Aalyia Sadruddin on her experience with the Laterite PhD Hub

Aalyia Sadruddin on her experience with the Laterite PhD Hub
Anthropologist and all-round rock , Aalyia Sadruddin joined Laterite as a fellow with the PhD Hub in June 2015. Aalyia is currently a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University. Her research focuses on aging and late-life caregiving in post-conflict nations.  This past summer, she was in Rwanda for two months doing preparatory work for her dissertation.  She plans to return to the country in August 2016 to carry out the bulk of the field work for her study. We sat down with Aalyia to discuss her time at Laterite and how her plans for her dissertation and field work are evolving.

We just launched an SMS survey tool – conTEXT – so we are doing a lot of thinking in 140 characters these days. Can you give us a “twitter” version of your thesis topic?

Late-life caregiving, Aging and Family Compositions in Rwanda

Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience working with Laterite as a PhD Hub fellow this past summer?

Working as a PhD Hub Fellow was a novel experience for me. As an anthropologist, I simply marvel at the idea of working at my field site. So to be able to sit at a desk, access high-speed Internet and design a survey was quite different to what I usually do. That said, the time I spent at Laterite exposed me to new ways in which research is conducted in the field of international development, and also how collaborative research is conducted in the professional world. Within four weeks I was trained on how to design a survey in Microsoft Excel and transport it onto a tablet using SurveyCTO. One of the most compelling aspects of my Laterite experience was learning how technology is and can be used to collect and analyze large-scale data. It would have taken me a lifetime navigating this task in an academic context.

For the most part, my anthropological training has taught me how conduct solo research. Working at Laterite, however, made it obvious that working in a team opens up many pathways to maintaining rigor in research but also engaging with local communities.

Even though I was only at Laterite for a short time, I felt as if I knew the team members for years. Coming from a heavy qualitative background, I was initially worried about how I would fit in with a group of development and quantitatively inclined experts. My fears were quickly assuaged by the fact that senior management prioritize the  involvement of Rwandan researchers in their endeavour which is not only inspiring, but showcases Laterite’s will to build local capacity. Each member of the team, regardless of his or her position, is committed to advancing how research is conceptualized, conducted and sustained across Africa. It is no wonder that the firm as a whole stands out as a leader in bridging the gap between innovation and research. It was my honor to be a part of the Laterite team, and deeply hope that I can foster my relationship with firm as I mature into my PhD.

We at Laterite certainly gained some interesting insights into your work and research methods in the field of anthropology. Your time at the PhD hub was to us a perfect example of the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration.  As a result, we are really working to build up our capacity to do qualitative research in a rigorous manner. Do you have any thoughts on some of the main lessons or methods from the field of anthropology that could be used to enhance quantitative analytic work?

Anthropology is truly a unique discipline. And I am not just saying that because I am an anthropologist. For decades, anthropologists have advocated for human lives to be depicted with dignity. Anthropologists have also theoretically and practically advanced research in a number of fields including development, conflict, health and policy. Despite its contribution, data generated by anthropologists is often undervalued. In a world where research is primarily defined by its quantifiable characteristics and/or ability to be reproduced, anthropological data is often deemed as anecdotal and unreliable.

Methodologically, anthropologists, through use of ethnography, have been able to powerfully explain how people navigate their uncertain landscapes. One of the key aims for anthropologists is to “advance methodological and analytical frameworks that focus on people and the dynamism of social fields” (Biehl et al., 2013). One of my life goals is to advocate the use of ethnography in large-scale research. For starters, ethnography as a methodological tool can help us design more culturally attuned scales and effectively represent the communities with which we work. One of my life goals is to advocate for the simultaneous use of qualitative and quantitative methods in international research, as opposed to relying on qualitative methods as a “feel good” and/or “exploitative” approach to learning about social phenomena.

It is crucial for all researchers despite their theoretical and/or methodological training and/or orientation to put people at the center of their analyses.

Anthropology can help advance this imperative. Anthropologists can help contextualize local perspectives. They can offer invaluable critiques on how unequal structures directly impact the everyday lives of people. They can train students, scholars and researchers to understand the social, economic, political and cultural factors that shape research agendas. They can also take a lead in informing how and when interventions are implemented in communities.

From your experience at Laterite, are there any quantitative analysis techniques that you think you will be able to apply to your own work?

Definitely! I am planning to conduct a mixed-methods research project for my dissertation. This means that I will dually rely on qualitative and quantitative methods in order to generate my own data set. Thanks to the brilliant and patient statisticians at Laterite, I have been able to garner some basic STATA skills and will use the program to run a range of descriptive and inferential analyses as part of my dissertation.

What are the next steps for your field work? When can we expect to see you back in Rwanda?

I have been immersed in grant and prospectus writing this past semester (Fall 2015). Depending on the outcome of my grant applications, I hope to return to Rwanda in August 2016, where I will stay for a year conducting dissertation research between three sites in central, eastern and western Rwanda.