Diary of a Knowledge Broker by Steve Bosserman

Independent investigation of the truth; collaboration for social justice

Independent investigation of the truth; collaboration for social justice

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January 25, 2006

Ground Truth and Multiple Truths

In Ross MacDonald's last entry, "A Richer Concept of Ground Truth," he discussed issues surrounding claims of truth and grounding as a way of opening up discussion about the concept of ground truth. In this entry Ross further explores the concept by discussing the related topics of multiple truths and their benefits, subjectivity and objectivity, and differences between open thinking and permissive processing of multiple truths. To help illustrate the ideas presented he will refer to the example of a developing ecotourism project in the spectacular mountains of Uttaranchal, Northern India. Take it away, Ross!

Uttaranchal Project
Uttaranchal, which translates as "Northern Mountains," is a small state in the far north of India, bordering Tibet and Nepal. Site of the Ganges headwaters, the region has attracted many Hindus on annual pilgrimages, but, despite its alluring mountains and interesting culture, it is far less known on the international ecotourism scene. I am working with Manor Bhatt, currently a Ford Fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of International and Public Affairs while on leave from his senior position with the nongovernmental, environmentalist organization Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram. Mr. Bhatt is a life-long resident of Uttaranchal.

The goal of the project is to support a sustainable, locally-owned and operated ecotourism industry based on a complicated formula of (a) building needed infrastructure of roads, water, sewer, reliable power; while at the same time (b) developing local capacity to provide eco-tourists with an enjoyable and stimulating experience; so as to (c) catalyze and support strong environmental and cultural protections; while (d) generating local income. Creating this synergy is expected to result in a sustainable tourist industry, reduction in resident's out-migration for income, a curtailing of deforestation, maintenance of existing cultural practices and identities, and increased social and economic opportunities for residents of the region especially including women. My task is to design an on-going evaluation of the project and enhance local capacity to gather data related to project goals, to make sense of that data, and continuously improve the fledgling industry.

Multiple truths
A key part of the evaluation effort will be to recognize that multiple and conflicting truths will be abundant in the data -- especially regarding some facets of the project, such as tourist satisfaction and awareness, changes in opportunities for women, and local's assessments of tourism's impact on local culture. Paradoxically, accepting the presence of multiple realities, even as they conflict, will actually contribute to the objectivity of the analysis. How can this be true? Aren't individual truths each highly subjective?

That is exactly the point. Our impressions and experiences are obviously subjective, but in their collective and when considered intelligently, they yield insights and perspectives not available otherwise. In effect, because we are working in the realm of the social sciences, not in the physical sciences or religion, one more appropriately seeks truths with small "t's." Indeed, seeking these small "t" truths is not imprecise thinking, but actually a necessary precondition for the pursuit of objectivity. We strengthen objectivity by intelligently seeking and thinking about the many subjective realities present in the situation under study and especially by considering the perspectives of those who have been excluded or marginalized by a majority. For more detailed discussion see: Harding, Sandra. "Rethinking Standpoint Theory: 'What Is Strong Objectivity?'" Feminist Epistemologies. Ed. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Petter. New York: Routledge, 1993. 49-82.

Three benefits of the pursuit of objectivity through multiple truths
Seeing objectivity as a pursuit rather than a stance has several advantages for the Utteranchal Project. Three of these benefits are introduced and briefly illustrated.

1. Accepting the value of multiple realities helps groups transcend the tendency to engage endlessly in debilitating arguments over whose truth is more true. Such arguments can only be "won" by invalidating other points of view. These arguments shut down any consideration of our commonality expressed in different ways. If, for example, 90% of eco-tourists report satisfaction with how they were treated by ecotourism providers, then aren't the 10% who report being uncomfortable just plain wrong?

2. Compensates for the effects of more dominant personalities or more privileged participants disproportionately influencing an analysis. If, for example, the mayor of a village and a number of villagers claim that that local residents are economically benefiting from the project, but one segment of the population disagrees, then we need to ask who disagrees and why? Or consider the possibility that only 10% of the eco-tourists are women of color but, in comparison to the other 90% of eco-tourists, they report feeling much less comfortable in their interactions with trail guides, guest house hosts, and travel coordinators? While any process of averaging responses would bleach out this important information, consideration of it as a truth, even though it doesn't fit with other truths, gives it a more important and preserved relevance.

3. Multiple realities means that it is possible to see common themes. Beyond the particular details of people's stories about their experiences, are likely elements that recurrently echo each other. Identifying these elements and attempting to understand them involves respecting the different forms these elements take across stories. In this way a person's individual experience is preserved, while at the same time people's connections to each other are reinforced. An obvious outcome might be a recurring theme among eco-tourists of deep appreciation of the spectacular beauty of the region coupled with a deep awareness of the vulnerability of the ecosystem. The ways in which each individual experiences this conundrum will vary but the common humanity of the sentiment binds people together a necessary basis for working for change.

Openness and permissiveness
This form of truth gathering is an open process but not a permissive one. Open means that one consciously remains in a state of "willing to consider" experiences, perspectives and ideas different than one's own. Being open also means that we are aware that no matter how broad-minded we think we are, we still must recognize the limitations of one's own views. Bringing other perspectives into our view broadens the horizon of possibilities. It is common to presume that open-ness means permissiveness -- the blind acceptance of all perspectives or ideas as equally valid. Many presume that thinking critically about perspectives somehow violates the principle of open-ness. In fact, permissiveness is a type of poor thinking (presumption of equal merit) which actually short-circuits more beneficial analysis. Blind acceptance of all experiences shuts down, rather than opens up, understanding. For openness to have value, it must be accompanied by an acute mindfulness.


posted by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday January 25 2006

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