Relationships, Identity, and Home in the Field, or, Why am I in Belize?

My 1988 Trooper (an old local taxi) brought me on some adventures in
the bush, and it also influenced what people thought of me around town.
 Photo by douglas reeser.
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on March 13, 2013

What made you come to Belize?”

“Why aren’t you working in your own country? I know there are problems there too!”

Some of the more common questions I have been asked while in the field have to do with why I, as a white man from the US, with no clear ties to Belize, have decided to work in a country other than my own. For me, answers to these queries have not always come easy, for there really is no simple explanation.

Anthropological fieldwork has long been associated with traveling to far-off locales and the study of “different” people. The discipline has evolved, however, as can be evidenced by increasing numbers of anthropologists working in their home-communities, whether in the US or abroad. Traveling to unknown locales is no longer “what anthropologists do” (and to be fair, it never was all that we did), and the questioning of intent reveals how issues of power remain embedded in our encounters and relationships with others.

Our motivations for entering certain field sites are likely examined before we engage in our research. My own research proposal for my latest work in Belize included a section on reflexivity and positionality, which forced me to examine why I wanted to work in Belize in the first place. If anything, such early reflection on our own fieldwork reminds us that we are intentionally inserting ourselves into other people’s lives, and that we need to be aware of the possible implications of what we are doing. And as evidenced by continual questions like those above, reflection can not stop once we get into the field.

In fact, once we engage with self examination, the complexities of our own lives become increasingly evident. Our background and experiences, our interests and desires, our mistakes and successes, have all played some role in the person that we are and the decisions we make. More importantly, in the field, these same things greatly influence how we present ourselves to community members with which we are trying to work. How we are perceived in the field is further affected by our ability to do such work in the first place. That we can move around and live with others who may be struggling to meet the demands of their day-to-day lives is evidence of certain privilege. Nevermind that we, too, face those same struggles; being able to do it away from home influences how people view and interact with us.

Our own self reflection, while aiding in the ability to honestly and openly engage with our research participants, does not necessarily allow us to meet all of the challenges we may face in the field. Those we engage with through our research also carry their own ideas about who we are and what we’re doing into our relationships. Over my time in the field, people have always attempted to make sense of my presence. I have most commonly been confused for a tourist, a missionary, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an NGO worker. There are good reasons for these misconceptions: I have done some “touristy” things, and I have spent some time with each of these categories of persons around town.

The confusion surrounding my identity may not seem like much, but it does influence how people choose to interact with me and whether they do so at all. For some, the fact that I’m not Belizean means I have little business doing anything there but visiting. For others, my ability to be in the field for a length of time implies that I must be wealthy, and so represent a potential resource to them. Comparatively, I have had access to more money than many in my research community, but my student debt threatens to ensure my status as a wage slave for much of the rest of my life. This fact is not always easy to communicate.

And so, the question of what I’m doing in Belize has been with me throughout my time in the field. Really, I haven’t been able to figure out how I ended up here. My relationship with this place began in 2007 when I first visited to conduct research for my Master’s degrees. I still don’t know what attracted me back then, but something captured my attention and imagination. I have continued to return, and now have a relationship with this place that is going on 6 years. This long-term work in the same community has served to reinforce connections and strengthen bonds between me, this place, and the people who call it home. In some ways, it is becoming a home to me as well.

Over time, my presence has begun to make more sense to more people, and I am less frequently forced into preconceived categories. My fieldwork has not only given me reason to travel and live in a foreign land, it has given me the opportunity to know different people, and for them to know me. What’s novel about this opportunity in today’s world, is that these relationships no longer end when I leave the field. The internet specifically allows for daily and immediate communication from anywhere around the world. This global interconnectedness has helped in the realization that our lives and actions reach beyond where we live, that problems faced in Belize are really problems faced by all of us. We can no longer go about our daily lives ignorant of our effects on others. Just as our actions reach all corners of the globe, our home is no longer a concept confined to a specific locale. Our home is the earth, and we’re all in this together.

This article was also featured in the March online edition of the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News. 
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