Is data collection a public good? – Reflection from Daniel Thomas, AC4 Grad Fellow

Engaging in data collection in developing contexts is tricky for several reasons, but a primary concern is ensuring that research activities are as valuable, if not more so, for communities as they are for the researcher. Of course, lofty academic goals such as understanding the world around us and separating truth from supposition are valuable in their own right, but this good does not always trickle down to the communities from which data is collected.

I grappled with this ethical dilemma as I worked to lay the foundations for large-scale field research in Kachin State, Myanmar, with the support of an AC4 grant. My research hopes to understand how communities form in new places after conflict, but I was constantly faced with the question of how this understanding could aid the Kachin community and further their political development in the face of civil conflict. Perhaps such goals do not align perfectly with those of scientific inquiry, but I continue to feel that it must be possible to conduct effective research while also strengthening local communities.

To try and mitigate this concern, I took two steps while laying the groundwork for my research this summer. First, I resolved to include local community service organizations in the data collection effort—both as a way to incorporate local expertise in the construction of the survey instrument, and to increase their capacity for evaluation and research such that the community can engage in their own research in the future. Second, I worked with a local school to share my own research interests, with the hope that students would be able to connect political science’s understanding of political violence to their own lived experiences. The photo below is from a lecture at the Naushawng Community School in Myitkyina, Kachin State.



Author: Daniel Thomas is pursuing a doctorate in political science at Columbia University School of Arts and Sciences and was awarded an AC4 Graduate Student Fellowship in 2018. With the fellowship, he traveled to Kachin State, Myanmar, to begin a project on how violence shapes grievances and capacity for collective action of the people there. His fieldwork will involve of surveys in IDP camps where citizens have been subject to violence and harassment.

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