Engaged Anthropology Grant: Karen Rignall and “Transforming Landscapes, Transforming Communities in a Moroccan Oasis Valley”

Karen Rignall is Assistant Professor of Community and Leadership Development in the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment at the University of Kentucky. In 2009, while a student at the University of Kentucky, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Expanding Cultivation, Land, and Livelihood Transformations in Southern Morocco,’ supervised by Dr. Lisa Cliggett. She used the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014.

I returned to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014 to initiate a process of collective community-based learning and dialogue about the social and spatial transformations that formed the basis of my dissertation research there in 2010.  My goal was to use a model developed in the refugee camps of Palestine, to support people’s constructive engagement with the social dimensions of landscape transformation rather than to simply present the results of my dissertation. The ensuing year revealed much about how those social dynamics were in even greater flux than during my fieldwork, and how the politics of knowledge production in my research were bound up with these changing social dynamics. The result was an engaged anthropology project that looked very different from my initial plans but that nonetheless produced a sustained dialogue about subsistence claims, land rights, and political representation and engaged a much wider audience than my initial research had. This project produced new and collaborative learning, building my relationships and laying the groundwork for more research in the future.

The initial phase of the project involved working with a local NGO to hold dialogues with different groups to actively reinterpret the spaces in which they live, spaces that had been transformed through expanded agricultural production and housing construction over the past few decades. Rather than work with the local village development association, however, I decided to partner with the Réseau des Associations de Tinghir pour la Démocratie et Développement (RATDED), a province-wide network of NGOs that included the local groups with which I was familiar but engaged in broader collaborative efforts to link community development with substantive economic and political rights. We began the process of community dialogues but found that the project plan — though intended to counter the standard approaches to local development — was still divorced from the social and political dynamics that were already engaging people in my research communities. There were existing sites for people to reimagine their landscapes. People were doing so in the context of existing informal governance institutions, negotiations over land rights in newly opened up frontiers, and social dialogue forums RATDED was already holding. Our meetings began to appear burdensome and in some cases redundant. The Palestinian model remained very compelling to me, but I understood that I would need to be present in Mgoun on a consistent basis, as the Palestinian program is, in order to fully integrate this project into the processes of dialogue already going on. Though I was able to visit for two months in 2014 and one month in early 2015, this was simply not enough to organically link my structured discussions with the often politically charged discussions others were brokering on the same themes.

Rethinking our approach produced interesting insights about the politics of knowledge production. Since the reflexive turn three decades ago, anthropologists have addressed the issue of power and inequality in the research encounter by emphasizing the dialogic nature of our methods and how our politicized understanding of knowledge can mitigate the claims to authority embedded in more strictly positivist approaches. I had thought that framing my research in this critical tradition would resonate with people’s increasingly politicized approach to land tenure and government representation in recent years. But our interlocutors were less invested in the qualitative, interpretive discussions than in the emerging quantitative results from a study I was simultaneously conducting with RATDED. We were doing a household survey in 18 communities to assess poverty dynamics and the impact of out-migration on land ownership, inequality, and wealth over the past fifty years. Whereas our discussions about my dissertation research appeared at times to rehash issues that people were working through in other contexts, a quantitative view of these processes stimulated broad interest. I was surprised at how such a traditional research approach in the end provoked more active engagement. I came to an uncomfortable realization that dialogic, participatory processes may — though do not necessarily — serve more to satisfy foreign researchers’ desire to come to terms with their positionality than address the concerns of people with whom we work. Residents in the valley, whether activists or not, were comfortable with a traditional research product because it offered them a tool using the same authoritative discourses as state agencies (aggregated statistics, charts, etc.) to substantiate claims that government neglect was a form of structural violence perpetuating poverty and inequality.

In the end, we opted for a more orthodox presentation of research results, combining the qualitative insights of my dissertation fieldwork with the preliminary findings of quantitative study were had just concluded. In March 2015, I traveled to the capital city, Rabat, to deliver an academic version of the presentation at the Faculty of Letters. With my Moroccan academic mentor as discussant, I addressed a mixed group of geographer and sociologists, but the main group in attendance was the over 50 undergraduates and graduate students who had organized the gathering. Many of them were from marginalized regions such as the southeastern oases, and they responded to the critical use of quantitative and qualitative data to explain socio-economic transformations they had themselves witnessed. We then held a larger colloquium based in the provincial capital of Tinghir, an hour’s drive from the Mgoun valley. I had initially resisted RATDED’s proposal to hold it there, thinking it needed to be in the valley to facilitate attendance. But when the provincial governor delivered a speech at the opening that outlined his development priorities and a major national human rights figure spoke about economic rights as human rights, I understood the import of bringing some of the region’s most marginalized residents to assert their presence in this government center. Over 150 people attended: research participants from my dissertation period and the current study, activists, NGO representatives, and government officials, and we structured the presentation of results so that the research participants were the true focus of the event. The presenter interpreted the powerpoint charts in Tashelhit, the local dialect of Berber, and used primarily non-technical terms to describe our findings. I had expected the elderly farmers and non-literate attendees to feel detached even from this more accessible language, but everyone was riveted. The hour-long presentation provoked over four hours of sometimes challenging discussions about the causes and consequences of structural poverty and inequality, land conflicts, and the role of the state. Participants told me no researcher had ever returned to the region to present their results or ask them what they thought of the findings. They asked for the research report so that they could use the results themselves; even people who were not civil society activists and had a limited command of Arabic (the report will be in Arabic and French) asked for the report so that they could keep it. I am in the process of producing this non-academic report.

This was one of the most meaningful professional experiences I have had, highlighting the need for us as researchers to remain open to all modes of discourse and to truly listen to our interlocutors to make our research relevant in the ways they find significant. This process of engagement, using what could have felt like a “second-best” strategy when our first one did not work out, did more to further collaborative research in the future that I ever could have imagined. I will be returning next year.

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