Saturday, August 3, 2013

Meetings, Conferences and Research in Sub-Saharan Africa

For the last three days the Faculty of Business here at the University of Botswana has been hosting a research conference.  To say the least, this was a very interesting learning experience.  At first glance, by looking at the program, I expected the conference to be very similar to other international conferences I’ve attended.  But this was quite different from any other I’ve attended in the U.S. or abroad. First of all, here in Africa time is no object.  Meetings typically don’t start on time, and despite this being a conference with a schedule, time still did not provide any barrier.  I foolishly showed up promptly at 8:45am this morning for the first session which was scheduled to begin… at 8:45am.  I was the ONLY person in the entire building!  Fortunately, I brought a book which I proceeded to read until others wandered in close to 10am.

The research was also quite different.  All the attendees were from southern Africa; primarily South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and a few other surrounding countries.  Since all the attendees were from Sub-Saharan Africa their research naturally examined hospitality and tourism issues in these countries.  So, from that standpoint I learned a lot about the industry in this region.

However, the research was not what I expected at all.  Most of the research did not actually involve data collection.  Instead, it was more of a compilation of literature review, and findings from other authors, not the people who were actually presenting.  Some of the presenters did interviews or collected surveys, but were not particularly scientific in how they analyzed their data.  I was very surprised because we put such a high priority on statistical significance, large sample sizes and being able to demonstrate the value of our findings.  If a researcher in the U.S. wanted to publish a paper using qualitative data (i.e. interviews) there would have to be some serious explanation as to why the method was appropriate, that the measurement was valid and reliable, and that some real, tangible results were generated.  Here that is not the case.

The other thing I found interesting was that every paper included multiple authors.  And when I say multiple, I mean a lot. As in six or seven people!  That is practically unheard of in the U.S. unless it is a $5 million grant funded by NSF trying to find a cure for cancer, necessitating half a dozen scientists to run lab experiments.  Generally, any publication in a U.S. or U.K. journal with more than three or four authors is considered highly irregular and frowned upon unless it is truly groundbreaking.

While I have some mixed feelings about the conference, as a whole I’m happy I attended.  I definitely learned a lot about hospitality and tourism in Botswana and the surrounding countries. I’m also thankful I had this experience at the very beginning of my stay here so that I have a slightly better idea of what to expect in terms of research productivity and collaboration while I’m here.

My favorite reason for attending conferences, aside from the social aspect of course, is that they always give me new ideas about what I want to work on next and gets me excited about my new projects.  I will say this conference has given me a lot to think about and I am definitely looking forward to starting some new assignments right away.

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