Finding Your Feet in the Field: Defining Your Role as a Researcher
Between the years 2010-2012, I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation in the small mountainous southern African Kingdom of Lesotho. My project aimed to trace the flow of international directives on HIV prevention and examine their influence on the knowledge, explanatory accounts, and practices of rural and urban youth in Lesotho. I drew mostly from the perspective of biocommunicability put forth by anthropologist Charles Briggs, attempting to look beyond the content of informational health education messages to examine the ideological constructions of how biomedical knowledge is produced, circulated, and received. As Briggs notes, by doing so we expose the relationship between political economy and governmentality, or reveal the effects of global and local power dynamics. (See Charles Briggs, “Biocommunicability: The Neoliberal Subject and its Contradictions in News Coverage of Health Issues” in Social Text 25 (2007), pp.43-66.)
Early in 2012 I was beginning to bring the study to a close. I had one final piece of data, a self-administered survey, to collect from my study participants, students at a teachers training college. “You are too passive, that’s your problem,” offered my South African friend as comfort after yet another grueling and disappointing day in the field. I had hit a hurdle following almost two years of intense but mostly unhindered ethnographic work. An administrator at the college had decided to prevent any attempts I made to collect the final piece of data. I had already piloted other methods for data collection, including an Internet-hosted survey to circumvent limitations of collecting survey data from students who may perceive the exercise as an examination with right or wrong answers. However, these had failed and students had requested a paper-based survey administered during regularly scheduled class times. This required negotiating with instructors or informing students of additionally scheduled times. The college administrator was dissatisfied with either. I was stuck. Could I abandon the study design that I had defended to countless critics, and if so could I make a clear argument? Who was I beholden to in conducting the research — myself, my committee, my funders, my study population? Did I pull rank as a highly-educated, white Westerner (as suggested by my friend), or would this be hypocritical given the topic of my dissertation? As a meagerly-funded, single researcher was I not reliant on the good-natured, willing participation of the study community?
What I faced in this situation was the realities of my own racial, economic, educational, and national positionality. Lesotho is a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. Unlike South Africa’s racial/ethnic diversity, people in Lesotho are from one racial/ethnic group — the Basotho — people of Lesotho. Nevertheless, Lesotho is not unfamiliar with social divisions along racial/ethnic lines. Their historical experiences with South African Boer aggressors, British colonial rulers, an Apartheid South African government, and more recently foreign industrialists and development workers, not to mention the influx of global media and technology, all contributed to my elite social and economic position.
I had first traveled to Lesotho in 2004 as a development worker connected to a private American university. The team was establishing an advisory role within the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and had funding to build an HIV counseling and testing clinic on the college campus — the same campus I would return to six years later as a doctoral student in anthropology. While I still had associations with a large university in the United States and had established both personal and professional connections within the college in Lesotho, when I returned in 2010 I no longer had connections within the government, and no funding or resources to offer the college. I was hardly in a position to force support of or compliance with my research needs.
Before conducting dissertation research, I had obtained full support from the college director, approval from the national ethics board, and my own university’s institutional review board. There was no reason for this single college administrator to hinder the progress of the research, yet she felt it was in her purview to do so. Colleagues at the college informed me that this particular administrator was stubborn and I would have to battle to overturn her decisions. Was a fight really what I wanted? I knew my funders and my committee members were expecting me to complete the research design I had established. Yet, without the last research component I would still have enough data to complete my doctoral thesis. My funder was largely concerned with cultural collaborations and ambassadorship. As such, unlike other funders they would not have frowned upon a change in research design, specifically one that was made in an effort to maintain local relations.
Still, I did not feel like giving up was the right decision. If the study was conducted as designed with different data recovery methods complementing each other in a classic triangulation format, there was greater potential (given the rigors of academic publication) to have the voices of youth from this small and rarely considered country heard by the global community. These students had shared intimate details of their lives with me, the activities they enjoyed doing, their romantic relationships, and even (though less enthusiastically) their experiences with the HIV epidemic. Anthropologists have historically been engaged as social critics, speaking out against racism, neglect of the rights of workers, the oppression of women, and much more. Yet, the core anthropological concept — culture — is still often linked with colonial-era representations of primitiveness rather than anthropologically-based visions of meaning and practice. Although the discipline has a long and rich history of commenting on modern society and its foibles, this activity now languishes with greater focus on anthropologists as academics, passively observing their research subjects.
My mentor, critical medical anthropologist Merrill Singer, along with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Paul Farmer and others, have challenged the role of the passive anthropologist, demonstrating through their work that it is possible to be both a social activist and an anthropologist. Contemporary anthropological knowledge has a great deal to contribute to understanding (political) violence, contemporary conflict ideas of race and racism, global capitalism, and social, economic, political, and disease inequalities. Over the past two decades the discipline of anthropology has informed public policy, been involved in social activism and community empowerment, and linked theoretical perspectives to create new practical solutions to social problems. I had to make an effort for the students.
With the help of other college faculty and high level administrators, I continued with my study as designed. To limit disruption to lecturers we arranged for students to complete the survey during a period of time between academic classes. The college administrator opposed to this component of the study did try to prevent the administration of the survey by sending staff to inform me that I had not obtained her permission. However, with hundreds of students eager to participate, the staff member chosen to relay the message suggested that it was better to collect the data and manage the consequences afterwards. I maintained good relations with college, and more importantly I was confidently able to represent accurately the voice of youth in Lesotho to the world.
Fighting to complete my study as designed meant succumbing to the global power dynamics central to my thesis (the white educated researcher undermining the decision of a local black official). However, it also brought to light how these power dynamics are contributing to local contemporary youth HIV risk behaviors. The voice of youth in Lesotho is stifled by elders (i.e., parents, older siblings, teachers, and college administrators) and global HIV prevention messages of abstinence, faithfulness, and condom use (discourses of control). Desiring the freedom, independence, and individuality offered by Western media (discourses of empowerment) the youth find their voice through clothing fashions and cell phones acquired through multiple, intergenerational, and transactional sexual relationships. Throughout the world, youth are challenging existing power dynamics as evident with the recent Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. Unless we take seriously the stories, challenges, loves, and heartaches of youth and fight for their right to be heard they are going to find ways to have a voice, and sometimes at their own peril.
Department of Anthropology
University of Connecticut
Image: “Collecting the Survey” by Nicola Bulled.
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