Views from the ANThill: Reflections on Beginnings in Anthropology News

by douglas reeser on September 7, 2011

On September 1st, 2011, the American Anthropological Association launched the new online version of their popular Anthropology News magazine. For the next year I will be writing a monthly column for the publication titled, "Notes from the Field", in which I will muse on the many aspects of research and life that I experience while conducting my dissertation research in Belize. The column will run once a month, and I will be able to repost here on Recycled Minds. Ideas and requests for future columns are always welcomed, and in the end, I hope everyone enjoys the columns. This is the first in the series:

Reflections on Beginnings…
Sometimes the distant sounds of ritual drumming fill the stillness of the night. Members of the local Garifuna community have come together to participate in the dugu, an event during which some experience possession by the spirits of their ancestors. Among other things, the dugufunctions as a healing ceremony, as men in trance use the power of the spirit to heal those afflicted by some illness. This type of healing represents just one aspect of the complex health system in southern Belize.

A Q'eqchi' Maya traditional healer's clinic in Belize. This is just one example of the many sites of health care in the south of the country. Photo courtesy of douglas carl reeser.

Welcome to Notes from the Field, a new monthly column exclusive to the online content of Anthropology News that will report on the many experiences confronted by anthropologists while engaged in research. The column will cover topics ranging from the academic, such as methodological and ethical concerns, to the more personal, such as reflections on daily life in the field. Many of the columns will arise from the experiences encountered during my own dissertation work, in which I am actively engaged in rural Belize. Occasional guest columns from other scholars at different sites around the globe are also planned. Readers will also have the chance to influence the column by suggesting topical explorations through the comment section or through direct email.
As an introductory column, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on beginnings – the initial stages of entering the field and at the same time starting a new column. Having been in the field for about three months, I have come to realize that beginnings are an ongoing process without definitive boundaries.
Considering such a process that includes the theoretical strands of reflexivity and positionality remains invaluable to successful research in the field. These theoretical branches, rooted in postmodernism, seem to be on the decline in popularity in anthropology, and in fact, it took a committee member from outside of the discipline to encourage greater emphasis on such issues within my research. For some researchers, transitioning to the field involves attempting to “fit in” and be respectful of their new host communities. Such an approach can result in the formation of relationships within the community that can be the foundation of the research. However, I have found that multi-sited research such as my own presents a different set of complexities.
In Belize, my research requires me to negotiate relationships with state officials, local health professionals, international health service providers, and traditional healers and community members of various ethnic backgrounds. All of these relationships exist in a small town of about 5000 people, making it nearly impossible to have “different faces” for the variety of groups with whom I interact. After three months, many townspeople know or know of me. I am often thought to be a member of the U.S. Peace Corps or in town working for one of the numerous non-governmental organizations. When I explain that I am an anthropologist conducting research, some automatically assume that I am doing archaeology or “researching the Maya,” two activities common to researchers who have worked here before me. All of these assumptions about me have implications in terms of the relationships I can build and the information and data that I can access. Thus they have a direct effect on the nature and quality of my research, and compel me to remain reflexive.
Reflexivity has arisen within anthropology as a means of taking into account the multiple subjectivities that are at play during the process of fieldwork, including those of the researcher and the diversity of study participants. Maintaining reflexivity throughout the course of fieldwork can help to generate research that is more inclusive and flexible, while also encouraging means through which to address the often unequal power relations present during fieldwork. For instance, in the eyes of some professional health providers and State officials whom I encounter, local traditional healers are seen as practitioners of “backwards bush medicine.” Associating myself with traditional medicine may affect the access I have to health professionals and officials that occupy positions of greater power than those held by traditional practitioners.
Ryang (“Native Anthropology and Other Problems,” Dialectical Anthropology 1997) has taken these conceptualizations a step further when he explains that during fieldwork, the researcher and the researched make up “mutually influencing spheres,” wherein each has an effect on the other. Accepting this idea, one can see that during the fieldwork process, the researcher is faced with multiple participants, each with their own positionality, in turn affecting the positionality of the researcher. Thus, the researcher must remain responsive and flexible to the multitude of situations he/she encounters during the research.
Manderson and Wilson (Negotiating with Communities: The Politics and Ethics of Research.Human Organization 1998) explain: “Ethical, moral, and political circumstances intrude at every point in the research process. Today, relationships between study communities and researchers are negotiated on a continuing basis. Permission is granted conditionally, revisited, and re-evaluated on a regular basis.” Embedded in all of these relationships are issues of power. Thus, one’s positionality must shift during most points along the timeline of fieldwork based on which participants the researcher is engaged with, when during the fieldwork the engagement is taking place, and what events have occurred over the course of the fieldwork. Positionality is not a static identity, but one that ebbs and flows with the experience of being in the field and interacting with the various interests that influence and comprise the research.
It is my hope that this column can embrace a similar approach, one that allows for an evolving positionality and the exploration of various topics from the perspective of different voices. Like my experience in the field, this column as it is today will be different from the one that I pass on one year from now. With the help of you the reader and of fellow anthropologists in the field, an interesting picture of what it is like to engage in fieldwork will begin to emerge. I hope you continue on this journey with me.
douglas carl reeser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. He is currently working on his dissertation research in Belize, examining the intersection of State-provided health care with a number of ethnic-based traditional medicines. He also loves food.

You can read the column on Anthropology News here >>>
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  1. an idea that just popped up to my mind; the approach of the local people to mental - mood disorders? perhaps for a little subtopic :)

    excited and looking forward to reading the coloumns :))

  2. Thanks for your comment zönkiye!

    It's interesting that you mention this line of inquiry - I have recently begun working with another researcher in Belize who is a psychologist looking at how traditional Maya healers address psychological/mental health. Perhaps I'll be able to write something about this in the near future.

  3. Great read Dooglas. I think the paragraph where you discuss the hardships of being known or interacting with people who have pre-conceived notions is very important to include and think about. It wouldn't have occurred to me that people might already have ideas about you that hinders/changes their relationship to you.


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