Young street child selling fortunes in Iran. Picture courtesy of Shapour, flickr.com

I am getting ready to embark on a long trip to Iran this summer in order to begin fieldwork for my doctoral research. This will be the first trip that I will be taking in my life that will be solely devoted to observing how the less fortunate cope with the circumstances of their lives and struggle to make a better future for themselves. As I begin to pack my bags, though, I can’t help but wonder what they will think of my research. How will they respond to an outsider watching them, eagerly taking notes, and eagerly trying to learn about their everyday struggles? And can the writings and musings of one young idealist really make a big difference in their lives?

Iran, like many of its counterparts in the Middle East, is a land divided by distinct class lines.  The rich-poor divide is at times so harsh that you can live your entire life in Tehran without ever encountering the harsh reality that surrounds the daily lives of your poorer counterparts. Like so many of my Iranian-American counterparts, my summer trips to Iran have usually consisted of extended mehmoonis (family and friend gatherings) and trips to Babolsar by the Caspian Sea. Poverty was all around me, but yet it was as if there was an invisible shield that prevented me from really seeing it. Taxi drivers would often complain of the rising food prices and the saghti-haye (difficulties) of life while they drove us to Babolsar; street beggars would cross my path as we headed to the mehmoonis. But it was as if I was oblivious to it all. Even now, despite the fact that I have decided to dedicate my entire professional career to trying to understand and to come up with solutions for alleviating poverty, I wonder if anyone can really understand its inner workings and the tremendous strength of spirit, resilience, and courage of the poor without actually living through it herself?

I have so many unanswered questions and conflicting emotions as I prepare for this potentially life-altering trip. Perhaps I shouldn’t look for answers now, and just be content with the questions themselves. Perhaps the answers will come when I least expect them to.



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6 responses to “oblivious

  1. Dear Manata,
    I would just like to send you some positive energy and admiration for your plans. Surely answers will come to you when you least expect it and I beg you not to listen people who try to discourage you or discard your ideas. Keep up your energy and thrive in that intense feeling for what you are about to learn! Be sure to talk about your experiences that I am eager to read!
    My best to you,

    PS: I found this video about Mohammed Yunus really inspiring, if you don’t already know it – http://dotsub.com/films/bankerto_1/index.php?autostart=true&language_setting=en_177

  2. Manata

    Thank you so much, Robert, for your kind words of encouragement. I will definitely write about my experiences.

    The video was wonderful and very inspiring indeed.

    Please do keep in touch.

    All best to you,

  3. ‘Observation’ has always been a challenging notion for me for many of the same reasons you talk about. I’m curious to know if in your research/coursework you have come across anything that sheds light on the pros/cons and effectiveness/harmfulness of directly observing one’s subject.

    Instinctively, I feel that regardless of immediate observer/observed discomfort, observations such as yours and their potential benefits outweigh any cons. Is this a valid assumption?

    Best of luck with your travels and your work – I’m really curious to learn more. I hope you can update us throughout the summer!

  4. Manata

    Hi Shawhin,

    Since a participant observer doesn’t actively try to intrude on the subjects’ lives, but rather stands by passively observing and taking notes, it is difficult to argue that the subjects would be harmed in the process. However, I suppose that if subjects perceive the observer’s presence as a threat or intrusion, they will change their behavior and make it difficult for the observer to really “see” what is going on.

    I too think that the benefits to participant observation outweigh the cons (especially if we compare it to other methods such as interviewing, experiments, etc). But, like all methods, this also depends on the researcher and how good he/she is in keeping personal biases at bay and therefore minimize subjectivity.

    I will definitely blog throughout the summer (internet access permitting!) and I look forward to hearing more of your insights.

    Take care,

  5. Riad

    Hi Manata!

    I was reluctant to write but your conflicting emotions reminded me of myself. The last few lines of “Oblivious” have changed my mind.

    It is a heavy burden on anyone who has ever been touched by the pains of other people, be it poverty,illness or disasters……. the list is endless. I have always felt that efforts to carry out qunatitative analysis of such issues can be very disappointing. “Oblivious” is the right word for it. I have been moved by the unbelieveable struggle of people and yet I turned out to be oblivous on most occassions. Sad but true !!!

    You do not need to chase for the answers. You do not need to be content with the questions.Wisdom is spontaneous. It has no specific or predefined way of revealing itself. It’s true. So don’t look for patterns.

    I am sure you will add wisdom to the way people think and comprehend. It’s all about being there and going through the motions.

    From a holistic point of view, happiness is what counts. Have you lived a happy life or have you just existed as an object??? The young street boy selling fortunes in Iran looks happy in the picture.
    I am pleased to see him that way – lively, vibrant, uncomplicated – that’s what I like.

    Never limit your thoughts. Let your mind guide you.

    Best Regards


  6. Pingback: the real life « asheyan

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