Addressing Bias: A Tale of Two Elephants

I will begin this journal entry with the ‘western elephant’. Any research project potentially has an ‘elephant in the room’[1] that is a source of implicit bias or a pre-ordained agenda.  Critics might consider this research to be romanticizing traditional farming in a backlash against globalization. While the research aims to understand traditional practices and how those practices have been impacted by policy changes, the traditional agriculture vs. conventional agriculture debate does not need to cast a shadow on this research.

Topics too easily become simplified into only two sides, while in most cases many perspectives exist.  Framing the subject as ‘progressive farmer’ vs. the ‘traditional farmer’ or ‘corporate, global agriculture’ vs. ‘small-scale, local organic farming’ creates a false dichotomy.  Most farmers do not fit neatly into these two groups.  I met organic farmers saving seeds, but also purchasing hybrid seeds for a few crops. I met conventional farmers switching some production to organic, and conventional farmers growing organic for their own consumption. Both systems can and do exist not only side by side, but also intertwined. The informal seed sector supported by traditional agriculture serves a function to conventional agriculture. Researchers return to the fields to collect germplasm from farmers; thus, farmers conserving biodiversity provide necessary material to researchers. Moreover, a renaissance in traditional agricultural techniques will not be so great as to cause the collapse of conventional agriculture as we know it.

Nonetheless, as a researcher, one should challenge their own views and ask if they have taken a side. For myself, the short answer would be the famer’s side, not necessarily the traditional organic farmer, but rather any farmer. I aspire to collect, listen, and understand the perspectives of many farmers. Instead of the singular farmer’s experience it needs to be understood as farmers’ experiences which bring us to the ‘eastern elephant’ in this reflective tale of two elephants.

In the parable of an elephant and blind men,[2] the blind men argue that the elephant is a rope (tail), a pillar (leg), a brush (tip of tail) or a spear (tusk) with all arguments depending on the men’s position on the elephant’s body. Each man’s experience is true, but individually the experiences do not account for the totality of the truth. In one version of the story the men come to blows each believing the other to be lying. Only when one takes the time to appreciate each perspective and experience can one understand or come close to understanding the totality of the subject at hand. Moreover, only then can a successful outcome be achieved.

No matter what we all have some bias blocking us or blinding us from seeing the whole picture (the elephant in the room), but we can acknowledge these issues and work at getting closer to seeing the totality of the problem. The eastern elephant parable illustrates nicely the approach used in this research.

[1] The ‘Elephant in the room’ is an English language metaphor for an obvious problem that no one wants to challenge.

[2] The parable originated in ancient India sub-continent. It is found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that consider the limits of individual observations and experiences.