Laura Cochrane considers art to be her first love and a lifelong pursuit.
During her sophomore year of college, the studio art major studied in Ghana for a semester, working as an apprentice for a woodcarver. Cochrane soon realized that she was more interested in learning from the local woodcarvers than learning their craft.
Cochrane became fascinated with how people were talking rather than what they were talking about, and this realization turned her toward anthropology – a field where she could connect art, language and culture to what people are actively doing to solve issues.
“Once people started talking, they talked about (their local problems) in such interesting ways I realized I needed to match my interests with what was going on the ground,” she said. “I needed to stop bringing in research questions from my own interests and match myself and what I was studying to what was already there.”
Cochrane teaches sociology, anthropology and social work at CMU, but her love of West Africa and the arts continuously surface in her work. She also conducts research in Senegal, focusing on Sufism in artisanal communities and faith-based motivations for community-scale economic and environmental development.
Although she originally studied art, Cochrane doesn’t consider her switch to environmental and economic issues unexpected – she merely adjusted her research to what people presently care about. In Senegal, that happens to be a disappearing coastline, rising temperatures, land degradation and economic problems.
In 2005, Cochrane worked with Senegalese weavers for her doctoral work. Four years later, she returned to Senegal and could visibly see the environmental differences in the landscape.
Cochrane began to learn about how local communities were adapting to these environmental changes, and she compiled this information in her 2013 research “Land Degradation, Faith-Based Organizations, and Sustainability in Senegal,” which describes sustainable agricultural techniques and how Islam and Christianity are integrated in communities’ problem-solving.
“People in Senegal often talk about their religious beliefs as core to every single thing they do, and so of course that has to be part of the equation in addressing issues,” Cochrane said. “… If you see the environment as God’s creation, people as God’s people and labor as a way of giving back to God – then your whole community is addressing poverty and environmental issues in a way that is prayer, that is serving God.”
From her experience interacting with communities in Senegal, Cochrane emphasizes the importance of finding a place within a community and working together toward something greater.
“If we’re not part of communities that are addressing problems, what’s the point?” she said. “What are we doing if we’re not joining together and addressing issues that are around us?”
According to Cochrane, solving problems is not optional, not for the Senegalese and not for anyone else.
“You have to push forward and seeing the creativity, experimentation and innovation they are using to address the problems they face is really inspiring,” she said. “I would say being a part of a community and what that means (is) a serious responsibility. (Being a part of a community requires) finding meaning in what you’re doing, whatever it is.”
For Cochrane, sustainability means continuous, context-dependent problem-solving.
“(Sustainability) has to do with people, what they need and what their circumstances are. It includes what people are doing on the ground and what challenges they face.
“We’ve never achieved sustainability, (but) it’s our goal. Things are always changing and you have to work toward that goal, learning to be adaptable and flexible. Problem solving has to include entire communities, experts, scientists and policy. It’s this complex web of what we can do to solve the issues we face.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Cochrane or her research, you can check out her publications. Cochrane also teaches ANT 276 on language, identity and politics and ANT 451 on the history of anthropological thought.