Consanguineous Minds

A blog of endless curiosity

To ask, and what to ask, that is the question!

The Boston Globe recently posted an article ‘Are we Asking the Right Questions?‘, about the importance of questioning, and doing it well.

Here’s a little excerpt, I highly recommend reading the whole article, however.

” It [asking a question] requires stopping to think about what we’re trying to find out, what the person we’re talking to might know, and what words we should use to coax them into helping us. Donald Rumsfeld infamously said in 2002, in reference to the Iraq war, that there were “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns,” or “things we do not know we don’t know.” The statement was mocked at the time, but in fact it reflects the difficult abstract reasoning we all engage in when we’re trying to fill gaps in our knowledge. Being good at asking questions is the art of identifying those gaps, sorting them, and figuring out how to fill them. ” (Neyfakh, L. 20 May 2012, The Boston Globe).

As someone who finds it incredibly difficult to ask personal questions of friends, and who is hoping to go into social research, this fascinates me. Perhaps one of the things I struggle with most when questioning friends are assumptions – having a highly active imagination, I imagine my guess at what the answer will be is exactly what the answer will be. Most often, if I actually grow enough balls to ask the question, I am delighted and surprised to be wrong. The Boston Globe article says that studies have shown kids were wont to ask about 40,000 questions in the years between 2 and 5, and that the reason many of us stop asking questions is that as we grow older we assume we know most stuff anyways. I think probably those social constructs ‘politeness’ and ‘etiquette’ probably have a lot to do with this too. How many times have I foregone knowing more about a friend out of fear I would be considered rude? For fear of stepping outside the cultural boundaries of appropriateness? The answer would be: Many.

As crappy as this may be for my deeper connection with humanity, it is so much more crappy when assumptions and etiquette get in the way of deeper understandings of culture. Last week I had a rather brilliant anthropology lecture about Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) projects in Zimbabwe, specifically in Kanyemba. The lecture was conducted by Fernanda Claudio, whose Phd was done in the area.

The idea was that the community of Kanyemba rented their hunting grounds to private tourism and safari businesses, giving up their own rights to hunt large game and net fish, in return for a percentage of earnings, meat from wildlife culled/hunted, and eradication services when problem animals interfered with the Kanyemba people’s homes and livelihood. As you can imagine, there were some issues. Firstly, when this program was negotiated, the people of Kanyemba were not engaged in commodity markets – so how would they have known what questions to ask about how commodifying game animals would impact them? Secondly, there was an assumption of a harmonious community built into the program. Implementers did not scope the area to determine power relationships. There were deep historical divisions between tribal groups which were not understood or accounted for in the program. As the program progressed, decision making power increased the already strong hold of the Chikunda people over the two other tribes (Korekore and vaDema) living in Kanyemba, since the committee was comprised entirely of Chikunda men. Had better questions been asked before the program was implemented, the roles of the marginalised groups in the community might have been better understood, and benefits distributed more evenly. Perhaps the third most important question that was not asked was what livelihood skills would the program provide to replace the skills of hunting, fishing and gun-making that would be lost over the next generations? And another: what should they do if the private companies stopped coming to pay for the privilege of shooting animals at Kanyemba once these skills were lost?
It’s interesting with development and livelihood programs that the question that never seems to be asked (but which seems central once you think about it), is: for how many generations is this expected to support a community? And what happens when it no longer does?

It’s become so obvious to me that it’s incredibly important to deeply question everything, and not to make assumptions. You can see why the Boston Globe article hooked me: “On a recent Friday morning, a classroom of teenagers at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School broke up into small groups and spent an hour not answering questions about Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” It wasn’t that the students were shy, or bored, or that they hadn’t done the reading. They were following instructions: Ask as many questions as they could, and answer none of them.”  (Neyfakh, L. 20 May 2012, The Boston Globe).

Best. Class. Ever. QED.

Consanguineous Note: You can read more about Kanyemba’s CBNRM in Fernanda Claudio’s publication: The CAMPFIRE Scheme in Zimbabwe during the 1990s: Local Responses to Community Conservation”, in South Pacific Journal of Philosophy and Culture, Vol. 9. Port Moresby, PNG. pp. 50-68.


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