Fieldwork then and now: from graduate student to professor

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Dr. Weaver interviews a woman whose garden is the only consistent source of fresh vegetables for purchase in the Brazilian study community.

I just returned from two fieldwork trips: one to India for 6 weeks, and the other to Brazil for 4. The purpose of the first one was to scout new sites for my ongoing work on women’s mental health in India, the country where I did my doctoral research. The second was to continue my NSF-funded research project on food insecurity and mental health in rural Brazil.

More so than almost ever before, these two trips brought to the forefront the challenges of maintaining an active international research program as a young faculty member, and I want to talk about that in this post.

First of all, here’s an obvious truth that nobody ever told me: fieldwork changes once you’re out of graduate school. In the department where I studied, a year of fieldwork was the unstated minimum for anyone doing research with ethnographic components, and almost all of this work was international; those who stayed longer got extra hard-core points. Because this was simply the way things were done, it never occurred to me that this was the exception–rather than the rule–to most fieldwork experiences for anthropologists in academic positions. Faculty simply don’t get that time very often: most sabbaticals are only a semester, and a full year only comes about if you receive an external fellowship, are willing to go with half-pay, or something similar. Also, sabbaticals are increasingly few and far between; in my current department, I will get my first sabbatical after receiving tenure. That’s six years, typically. During my doctoral fieldwork, I was fortunate to have few other major life responsibilities, and no other professional ones. By contrast, faculty anthropologists doing fieldwork are often expected to supervise online courses, prep syllabi, write the book or paper about the last major fieldwork project…the list goes on. I didn’t know any of this as a graduate student, however.

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A woman carries a pot of freshly-caught swordfish to market in Southwestern India.

In so many ways that I only now realize, fieldwork in graduate school is a golden period. Not “golden” in the sense that it is always happy and wonderful, but golden in the sense that it was a one-time deal.

So, changes have come about, and many of these I believe are relevant for anthropologists at any stage. The obvious first change I’ve made in my approach to fieldwork is to stop judging an anthropologist’s mettle based solely on the length of time they have spent in the field. Ethnographers fetishize extended time periods. Just think of Malinowski, out there stuck in the Trobriands, a political exile for years on end–his experience is the model on which we’ve judged the acceptability of our fieldwork for a century. Now, this is not without reason; immersion is indispensible for good ethnographic fieldwork and must be done at some point, but generally academic employment isn’t set up for that. Increasingly, neither are the funding structures on which we rely to pay for this research.

I’ve come to realize, rather, how incredibly much can get done in six weeks, or even three weeks, if you know the right questions to ask. So much of fieldwork is figuring out what to ask, to whom, and when. If you are returning for a short time to a place you already know, it goes much faster. Thank goodness for that.

This depends, of course, on having already spent extended time in a place so that one has the necessary familiarity. “Parachute ethnography,” as it is sometimes rather pejoratively called, can be highly problematic, and this is not what I am advocating. Yet at the same time, I find myself pulled to make more happen in shorter periods of time, and figuring how to do that without losing authenticity is an ongoing challenge. So perhaps my point is that returning to a former field site as a junior faculty member can be highly rewarding and extremely productive, even if time allows for only a few weeks of work. If one were to go to a brand new field site for only a few weeks of work, things might look very different, but many anthropologists make this work. I’m not sure how yet, to be honest. Stay tuned.

A second change I’ve made is to prioritize regular contact with friends and acquaintances in my research sites during the 9 months when I am teaching in the US. This is true both for older field sites and for the brand-new ones I just began developing in India. Social media has been great for this. Now, I can get on Facebook and tell Arlete that I will be coming back to Brazil for 3 weeks in June, and can she work with me again as a research assistant? This smoothes the entry, too. I remember spending weeks–perhaps months–setting up this stuff as a graduate student. Now, it is much easier for me to hit the ground running when I arrive in India or Brazil. And again, this is true even for newer field sites, and exploiting that to its full potential is, I think, key to getting the most out of short fieldwork periods.

A third change I’ve made is to develop research projects that proceed in discrete phases and span multiple years. A good example is my current project in Brazil, Food Insecurity and Mental Health in Global Perspective, a 3-year, 3-site study I am conducting with colleagues Craig Hadley and Bonnie Kaiser (Craig works in Ethiopia, and Bonnie in Haiti). Phase 1 was dedicated to freelisting and ethnography only. Phase 2 is for ranking and rating exercises on freelist items plus participant-observation surrounding food buying and preparation, and Phase 3 will consist of questionnaires using instruments developed in the first two phases, biomarkers, and anthropometrics. Each of these can be done in a summer, especially with the help of graduate students. (Speaking of, I am currently seeking a new Master’s or Doctoral student to assist with this project in summer 2017. Read more about this here.)

And this brings me to the fourth change: increased collaboration. I wanted to do a cross-cultural comparative study with multiple phases of instrument development and mixed methods. Don’t have time to spend a full year in each of 3 countries? No problem! Team up with colleagues who can each work in one country, then split the work into short phases. This way, each person ends up with a manageable chunk of work in a single country to do each summer. Fortunately for me, biocultural work is especially well suited to this phase-based work because it often involves methods that build on one another.

Fifth and finally, I have learned tricks that help me capture more data from shorter periods of time. Good, deep ethnography takes time and investment, no question, and you have to give that time at some point. But there is so much that goes on in the everyday interactions of fieldwork that rarely made it into my fieldnotes when I was a graduate student because I was so singularly focused on what I imagined to be Ethnographic Experiences. At some point in my early research, however, I started voice-recording interviews where I was doing anthropometrics, blood tests, and questionnaires. So much valuable material has come out of those recordings. I didn’t expect this; these seemed to me like the most cut-and-dried structured interviews one could have, not those real Ethnographic Experiences. Yet, when I began transcribing them, people’s side comments about the questions I was asking added up to rich qualitative material. Now I always voice record interviews, no matter whether they are “ethnographic” (i.e. unstructured or semi-structured), or whether they are structured interviews organized around pilesorts, freelists, questionnaires, or other exercises. It creates a lot of work after the return from the field, but these recordings allow me to pick up on extra data that I would otherwise miss. They help me get the most out of those short fieldwork periods.

Despite the constraints of short fieldwork periods, I think I am a happier fieldworker now than I was in graduate school. It is not an easy thing to pick up and leave one’s life for a year (or more). Increasingly, work by anthropologists about anthropologists is documenting that fieldwork can be particularly hard on mental health (see, for instance, Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations at 2015’s AAA meeting). For me, the hardest part about long-term fieldwork was missing the people and the rhythms of my everyday life. Short periods of fieldwork like those I now have to do are in some ways positive because they allow me to maintain that balance more effectively. It’s more feasible to bring my children on shorter trips. I won’t have to be out of contact for as long with my aging parents when I am away on shorter trips. I can–and indeed am expected to–keep working on other projects during fieldwork. All of this adds up to fieldwork becoming a part of everyday life, part of the yearly rhythm of my and my family’s existence. This to me is what being a career anthropologist is all about.

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

Talking about Race with “White Person Bias”

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Fieldwork. We all do it, yet it seems to be something that’s particularly hard to teach and talk about, especially when so much of the success of fieldwork in any anthropological sub-discipline hinges on a researcher’s ability to form genuine social relationships. I’ve heard people say, “You just can’t teach that” about this keystone of success. Well, Russ Bernard has shown us that many elements of the focused attention required for fieldwork can be taught (see his section on participant-observation from Research Methods in Anthropology, AltaMira, 2011), while books like Tales of the Field (Van Maanen),Disasters in Field Research (Ice, DuFour, and Stevens), and I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Logsdon) speak to the need in the social sciences to share and learn from fieldwork mistakes and misadventures.

I continue to be fascinated by the exigencies of fieldwork, perhaps in part because they are so universal yet typically not prioritized in discussion—so familiar, yet so strange, to quote the theme of the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Chris Lynn and I have organized a session for the meeting titled, “Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research,” which we designed as a forum for an updated discussion of the practicalities of field research. Our inspiration came in part from Clancy and colleagues’ recent PLoS One study on sexual harassment in the field, which received a lot of press last year (a shocking 70% of the over 500 women they interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their field research careers, while 25% reported actual assault). Robin Nelson, one of the study’s authors, will serve as our session discussant.

I am especially excited about this session because, although the presenters are all professors, the topics address challenges common at all stages of research and training.Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations, for instance, will explore how fieldworkers manage and respond to trauma, both theirs and others’, in field research. My presentation will use data from a small study of fieldworkers at various stages of their research careers to explore how they grapple with racial differences between themselves and their informants. Chris Lynn’s and Michaela Howells‘, meanwhile, will discuss fieldwork and family—a favorite topic of mine and one relevant for graduate students and faculty members. There are important lessons to be learned here for students, mentors, and fieldworkers at all stages.

My desire to talk about race and racially charged encounters in fieldwork stems in part from my employment in a largely white department (as most anthropology departments are) in the deep south. Our department’s faculty are particularly concerned with social inequity in health outcomes, which means that our research and teaching often put us in contact with disenfranchised people in the greater Alabama area, many of whom identify with minority racial groups. The ongoing racial tensions in our community, which are more blatant though probably no stronger than anywhere else in the U.S. right now, undoubtedly shape our research and teaching—especially when it comes to understanding and reflecting on how we are perceived by the people with whom we work.

Early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness…It is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past.

 

Last year, when I received a student review that claimed my teaching suffered from “white person bias,” I took the comment very seriously because I regularly teach about social inequality and social justice in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage racial difference in an overarching cultural context of racial tension meaningfully, respectfully, and in a way that is useful to all parties involved. Although I thought I was doing this pretty well, my student’s comment reminds me that I have a long way to go. So, my motivation for doing a study of fieldworkers’ engagement with race is partially selfish.

 

This issue is also important from a historic perspective in anthropology. We all know that early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness. Typically, when anthropologists read these materials today, we do so with an understanding that we must overlook the racism embedded in these authors’ works if we want to extract their insights. We say that we can’t get caught up in their racism because that’s just how things were back then.

 

But I think it is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past. No matter our intentions, we are still an overwhelmingly white discipline that works with people all over the world who do not identify as white. We are still an overwhelmingly white set of authority figures, and our classrooms reflect much greater racial and ethnic diversity than our anthropology faculties and departments do. We need to talk about these things.

 

So, come to our AAA session and help me figure out how to be a better anthropologist. You might learn something, too.

“Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research”
Invited Session sponsored by the Biological Anthropology Section and the General Anthropology Division
Thursday, November 19 4:00 pm- 5:45 PM

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.


This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ October 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”

Challenges of Mixed-Method Research

Jo Weaver

Jo Weaver

Reposted from Anthropology News April 2015 column.

Mixed-method research involves inherent challenges that make it at once more gratifying and more difficult than traditional single-method approaches. By “mixed-method,” I am referring to studies that employ a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. This approach is a hallmark of most biocultural research, and those of us committed to this approach believe that the triangulation of multiple methods is a more effective way of capturing human experience than an approach that attempts to represent only quantitative trends or only qualitative individual experience. Mixed methods also have the potential to make our work more intelligible to those outside of anthropology who transact primarily in the quantitative—those, for instance, in public health, psychiatry, or sociology.

Mixed-method studies are fundamentally challenging because they often take twice the work and require methodological expertise in multiple areas: Instead of just conducting an epidemiological survey to learn about the spread and correlates of a disease in a given sample or only conducting illness narrative interviews to learn about individuals’ experiences with a disease, a biocultural researcher is likely to be doing both of these. This requires a fair amount of time, money, training, and logistic agility.

I am certainly not the first to point out the complications involved in mixed-method research (see Bill Dressler’s 5 Things You Need to Know About Statistics: Quantification in Ethnographic Research from Left Coast Press). But the complication continues after the research is done, and these days, I’m finding the post-fieldwork integration of quantitative and qualitative data more difficult than the execution of research itself. How do we combine all those mixed-method data together into a coherent form that accurately represents human experience?

Let me give an example. At the recent March 2015 Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Pittsburgh, I organized and participated in a session called “Food insecurity and mental health in global perspective.” The purpose was to bring together scholars who are studying the relationships between food insecurity and mental health and to move toward a unified research agenda that might help us identify some of the social pathways that link these two states in widely different parts of the world. This kind of comparative enterprise obviously requires that there be some standardization in the methods used to measure important outcome variables like food insecurity and mental health across locations. Accordingly, most of us assessed mental health through a standard scale like the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist-25 (HSCL-25) or the Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression (CES-D) scale. While these have been validated for use in many cultural contexts (including those in which we work), they nevertheless reduce a profound experience of human suffering—depression—to a number.

Dr. Steven Schensul, an applied anthropologist with many years of experience in mixed-method research who attended the session, pointed out the relative lack of attention that each presenter gave to mental health. And he was right—most of us did little more in our 15-minute presentations than name the depression assessment scale we were using before moving on. As he reminded us, there is a whole branch of anthropology, psychological anthropology, dedicated to questioning, problematizing, and pluralizing psychiatric diagnostic categories. And indeed, many of those presenting at the session have an arm of our own research dedicated to just this (for instance, see my and Bonnie Kaiser’s recent article in Field Methods, where we suggest an approach to measuring mental health that employs standard scales to appeal to those who need numbers but also develops locally-derived and ethnography-based ways of measuring mental health in a context specific fashion). My response at the time was to say that we as a group are indeed aware of this limitation and to point to some of the more nuanced mental health work we have done in other contexts.

Making a mixed-method study happen is inherently challenging because it often takes twice the work and requires methodological expertise in multiple areas.

Afterward, I kept wondering, if we are all in fact sensitive to the potentially problematic nature of some of the measures we use, then why didn’t we find time to address that in our presentations? And I kept coming back up against the idea that one can only do so much. I don’t mean that as a defense of my research’s shortcomings, but rather to say that it’s a resounding theme in my own experiences of working and writing at the intersection of qualitative and quantitative social sciences. One can only do so much: in 15 minutes, in a single paper, in a single book, in a single study, with that amount of money, in that time frame, with that word count. In a session devoted to the relationships between food insecurity and mental health, then, perhaps it’s not surprising that none of us dwelled on the methods we were using to measure either one—unsurprising, but not necessarily best practices, either.

Now, to get back to my original point, I think these realistic limitations of academic presenting and publishing are part of the reason why I find it so challenging to assemble the qualitative and quantitative data I’m collecting. Human experience is hard to chunk into measurable quantities, single conversations, a 15-minute presentation, or even an article-length manuscript. This is something that all anthropologists struggle with, and it brings up some of the fundamental issues of social science—things like, how do we make our work “speak” to as wide an audience as possible? How do we know that we’re measuring what we think we’re measuring? How do we represent the people we study with fidelity and ethics? How do we even know what their reality is? How do we claim some authority to knowledge about the people we are studying without overstating the case?

In other words, the challenges of biocultural anthropology are the challenges of anthropology in general. We can’t capture it all. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.