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November 22, 2001 Researchers gaining rural insight



Researchers on rural communities

Left to right: Stephanie Desjardins, Anna Woodrow, Sara Teitelbaum, Marie-Odile Magnan, Isabelle Lantagne, Andrea Sharkey, Professor Bill Reimer, Deatra Walsh, and Mike Burns. Cindy Bryant was absent when the photo was taken.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Sigalit Hoffman

When master’s student Isabelle Lantagne left home to do 10 days of interviews last summer, she didn’t know what to expect.

“Being a field researcher is surprise after surprise,” she said. “You have to be open to new things.”

Lantagne and a team of Concordia researchers gathered to share their experiences studying rural communities across Canada. They were part of the New Rural Economy Project (NRE), which is studying 2,000 rural households. Eighteen universities and 22 researchers are involved in the project. This summer, Concordia sent a team of seven researchers to gather information.

“What we did across Canada has never been done before,” said the project’s research manager, Anna Woodrow. “We are really doing groundbreaking work.”

Rural change

The two-year-old project set out to understand the changes taking place in rural communities, and how the people who live in those communities are adapting. Rural communities are aging, and that includes their economies, Woodrow explained. While they used to rely on resource industries like logging and fishing, these communities are becoming service-centred.

The student researchers learned more than they expected.

“We had to justify our methodology,” Lantagne said of a community member who helped set up interviews. At a workshop last week sponsored by the project, Lantagne and her partner Marie-Odile Magnan gave a presentation called “Confronting the Realities of Rural Field Work: The Education Gap,” in which she explained what it was like to work on an academic project with a person who did not have a university education.

“You had to try to phone [interview subjects] three times. It was part of the methodology,” Lantagne explained. “To her, it did not make any sense. It was not practical to do that.”

In her presentation, called “Gathering Data: BBQ Etiquette and Other Things,” master’s student Andrea Sharkey spoke of feeling awkward when she met her interviewees in a social setting. “When you’re dealing with someone in a research setting, there’s a certain comfort level because you know our roles,” the 24-year-old sociology student said.

“In a social setting, you feel somewhat like you’re intruding in their lives.”

Not only did the experience teach her about field work, it also piqued her interest. “Although I’m from a rural community, that had never been an interest of mine,” said the Chesterville, Ont., native. “Through the project, I realized that it was interesting.” Sharkey, who is graduating this year, is studying youth and communication in the rural context.

Strenghtening rural communities

Not only did the project help sharpen the Concordia team’s research skills, it might eventually provide rural communities with tools for empowerment. The Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF), which initiated the NRE project, has a history of helping rural communities.

Six years ago, the CRRF had its annual conference in Coaticook, Que. The town set up a billeting system and converted a cow showroom into a conference room. High school students were trained to wait tables and the meals were prepared in the town high school.

When the conference ended, the town marketed itself as a conference centre.

Woodrow said that rural communities bring to mind close-knit environments. “It’s a part of Canadian heritage.”