Monday, November 9, 2009

Advice for People Doing Research in the Caribbean?

Do you remember the best piece of advice you received while planning to do research in the Caribbean?

For the past few years, I have collected the “words of wisdom” concerned colleagues, researchers, elders in my discipline, “everyday experts,”* friends, and family members have graciously given me before, and during, my multiple research trips to Jamaica. In last month's volume of Transforming Anthropology**, I wrote about the five themes that connected these pearls of wisdom in a piece titled, "'Don't Ride the Bus': and Other Warnings that Women Anthropologists Are Given During Fieldwork." Although the individuals giving me advice seemed dedicated to thinking up ways to help me navigate unfamiliar territory, and genuinely wanted to make me feel comfortable in this space, in reality, much of their advice and warnings only worked to remind me of three things: (1) I was traveling alone; (2) I was a foreigner; and (3) I was a woman. For almost all of my advice givers, the gendered fact of Number 3 somehow exacerbated their anxiety and concern around the first two sentiments. It seemed that being a foreign woman alone in Jamaica, and the Caribbean more broadly, was somehow dangerous and problematic. Subsequently, these well-meaning American tourists, business travelers, African diasporic researchers, and Jamaican residents called, emailed, and whispered strategies to help me deal with the obstacles I would undoubtedly face.

In my article, I conclude that the advice people gave me during my research did not necessarily help me figure out how to get around Jamaica, or do my fieldwork research more efficiently. However, their advice did tell me a great deal about the ways Jamaica, and the Caribbean more broadly, are read through racialized, nationalized, gendered, sexualized, and classed lenses. Additionally, I realized that there were not enough spaces available for those completing research in the Caribbean, (particularly women), to talk about and discuss their experiences—the daily ins and outs of “doing research,” while navigating bustling city streets, crowded beaches, lively taxi car parks, jam-packed buses, and peaceful mountain towns. The silencing of these stories does not prepare our graduate students to do better research. And the revisionist histories that we often include in the texts that we write, erasing the highs and lows of our experiences, often downplay the significance of our identities and how these social markers affect our interactions with, and research about, the Caribbean.

Therefore I ask you: How was your experience of doing research in the Caribbean? What advice would you give current and future researchers working in the diverse locations that make up the Caribbean?

*I use the term “everyday experts” to describe the individuals anthropologists have traditionally called “informants.”

**Volume 17, issue 2, October 2009.

Contributed by Bianca C. Williams

1 comment:

wesduke said...

While I was doing fieldwork on St. Croix, I found the 'advice' I got most frequently (that ultimately turned out to both hinder and further my research) was guidance from any number of sources on who I should and should not associate and/or talk with. 'The field' (a complicated space for any ethnographer, and even more so when your fieldsite is your home, as it was for me) is always filled with well-meaning friends/informants who mean to direct you and your research in productive ways. The problem I found was that you as the researcher may not be certain about the direction of your research as you make your way through fieldwork. Because of this lack of clarity and the unpredictability of a developing project, it was helpful for me to talk to everyone. Talk to the man everyone thinks is awful--and find out why from as many sources as possible (including him). Approach the conspiracy theorist you're afraid to talk to (this is an actual example from my own fieldwork, and the insights this woman gave me figure prominently in my dissertation. I've found that the people and things that are the most frightening are generally the most informative). The prospectus that allowed you to enter the field will necessarily change during fieldwork, as people (and projects) can be unpredictable. The field, particularly a Caribbean fieldsite, can be a very complicated site to navigate.

The other advice I would give about conducting fieldwork has to do with my experience as a woman, particularly a young woman. I found that my position was often a point of confusion and contention for the people I interviewed: why didn't I live at home with my family? If I didn't have an office job, where (and how) was I getting money? These concerns on the part of 'informants' sometimes made interviews difficult, as they were unsure of my trustworthiness (how, for instance, to explain to my middle-class interviewees that, yes, I HAD to get up at 3 a.m. and go to a J'ouvrt as part of my research). In order to counter the frequent attempts to 'take care' of me (e.g. offers of jobs, rooms for rent, etc), I found I had to 'perform' the role of fieldworker. Sometimes, I did this by simply dressing as I thought a "real" researcher might (i.e. not the flip flops and beachwear I would otherwise wear). More often, I performed this role by describing my project and discipline in far more concrete terms than I had before. This (sometimes) clarified things for interviewees and often pushed my thinking in interesting ways.