Translating my research into Smurf
7 May 2018
On May 1st, 2018, Els Lecoutere presented her research on the Flemish public television broadcaster, the VRT (Vlaamse Radio -en Televisieomroeporganisatie).
If you think of a dull science documentary, you got it wrong... She explained how gender and power relations influence collective action in Smurfs' land.
On May 1st, 2018, I presented my research on the Flemish public television broadcaster, the VRT (Vlaamse Radio -en Televisieomroeporganisatie). If you think of a dull science documentary, you got it wrong… I explained how gender and power relations influence collective action in Smurfs’ land.
“Iedereen Beroemd” (Everybody Famous) is a primetime daily programme presenting short human interest news stories, watched by about one million viewers. In the section "Poepsimpel" (Dead simple), academic researchers get the chance to explain their research using a metaphor and the privilege to be the canvas for a talented cartoonist, Jasper Van Gestel . The programme fits into the mission of the VRT of reinforcing democracy by contributing to a social and pluralistic debate, documenting society and stimulating culture in all its diversity.
I participated because I thought it was a fun, innovative and highly effective way of achieving societal impact and inspiring young people to engage in scientific research; two important objectives of the public engagement strategy linked to my research on collective action in East-African agricultural households funded through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.
The screenwriter, Stijn Van Der Stockt, explains that three steps are important to come to a compelling episode of "Poepsimpel". First, you need to distil your research to the essence: “What is it really about?”. Secondly, a suitable metaphor needs to be found to explain the method but especially the findings in such a way that it becomes understandable for a layman’s public. And thirdly, you have to prove the relevance: “Why is your research important?”
The persuasive and popularising qualities of “Gender and collective action amongst the Smurfs” and other “Poepsimpel” episodes hinge on the metaphor in combination with the visuals - the funny dynamic cartoons. There is science behind that, which I will briefly explain, although I am a researcher in development studies, not in communication sciences or marketing. Essentially, by using a metaphor you facilitate understanding new knowledge by building on something that your audience is familiar with. There are various mechanisms that facilitate this. These include catching the attention, stimulating cognitive processes and semantic associations by the message recipient and rewarding him/her when s/he figures out the metaphorical meaning, and enhancing the credibility of the source. Metaphors, and especially formats that use visuals, are proven to have significantly stronger persuasive effects than literal messages.
So, we all know the Smurfs – the metaphor I used, and the cartoonist so skilfully drew all over my presentation. The little blue fellows need to work together for great achievements, such as sustaining their sarsaparilla harvests. We are familiar with Lazy Smurf, the free-rider, and Greedy Smurf, who overconsumes the sarsaparilla. Imagine a whole bunch of Lazy Smurfs and Greedy Smurfs and you can picture the tragedy of the commons in Smurf village… Then you have Papa Smurf who can freeride or indulge on sarsaparilla unquestioned by the other Smurfs because of his powerful position; which I showed is what happens in community governed irrigation schemes in Tanzania. And Smurfette, she gets a meagre share of the sarsaparilla, despite her hard work. Even if she would have the courage to protest, the other Smurfs would find her complaints preposterous. I study such gender related challenges to collective action and equity in agricultural households in Uganda and Tanzania.
And why my research is important? If all Smurfs manage to smurf together for a bigger sarsaparilla harvest and smurf it fairly, all Smurfs will benefit, whether they live in Smurfs’ land or East Africa.
Els Lecoutere, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the IOB Institute of Development Policy, May 2nd, 2018