Views from the ANThill: Roadblocks: On Working Through Research Slumps

Roadblock! Highway construction can be a hold up, but when I hit a
research slump, I had nowhere to turn. Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on March 13, 2012
My research had hit a slump. I had been in the field for about seven months, and had reached a point at which I felt ready to begin doing more in depth and directed interviews. However, the Christmas holiday was fast approaching, a time when people are especially busy and moving about. During the winter holidays, people are either preparing to host a large contingent of family members visiting from out of town, or are themselves preparing to journey to other parts of the country for what is for many a once-per-year family gathering. As elsewhere in the world, the holiday season in Belize serves as a time for family reunion, which often means the annual return of much of the sizeable Belizean population living abroad. I was invited to a few family gatherings, which were perfect to further deepen my connections here; however, I decided to hold off on bothering people with interviews during such intimate and family-oriented times.

The holidays came and went, and most of daily life had returned to normal by the beginning of the New Year. However, I was finding it difficult to re-immerse myself into the daily rigors of conducting interviews. Further, an important community contact had unsuspectingly dropped out of contact, and this sudden change served to take some of the wind out of my sails. A few weeks went by, then a couple more, and I was feeling stuck. I began feeling restless and unproductive as I searched for some way to get out of this research rut. I tried everything. I took a couple of day trips to try to get my mind off of my work. That just seemed to deepen my anxiety. I began volunteering more regular time working on a friend’s local farm. That would help for the day, but at night, the restlessness would return. As time continued to pass, things got worse. Writing field notes became laborious, and writer’s block began to creep in. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me.

I began looking through the handful of methods books that I have with me, but none mentioned such a slump, let alone offer advice on how to move past one. I was on my own here. Finally, in an effort to assuage the mounting tension within me, I turned to an alternate direction in my research. I tried to reconceptualize what I was going through – to look at my struggles from a different point of view. This exercise allowed me to see my research slump in terms of an imbalance. The “health” of my work was suffering due to some imbalance in my life or work. With this potential insight, I decided to take a step back and return to a part of my research that could possibly help restore my balance.

I pulled out my interview questions designed for traditional healers, cleaned them up a bit, and called on my friend and informant, Thomas. Thomas is the son of a Q’eqchi’ Maya healer, speaks fluent Q’eqchi’ and English, and has already helped me with research with a local group of healers. I have also helped him (and the healers) with work in their medicinal plant garden in a nearby village, so I was hoping that through returning to a more positive point of my work, I could recapture that energy to begin moving forward once again.

It turned out that Thomas needed some work, and he was more than willing to conduct some interviews with me. He quickly contacted Domingo, a Q’eqchi’ Maya healer who lives on the outskirts of town, and set up our meeting for the next evening. Domingo and I had worked together before, having filmed an interview together for a Belizean film project that was working in town the previous summer, and so we had an immediate rapport. The two of them sat down in my living room and we began talking about perceptions of health and illness in a mixture of Q’eqchi’, Spanish and English.

Domingo was born in Guatemala, where he was trained by three traditional healers in his teenage years. He came to Belize about 20 years ago to seek employment, found it a pleasant place to live and decided to stay. Still, after 20 years, he only speaks a small amount of broken English (the official language of Belize), much better Spanish, but primarily Q’eqchi’, his native tongue. Traditional healing is no longer a profession that can fully support a family in Belize, and so Domingo works as a mason and carpenter in addition to seeing about half a dozen patients each month. His thoughts on health were interesting and insightful.

The southern district of Belize has among the worst health statistics in the entire region. It has long been neglected by the State health care system, and has been noted for its poor health conditions by such international organizations as PAHO and the WHO. Still, Domingo explained that most people here are healthy. He described health simply as strength, and a healthy person as someone with a good body, not fat or skinny; someone who is always happy, eats well and primarily vegetarian; someone who works well; and someone who keeps themselves and their space clean and tidy.

Domingo went on with his description of health by specifically talking about stress. He explained that more and more people stress themselves by thinking too much about their work. Even otherwise healthy people can get sick from this type of stress. That’s when things clicked in my head. Perhaps my worry and obsession over my lagging work brought on and deepened this slump. I wasn’t physically ill, but my work had become sick – it had stopped working. Domingo had inadvertently pointed out my problem.

The interview with Domingo continued for a while, outlasting the neighboring church and their musical service. We got together a couple of days later for a second interview, and I have continued working with Thomas and other local healers. New projects have arisen, and new research leads appear promising. Just as important, I have stopped worrying too much, and am trying not to over-think what brought on the slump in the first place. Finally, my research is once again moving forward.

This piece also appeared in the March, 2012 edition of Anthropology News.
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  1. I really like the idea of health that Domingo laid out for you. Smart man! And you, too, for untangling yourself from your research slump. Best of luck to you.

    1. Thanks Mona! I've been working with a number of healers here, and their perspectives are truly interesting and insightful. I'm planning to share more about my research as things continue moving forward.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Anonymous9:20 AM

    This post reads like the beginning of a great short story. It looks like you have broken out of your slump. Keep moving.


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