Misplaced Research

Today I tell a tale of misplaced research. “Misplaced” in the etymological sense as “conducted in the wrong place”, as a Reviewer once wrote. As it happens, from that perspective my whole research is “misplaced”, as it takes place at the very interface where people meet the technologies governing essential livelihoods. And as it happens, my “misplacement” will keep going.

“Your research is misplaced”, wrote the Reviewer.

(One for fellow academics: believe it or not, this was not Reviewer 2, no. It was the unsuspectable, cosy, otherwise kind and constructive Reviewer 1).

They had a point, and it was an etymological one. In their view, my research was not “misplaced” metaphorically, but in a very physical way. My paper was on the encounter between people and technology in India’s Public Distribution System, specifically in the ration shops where people meet the state through the technology that provides (or denies) their food rations. Here in Malawi, the project I am a part of studies patient records inside the community clinics, where the patient physically encounters the community health worker who deals with their case.

Road to Mangamba, Malawi, January 2023

I can’t hide being deeply inspired by Corbridge et al’s (2005) book on Seeing the State in all my research. As the book argues, “the state” is not experienced at an abstract level. It is lived directly, concretely, in its direct manifestations: it is the policeman patrolling the streets, violently evicting homeless people in absence of a proof of address. It is the government officer checking documents to access a given benefit, the ration dealer enabling, or denying, access to food rations for people. Nothing is abstract in “the State”. Encounters with it, through which images of it are formed, are very real and material, conditioning important aspects of people’s lives.

But the Reviewer expressed a clear judgment. My research is misplaced.

It is so, they wrote, because it does not take place at the point where policy decisions are made. And if you study biometrics in a large food security system, you kind of need to sit at, or at least research, the decision making point, where food policies are shaped. A research that takes place at the last mile, where the user encounters the system in the form of food rations, ration dealers, or community health workers, can only give you a partial, even distorted view of reality. No social protection research, concludes Reviewer 1, should take into account an actor alone. It would have been good to go to Delhi, Reviewer 1 concluded, to see what the echelons of the system effectively say about it.

And now eight years later, I politely say it. Reviewer 1 was wrong.

As social protection researchers, we investigate technologies that are deeply embedded in human lives and livelihoods. The “last mile”, as they called it (and as how important development studies research calls it as well), is completely not “last” when it comes to people’s experience. “Last” as it may be, it is that “mile” that informs people’s contact with service providers: it is here that vital entitlements of food or cash are given, or denied due to authentication failure. It is here that health services are accessed, that medical personnel handles people’s conditions or those of their loved ones. In the last mile, lived experience happens: that of a food programme that delivers rations, a health service that cures residents, a humanitarian programme that assists displaced people. Here at the last mile, the individual interfaces in person with “the technology” on which the bigger echelons have the power to decide on.

True, we may miss something by sitting at the interface. We may lose some action at the upper decisional layers, while spending long days in the field figuring out how people really encounter state-mediating technologies, how they relate to them and experience their ability to guarantee, or deny, access to crucial livelihood generating services. We could move our research to the upper echelons instead, take an owners’ perspective on the platformised systems through which social protection programmes are increasingly provided.

We could, I could. But I don’t, because my research is the interface. In Malawi as in India, as in all places I go, my work is informed by how people live the technology, and by how “the State” becomes real out of its lived human-technology manifestations. Only such encounters, structured by the technologies of rule that govern people’s interaction with providers, give the state a tangible, researchable physical manifestation.

Be it right or wrong, I can’t do it in any other way.

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