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Learning About Self and About Others

by Sandra Rogers

This excerpt was taken from her talk delivered at the 2011 Inquiry Conference at BYU.

come from a discipline where we have had to learn a lot of things the hard way. We used to keep newly delivered women in bed for two weeks after they had their baby. I think this was because we wanted to learn how to treat phlebitis better than we had ever known how to treat phlebitis, because the best way to have a woman get phlebitis and run the danger of throwing a pulmonary embolism is to keep her in bed after she has delivered. We were doing harmful things thinking they were right, because we did not know enough yet.

Another thing I have learned about inquiry is your presence in the circumstance alters the circumstance for the people you are observing and interacting with. It has got to be that way; there is not any other way. You have got to recognize your presence inside the circle changes things. You have got to sort through and try not to have too much of an impact on the situation and gauge the responses you are getting. I love the cartoon (it might be a Far Side cartoon) where the two, typical cannibals with the bones tied up in their hair and bone necklaces around their necks are looking out a window of their grass dwelling and you see some professor-looking people coming up over the hill. One of the cannibals says to the other, “Quick, hide the TV, hide the stereo—the anthropologists are coming, the anthropologists are coming!” The notion is to be aware enough of yourself that you recognize how you alter things.

My presence in the research project that was part of my dissertation significantly altered a circumstance no matter how hard I tried to keep it from altering the circumstance. And it eventually created one of the biggest ethical dilemmas I have had in my professional career. I was doing part of my research for my dissertation in concert with a research project instituted by the International Council of Research Nurses in Nigeria. A lot of work had been done by the professional nursing administration to set this up, and they were looking at the contributions nurses made to primary health care. Because I was there, the nurses felt compelled to carry out the research. If you know something about Nigeria, the research project had to have federal character. What that meant was we had to have a research site in eastern Nigeria so the Igbo people would be happy, and we had to have a research site in northern Nigeria so the Hausa people would be happy, and we had to have a research site in western Nigeria so the Yoruba people would be happy—that is federal character. I was doing the data collection in these three sites. In two of these sites, the nurses gave up. I had no data; they would not participate in the data collection, because they said I was not providing them gas or taking care of their cars as they had to travel to this village or giving them things for the people in the village like aspirin or food supplements. I was not giving them the things that would make the people welcome them. They sat down and were not going to do their work. The nurses in eastern Nigeria wanted to take care of me. I tried hard not to make them want to take care of me, but they wanted to so they were driving their cars and spending their gas money and doing all of these things that were costly to them in order to meet my need to complete my dissertation. I had completely altered the experience. I did not have enough “umpf” to alter the experience for the Yoruba and Hausa people, but for the Igbo people, I altered the experience. I went through the most difficult ethical challenge of my professional career; I was getting something out of their effort, and I had changed the way they were participating. I was requiring of them more than I could give back in any way. I had expected to go into this project, which was keying off something my major professor was doing in a very neutral way, but I was no longer neutral. I came home, and I did not want to write my dissertation, because I felt guilty. I felt guilty about the gift, so-to-speak, I had been given from the nurses. It took a long time before I could finally work that out. I tried to find ways I could restore the cosmos for the nurses. My reports to the International Council of Nurses highlighted their efforts and interestingly enough, the ICN eventually made the decision to invest in nursing education that was helpful. Several of the publications listed the nurses in order as the first authors, and I was the last author, because I felt it was the only way I could restore what I felt I had taken out of the situation. Your presence alters the circumstance, and you have to ask yourself how many gifts you are willing to receive from people who are so willing to help you.

I have learned general conclusions do not always apply to an individual person. We use general conclusions to help us have a general understanding, but we recognize individuals within a population can still do different things. I have learned things are not always what they seem on the surface. In my doctoral program in San Francisco, we had a major professor who was Egyptian. Because of that, we attracted a lot of doctoral students from the Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia—everywhere. On one occasion, a new student came from Egypt as women in Muslim societies were beginning to want to be covered and wear the veil, where before they had not as much. She was veiled and covered, and one day it would be bright pink and another day it was lemon yellow and another day she would fly in with lavender, and she would tell us about her belief in modesty. One of my friends was also Egyptian, but Nawal came to school in gray skirts and monotone sweaters. One day I asked Nawal, “What is the difference here? You seem to be very religious. Why are you not covered like our classmate? And she replied, “It is because she does not understand the spirit of the law.” That is exactly how she said it. I asked her to enlighten me. She said, “Well, the spirit of the law is modesty and not drawing attention to yourself. When she comes in, veiled in the rainbow, who does everyone look at? When I come in, who does everyone look at?” I said, “We all look at her.” Nawal said, “That violates the spirit of the law, and before I left Egypt, I talked to my father about how I was going to live this principle of modesty in an American environment. He taught me I could live this law by not drawing attention to myself. Consequently, I don’t come in veiled and covered in bright colors.” Which of these two women was living the law of modesty as outlined in the Qur’an? When you came back to report on that in next year’s Inquiry Conference in your talk on how women live their religiosity in what they wear, how would you have explained that? Which one would have been the model you would have used? You would have to explain both of them, would you not? And because you only had two data points, you would have to say: It is not possible for me to make a conclusion, because I only have two data points. I am going to have to go back mom and dad! You are going to have to pay for me to go on my second inquiry visit so I can figure out which of these things is more true.

The last thing I would like to say is inquiry about self and others is about dot gathering and connecting those dots. I started collecting dots that were meaningful to me in various international experiences when I was in grade school and my father was sending me to the encyclopedia. Sometimes, because I could reference a historical point in a foreign country, I was trusted. People were willing to confide in me, because it looked like I had made the effort to understand their context. Sometimes that data point was from as early as junior high, before I knew what I was doing, but it was a data point. We find them in all sorts of places, we find them in things we read in textbooks, we find them in our interactions with others from that area, we find them in talking to other people who have been to this particular part of the world or have experience there. We find them in journals. We find them from our faculty who have experience, and we find them in literature—we find them in all sorts of places—these little data points that help us understand other people. And then, they start to connect to each other. Our understanding begins to grow, and instead of having a factoid, we begin to have a picture. Then the picture becomes clearer like adding pixels to a monitor, and we begin to see the picture more distinctly.

Rogers is international vice president at Brigham Young University and has responsibility for the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, the Ambassadorial Visits Program, and oversees the university’s Division of Continuing Education. Rogers previously served as the associate academic vice president for International, Distance and Continuing Education. Her broad experience in the international arena includes studying, serving, and working in countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria, Jordan, and Romania. In addition to serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines, Rogers has worked with the Church’s Humanitarian Services Committee in Africa and Eastern Europe. As a nursing professor, she was asked to serve as a consultant for numerous international programs, including training and development projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Rogers also served as dean of BYU’s College of Nursing for six years. Her research has focused on primary health care programs. She received a PhD from the University of California—San Francisco, specializing in international, cross-cultural nursing and received degrees from the University of Arizona and Brigham Young University. See the full talk online at