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Theory and Development: Making Social Science More Relevant

June 5, 2011

The topic of my master’s thesis was on the spatial accessibility of healthy and affordable food in Bernalillo County (Albuquerque, NM). I collected a broad range of data to perform three types of analysis: physical proximity; personal mobility; and human perception. The first type of analysis required using a network analysis to find the median nearest network distance by census block group to three types of geo-coded food retail locations. The second type of analysis required the creation of a personal mobility index by census block group using five census indicators. The final type of analysis required the identification of block group clusters with different combinations of the prior two accessibility metrics, and then sending out surveys to these areas to see how perceptions of food accessibility matched up with the quantitative indicators. What I found was that there are clearly some areas which would fit the description of a “food desert”, or areas where poor accessibility adversely affects diet above and beyond cultural norms and income.

It was quite an effort and I am proud of it, but I wonder what the next step would be. My research will likely sit in the UNM library and provide nothing towards the advancement of humanity. It made me wonder how academic knowledge in general can be made useful to people on the ground.

According to the predominant models of development, the next logical step would be a discussion of what, if any, actions should be taken by the government or outside observers to fix the problem. Clearly businesses could use this information to better locate areas lacking a sufficient variety of healthy and affordable food. Often the market fails in this regard, especially in urban areas with poor minority populations. This is where non-profits could jump in and use this information to promote affordable subsidized produce or promote urban gardens.

While this is necessary, it is not sufficient. Another model of development, espoused by educators such as the late Paulo Freire, planners such as Bent Flyberg, development organizations such as FUNDAEC, and religions such as the Baha’i Faith, focuses on developing human capacity through consultation, action, and reflection within a community. In my example, this process would probably start with directed consultations on the perceptions of food and nutrition in general. My study area has had a long tradition of local agriculture which has since faded out as a source of livelihood. Many of the people I surveyed expressed a desire to consume more fresh produce, but face serious time constraints to merely purchase the food, let alone grow it. The most accessible food is often found at gas stations or mini-marts which contain mainly packaged food. Assuming that people decided that they want to eat healthier and promote local agriculture, the next step would be for community members to consult, ideally in collaboration with academics and planners, about the human and natural resources in the community, and how these resources could be mobilized to promote food awareness, help start businesses and cooperatives, attract outside business into the area, etc. Finally, every few months or so, community members would reflect on what has been learned and develop a more coherent plan of action. Academics could use this reflection time to help identify new and relevant research agendas that augment the process and generalize the learning for use in other settings.

Of course this model will be different everywhere, depending on the context and the problem. But the point is, any research/development agenda must see those affected as collaborators, not objects to be studied and acted upon. In addition, it must seek to empower knowledge-generating capacity and agency through the process of research and development, not just as a result of it. This is my opinion, what do you think?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 7:47 pm

    Yes these are interesting ideas. Now how do we develop individuals, communities, and institutions which to foster such an environment? What capabilities are needed?

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