By Sarah Plemmons
During the summers of 2016 and 2017, a UT professor traveled to the Southern Highlands of Ethiopia to observe families from the small community of Doko.
Department of Child and Family Studies professor and cultural anthropologist, Hillary Fouts, conducts international research that focuses on parenting and child health and development, particularly in small communities in East and Central Africa.
“These populations are underrepresented in literature,” Fouts said. “This gives us insight into a small-scale community.”
Previously, she had observed nomadic groups and urban slum communities. One such project to her Central Africa where she interviewed mothers about their fertility and birth histories. During these interviews, mothers shared their experiences losing children.
“I was really struck by these stories the mothers were telling me and wanted to understand how they were being affected. I would’ve loved to continue my work there.”
Political violence in Central Africa forced Fouts to relocate to a new field site. She spent the 2014 spring semester in several different Ethiopian communities, looking for the right place to conduct her research. In Doko, she found a lot of women who felt the unpredictability within their community, chiefly in economic and food security.
“One father said to me, ‘When you’re living like this, you’re living above the dead but below the living.’ Or in other words, ‘We’re not fully living with the stress and challenges we’re facing,” Fouts said.
With the help of a Gamo translator, Fouts conducted interviews and observations to identify basic patterns of parenting, child care and family characteristics specific to the community.
With permission from community leaders to conduct her research on a larger scale, Fouts returned to Doko in the summer of 2016 with a research grant from the Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation and a team of Child and Family Studies graduate students to observe families with children under two.
Over the course of two summers, she and her students have lived among the people of Doko, analyzing the relationship between parents’ perceptions of environmental risk and their parenting style – in other words, how parents’ experiences with child loss have affected their involvement with their children.
The research is based on firsthand accounts of community perceptions as opposed to an extrinsic analysis. Being able to qualify the research from within the community is what makes this research unique, Fouts says.
“We had them describe in their words what it was like to live in that community,” she said. “What might look like high-risks to a researcher might not be felt as high risk by the people who live there, so I wanted to give voice to parents and their perceptions of their environments.”
Fouts and her students observed families with children under two over a period of three days. During this time, they conducted interviews asking parents what it was like to live in the community, what challenges they faced, what their goals were for their children and what healthy child development meant to them. They also observed the family’s behavior patterns indicating the relationship parents had with their children.
In her research, Fouts has found that strong family support systems and positive relationships acted as a buffer. Moreover, this was one of many factors that affected parents’ perceptions of risk in their environments, including food insecurity and economic insecurity.
“When we’re looking at families living in poverty, it’s really easy to look at poverty itself as the factor. But all these families were experiencing poverty, and they perceived it differently. Some thought it was still a great place to live, and it didn’t affect their parenting methods,” Fouts said. “This is something that is relevant to parents in many parts of the world.”
Fouts believes that a more holistic approach to research, while more difficult than analyzing a community extrinsically, is important to understanding how and why families interact when facing the pressure of environmental risk and loss.
“We know that there is environmental risk, not just in Ethiopia but in many parts of the world, so understanding those mechanisms and how they affect parents can also provide guidance for where there might be opportunities for where we might be able to better support parents and promote healthy child development.”