Fieldwork takes UChicago researchers across the globe

When classes let out for the summer, it’s time for many UChicago faculty to head into the field to conduct research. Their destinations ranged from the mountains of Nepal to street markets in Afghanistan to inside Brazilian prisons.

As Autumn Quarter approaches, five UChicago scholars share how they spent their summer “vacations” this year.

Understanding sharing in Cambodia

Humans share a unique capacity for pro-social behavior, like sharing and a sense of fairness. But Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, wanted to know whether those attributes are universal or influenced by social and cultural factors. Working with children in diverse societies, from China to Cuba, South Africa to Turkey, his research sought to fill in this knowledge gap.

Decety: “Much of prior work on resource allocation and distributive justice has focused on children from Western countries in particular North America and Western Europe. Using mainly these samples in academic research may lead to inaccurate generalizations about human nature, which is problematic when trying to identify core mechanisms of the human mind. Going to other counties allows us to look at whether sharing, sensitivity to fairness and justice, is universal across all countries and cultures and what’s impacted by the local culture or economy.

“The current project that I am conducting investigates children aged 4–11 in 15 diverse societies by testing them with behavioral economics games to assess, moral judgment, resource allocation and distributive justice. I visited each of the 15 countries at least once, to train local research assistants and meet with school teachers, organize data collection, and obtain approval from Ethics Committees. In Cambodia, in a very poor rural village just outside the Vietnamese border, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the children and teachers when they welcomed me. They were so excited and enthusiastic to be involved in this project.

“This summer I also was invited to give a talk in Israel at the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and met with colleagues from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to develop a new project for next year. We’re planning a study on moral reasoning and examine group dynamics in a city whose population that is half Jewish and half Arab, and determine how we can facilitate prosocial behavior between children from these two cultures/religions.”

Flying over the Asian monsoon

Liz Moyer, professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and three UChicago students traveled to the mountains of Nepal as part of a 15-country research team that sent a high-altitude research aircraft equipped with scientific instruments to fly over the Asian monsoon. 

Moyer: “The Asian monsoon is the biggest organized weather system in the world, and it affects the livelihoods of millions of people, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about it. We wanted to know how high the monsoon convection reaches—whether it punches through into the stratosphere, which would change how we understand its role in global climate.

“As we got closer to launch, the scientists all had our hearts in our mouths. This mission has been years in the making. All of the conditions had to come together right—the instruments, the permits, the weather, the plane, which is one of only a few in the world able to fly at such high altitudes. The last time we tried, in 2016, it got called off at the last minute. Even on this mission we had to MacGyver a lot: For example, because some of our equipment got stuck in India due to flooded roads, the plane had to be pushed in and out of the hangar by hand.

“But right off our first few flights, the data was extraordinary. It was immediately clear that the answer to our question was sitting right there on the page. We were so happy just to have gotten the mission off the ground, and then this data—I still can’t believe it.”

Studying markets in Afghanistan

Questions about the effects of Taliban violence on street markets drew Austin Wright, professor at Harris Public Policy, to Afghanistan, where Harris is starting a fellowship program with the American University of Afghanistan.

Wright: “One of our upcoming projects looks at the impact of insecurity—typically caused insurgent attacks on villages and improvised bombs along roadways—on economic activity at local markets. About 70 percent of all economic interactions in Afghanistan are informal, and a lot of them happen in these marketplaces. Because of this, it remains difficult to get a good sense of how resilient local economic activity is to insurgent activity. We’re planning to use satellite imagery and machine learning to see how many people go to these markets before and after Taliban attacks nearby. (Big-box stores do this type of satellite surveillance in the U.S. to gauge the market.)

“For me, looking to work in Afghanistan, being there in person is critical, especially when you’re building relationships with the people you’re working with on the ground. And you have opportunities to learn about local dynamics you might not understand otherwise. For example, I was sitting around the dinner table with one of the board members. He told me about the rich history of rose farms in Afghanistan. Afghanistan used to export many of the most sought-after rose varieties for perfume oil; and we discussed piloting some agricultural projects to see if they could be an option for local farmers interested in replacing opium.

“The faculty and students at the university likewise gave me a range of new perspectives and background on the research projects I’m looking to do. And we’re really looking forward to working with them as the students develop their own research projects.”

Witnessing the spread of prison gangs in Brazil

Benjamin Lessing, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, crisscrossed Brazil this summer, visiting dozens of state prisons and favelas (Brazilian shanty towns) to interview prisoners and community members. He was documenting the spread of powerful prison gangs that have dominated Brazil’s criminal underworld for decades and are now taking over the country.  

Lessing: “Brazil’s prison gangs are very sophisticated. They began in Sao Paulo and Rio in the 80s and 90s, with each gang in the cities getting powerful by taking over the prisons. The gangs have been expanding, and they have a colonialist mindset. Imagine if a very powerful gang in Los Angeles took over a Los Angeles prison, and then took over criminal life in Los Angeles, and then suddenly took over the entire country state by state.

“One of the states I went to had a very violent gang war—similar to what’s happening in Chicago—and the prison gang there got stronger, and in 2015 announced a gang peace. There was a drastic drop in violence. There was literally a parade of criminals, where gang members marched through the streets declaring there was a union of gangs. But the peace broke down, and neighborhoods now fight against each other.

“Visiting the prisons and seeing the conditions in which the gangs operate and talking to prisoners, and visiting these slum communities, it was an essential starting point to my research. I won’t come back with a brand-new data set, but it’s important to understand the lived experience of the people who deal with this violence on a day-to-day basis.”

Spoken words in Germany

William Pope.L., associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts, brought his sound performance art project “Whispering Campaign” to Greece and Germany as part of the acclaimed international art exhibition documenta 14. During the 100 days of documenta, the project broadcast more than 9,000 hours of spoken material to reflect on current issues facing the continent of Europe.

Pope.L: “Being on location in both Athens and Kassel, Germany was vital for a project such as mine, which dealt with issues of environmental audio, site-specific performance and collaboration. I cannot imagine rehearsing and recording performers, choosing performance sites and soaking up the sonic character of each city without physically being there.

“One interesting moment was a stacked, or group, performance we did for six hours on top of the Acropolis. The text we used was pre-recorded in three languages: German, Greek and English.

“My thinking changed almost every day. More specifically, I realized that it’s only natural to be uncomfortable in a foreign country. This can seem a deficit, but I believe this discomfort can have a positive value. The foreigner’s point of view is frequently wrong, but it ‘sees’ things, as it were, freshly wrong.

“In art, that can be very useful.”

Students share their summer vacations

We asked UChicago students to tell us about the out-of-the-ordinary ways they spent the past three months. Here's what they did, in their own photos and words.