1998 Student-Faculty Fellows: Eckerd College

How and Why is Sri Lanka at the Forefront Among South Asian Nations in Solving its Population Dilemmas?

Professor Victoria Jean Baker, Anthropology
Jan Marci Brunson, Anthropology, ’98

Project Abstract

This study attempts to identify the factors that contribute to Sri Lanka’s record of low fertility rates. It describes the structure of national family planning programs and demographic statistics. The main focus is on the influence of women on fertility rates in the context of a small rural village: their status in the social structure, their level of education, and the contribution to subsistence through work or income. The responses of thirty married women reveal that the education of women is not a factor in this case. The high value placed on the education of their children causes them to limit the number of children they produce. Women have relatively equal status to men in the village; and in most cases they are sources of income for the family. This fact and the availability of contraceptives and sterilization allow them to control the number of offspring.

Through the research experience in Sri Lanka, I discovered how it feels to be completely immersed in a foreign culture- for example the unfamiliar language, food, living conditions, and being the only two people with white skin in sight. Professor Victoria Baker taught me some helpful tricks of the trade for travelling in a developing country and for conducting anthropological fieldwork. She also showed me how important it is to have confidence in one’s abilities and in one’s research. Through this experience I gained practice at doing the exact kind of research I will do at the graduate level and as a professor, and I have much to share both personally and professionally.

Reflecting on my experiences as faculty sponsor with Jan Brunson, it is clear that our learning took place on multiple dimensions. Beyond the important applied research findings, Jan was learning the fundamentals of research design, participant observation, note-taking, interviewing, data analysis, and how to cope with problems posed by an untrained interpreter. Equally important as these methodology topics, however, she was learning firsthand about the trials and rewards of doing anthropological research in remote rural setting in the developing world: how much patience and determination it takes to endure the intense heat, the danger of poisonous snakes, the inconveniences of having no water on tap nor electricity, the extremely hot and spicy curries, the primitive latrines, and the lack of privacy- but also how rewarding and humbling it is to gain the confidence and cooperation of village women, to be invited to meals in the homes of subsistence farmers, to play games with children who have no manufactured toys, and to be blessed by the single resident Buddhist monk in the nearby ancient cave temple. As a professor of anthropology it was an especially beneficial summer. Not only was I able to see my protégé on her way to becoming a superb fieldworker, but I was also able to collect data for a conference paper on ritual presented at a professional meeting in July, as well as data for a paper I will present at the American Anthropological Association meeting this fall. This project was a successful way to advance the knowledge and career opportunities of both student and faculty sponsor. We returned eager to share our Asian experiences with others and in diverse educational contexts.

Victoria Baker

Jan’s learning and mine occurred on many different levels. Beyond the substantive findings, we learned about the pitfalls of using an interpreter not experienced in the social sciences. Jan learned the fundamentals of research design,….., while I learned that beginning students should be given a bit more recuperation time when working in new and trying circumstances. We shared many moving experiences that taught lessons of humility. Our multi-dimensional learning experiences had made a deep impression on both of us and it was certain that they would continue in the next phases of the ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation project.

Concerning my own research as a specialist in education in the developing world, I was able to take the opportunity while in Colombo to collect important data for the paper I will be delivering at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Philadelphia in December, titled “Bridging the Gap: Preparing Teachers for Educational Reform in Sri Lanka.” While in Moneragala District I was invited to give a guest lecture, “Coping with Uncertainty: Livelihood Issues and Challenges Facing the People of Suduwatura Ara,” for the Moneragala District Integrated Rural Development Programme. I was also able to touch base on a project in the village that I helped initiate a year and a half ago with funds from the Netherlands. Moreover, I was able to gather additional data for the paper, “Ritual Practices in a Sinhalese Village,” that I presented at the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Williamsburg, July 30, 1998, which will be included in a published volume edited by Ruth-Inge Heinze.

Jan Brunson

I learned things not found in textbooks. The experience in Sri Lanka was my first chance to put into practice the research methods that I have learned throughout my undergraduate studies, and my first true immersion in a foreign culture. This experience at the undergraduate level is invaluable as I apply to graduate schools and fellowships. And in my projected career as a college professor, I will continue to conduct and publish this kind of research. On a more personal note, I also learned much about myself and built character as I overcame challenges.

Now, I am looking forward to sharing my experiences with the Eckerd College community through presentations in two of my courses and also a presentation open to both faculty and students. I am also looking forward to presenting my findings at a professional meeting in the spring.

  • Slide presentation, American Anthropological Association, December 2-6, 1998, Philadelphia (Population and the Anthropological Imagination)
  • Paper presentation at the Conference on Student Research, Atlanta GA, March, 1999
  • Paper presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Tucson, AZ, April 20-25, 1999