Building Social Sciences and Health Research: A Decade of Technical Assistance in South Asia

By Pelto, Pertti J. | Human Organization, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Building Social Sciences and Health Research: A Decade of Technical Assistance in South Asia


Pelto, Pertti J., Human Organization


This paper describes main features of a program of technical assistance in South Asia (primarily India) designed to help comm -unity health researchers develop more effective data gathering and analysis in applied studies of reproductive health issues. The program was funded by the Ford Foundation (India) and organized under a grant to Johns Hopkins University. Recipients of the technical assistance have been mainly small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and some social science researchers in academic institutions in India. In most cases, the participants have been involved in community-based intervention programs, so the research activities have had a directly applied focus. The increasing challenge of the AIDS epidemic brought about a shift in emphasis in the program, as many organizations and individuals took up research on sexual behavior to better understand the patterns of individual actions that are associated with higher risks of HIV infection. An informal "sexual behavior research network" has developed as the program of technical assistance and the communications among the various participants matured. The use of computers for data management and e-mail communication has facilitated these developments.

Key words: social mapping, sexual behavior, AIDS, sexual health, training, cultural scripts, India

I am very humbled, but also very proud, to be here before you all to receive the Malinowski Award. In my view, Bronislaw Malinowski stands as a towering figure in applied anthropology. Quietly to myself, I sometimes think of certain parallels between his career and mine. (Mine, of course, on a much smaller scale.)

First, Malinowski insisted that anthropology is a scientific discipline. That is, our work is based on consistent, logical use of empirical data for problem solving (Malinowski 1959, 1960). In my view, that attitude is the most fruitful and productive way to define our discipline.

It does not of course mean that all our research must be quantitative.

Second, Malinowski is now most remembered and honored for his contributions to fieldwork methods. He basically invented participant observation and related data-gathering techniques, emphasizing direct observations of peoples' daily lives and activities. Other field researchers had sometimes "done participant observation," but he formulated these techniques into systematic methodology (cf. DeWalt and DeWalt 2002:3, 5).

I, too, see myself devoting my career to research methodology. My primary and passionate interest has been to refine and develop the ways in which we interact with the world out there-to accumulate useful information. That direction of interest began in the 1960s, when I was writing a book on research methodology for anthropology (Pelto 1970).

The third point of comparison is a bit whimsical: Malinowski became immersed in a field situation-the Trobriand Islands-due to fortuitous circumstances beyond his control. To some extent, my current immersion in a field of action in India and south Asia came about through a series of events I did not foresee or plan.

The past several years of activities in South Asia are the basis for my comments here. Over these years, we have been doing technical assistance-in all aspects of research training and guiding-for people in India and neighboring countries who are gathering data in connection with reproductive health, particularly those involved in HIV/AIDS intervention programs.

The "we" in the above statement refers to a team of technical assistance facilitators that began (in 1990) a program of training and assistance for a loose collection of Indian researchers. The plan for capacity-building in "social sciences and health" was initiated by Saroj Pachauri and her associates at the Ford Foundation's India office. (Pachauri 1994; Gittelsohn et al. 1994). Peggy Bentley at Johns Hopkins University became the principal investigator for the project, which was entitled "Building Social Science Capacity for Research on Women's Health in India" (Bentley 2001). …

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