So you want to work in the social sector…

Interdisciplinarity in social sciences has meant that it has become diverse and dynamic. Young people are increasingly studying subjects that were previously rare or rather subsumed in larger disciplines. Now there are full fledged courses like development studies, gender studies, governance and diplomacy, social policy and public policy, public health and social medicine, development economics, poverty, media and society, rural development, urban studies etc. It is not unusual for students to have classes which cut across more traditional departments like sociology, political science, economics, law, medicine, statistics, and even science and literature. The result is that social scientists are entering the job market possessing skills that range from SPSS to deconstruction of literary texts.

As such a student, with masters in development studies and doctorate in public health, I have attended courses ranging from history of Latin America to epidemiology and cultural studies and medicine. I now work as a researcher at a non profit working on gender, health, and multidimensional poverty. As part of my work I routinely come across young social scientists and researchers who want to translate the theories of their classrooms into practice in the field. More specifically they are interested in working in the non profit sector or the social sector especially in rural areas. So here is a post about what that is like and some bits of advice.

1. Do not go into the field with a romanticised idea of village life or poverty. Villages and life in rural areas is not some quaint lifestyle and simplified existence. It is very complex. Often the areas where you will work with will be ridden with caste and religious prejudices, extremely poor health indicators and high mortality, and gender/caste based violence. These are complicated issues and do not disappear in a day. Thus go to the field with a nuanced understanding and realistic expectations of what an individual or an organisation can achieve in a given context and under a certain time frame. Don’t let the delays, resistance, and failures frustrate and demoralise you. Social changes are the hardest and take very long.

2. Don’t let this be a one sided affair. Make the people participants in the programmes. Take their inputs, redesign your programmes and objectives. Prioritise their issues, make them own the programmes and the outputs. Let the people lead and teach you. Respect their local knowledge and innovations.

3. A lot of your time will also be spent writing funding proposals, writing annual reports and making power points. You will also be doing some amount of data analysis and research writing. Don’t let this bog you down and don’t see this as another ‘desk job’. Documentation, funding, and research are an integral part of working in a social sector organisation. Treat this as a learning opportunity. Remember, it is only through careful and honest research that dissemination of best practices can happen and learnings can take place about more efficient and cost effective developmental practices. Social sector is an extremely dynamic field.

4. Tend not to treat the communities that you work with as ‘subjects’ or ‘case studies’. This is easier said than done. These communities, often rural, poor and vulnerable are at the receiving end of the interventions and the programme. For the purpose of programme implementation and data collection they can end up being reduced to statistics and numbers. However try and go beyond looking at them merely through this lens. Understand their social context, their complex lives and rich history. Supplement surveys with longer engagements and more in depth understanding.

5. Related to the above- try and make the learnings of the field inform the objectives and the methods of the interventions. The bottom up, grassroots approach is favoured but not always implemented. Programme design and objectives are often driven by prevailing developmental ideas, priority areas of the state, and donor demands. Maintain a balance between introducing newer technologies and ideas, and respecting and encouraging local methods, for instance, of soil or water conservation.

6. Be reflexive of your position as an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’. This will mean being humble and willing to learn and adapt. It will mean taking a non judgmental attitude and recognising one’s own prejudices and beliefs. It will also mean sensitivity and objectivity in interactions and analysis.

7. Lastly, as with your multidisciplinary courses, always be ready to learn things beyond your immediate expertise. Learn local languages and culture. Don’t be afraid to explore the local geographies, the flora and fauna. Be ready to try newer cuisines. Immerse yourself. Get your hands dirty.

Social science researchers and implementers are essential for the discipline and the sector. Researchers and workers who are sensitive to the dynamics of the field, humble and respectful, reflexive of their positions, who can combine the strong theoretical grounding with meticulous rigour of fieldwork, will go a long way in developing the discipline and bridging the gap between idea and implementation, between academic expertise and local uptake and innovation.