Scholar Takes Research to the Grassroots
By Sandra Seitz
Ardeth Thawnghmung, associate professor of political science, has just been awarded a J. William Fulbright grant for 2010-2011 by the U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Program. She will conduct research in Burma to examine how ordinary citizens cope with their daily lives.
“I am very passionate about grassroots populations,” she says. “How do ordinary people use strategies to survive in daily life ߝ where they are concerned about immediate, rather than political, issues ߝ and what impact do these strategies have on the environment, the collective well-being of the people and on national policies?”
For example, Burma provides approximately five hours of electricity daily and many urban dwellers run their own generators. This strategy of self-reliance and adaptability also has a negative impact on the local environment. Meanwhile, an ingrained corrupt culture of private payment for any service, the so-called “tea money,” may help to perpetuate under-funded and poor quality public services.
Burma encompasses great diversity, with more than 100 language groups living in the delta plains region, the central dry zone and hot upland plateaus, or the mountainous north. The day-to-day concerns likely will differ from area to area, village to village, and Thawnghmung plans an exploratory methodology to “let the people lead the research questions.”
Finding the threads and weaving the big picture will be Thawnghmung’s challenge. She completed pilot research last year to begin the process, interviewing scholars, experts and leaders of non-governmental organizations involved with Burma.
“Burma itself is not of critical interest to most people, so it’s important to place the findings in a larger context,” says Thawnghmung. “What can this teach us about developing countries, especially those with repressive governments? What policy prescriptions could we recommend to the United States and the international community? Why do some segments of minority populations take up arms against state authorities, while other resort to peaceful coexistence and accommodation?”
Thawnghmung knows a few things about being part of a minority group in a repressive regime, having grown up in the Karen community of Burma. This knowledge forms a deep background to her wide-ranging scholarly work.
Funding for her prior research has been provided by the Asian Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. A post-doctoral fellowship from Australian National University supported publication of her first book, Behind the Teak Curtain, and her second is in final review at the Cornell University Press.
On campus, Thawnghmung facilitates the Research Forum for support and cross-disciplinary critique of research proposals in the social sciences, arts and humanities. She is the adviser to the Dean Bergeron International Relations Club.