Where do we start?

Understanding Context

The starting place for SAL is to understand the context. Although we may be used to working from a scientific mindset that works with context-independent theoretical knowledge (that is to say, gravity works the same everywhere), context always matters in the social world. In countless little ways, as social animals we do not do things the same way in different parts of the world. Chowder in New York is different from chowder in Boston. And how we do things depends on the environment we do it in. Put us someplace different and we behave differently. This includes the social, cultural, and ecological context. The place matters. A lot.

Projects begin with an effort to understand some basic aspects of South Africa and the CTPC, and how these come together in pursuit of “sustainable community development.” In the time available, you may only scratch the surface, but hopefully you will become sensitized to key issues. As we try to understand the South African context, we become more aware of just how much our own context influences our own behavior and understanding. Exploring other contexts also helps us explore our own taken-for-granted assumptions about behavior – what is expected, what is right, what is wrong, what is allowed, and what is not.

Through the course of the projects, students hopefully move from gaining a very broad contextual understanding to applying that broad knowledge in investigating issues more closely related to their projects. The methods involved at both levels involve literature review, but the later work also typically involves more interactive, local inquiry through processes such as working with co-researchers and talking with community members, discussed under “connecting” and “planning.” Our SA colleagues are also often keenly interested in the context of our lives and work – the social and cultural assumptions and commitments we carry with us, our intentions, etc. Be prepared to inevitably serve as a vector of “contextual exchange,” both consciously and unconsciously, not only when doing project work, but in all kinds of social settings during our SA sojourn.