Allison Berger '08 in Ecuador
This spring I am studying abroad in the cities of Quito and Tena, Ecuador. I am learning through an organization in Quito called CIMAS, or the Center for Investigations of the Environment and Health. Through my study abroad program, I am pursuing my interests in medical sociology and the sociology of global development. For the first half of the semester, I am taking classes and going on field trips to investigate the social and economic aspects of global development. One of my main interests here is the impact of the flower industry on women’s reproductive rights and health. To experientially learn about this topic, our class toured a flower plantation and interviewed an indigenous farmer about his view of the plantations. We also have learned a lot about the clash between the government and the impoverished members of the informal economy and found out how officials have “cleaned up” Quito’s Old Town by kicking out street vendors, raising rent, and restructuring city parks to appeal more to wealthy tourists. During the second half of the semester, I will have an internship assisting in the obstetrics and gynecology department of a poor public hospital in Tena, Ecuador. After my internship, I plan to write a comparative paper on the differences between Western and Indigenous methods of childbirth. Taking classes with Ecuadorian professors and having an internship in rural health have come together to provide me with a global perspective of sociology.
Sara Thomas '08 in Northern Ireland
We were negotiating a dispute over a Protestant political march when one of the Protestants put an orange in the middle of the mediation table; a blatant threat. As Americans, only a few among us realized the symbolism of the fruit sitting between us, that had this interaction been a real mediation session and not a role-play, negotiations would have immediately terminated. In Northern Ireland, where I have been studying for the past two months, the color orange represents the Orange Order, an army of British loyalists and, in the eyes of Catholics, a history of inequality.
Last year in my Sociology of the Body class with Professor Ferguson, we learned about the significance of clothing and jewelry as a form of self-expression. In Northern Ireland, clothing and jewelry have completely different implications than they do in the United States. Last year, a past program participant wore an orange-tinted tie into a pub and was approached and threatened by former members of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA) because they thought he was a British supporter. Had he not had an American accent, his decision to wear that single color could have caused a brawl. Here, things that are obsolete in the United States become crucial pieces of information that pinpoint loyalties and reveal political biases. In Northern Ireland, there are Catholic crosses and Protestant crosses, Irish colors and British colors, Nationalist symbols and Unionist symbols, and even young children know the difference. Everything is segregated into Catholic and Protestant: sports (hurling vs. cricket), schools pronunciation of the alphabet (‘h’ can be aych or haych), and surnames (Doherty can be ‘Dorty’ or ‘Do-her-ty’). Even cities’ names depend on which community you ask. I live in Londonderry, Derry, the Foyle, or the Walled City, depending on whom you ask. My host family lives in Derry; they are Republicans, meaning that they want a united Republic of Ireland. My co-worker lives in Londonderry; she is a Unionist who wants to maintain allegiance to London Westminster. People who do not wish to reveal loyalties or take sides live in the Foyle or the Walled City. The city itself is divided into two sides, city-side (Catholic) and water-side (Protestant). A statue of two men reaching out their hands, but not touching, marks the bridge connecting the two sides, a perfect representation of the peace-process in Northern Ireland.
At this point, both parties have called a cease-fire and there is an election in March, which may allow power sharing between the two main opposing political parties. But a lack of violence does not equal peace. Peace building is a painfully slow process; it must address historical contention and distrust in order to integrate people who have spent their lives hating one another. "Peace-walls" separate sections of Belfast, the capitol, and any suggestion of removing the 20 foot “peace-walls” causes an upsurge of panic. These communities have refused to interact with each other for a century.
They have demonized one another and laid blame for all their trials on each other’s shoulders. So the task becomes re-attributing human qualities to the enemy, but where do we begin?
Chris Neubert '08 in Sri Lanka
Any student of sociology at Grinnell College will admit that it is very difficult, at times, to fully embrace abstract sociological theories. The course load at Grinnell can sometimes leave students questioning whether or not sociology is applicable in many contexts. The opportunity to study abroad, then, provides a unique way for students to take many of the theories that are taught in the classroom and apply them directly to a real world experience.
For me, this opportunity arose last semester, when I spent four and a half months in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka.
From the moment I stepped off the plane in Bandaranaike International Airport, it was clear that Sri Lanka was going to be a fascinating study in sociological contrasts. The airport itself still shows damage from a rebel attack five years ago that occurred during one of the darker periods in Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war. The civil war, a twenty-year conflict between the Sinhalese population of most of Sri Lanka and the Tamil people in the north and east, has come to dominate life in Sri Lanka. Ethnic tensions have become common in Sri Lankan society and these tensions manifested themselves in many varied ways throughout my time in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps the most significant sociological effect of this conflict was the marginalization of groups that were not directly involved. For the most part, after twenty years, a war that was once a battle for independence has become a fight between an irascible government and an elitist group of rebels. As a result, many people in Sri Lanka feel out of touch with their leaders, Tamil or Sinhala, and disenfranchised from important decision-making processes. This marginalization led me to my ultimate research project: a sociological study of how grassroots development works to empower and liberate oppressed populations.
The first group that I worked with was a small farmer’s cooperative in a small village in the mountains of central Sri Lanka. The village, Illukkumbura, had suffered at the hands of government officials who unwittingly declared an important part of the lands they required for survival a conservation zone. One decade later, when I arrived to begin my research, Illukkumbura was still struggling to find new crops to replace the agriculture they had lost, and local middlemen were taking the crops they were growing and paying below-market prices. To combat this system of exploitation, the local villagers had formed a “tomato society,” which essentially usurped the role of the intermediaries and allowed the farmers to receive a fair price for their goods. While small organizations like this one only occasionally affect change on a global or even international level, my research led me to conclude that these very groups are an essential component in the people of Sri Lanka participating in an ongoing resistance to systems of exploitation. The second organization that I researched was engaging a population in Sri Lanka whose entire history had been one of oppression.
The Satyodaya Centre for Social Research and Encounter was founded in 1972 by Father Paul Caspersz, a Jesuit Marxist, to support the empowerment of a group of Tamils who were brought to Sri Lanka by the British over 100 years before. These “plantation Tamils” lived in a state of perpetual indentured servitude, ignored by both other Tamils and the Sri Lankan government. After the government repeatedly failed to recognize their right to citizenship and fair treatment, Father Caspersz founded Satyodaya to resist the oppression that is lived on the tea plantations every day. The Satyodaya Center does this by engaging local community-based organizations on the plantations, and facilitating the needs of these groups to support the people. Satyodaya also serves to navigate the complex institutional relationships that exist on the plantation, and it seeks to promote the interests of the workers at all times. Ultimately, the conclusions of my research provided me with something that is hard to find in the secluded campus of Grinnell College --- the realization that real solutions do exist to some of the greatest social ills in the world today. On my last day in Sri Lanka, my friend and the current administrator of Satyodaya gave me some advice that I will not soon forget: “Remember, when you go back to your home and your school, that there is a Satyodaya here in Sri Lanka, and a people in need of help.” When theory gets too daunting and cumbersome, it is useful to remind myself that there are places and people where theory is not some abstract concept, it is a reality that is lived and experienced every day of their lives.
Madison VanOort '08 in India
My semester in Madurai, India influenced my sociological perspective primarily in two ways: through my daily experiences and through my independent ethnographic research. On a day-to-day basis, it was hard for me to articulate how I felt about India. I could never say that I liked India more or less than America; it was simply different. There were certain aspects of the culture, such as the food, the arts, and the unabashed hospitality that I absolutely loved. However, some aspects of the culture shocked and disgusted me, including the caste system, the rigid gender roles, and almost complete lack of a waste management system. One of the high points of the program was having numerous one-on-one conversations with lower-class Indians during my independent ethnographic research project. Influenced by earlier studies on cross-cultural death practices, I decided to investigate people who worked in cremation sites and cemeteries in Madurai. My research unveiled a field of work dominated by caste and gender norms that continuously thrusts many of its employees into inescapable cycles of poverty and discrimination. My study abroad experience was dually challenging and rewarding, but all I know for certain is that I want to go back.
Lindsay Young '08 in London
Spending time away from your own culture dramatically increases your awareness of culture itself. Going to another country was especially enlightening. I spent the fall semester of 2006 in the Grinnell-in-London program. Unfortunately, no sociology professors from Grinnell taught in London that semester, although they did the year before and will teach next year. I still found many rewarding experiences. From the way people live, work, and move through a big city to the presence of the economically impoverished to the rich social history of a location that has been inhabited for so long, I saw intriguing aspects of society all around me.
Doing my internship with the London Swing Dance Society gave me a unique perspective of the behind the scenes production of a swing dance community that I had previously only encountered as a consumer. It was fun to talk to other local dancers and recognize the similarities and differences between our societies. Returning to America, I feel I have
gained a fresh perspective on what makes our society unique.