An Anthropologist Walks Into the BE.Center…
A Q&A with Madhuri Karak
This fall, Dr. Madhuri Karak joined the Center for Behavior & the Environment (BE.Center) team as the Community Engagement Lead. In her position, she supports practitioners, students, and academics in designing behaviorally-informed solutions to environmental problems. With a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the City University of New York, a Master’s in Anthropology and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and years of research and teaching experience, Madhuri brings unique expertise to the team. We asked her a few questions about the intersections of behavioral science and anthropology and what she’s looking forward to sharing and learning in her role.
What got you interested in working with Rare and the BE.Center?
Behavior change in the environmental field was not something I knew a lot about before coming to Rare. My previous research on land rights explored resource extraction and development as two contradictory and yet co-existing forces in India’s mineral-rich, indigenous heartland. This work used law, policy, and to an extent, community rituals, to understand power imbalances between indigenous peoples, the state, and mining companies. So examining drivers of ‘behavior’ – norms, beliefs, values, i.e., the BE.Center’s bread and butter – has not been my entry point into social analysis in the past. Considering the ‘behavior’ piece of the puzzle alongside structural forces that constrain and enable human action is a potent combination for change.
Academia tends to silo knowledge into disciplines. On top of that, historical reasons have pushed disciplines like economics into governance and policymaking more than say, anthropology and history that tend to occupy positions of critique. I value the emphasis on interdisciplinary solution design at the BE.Center and working with colleagues whose disciplinary premises differ from mine. It is our commitment to collaborative thinking and human-centered environmental change that keeps us at the table.
How will your experience as a cultural anthropologist contribute to the approach and mission of the BE.Center?
When teaching my freshman ‘Introduction to Cultural Anthropology’ classes, I would begin by introducing the anthropologist as the person in the room who makes the familiar strange, and the strange unfamiliar. At the BE.Center, this occurs during the Empathize step of Behavior-Centered Design (BCD). How do we “translate” the needs, desires, and worldviews of stakeholders? Empathetic mediators play an important role in showing how an environmental problem becomes understood by differently positioned actors. I see Rare’s work in a similar vein, translating academic research into practice, sourcing inputs and designing change efforts for audiences that make individual and community stakes in a conservation solution legible.
Empathetic mediators play an important role in showing how an environmental problem becomes understood by differently positioned actors. I see Rare’s work in a similar vein, translating academic research into practice, sourcing inputs and designing change efforts for audiences that make individual and community stakes in a conservation solution legible.”
– Madhuri Karak, Community Engagement Lead, BE.Center
Our new learning platform, behavior.rare.org, is launching in mid-January 2020. A virtual playground for practitioners, students, and scientists, the site will be an important part of the BE. Center’s mission to create demand for behavioral science in the environmental field, provide toolkits and resources, and publish evidence ‘from the wild.’ Understanding our audiences’ needs is crucial, and I hope my ethnographic lens brings sharper focus to our BCD approach.
What is something you’ve learned so far about behavioral science that excites you?
Collective action around the most vital environmental challenge of our time – climate change – is happening in a far slower, piecemeal fashion than we need it to. As an anthropologist, I recognize how differences in political beliefs, income, and social background shape people’s engagement trajectories. I’ve noticed that behavioral science offers tools to meet people where they’re at (instead of where we’d like them to be). For example, let’s consider renewable energy. Instead of waiting for lawmakers to do the right thing, we can encourage household-level behavior adoption that would, cumulatively, have a high impact on our net emissions. Understanding people’s motivations and barriers to adopting high impact changes is key in this regard. What is holding us back from installing solar panels in our homes? What might motivate us to make the leap?
At the same time, our efforts cannot stop at individual or household-level behavior change. Let’s return to the example of household renewable energy. Plastic solar lanterns are flooding last-mile communities in developing countries, but without repair support or accessible spare parts, the policy emphasis on solar power is also exacerbating single-use plastic waste. In the absence of research and development capacity, a privatized renewable energy sector can stand in the way of energy equity. Structural challenges will always exist, and re-emerge in new forms; they can help us assess meaningful leverage points in a system and the context for a given behavior. At the same time, understanding what inspires individuals to act for our planet now is a powerful thing. I’m excited to build on my knowledge of how humans engage with the physical world, and each other, by taking on a new, behavioral lens.
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