrete level, the research questions focus on, for example, how the existing gender roles are perceived (and imagined in the future), how the cast system is perceived and valued, etc. The source of data will be qualitative interviews.

(4) Conflicts. The main goals are (i) to acquire knowledge about the typical conflicts (in families, between generations, casts, etc.) before and after the widespread availability of community radio (and other new means of communication), (ii) to describe and analyze potential changes in conflict types, forms, frequencies, and so on over time, and (iii) to relate these dissimilarities, if possible, to the changes in the infrastructure of communication. As is well known, until recently Nepal has had its share of violent political conflicts, but the regions we are studying have not experienced the level of widespread killings known from other regions in Nepal (the remoteness of the regions being one of the reasons for this). Still, we expect to hear about old as well as new political tensions and conflicts. Examples of research questions: Will new types of conflicts (say, in relation to gender or the younger generation) turn up as the residents, by reason of the widespread availability of radio, get more information about “other ways of life” than those well known and lived locally? In which ways and where (if at all) do the changes in the infrastructure of communication significantly destabilize locally established norms, social roles, and practices, and create new types of problems and conflicts, etc.? The main sources of data will be qualitative interviews and participatory observation.

(5) Topics of attention, decision making, and discursive participation. The primary aims are (a) to record the topics that obtain (positive or negative) community attention, how the decision making processes take place, who the epistemic and moral authorities are, and who is allowed discursive participation; (b) to study potential changes in such as the types of topics drawing community attention, the decision making procedures, and the epistemic and moral hierarchy, and (c) to elucidate if these changes are related to changes in the infrastructure of communication in Solukhumbu. The main sources of data will be qualitative interviews and participatory observation, but these will be supplemented by quantitative data and written policies about local decision making, etc.

(6) Health and disease. The primary aims are (a) to record over time the demographic distribution of diseases and major health practices, (b) to acquire knowledge about the varied local understandings of health, illness, and disease and about traditional healing practices, and (c) to determine whether any of the potential changes in these areas, (a) and (b), are related to the changing infra-structure of communication, not least the airing of health educational radio programs. The research questions include: What are the local assumptions about the sources/causes of health and disease? What is known about bacteria, infection, and hygiene? What are the typical healing practices in relation to illness and diseases? What are the major types of diseases, and how are they distributed demographically? What are the caretaking practices in relation to the handicapped, the very old, and the dying? Both qualitative and quantitative data will be collected.

(7) The good life. The guiding research questions are (a) how the (differently positioned) people in Mukli, Deusa, and Jubu see ‘the good life’, and (b) if, over time, potential changes in the perception of ‘the good life’ are the results of or affected by changes in the infrastructure of communication (and more widely, by the Solukhumbu transition from isolation towards globalization). Examples of more concrete research questions subsumed under the present research cluster: What is considered a good life? What types of problems, conflicts, etc. are seen as barriers to the good life? What are people’s worries and dreams regarding the future? How do individuals from different social positions (age, gender, cast, etc.) estimate their own level of agency in creating the conditions for a good life? How are differences in social imagination regarding the character, conditions and possibilities of a good life related to age, gender, social position, cast, and so on? The main source of data will be qualitative interviews (and observation), but quantitative data will be obtained too.

(8) Human flourishing. The purpose of this research cluster is (a) to elucidate the regionally active NGOs’ textually explicit or implicit understanding of ‘human flourishing’, (b) to clarify the (potentially diverse) understandings of ‘human flourishing’ in the regions studied, on the basis of relevant empirical data generated by the above-mentioned research clusters (especially cluster 7), (c) to compare the NGOs’ perspectives and the community perspectives on ‘human flourishing’ and analyze the (practical, ethical, and political) consequences of potential differences. The final and most ambitious purpose of this cluster is (d) to undertake a philosophical exploration of the possibilities of arriving at an ‘open concept of human flourishing’ (between radical relativism and fundamentalism) that is (i) procedural and operational in developmental contexts and (ii) at the same time both affirmative and critical of the (non-opened, substantiated) conceptions of ‘human flourishing’ at play (in the community, in the NGOs, etc.).

A few clarifications are necessary to avoid misunderstandings. First, the empirical research questions mentioned in relation to the different clusters are indeed research questions and are not to be understood as interview questions or questions in a questionnaire; each empirical research question has to be operationalized and situated culturally to get the required contextual validity, and in this process our local research partners in Nepal will play (and are already playing) an indispensable role. Secondly, quite a few of the empirical research questions connected to the different clusters cannot be answered simply by asking relevant questions in interviews and questionnaires targeting relevant respondents, but requires detailed comparisons of empirical data from different time periods and locations.

Acknowledging the fact that many events and circumstances, not only changes in the infrastructure of communication, can introduce changes in the research fields we study, the project has two people (one in the local communities, one in Kathmandu) continuously recording any significant events with potential community effect (reports will be submitted each month).

(C) Project design and methods

Project phases. To acquire the intended knowledge the project is designed as a longitudinal (“before-after”) study with two major empirical phases, each followed by a theoretical phase. The first main empirical phase takes place before the widespread availability of community radio (and other new avenues of communication) in the selected regions of Solukhumbu (October and November of 2008); and the second major empirical phase takes place approximately two and a half years later (spring of 2011). Depending on the local developments in the regions, at least two small intermediary empirical studies are expected to take place between the first and second major empirical phase. After the theoretical phase succeeding the second major empirical phase, a final and highly selective empirical phase will follow to systematically confirm-falsify-qualify the hypotheses arrived at (by processing and interpreting the differences found between the first and second major empirical phase) regarding the causal roles of changes in the infrastructure of communication in relation to specific changes in community living and the conditions of human flourishing. Throughout the project, though, critical comparisons with studies of similar phenomena in other geographic regions will be made.

Region and population chosen. To ensure that the “before-after” comparison is as “clean” as possible, we have chosen to focus on three isolated VDCs in Solukhumbu (Deusa, Mukli, and Jubu), the total population of which is approximately 12,000.

Research methods. Both quantitative and qualitative methods will be used. The quantitative studies will take the form of questionnaires which will be completed by approximately 700 persons (a quantitative representative selection, randomized and stratified). The qualitative studies will primarily take the form of two-hour-long qualitative interviews with approximately 45-50 individuals. A qualitative representative selection will be aimed at by choosing respondents representing all the major positions in the stratified mapping of the population, including significant combinations of age, cast, gender, religion, etc.

Operationalizing the empirical research questions. Not only due to language differences, but also to huge dissimilarities (culturally, educationally, etc.) between Danish researchers and the population to be studied, the final operationalization of the empirical research questions into adequate, culturally situated questions has to be done in close co-operation with our partners in Nepal (the joint operationalization of the questions/variables is in progress and is expected to be completed in the first week of October 2008).

Special methodological challenges. Four different languages are represented in the populations we will study. Additionally, there are several (cultural and religious, formal and informal) restrictions on who can interview whom (and about what). Respecting these restrictions is not only culturally recommendable, but also essential for methodological reasons in order to obtain the most reliable data. Consequently, the interviewers need to “match” both the respondent’s language and the respondent’s culturally most significant characteristics (gender, cast, religion, age). This applies to both the interviewers doing the questionnaires and the interviewers doing the qualitative interviews. These restrictions require a substantial number of interviewers (and their simultaneous presence in the field due to weather conditions, time limitations, etc.). At present, our collaborators in Nepal have found the required, diversified group of interviewers. The preliminary training of the qualitative interviewers (mainly anthropology students in Kathmandu) has begun, but the specialized training focusing on this project’s research clusters and the operationalized research questions will take place in October and be undertaken by two Danish project members in association with some of our research collaborators (anthropologists) in Nepal.

(D) Project organization, members, and a collective data pool

The head of project is Professor Steen Wackerhausen, Ph.D.

The project manager is Nina B. Schriver, senior research associate & Ph.D. Her administrative job is to direct, coordinate, and supervise the multiple project activities in Denmark and in Nepal. The project’s steering committee consists of Steen Wackerhausen, Nina B. Schriver, and Poul Erik Nielsen, associate professor, Ph.D., (Dept. of Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus).

Project members and associates in Denmark: Nina B. Schriver, Ph.D., health and cultural researcher, RUML, Institute of Philosophy and History of Ideas, University of Aarhus; Poul Erik Nielsen, Ph.D., associate professor, Institute of Information and Media Science, University of Aarhus; Johanna Seibt, Ph.D. & D.Phil., associate professor, Institute of Philosophy and History of Ideas, University of Aarhus; Jesper Garsdal, Ph.D., postdoc, Institute of Philosophy and History of Ideas, University of Aarhus; Jens Veirum, M.D., Ph.D., Aarhus University Hospital Skejby; Ib Schou, journalist, Danmarks Radio; Anton Baaré, anthropologist, senior adviser, Institute of Anthropology, Archaeology and Linguistics, University of Aarhus (also a social scientist & conflict and development manager for DANIDA); Jacob Thorsen, M.S., Danish Association for International Co-operation.

Project partners and associates in Nepal: Buddi Narayan Shrestha, Chairman of Young Star Club NGO; Ngima Paktrin, Young Star Club member and project director of Edu Communication project, Dialogos; Babu Kais Shresta, manager, Global Action Nepal, NGO; Sangeeta Shresta, manager of Slisha NGO; Laxmi Subedi, lecturer, Trichandra Campus, Kathmandu; Dr. Kishore Shresta, Ph.D., Tribhuvan University, CERID; Kunda Dixit, journalist, CEO at Nepali Times; Ragnu Mainali, director, Community Radio Support Centre, Kathmandu; Sten Andreasen, MS Danish Association for International Co-operation, Kathmandu; Pramod Tandukar, General secretary, ACORAB; Ram Karki Executive director, Radio Nepal; Rajendra Sharma, Dy Executive director Radio Nepal; Radio Solu FM; Manoj, journalist and program manager; Shiva Paydell, project coordinator, The Danish Embassy in Nepal, plus 26 interviewers and a number of student assistants and local community volunteers.

The total number of project members and associates is not fixed; new members may join the group on an ad hoc basis (the steering committee makes the final decisions about membership).

Taking into account the longitudinal, broadly-based, and very ambitious character of this project, it is evident that it cannot be carried through by a single researcher, but requires the collaboration of a group of researchers, each representing different competences and/or disciplines, as well as close cooperation with relevant partners in Nepal. The present project is in every sense a joint enterprise and collective project.

Research clusters and project members. Each of the research clusters in this project has an associated group of project members including primary researchers, etc., and one or two primary researchers are responsible for each cluster. The intention is that every project member shall be associated with at least two research clusters. At least one member of the steering committee is associated with each cluster (in certain cases as the researcher responsible for the cluster).

A collective data pool. Though each research cluster has its own group of project members and primary researchers, the data collected in relation to each research cluster all go into a collective data pool that all project members and associates have access to and may use. All articles and papers written by project members (using the data pool) shall be made available to all project members for comment before being submitted for publication. Given the interdisciplinary character of many of the clusters and the collective data pool, it is assumed that most publications will have joint (and multidisciplinary) authorship.

(E) Project timetable, activities, and expected academic products

As shown below, the overall timetable of the project is divided into 4 different activity periods. The expected academic products, besides paper presentations at relevant international conferences, are (on average) 2-3 research articles per research cluster (approximately 20 articles in total). Additionally, an anthology is to be expected, as well as several popular articles and digital photographic presentations. As indicated in the timetable, we also plan to organize an international conference (in cooperation with our Nepalese partners, etc.) in Nepal at the end of the research project.

Period 1 2008 autumn 1st MAJOR empirical study
Period 2 2009 spring Data analysis and writing
2009 autumn Intermediary empirical study no. 1
2010 spring Data analysis and writing
2010 autumn Intermediary empirical study no. 2
Period 3 2011 spring 2nd MAJOR empirical study
Data analysis and writing
Period 4 2011 autumn Data analysis
Emperiocal testing of interpretational hypotheses writing 
2012 spring Writing and conference