Veterinary Geography as Interdisciplinary Research (*)

By Davis, Diana K. | The Geographical Review, January-April 2001 | Go to article overview

Veterinary Geography as Interdisciplinary Research (*)

Davis, Diana K., The Geographical Review


When I worked on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the early 1990s as part of the Basic Veterinary Worker (BVW) Project, nearly everyone I met, from U.N. and NGO workers to journalists, was obsessed with "getting inside" Afghanistan. The expatriate community hardly talked about anything else. In much the same spirit, graduate students in geography voice eagerness to "get inside" the "field." Certainly I did. Yet adequate preparation for geographical field research is crucial. Taking extra time at the start of doctoral work to develop specific skills, instead of rushing headlong and headstrong to the field, makes substantive interdisciplinary research possible. The incorporation of interdisciplinary training into preparations for field research provides unique benefits. These include the potential to pose new research questions, to develop new or different methods for exploring existing research questions, and to adapt novel modes of analysis and interpretation to research findings. The geographical subfields of political and cultural ecology have produced successful scholars who are increasingly conducting just this kind of research.

Tackling interdisciplinary research can, however, be difficult, time consuming, and professionally risky. Because the results of high-quality interdisciplinary research in geography are rewarding, in this essay I outline some hard-won suggestions for the preparation and execution of interdisciplinary field research. I use, as case in point, my work on the political ecology of pastoralism, an example that includes methods drawn from veterinary medicine. Having recently completed an interdisciplinary doctoral dissertation, I address finishing strategies that may be helpful to doctoral students and young scholars. Each of you who reads this, though, will likely have a different skill set and your own distinct possibilities.


Formal interdisciplinarity is something I stumbled on more or less by accident. After attempting fieldwork in Morocco at the master's level, I naively thought I could be of more help to pastoralists if I were a veterinarian. I didn't fully understand at the time that most problems faced by pastoralists and their livestock were caused by underlying structural problems of poverty and state oppression rather than by livestock disease. Thus, after finishing my master's degree in geography I concluded that because I wanted to work with pastoralists for my dissertation research in geography, I would earn a doctorate in veterinary medicine. I thought veterinary skills would enable me to "give something back" to the pastoralists with whom I hoped to work and allow me to collaborate more closely with pastoral people and thereby gain a better understanding of their lives and work. Of course, the subsequent four years were challenging and exhausting in ways I had previously only imagined, but the learning experience was the best I could have had. As a result, I have been able to actively incorporate veterinary training, research, and work experiences into my doctoral and postdoctoral geographical research.

Halfway through veterinary training, I had the opportunity to work with the BVW project on the Afghan border with Pakistan (Figure 1). The international section of my veterinary school at Tufts University coordinated this multiagency project to train Afghan herders, many of them nomads, in basic veterinary skills. Nearly all veterinary and human medical services had been destroyed in the war. My primary job was to interview male and female nomads to determine whether women, too, could be trained as BVW workers in Afghanistan's Islamic society. As I started to carry out this survey, it quickly became apparent that the nomads had substantial knowledge about the health and diseases of livestock and how to care for them with many products found in their local environment. I put on my geographer's hat and expanded the study to include ethnoveterinary medicine (indigenous veterinary knowledge and practice), which covered basic resource management and herding knowledge and practice. …

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