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Catherine Whittle is spending 18 months volunteering at A Rocha Kenya as her PhD fieldwork. She’s an anthropologist, but that doesn’t mean much to most people here! We sat down with her to try to understand more about her research.

Catherine. You’ve been here four months now, but most of us still don’t really understand what anthropology is… Do you often have that problem?

All the time! I think anthropology is such an important area of study, but most people don’t know anything about it. Sometimes people mistake it for entomology, which is the study of insects – definitely not what I do. Sometimes people know it’s ‘the study of people’, or humanity, but that’s all they can say. The easiest way to explain it is that anthropologists write about what makes human social life possible, or meaningful. We’re often thought of as writing about ‘culture’, though we’ve argued a lot about what ‘culture’ means. We write about kinship (family), religion, economics and politics and how these institutions all relate to each other, how these look different in different times and places, and how people change and are changed by them. If it sounds big or broad, it’s because it is! But that’s also what makes it fascinating, ambitious, and exciting to be a part of.

Catherine on the right, chatting to Monicah, on the left

So if you could have gone anywhere to study anything where there are people… Why are you here with us?

Because anthropology is so broad, we tend to specialise our research even as we continue to learn from other areas. I’m trained in the anthropology of religion since during my undergraduate degree I decided I wanted to study contemporary Christianity: what makes Christian communities tick and how they engage with and influence the world. It was later in my undergrad and then master’s degree that I began to feel more convicted that my research has to address the climate and ecological crisis. Early anthropology was quite tied up with colonisation, and many anthropologists, especially working in Africa, didn’t acknowledge or address the fact that they were ‘studying’ colonised people and the profound impacts of that. I worry that contemporary anthropology has been having a parallel problem of failing to acknowledge the context of ecological breakdown in which we’re all living and working. It’s not the same, but it is important, and we need to find a way of addressing this despite its challenges.

So I settled on studying Christianity and the environment, addressing questions like: for Christians who believe the world is God’s creation, what’s it like to see that world suffering so much harm? How are people responding? How do Christians engage in debates about how climate change relates to the ‘end times’, what our responsibility is to the Earth, and so on? I hadn’t met anyone from A Rocha before planning the project, but I knew about their work, so I thought working with an A Rocha national team doing Christian conservation work would be a great way to learn about what makes conservation Christian and how environmental work is presented as part of Christian practice. I’m here in Kenya because… actually it’s a long story, there were various factors. A short version is that I became interested in the Environmental Education and Farming God’s Way training that happens here and wanted to learn about that.

So your volunteering is actually your methodology?

Exactly. As well as wanting to make sure I make a contribution to this place so my research isn’t just an ‘extractive’ thing, volunteering means I get to experience and participate in A Rocha Kenya’s different programmes and daily working life together, getting to know my colleagues here and meeting people around the area who work with them or participate in their programmes. At the end of each day, I write about what I’ve learned: about life in Kenya, life here in the Watamu area, what people pray about, local debates around conservation and development, everything. When you do research like this, you can’t help wondering whether people will accept you and whether they’ll tell you anything knowing that you’ll be writing about them. I’m grateful for how people here have accepted me and been willing to share their lives with me. Still, it’s a constant process of being brave enough to ask more questions, on the one hand, and trying to respect people’s boundaries, on the other. Sometimes people say anthropological research is like ‘deep hanging out’, which makes it sound pretty easy, but it’s not. You never really know what will become important in your PhD thesis in two years’ time, so you try to capture everything, but that feels impossible.

The most important tool of anthopologists… the notepad, to capture as much as possible!

Any highlights so far?

Many! The glorious Watamu beach; sunsets at Mida Creek; singing Swahili hymns and carols. And, completely unexpectedly, learning about moths – more on that in this blog post!