Clair, an expert on ethnography in communication
who has won several awards for her publications on the
topic, and the team used a technique she pioneered called
“extended narrative empathy.” Extended narrative empathy
is a theoretical and methodological approach to studying
communication and culture that supports multiple
perspectives on an issue. In India, for example, says Clair,
“One might find different lived experiences for men and
women, adults and children, residents and farmers, and so
on. One might find that residents are looking for a field to
defecate in, while farmers are looking for a way to protect
their crops from feces. Everyone’s narrative is different.”
Communication and empathy were a crucial part of the
theory, methodology, and findings, says Clair, and the team
suspects they’ll be an integral part of the solution as well.
Focus group participants gave a wide range of feedback,
but some general themes emerged. Group members agreed
that the latrines supplied by the Indian government were
substandard in construction, poorly ventilated, and unlit.
But while the villagers who participated expressed the
desire for superior latrines, almost none said they would
commit to using them all the time, preferring to maintain
OD as another option.
This preference is linked to several important
sociocultural functions that OD serves in rural Indian life.
A moderate walk to relatively unpopulated areas along
roads or in open fields is usually involved, so many Indians
have come to regard the practice of OD as a healthy means
of exercise. In addition, women often walk to OD sites in
groups, partly as a protective strategy. But the walk together
also gives young Indian women a crucial chance to socialize
with one another. Girls and women specifically mentioned
this chance to talk with one another as a “joy,” and going
out together as providing a sense of “freedom.” And for
some Indian men, the practice of OD is an expression of
their masculinity; to them, toilets are only for women,
“Social arrangements seem to influence the use of
toilets as well,” says Seungyoon Lee, associate professor in
the BLSC and co-investigator, who specializes in analyzing
how complex social networks serve to spread or maintain
cultural beliefs and practices. “A toilet is sometimes shared;
people let others in the village use their toilet when they
have problems with their own toilets. Some also said they
feel good about having their daughter marry into a family
that has toilets and proper facilities.”
Clair and Lee also shared their research with two undergraduate communication
classes on diversity in the workplace and communication in the global workplace.
As Rastogi interviewed focus groups in India, Clair and Lee incorporated his
findings into the course, along with guest lectures by Rastogi and Ernest Blatchley,
professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering and
a co-investigator of the project.
Each class was divided into four teams of students, who were challenged
to design toilets that would address focus group concerns and be economically
feasible, given the available materials and resources. Parts of rural India have little
to no running water or electricity available, so designs had to account for these
limitations. As the students proposed ideas for toilets and water treatment systems,
Blatchley’s lectures and knowledge base were crucial.
Several teams also developed communication campaigns promoting the use of
toilets, focusing primarily on education—especially of children. The health risks of
open defecation are greatest from infancy to age five, and because they are less set
in their behavior patterns, it makes sense to target them, says Clair.
“The students engaged an international population from a culture quite
different from what most of them had been previously exposed to,” Clair explains.
“They worked on developing solutions based on the desires of the Indian focus
groups, and then their ideas were returned to the Indian participants for their
review. It was an exchange with another culture in hopes of providing helpful
designs to them and knowledge of cultural diversity for our students.”
Ashleigh Shields, who received her bachelor’s degree in 2015 and continued in
the graduate program in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, says the course
is one of the most rewarding she’s ever taken. “It was a huge learning experience,”
she says, “because I was doing something where you could actually see it working
out into the real possibility of making a difference in people’s lives.”
Rahul Rastogi conducts a focus group with men from Kumbhdaura, a village in the
Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo courtesy of Rahul Rastogi.
CULTURAL EXCHANGE IN THE CLASSROOM
Open Skies CONTINUED FROM PAGE 7