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Statement of Research Interests
My interests are interdisciplinary and tend to be expansive, but within a certain framework. Since my research interests might thus seem eclectic, I will preface a discussion of specifics with an attempt to make a visual description of how I see the organization of these interests.
Overview: A Visualization
If one were to imagine four spheres arranged as in a triangular pyramid, so that each one touches the other three, and then, as in a 3-dimensional Venn diagram, cause these spheres to overlap slightly so that all 4 of them overlap in the center (where before there was a space), this then would be the base diagram to illustrate my research interests. The four spheres represent:
- International development (community development, dynamics of development, focus on rural areas in the global South)
- Africa (regional studies perspective embracing a range of topics from history and culture to politics and environment; I have 11 years' experience in West Africa which provides me with some context)
- Agriculture and environment (the natural space we occupy and impact, and the ways we manage it; I have tended to see agriculture and environment as part of a continuum, and that they are as much a concern for urban dwellers as rural people)
- Language (the coding of knowledge; linguistic diversity is also an international topic of concern that I follow actively)
There are two other notes to this visualization. First, since interests and their interrelationship naturally evolve, the diagram would be dynamic.
Second, in keeping with that evolutionary aspect, another level to the graphic would consist of several spheroids intersecting with the others:
- Information technology (IT) (seen as a tool for development and by its design a technology that uses human language, this is a logical addition and productive catalyst)
- China (a regional topic of interest in part for personal reasons, but which also goes back to observations and study some years ago; anthropologist John Aron Grayzel once suggested that international development specialists might do well to focus on a maximum of two world regions – this would be my second)
- Foodways (a natural extension of interest in agriculture and the “cultural dimension” of development; see mention of publications below)
All of the above are of interest, and my active research generally falls in the overlaps. Hence, while African languages are a major interest, my focus is particularly on how they are used in development, issues related to terminology and nomenclature for agriculture, rural livelihoods, and plant species, and the localization of information technology in African languages.
My formal academic focus, and much of my professional work, has been on rural community development in Africa, with technical concerns of agriculture and environment, all in the context of interest in international development. This has involved a range of social science as well as technical subjects.
I also have had an additional focus on languages, having published a lexicon for Fulfulde (Osborn et al 1993), done survey (desk) research on major African languages (descriptions and resources 1990-91 and 1998 [no publication]; usage, orthographies, and language policy issues 2005-present ]), and explored the possibilities for greater use of African languages in local development and education (Osborn 1999). I have also published on African languages and IT (see below). Additionally, I have some long-term projects for tree name lists and a short Bambara-Chinese Chinese-Bambara lexicon.
I am a member by invitation of tne Maaya network on linguistic diversity, and a board member of three language-related organizations:
- World Language Documentation Centre
- African Language Materials Archive (ALMA)
- Vox Humanitatis
In general, I look at problems in terms of systems. For example, in my dissertation (1997) on pastoralist systems of central Mali I drew on literature from several disciplines and used a political ecological model in which I incorporated an ideational dimension – perceptions of the environment and one's “action space” within it (a useful concept that has emerged in different forms in, for example, institutional economics, conflict analysis and pastoralist studies).
For my master’s degree (1993) I looked at what “development” means in Africa in the (unavoidable) context of interaction with the West. This bears mentioning because there are parts of this work that I would like to return to, notably evolving definitions of development (especially but not only in the African context), and the roles of international experts in other countries’ development.
An example of more recent research is a paper on soybean usage in West Africa (Osborn forthcoming 2008). In this I begin to explore some issues relating to adaptation of new crops and new knowledge to established foodways. In the case of soybeans, two factors are particularly noteworthy: (1) introduction of the soybeans initially as a cash crop for export (though not always successfully) and (2) the role of women and their networks in disseminating the techniques of local use, including their own modifications in Nigeria and Niger of the technique for making tofu, and substitution of soybeans for locust beans across West Africa in the making of a traditional condiment (the latter trend has had only scattered research done on it so far).
Concern with ideational, knowledge, and cultural dimensions of local development on the one hand, and interest in languages as media of communication on the other, have made a logical set of links to my current work in localizing IT in African languages. This interest focuses on basic applications for local development, as well as speech and translation technologies, and participatory geographic information systems (P-GIS). There are some overviews weblished or published (Osborn 2001, 2005, 2006), and I have put a fair amount of material of different sorts on the Bisharat website.
This largely applied work has also led to consideration of the role of first languages generally in development, and how they may be used as media of transmission and generation of knowledge (indigenous knowledge, multilingualism, basic education, adult literacy, extension, and the language[s] of participation). One of my current interests therefore is how to explore the linguistic side of development, including but not limited to ICT, to better understand how use of first languages, local linguae francae, and international “official” languages relates to the character and success of local development efforts. (Given that women on average have less command of official languages, this subject area also has an important, if often overlooked gender dimension.)
My personal connections (by marriage) to China have also opened up another area of inquiry – the growing China-Africa connections, with particular attention to recent Chinese migration to parts of West Africa. This interest actually goes back to observations in Togo, Mali and Guinea in the 1980s. In recent years the numbers of people from China residing in Africa, even in small urban centers in the Sahel, has increased significantly just as the official and trade contacts have multiplied.
In broad context I am also interested in topics such as the evolving “information society” and the relationship between globalization and local cultures.
(References to the books and articles cited are on the publications page of this site)
See also a different list of interests focused on language and technology