Monday, March 8, 2010

Advice for People Doing Research in the Caribbean? (Repost)

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 a recent 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


Diana Chen Thorburn said...

Interesting post! I need to read your article before I can really comment though. But as a Jamaican woman living in Jamaica and also doing research, "being a woman" and travelling are also "issues" in not just doing research but in day to day living. Once I leave my regular daytime orbit (I specify daytime because I seldom if ever go anywhere at night on my own) of uptown Kingston I have to think very carefully about where I am going, how I am getting there, who I am with, etc., because I am a woman and because my personal security is so threatened. So it's not just foreigners who have to face these considerations.
Not sure if that adds anything to the conversation, but that's my 2 cents (smile)
I look forward to reading your article.

Annie Paul said...

hey Bianca!

great post, must read your article but i like the direction you're heading in. this is the kind of paper one doesnt often hear at CSA and ought many assumptions. yes, people often portray spaces such as Kingston or Jamaica in such lurid colours, and then the female component.

speaking only for myself i've found Kingston's streets to be the most comfortable for me as a woman. perhaps my familiarity with them, perhaps now because of being older not a target of sexual aggression, but truly i never found that to be a problem even 20 yrs ago.

its different from other places in that here you're expected to engage someone who calls out to you on the street, rather than diss them or ignore them. once you respond in a friendly fashion you're left alone 9 times out of 10.

realize i've gone off on a tangent...

but great blog, thanks!

Unknown said...

Good post! It's an important discussion. I found it really interesting because it reflected my experiences. I'm interested in maroon communities and the African Diaspora. In Vera Cruz, Cuaji, Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Wahsington, DC - the Anacostia Smithsonian museum, and San Andres, I was warned not to go and visit. I did not like the implications.

I've been traveling alone for years. I must say I've had very positive experiences in all of these places. But, yes, I do take particular care as a woman.

What did I do? First, I did not listen to too many negative stories. I made friends with people from the community, in many cases women friends, who then introduced me to other men and women who were willing to help. I made arrangements with these people for transportation and places to stay. I also knew that one visit was just the beginning. I returned to the same people again and again and built relationships. I've always found a family willing to make me a member. Not only did I feel the welcome, but I was made to feel like family.

Yes, it is important to be aware of reality and to have some caution, but it's also necessary to find a way to trust individuals.

Like Annie Paul, I've only had positive experiences and this had to do with the people who listened to my plans and did their utmost to help me.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I was actually given any advice until I got to Santo Domingo, where I had never been before. I was told by a friend that I should ask the Catholic church to find me a community to live in, as I wanted to work in a squatter settlement because they could 'protect' me (this turned out to be good advice, despite my concerns that this would limit who I could work with). Of course, once I had found a community, every Dominican I met told me not to live there. I think as anthropologists we work so much out of the bounds of what's considered normal that it can be hard to identify what's important to pay heed to (ie in terms of safety) and what kinds of local commonsense can be downplayed. I think the rule of thumb is to take all local commonsense seriously, and test it out before discarding or modifying local advice.

I have an edited book that's just come out called 'Fieldwork Identities in the Caribbean' (2010, Caribbean Studies Press) that indicates strongly how diverse our experiences as researchers can be, depending upon our backgrounds. This isn't just about being female or male, but about nationality, colour, being an insider or outsider, social connections, research topics, parenthood or lack thereof, and all sorts of things. I think the value of our book is that it can provide students with a guide to the range of different experiences they may encounter, while not being proscriptive as to what fieldworkers should and shouldn't do. One thing the chapters make clear is that you can't necessarily anticipate how you will be received in the field. If you have a strong sense of identity then it's especially likely to be challenged or re-interpreted in ways you least expect.

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

In a recent conversation with a fellow ethonographer in Santo Domingo, we discussed how warnings about the danger of certain areas can sometimes work to ensure your dependence on particular gatekeepers.

I think it is useful to distinguish between warnings given by concerned relatives and friends and those given by people who may be influencing your actual access to communities. These latter warnings have the potential to be pernicious.

Great work, Bianca

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the perspective of a native Jamaican, I think that persons doing work in my country tend to be safe, provided they are properly apprised of their surroundings.

I think an issue that the post raises tangentially is the responsibility of the researcher to engage the community on its on terms.If a researcher is so burdened by fear of the very subjects he or she purport to represent, what are the ramifications for the integrity of the scholarship? The researcher must also ask himself/herself if the research would be conceived as "spying on the natives" by the natives themselves. In other words, would the researcher feel free to reveal to an ordinary subject the general nature of the research?

In the final analysis, I think that the fear that many expatriate researchers often feel has less to reality and more to do with their own complicities in pre-conceived notions and biases regarding the spaces under study.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

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