Translating my research into Smurf


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Smurfing outreach

I presented my research on Flemish public television broadcaster, VRT (Vlaamse Radio -en Televisieomroeporganisatie), on May 1. If you’re thinking it was another dull science documentary, you’re wrong! I explained how gender and power relations influence collective action in Smurfs’ land .

Iedereen Beroemd” (Everybody Famous) is a primetime daily programme that presents short human-interest news stories, and draws about one million viewers. In the section “Poepsimpel” (Dead simple), academic researchers are asked to explain their research using a metaphor and have the privilege to become the canvas for a talented cartoonist, Jasper Van Gestel.

The programme fits the mission and values of the VRT: to reinforce democracy by contributing to a social and pluralistic debate, documenting society and stimulating culture in all its diversity.

I decided to take part because I thought it would be a fun, innovative and highly effective way of achieving societal change and inspiring young people to engage in scientific research.

These are two important objectives of public engagement strategy that are related to my research on collective action in East-African agricultural households, which is funded through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

The power of metaphors

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The screenwriter, Stijn Van Der Stockt, explains there are three important steps to creating a compelling episode of “Poepsimpel”.

First, you need to break down your research topic to the essence: “What is it really about?” Secondly, a suitable metaphor needs to be found to explain the method, but most importantly, the findings need to be presented in such a way that it becomes understandable by the layperson. And thirdly, you should prove relevance: “Why is your research important?”

The persuasive and popularising qualities of “Gender and collective action amongst the Smurfs” and other “Poepsimpel” episodes hinge on the metaphor in combination with the visuals — funny and dynamic cartoons. There is science behind this, which I will briefly explain, although I am a researcher in development studies, not in communication sciences or marketing.

Essentially, the use of a metaphor facilitates understanding of new knowledge by building on something your audience is familiar with.

There are various mechanisms that facilitate this. These include catching the recipient’s attention, stimulating cognitive processes and semantic associations, and rewarding him/her when s/he figures out the metaphorical meaning, and enhancing the credibility of the source.

Metaphors, and especially formats that use visuals, are proven to have significantly stronger persuasive effects than literal messages.

How gender and power relations smurf collective action

Photo: Pixabay

So, we all know the Smurfs — the metaphor I used. The cartoonist so skilfully drew them all over my presentation.

These little blue fellows need to work together in order to celebrate great achievements, such as sustaining their sarsaparilla harvests. We are familiar with Lazy Smurf, the free-rider, and Greedy Smurf, who devours the sarsaparilla. Now imagine a whole bunch of Lazy Smurfs and Greedy Smurfs and you can understand the tragedy of the commons in the Smurf village…

Then there is Papa Smurf who can free-ride or indulge on sarsaparilla unquestioned by the other Smurfs because of his powerful position; which I showed is what happens in community governed irrigation schemes in Tanzania. Male irrigation users of high status and power, for instance, kept more than half of the water for themselves in a lab-in-the-field experiment, both when water was abundant and scarce, and deprived others from sizeable returns.

However, men and women irrigation users of low social status keep a little more than half of the water for themselves only when it is scarce. Women of high status share water whether it is abundant or scarce. Qualitative research into conflicts over irrigation water shows that powerful irrigation users more often get away with transgressing the informal sharing rules, while the less powerful at times have to rest their case when they are wronged.

The Smurf village is not free of gender inequity.

Smurfette enjoys only a meagre share of the sarsaparilla, despite her hard work. Even if she were to find the courage to protest, the other Smurfs would call her complaints preposterous.

I study such gender related challenges to collective action and equity in agricultural households in Uganda and Tanzania. In this setting, patriarchal norms and customs leave women with a double work burden of contributing to farming and managing the household, and put men in control of the household’s financial matters.

In many cases, this implies women have control over a small share of the farm income and assets. With the introduction of a more participatory way of making decisions in agricultural households, women gain some control over income and assets and can increase their decision-making power over strategic household and farm expenditures to some extent. Their work burden, however, remains unchanged.

So why is my research important?

If all Smurfs manage to smurf together for a bigger sarsaparilla harvest and smurf it fairly, all Smurfs will benefit, whether they live in the Smurf village or East Africa.

About the author

Els Lecoutere is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the IOB Institute of Development Policy

(Video with subtitles is available on request. Please contact the author for more.)

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