Thursday, January 30, 2014

Social Entrepreneur Alias: Undercover Anthropologist ...AKA Detective of Local Context

A key concept that I’ve learned in my program is that much of the success of a social enterprise is tied to how well the concept works within the local context. This is one reason why professionals in international development strongly encourage that programs be led, or co-led, by locals.

Among many things, locals tend to know how to avoid the typical pitfalls of previous projects and are attuned to community dynamics that can make or break a venture. This is just one of the many reasons why it is so important to have locals co-creating, in some capacity, whatever the social enterprise is working on.

So far, I have engaged, and plan to further engage, Costa Ricans in my project (this has been gradual as I wait for my Spanish to catch up with my intensions ;). Working face-to-face with local people is by far one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of this experience!!

However, another way of building my personal understanding of the context here is by that old familiar beast... research. But it’s not as intensive as it sounds. It’s actually kind of fun - I promise!

I get to play anthropologist (studying a specific community) and sociologist (studying social behavior)…basically a detective! This means that I’m constantly trying to absorb information about this community (of Potrero and of Costa Rica) – the culture, economics, education, social structure, lifestyle, health, and more. Painting a detailed picture of the context here – where the social enterprise will operate and hopefully grow.

This information about the social enterprise’s context is so important! For example, if bikinis are culturally unacceptable here (aka not popular), a storeowner may not want to sell them in their shop.

However, a social entrepreneur has to be careful not to run away with the picture they are painting and start to generalize and stereotype everyone around them. It’s best if to double-check one’s notions with at least a couple of people – “I noticed that people don’t really think it’s ok to wear bikinis. Is that true?” … “Oh no, only the older generation finds them immodest. Young people would wear them if they were sold somewhere.”

So as I walk around Potrero, I’m constantly observing my surroundings. Among many things, I’ve noticed:
  •  the boys play soccer from 5 pm until dark each day;
  •  many people here seem content (as my neighbor’s laughter carries through the night air into my backyard);
  •  and some skinny children pick up only the basic necessities at the supermarket.

Soccer in la plaza every day for boys from 5-6pm.
Yes, its common for the plazas in small towns here to be a soccer field!

It's common for multiple generations to live on the same property - 
currently three generations live on our property. 
This is an old house in the back that used to belong to 
our landlord's parents (which would make 4 generations).

Aside from physical observations, I’m constantly jotting down notes in meetings and after conversations about…who owns businesses, and who is the character in town, and when the school will reopen for Spring.

And at home, I’m reading two books, two studies of Costa Rica. Since I haven’t started the second, I’ll just give you the first for now.

Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz, Richard Biesanz, and Karen Zubris Biesanz. The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1999.

When I share their insights, I’ll be sure to cite them. Although this one is a little dated, I think a book is by far the easiest and quickest way to gain a summary about the culture, history, and way of life of a place (if it’s available). This one’s full of quotes from interviews and focus groups… Someone’s years of research at my fingertips J Thank you Mavis, Richard and Karen!

What I really wanted to write about today were my insights so far on Costa Rican leisure habits. But it’s best to understand this role of anthropology and sociology in my work beforehand. Why? Because it’s one of my favorite parts of this project and because it’s so important to social enterprise!!

What do you notice when you start to open your eyes to the nuances and details of your town, city or country? Do you also like to play anthropologist/sociologist?