Peaks and Valleys of Building Community Rapport: Lessons Learned Through an Investigation of Adolescent Sexual Health

On my graduate school journey in medical anthropology at the University of Alabama, I became curious about HIV risk while conducting fieldwork in Mobile, Alabama. There, I worked on my thesis on intergenerational body image beliefs of working class African American mothers and daughters. Mothers in my study revealed that they could tell someone had HIV by looking at them. These insights solidified my interests in determining what African American adolescent girls in Alabama knew about HIV and how social ecological factors influence both knowledge and sexual health behaviors. Alabama is an abstinence only sex education state (Minimum Contents to be Included in Sex Education Program or Curriculum, Alabama State Code Section 16-40A-2). Sexual health education is focused on abstinence until marriage, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and teen pregnancy.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance reports that while risky sexual activity is decreasing among adolescents, condom use among African American high school teens during last sexual intercourse declined from 70 percent in 1999 to 65 percent in 2011. Alabama is ranked lowest in rates of condom use among high school students (Eaton et al. 2012). African Americans represent 26 percent of the state’s population, but 64 percent of reported HIV infections are from this group. Adolescents in Alabama aged 13-24 comprise 5 percent of existing HIV infections, and 32 percent of new cases reported in 2014 (Alabama Department of Public Health, 2015).

When I embarked on my journey toward this project, I was driven by anthropological theory as a way to address a public health concern. Although I did not consider a strengths-based approach to lead my inquiry regarding sexual health, I understood and respected the importance of addressing community needs as a participant observer and researcher. I recognize that dismissing assets used to address sexual health concerns is problematic. However, given the taboo nature of what I wanted to explore, I believe acknowledging these assets pose additional challenges and would not have changed the peaks and valleys experienced in my community engagement and research. Following is a brief, partial list of lessons learned through my experiences working with an anonymous African American community in Alabama. It is my hope that the suggestions put forth will prove valuable to those committed to community engagement and scholarship.

  1. Find community members supportive about what you want to learn.

Two years prior to beginning my research, I met with many community members. Among them was a school board member who worked for many years as a nurse. She developed and implemented a health initiative program where I happened to volunteer one summer prior to meeting her. Because of this established rapport through familiarity of her program, she provided me with beneficial information about health issues, community life and how to effectively engage with other members. She recommended members and organizations, as she ended many of our conversations saying, “Tell them I sent you.” This type of advocacy was essential to discovering where my skills could be used in the community while simultaneously researching sexual health issues among teen girls.

  1. Understand that what scholars, governmental institutions, and non-profit organizations view as important, community members may not judge similarly.

When establishing rapport in the early stages of my research, a professor suggested I meet a pastor amenable to research. This pastor was extremely welcoming, although, early on in our conversation, he stated that his church members do not really talk about HIV or believe it is a major problem in the community. In addition, I attended a high school parent meeting provided by a local health organization discussing sexual health and sexually transmitted infections. Notably, only two school administrators and myself attended this meeting, even though parents were given advanced notice of the seminar.

I discovered early on that difficulty in trying to research a stigmatizing topic is the strong desire for community members to separate themselves from the issue through attempting to achieve mainstream social norms, values, and conduct. This also creates difficulty in using a strengths-based approach, since assets may not be used for the purpose of addressing a proscribed issue that community members approach in denial.

  1. Find a place where you fit in and build community relationships.

After explaining my project to numerous community members, I had a difficult time having people take me seriously, return my calls, or acknowledge me in public. Initially, I spoke with middle class community members to gain entrée into the community, establish where I could assist with community needs, and determine the best way to learn what young teenage girls knew about HIV risk. For example, I approached another pastor who was willing to assist, but was ultimately too busy to accommodate me in his church. This early acceptance and eventual rejection happened frequently. While this pastor was too occupied to assist me, he introduced me to the director of a neighborhood center centrally located in a working class community, and this introduction proved to be extremely valuable.

The neighborhood center resulted in collaboration with the director where I fulfilled both community engagement and research roles. The center provides residents with numerous services including computer classes, GED classes, a Chess Club, and after-school and summer programs for youth. Upon my introduction to the community, the director asked if I would be interested in teaching GED. classes. I jumped at the chance to serve this community that was welcoming to my presence and could utilize my academic skills. I taught math GED classes weekly for a fall and spring semester to men and women in the community.

The women I taught were extremely helpful to my understanding of community dynamics. Understanding community interactions was useful given that I took a social ecological perspective to HIV risk in my research. Women shared that conflict centered on arguing over men who were unfaithful in not only the local community where the center was centrally located, but also in an adjacent governmental housing area. Remarkably, one of the women revealed that higher sexual risk was associated with a woman’s male partner having a concurrent relationship with someone outside of the immediate neighborhood. If their boyfriend had a sexual relationship with a woman in the governmental housing neighborhood or beyond the immediate community, it was believed that sexual health risk increased greatly because the sexual partners that their boyfriend was concurrently dating was unfamiliar. Given that the women were aware of gossip regarding illnesses that other women in the local community held, it was viewed as a higher risk situation when information about the health of potential sex partners outside of the community was not readily available, whether this information is true or not.

After spending some time in the community, I interviewed younger girls in the neighborhood who shared various characteristics and behaviors associated with HIV risk which highlighted socio-ecological factors important to this topic. High risk was associated with lack of parental investment, hanging out in the neighborhood, running away from home, and transactional sex. In contrast, low risk was associated with parental investment, staying at home, interest in academic pursuits and future goals, and involvement in church.

  1. Do not take it personally when you run into a person or people who are unsupportive. Avoid flattery and move on to someone willing to assist.

A school administrator that worked closely with the students shared some of the experiences of the girls that attended the community high school where I observed. At the outset, she was forthcoming about issues faced by female students including domestic violence, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and abortions. Through this first conversation, this administrator mentioned that she mentored and advised two in-school programs for girls that experienced these concerns. I looked forward to observing these programs, hoping to get a sense of how these students understood sexual health through their lived experiences. Afterwards, the administrator noted that she would have to ask permission to allow me to gain access to these programs and observe students.

After a great deal of effort to contact her in the days and weeks following our conversation, I emailed her to see if I would be more successful in contacting her in that manner. This approach worked, with a brief email returned almost immediately. Unfortunately, the administrator noted that aside from the Principal of the school, she also answered to another supervisor at the department of education. Her supervisor advised that she was not under any responsibility to assist me in understanding issues related to sexual health, and wished me the best in my endeavors.

I was not surprised by the eventual demise of our communication, although the situation was extremely discouraging. After the dust settled, I asked some colleagues in anthropology and the school board member (see lesson #1 above) for advice on the situation. My colleagues thought I should try to establish rapport with her by finding out what she liked and buying it for her. This was not bad advice from anthropologists since we are trained that participant observation “involves getting close to people and making them feel comfortable enough with your presence so that you can observe and record information about their lives. […] Only by confronting the truth about participant observation—that it involves deception and impression management—can we hope to conduct ourselves ethically in fieldwork“ (Bernard 2006:342). With this training, it makes sense that fellow anthropologists would advise me to build rapport using this method.

In contrast, when I met with the school board member over lunch one afternoon, she stated that there would always be someone who does not approve of the work being done in the community, and that people would stand in the way. She advised that I should simply go around the school administrator and find someone able to help with what I need—a suggestion that really spoke to who I am personally. I could not imagine having a disingenuous relationship with this woman who is extremely busy with her own responsibilities. Eventually, I became grateful for the little time where we sat together and she shared valuable information about the girls that she serves through her employment at the school. Fortunately, I did bypass this school administrator and found allies with amazing teachers and other administrators who supported my observation in the school.

To conclude, this journey to understand sexual health concerns and risks among African-American teenagers taught me a great deal. I learned the value of community engagement on a level of incorporating my skills to meet the needs of those who valued my presence, even though they may have thought I was strange for asking about community dynamics or why some girls were viewed as high or low risk of HIV. One of the most valuable things I learned is that if there is sincerity in your desire to assist in what the community deems important, community members will value that goodwill and add to your scholarship by revealing more about their lives than initially hoped.


Tina Thomas (PhD, University at Alabama, 2016) is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Juniata College. She studies the intersection of culture, social ecology, and health in the U.S.

A World Famous African-American Scientist Puts the Presidential Election in Perspective: “I Am Not Surprised At All”

On Wednesday, the day after our 2017 presidential election, I dreaded having to put on my host face to go out to dinner with Dr. Joseph Graves, our ALLELE speaker for Thursday. I couldn’t really stand the thought of talking to anyone. His talk on “Biological determinism in the age of genomics” was supposed to have been anti-climactic after Hillary’s easy sweep. We see how well that went.

Joseph Graves is the first African-American to ever earn a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and go on to become an evolutionary biologist. Before he came here this week though, I remember wondering if, in the age of Obama, it is important to have any one scientist speak about the race concept over another scientist simply because the one speaking is black (i.e., Jim Bindon, a white male anthropologist who has spent over 30 years teaching about the fallacy of the race concept, does a great job explaining it to me, another white guy; and I, in turn, am therefore fairly at explaining it to other middle class, privileged white people).

But then Tuesday the election happened, and on Wednesday, I picked up Joe Graves for dinner, and he told me how much of a battle his whole career has been merely because he is African-American. He said that, until grad school, he thought his middle name was “Nigger” because he was addressed as such so much. And he said that the results of the presidential election actually didn’t surprise him at all because he sees every day how much 8 years of Obama has made racist America angry.

This left me stupefied. I literally could not talk about any of this at dinner. Instead, I did my best to keep up by talking about the genetics of longevity and senescence and how one goes about studying these using bacteria and nanoparticles. In essence, the daily lived experience of Joe as an African-American scientist was too painful for me because it is now directly affecting me (though that is why I had invited him), so I stuck to talking to him about sports, music, and the minutiae of his day job.

But I was the host for this ALLELE lecture, which meant that I would be introducing Joe to an audience of 200-500 people. It would be a disservice to everyone if I just phoned this one in with my usual blah blah evolutionary studies, blah blah blah thanks to your generous donations, blah blah blah follow us on Twitter. So I wrote the following intro, which I have modified for this blog, because I hope it had more resonance, was worth saying to our audience, and thus is also worth sharing here.

2016-2017 ALLELE series

FIG 1. Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution series schedule at the University of Alabama.

“The ALLELE series is in it 11th year. The goal of the ALLELE series is to promote evolution research, education, and outreach in our community.

evolution education fund

FIG. 2. To donate or get involved, please contact Kathy Yarbrough, me, or follow us via our website, Facebook page, or Twitter.

“On the one hand, I’m heartened that our mission is supported by an ever growing community, including several new sponsors that I’ve bolded in red in FIG. 2. But I’m going to save a little time that I’ll spend in another way—instead of telling you all about us, I’m directing you to our website, Facebook page, and Twitter account to learn more.

“On the other hand, we are not a political organization and I don’t purposely talk about politics. I am especially loathe to do so at the moment, but evolution is controversial. And in Alabama, evolution is associated with the “liberal agenda,” making it a political hot potato.

elephants

FIG. 3. The Crimson Tide elephant rolls over our rivals. What will the other elephant in the room do to us?

“So, instead of that usual introduction, I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room (FIG. 3). No, not the Crimson elephant that will roll over Mississippi State this weekend (Roll Tide?) but the one that permeates my consciousness today and likely many of yours.

onion headline

FIG. 4. From The Onion, November 9, 2016 (Vol. 52, Issue 44).

“This is me today (FIG. 4). This week, I find myself historically wrong for the first time in my life. I am devastated by our presidential election. At the cost of sounding melodramatic, it’s pretty close to the feeling that someone close to me who I didn’t expect to lose just died. And I had that experience a few years ago, so I know my reaction hasn’t been quite that extreme, but I think you get my meaning.

“This sense of devastation may surprise those who know me as the child of lower-middle class white liberals from rural Indiana. I grew up accustomed to being on the losing side through many presidential elections and keeping my mouth shut about things like the blatant racism of my classmates and neighbors. But then I fled to liberal New York, where I lived for nearly 20 years before moving to Alabama. But I moved to Alabama to take a decidedly upper-middle class job as a tenure-track professor and start, of all things, an evolutionary studies program.

starting an evos program

FIG. 5. My first blog post for the EvoS Consortium was about the non-event of starting an EvoS program in a conservative start that was obviously not threatened whatsoever.

“People back in New York and Indiana were shocked and awed at the audacity that I would start an evolution program in the Deep South. But, frankly, we encountered almost no impediments. The only rancor to starting our program came from within. There was some political resistance from the natural sciences that a social science department, Anthropology, would house the EvoS program. The only other flare-up worth note, incidentally, was over the topic of tonight’s lecture.

coyne_marks

FIG. 6. Jerry Coyne and Jonathan Marks gave back to back ALLELE lectures my first semester at UA.

“My first semester here, we hosted back-to-back lectures by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and evolutionary anthropologist Jonathan Marks. I liked the Coyne lecture. It was full of information and relatively uncontroversial for those of us who have drunk deeply of the evolution Kool-Aid.

coyne

FIG. 7. Jerry Coyne is essentially a eugenicist, though a revised version.

“But in his blog (FIG. 7), Coyne comes across very differently. Coyne, Rissler, and others support a revised eugenics model which holds the biology of race as comparable to a subspecies.

marks

FIG. 8. Marks gets the genetics right, but he is equally aggressive in his tactics.

“Marks, on the other hand, I sadly missed because of a funeral. However, he got into an argument with the previous EVOWOG chair over eugenics. Marks decidedly does not support that there is any genetic basis to the race concept (FIG. 8) and—paraphrasing—said he would put his foot up the ass of anyone who does.

state science standards

FIG. 10. In 2009, Mead and Mates published a study that scored Alabama as the worst state in the nation at teaching K-12 evolution.

“Outside of this kerfuffle, no one seemed to blink an eye that the flagship state research institution in the state with the anti-evolution disclaimer on texts and the worst K-12 record in the nation for teaching evolution had started a minor in evolutionary studies. This worried me and suggested that we are essentially a non-threat. The results of Tuesday’s presidential election support that, as do Dr. Graves’ comments to me last night at dinner that he is in the minority of people who are not at all surprised by the election results.

rissler paper

FIG. 11. Former EVOWOG chair Leslie Rissler and students surveyed 2999 UA undergrads and found that most had made up their minds about evolution by the time they got here.

“A few years ago, Rissler and colleagues conducted a study here at UA among a sample of nearly 3000 undergrads and found that attitudes about science and evolution are largely set by the time students arrive as freshmen. As you can imagine, this is pretty disconcerting. Two of my goals as an anthropology and an evolution professor are (1), as Jello Biafra so prosaically articulated, to “blow minds for a living” (FIG. 12) and (2) to blow the race concept out of the water. However, the students who enroll in the majority of my courses have largely already decided what they believe and can choose many of their courses accordingly, including whether to take even a single course in anthropology or evolutionary studies.

FIG. 12. I saw Jello Biafra speak at Indiana University when I was a college freshman, and he quite literally blew my mind.

FIG. 12. I saw Jello Biafra speak at Indiana University when I was a college freshman, and he quite literally blew my mind.

“How do we “fix” a system from on high if the slim majority in the influential states (i.e., the big electoral college states) don’t believe it’s broken or don’t believe it’s broken in the same way?

krauss

FIG. 13. Physicist Lawrence Krauss talking to my “Evolution for Everyone” students about how social problems resolve themselves when previous generations die off.

“A few years ago, physicist Lawrence Krauss sat in my class talking to students and answered this same question about fixing society and changing the world. He said, you teach young people and wait for them to grow up, vote, and change the world through a demographic shift (actually, he said, you wait for the previous generation to die).

“I thought that was happening. I still think it’s happening, though I am a privileged white liberal male with a myopic, rose-tinted view of the world. That is clear. But it’s still the only direction I can think of to move in.

family & field

FIG. 14. We are studying the structure of our own discipline and—surprise surprise—we are an economically privileged lot.

“My colleague Michaela Howells and I have been studying our own discipline of anthropology and the dynamics of having a family or not while trying to be or to become a field anthropologist. Our preliminary assessment is that, if you’re born upper-middle class, regardless of race, you are more likely to be successful in your goal of going into anthropology and either postponing having kids or being able to find the resources to get them care while you work. Poor people simply have much less hope or opportunity to go to college, to get an advanced degree, and have a thriving family life.

“So how do we change that?

evo in al

FIG. 15. Our book targets K-16 educators and students with cultural backstory, the demystification of rhetoric, and resources that can be used in the classroom.

“We change that for one by starting at the bottom and educating all kids to be more aware of the possibilities in life and consider their importance. We provide more resources for teachers to teach science correctly and without the inherent anti-scientific bias of disclaimer stickers. FIG. 15 is the table of contents to a book coming out next year based initially on this series that targets K-16 teachers and students. Authors in bold are those who have spoken at UA or are our students or faculty.

race in frats

FIG. 16. Over the past few years, our students have made the national news 2-3 times for the racism of our sorority system. Our fraternity system is no better and is a hot mess of rape culture. And both were implicated in voter fraud that disenfranchised multiple respected school board members in favor of white males whose sole objective is to preserve the status quo.

“As happy and pleased with myself as I am to have invited Dr. Graves here to speak to you tonight, I think whatever we can do to support our K-12 teachers and kids are the most important things we can be doing to improve our world.

“Because this. What does it say to our kids here in Tuscaloosa that we make national news for our racist sorority system or the rape culture of our fraternity system, then go back to business as usual? How do these events seem to make so little impact?

“To improve our culture and our community, we need to start in elementary schools by creating role models and showing kids actual paths they can take to better lives.

graves flyer

FIG. 18. Flyer for Graves’ talk.

“Dr. Graves is the kind of role model we need a lot more of. He is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences at the Joint School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering of North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro. To cherry pick liberally from his NIH biosketch, Dr. Graves is a pioneering African-American evolutionary biologist with over 25 years mentoring underrepresented minority students in biomedical related research at majority and minority-serving institutions.

“His research involves three areas: (1) the genetics/genomics of adaptation, especially with regard to aging in metazoans and anti-microbial resistance to metals in bacteria, (2) the biological impact of engineered nanomaterials in bacteria, and (3) evolutionary medicine, especially as relevant to health disparities and biological conceptions of race in humans. He has published over 80 papers and book chapters and appeared in seven documentary films and numerous television programs on these topics.

books

FIG. 19. Joseph Graves has written two books and numerous articles on the race concept.

“His books on the biology of race are entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, both of which are on sale here tonight. A summary of Dr. Grave’s research career can be found on Wikipedia, and he is also featured in the ABC-CLIO volume on Outstanding African-American scientists. And the list very much goes on.

sin article

FIG. 20. Published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Vol. 661, No. 1).

“As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the title of tonight’s talk is “Great is Their Sin: Biological Determinism in the Age of Genomics,” which is based on this paper (FIG. 20) he published last year in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

“And so, without any further ado, I present to you, Dr. Joseph L. Graves, Jr.”

This post originally appeared on the “Trancing, Tattoos, Religion, and Sex: Cheap Thrills through Evolution” blog at EvoS Studies.

Engaging Activism in Anthropology of Disability

Mirjam Holleman (author, left) presenting on the topic of (dis)ability and social inclusion to a small audience at a festival (Slot Art Festival) in Poland, summer 2016. Photo courtesy Mirjam Holleman.

Mirjam Holleman (author, left) presenting on the topic of (dis)ability and social inclusion to a small audience at a festival (Slot Art Festival) in Poland, summer 2016. Photo courtesy Mirjam Holleman.

The anthropologist is frequently construed as an ideally detached observer who doesn’t let his or her own ideals or visions for society interfere with or steer her research. But sometimes it’s hard not to care. As Sally Merry has described, pressing issues of social justice challenge the border between scientific disengagement and ethical activism and “open up important possibilities for rethinking what anthropology is and does, and what contributions it can make to global activism concerning social justice.“

This past summer I was in Poland, conducting preliminary ethnographic field research for my dissertation project about attitudes toward and experiences of people with disabilities in Poland. While I was in the field as a researcher, I didn’t feel personally affected by the things I was observing or hearing. I was (and still am) very thankful that my informants didn’t treat me with kid gloves. They spoke candidly to me about their and their society’s attitude toward people with disabilities and ‘the issue’ of disability and accessibility. But now that my goals my have been reached, it’s time for some personal processing. I guess it’s undeniable that I have a disability too, and I’ve experienced firsthand the huge difference that a few simple accommodations and an accessible environment can make. It’s the difference between inclusion and exclusion, participation and marginalization, recognition and invisibility. That is why I can’t simply be a detached observer.

Jennie Fenton’s  TedX Talk begins with an illustration of the caste system in India, where a segment of society, by virtue of birth, is excluded from certain public spaces and events. In the talk, she asks the audience to imagine if this kind of marginalization were happening in their own society, wouldn’t they be outraged? Well, Jennie points out, it is happening in our societies, and this segregated group are people with disabilities, who, by virtue of the body they were born into (or developed through no fault of their own), do not have equal access to many parts of their society. And yet we turn a blind eye or make up excuses like ‘there isn’t enough money to change this’ or ‘the disabled people themselves prefer to stay in their homes and be lazy and let other people care for them’ or the idea that ‘disability is something that doesn’t concern me’ or only affects a small segment of society. ‘Why go through the trouble of making the world more “comfortable” for a few [unfortunate misfits] who are too blind, or too lame, or too deaf, to function in the ‘normal’ world?’ (these quotes reflect some of the statements and sentiments I heard in Poland).  But why should those who can walk always be privileged over those who can’t? Why should those who can see and hear be privileged over those who can’t? It doesn’t hurt anyone to make it possible for blind people to cross the street safely, or for wheelchair users to have access to buildings and make use of public transportation too.

Sometimes I feel like I’m shouting this to a stone wall though. Sometimes I feel like I ought to acknowledge that, well, this is just one of the many ‘issues’ in the world. And of course, everyone thinks their cause is the most important. Sadly, it makes sense to me that “mine” isn’t seen as the most important or the most popular cause out there. At times I found myself beginning to adopt the emic perspective and almost agreeing with the statements of some of my informants in the field, such as:

Creating a secure economy is most important here. After that, you can start dealing with the comfort of the people.”

This statement equates accessibility with comfort, ease, or even privilege, rather than an issue of equality and inclusion.

“Everyone struggles in this society. The majority needs to be served/content first, before people can start to think of such first world issues as ‘minority rights.”

This comment suggests that disabled people are some kind of second rung citizens who need to wait their turn patiently, to be ‘served’ and have their needs met, rather than full members who could already play an active role in building and shaping society.

Such sentiments make sense to me, but also left me feeling discouraged at times–why do I bother? Maybe this is just a ‘first world’ luxury issue, and I shouldn’t be bothering or annoying these people with it. On the other hand, creating accessible spaces really doesn’t have to be an issue of having the right amount of money (and believe me, even when all the money and resources are there, people could, and do, still neglect it), it’s about having the right amount of motivation for it. I’ve also heard encouraging stories, of neighbors getting together to build a ramp for one of their neighbors who uses a wheelchair, for example. Even though there was just one man in the apartment that needed this accommodation, the neighbors cared, and they built a ramp for him. Nothing fancy, and it probably doesn’t meet ADA requirements in terms of safety and durability, but it works, and now he can get in and out of his house. Poles are very creative and, if they care, they’ll always come up with clever solutions and help one another. Stories like this give me hope.

In activist anthropology, the researcher utilizes personal convictions as a strength, rather than avoiding them as though they were a trap. It challenges the notion that the anthropologist is a detached observer who simply has an academic and impersonal curiosity about the habits, customs and believes of the ‘natives,’ rather than one who holds a shared commitment to improving their situation.

Full version posted on my research blog.


Mirjam Holleman is a graduate student in the Biocultural Medical Anthropology Program at the University of Alabama. For her dissertation project, she will be investigating attitudes toward and the experiences of people with disabilities, in terms of their social integration and participation, in Polish society.

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.”