Fieldwork and Privilege Part 1

P.S. I realized that I haven’t talked much about my research, so I will do so in a future post. In the meantime here is a link to my profile in the University of Maryland, College Park Anthropology department website which has some info about my research.

Time to travel to the near past…

I remember a particular conversation I had in a bar with a friend (intemperate indian) who’s a fellow anthropologist. We were chatting after some sort of department event we attended, and our conversation shifted to privilege and its discomfort.

We had a moment (as we often do, since we don’t think very differently )in which we talked about how if you don’t feel discomfort as an anthropologist in the field, then there is something wrong. And it’s probably you, and probably there might be some privilege that needs to be checked. Mainly because when I go to the field I’m going to study a lot of things that are outside my experience—because I’m educated, because I’m not one of the people under study, because I’m not a woman, because I’m a US citizen, because I’m studying reproductive health, because it’s just awkward to ask these women questions that they weren’t even thinking of answering when they came to the clinic…etc

Within this fieldwork, there is a level of advocacy that is implicit. Yet, when trying to carry out the advocacy efforts through research, I encountered problems in the field, with the topics of my questions. When I was carrying out interviews in the clinic, I was trying to do so as to get their perspective on the topic of male circumcision and decision making; at no point I was trying to make the clinic look bad by pointing out that they rarely discuss male circumcision. This was in fact a rich point of the research itself! Without going too much into what I found in these interviews (which is what I’m currently working on now) I quickly noticed that the perception was that circumcision was not talked about much. But more telling is that before beginning my interview process, those troublesome encounters have been brought to my attention by white people who to their defense said they were trying to defend their clients. I actually believe this to be true, since they were worried how my questions will bias the women in the clinics and then perceive that the information they are not receiving can be harmful to their children. Put another way, they wanted me to reframe my questions as to not frame the clinic as the sole responsible entity for giving the patients’ information about circumcision, so that the women seeking services did not feel they were missing out on something. I’m not trying to jump to conclusions about what this actually means for my research, yet I found it very interesting. The fact that the rest of the Latino staff apparently feel comfortable enough with my presence and trusted my intentions and the goals of representing a particular perspective with this research. The fact that some of the staff actually mentioned how happy they were about my visits—and mentioned how glad they are that a Latino student is doing a PhD—is a stark contrast to the comments and criticism-not necessarily negative, but still criticism- I received from the white staff.

Discomfort and fieldwork are evidently related in my experience, especially when I am an anthropologist whose background has been impacted by colonialism. Yet I’ve never made the connection before as to what that meant in terms of my own privilege. It’s an interesting position within the us/them dialectic, since my entrance to the field has definitely been helped by the fact that I somewhat look (and to some extent talk) like the majority of the staff in the clinics. But I still need to be vigilant and to not take for granted in the ways that I pass, and the times I need to get checked.

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