Ayahuasca Visions in the Peruvian Amazon

As a psychological anthropologist interested in alternative healing options, I recently traveled to Peru to experience ayahuasca with a shaman I had been corresponding with for some time. Ayahuasca is being used to help treat war veterans and others suffering from PTSD and depression. Its use as a treatment option for addicts has also become widespread. For thrill seeking millennials ayahuasca tourism has become a trendy activity.



Ayahuasca was first described outside of indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. When sending his advisee, Wade Davis, to the Amazon he told him not to come back without trying it. The word “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua who have used it for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is made by combining Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana, with Psychotria viridis, a perennial shrub. P. viridis contains about 0.10-0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of psilocybin. DMT is not activated when ingested unless a MAOI is added. B. caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both MAOIs and beta-carboline harmala alkaloids. People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and gaining insights into their lives. Individuals also report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and contacting spiritual or extra-dimensional guides and healers.



Feeling the need for a break from a year of fieldwork in the Costa Rican jungle, I decided it was time to satisfy my academic curiosity and experience ayahuasca. I traveled to Peru where it is legal and where shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo woman named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo, were to meet me. There was also a local woman, Carmela, who cooked for me. That night we continued the discussions we had started through email about my interests and desires concerning the ayahuasca ceremony. We decided I would participate in three ceremonies over a one week period, beginning the following evening.

The ceremonies began with cleansings and prayers before the ayahuasca was administered. Each time I was a little scared- as Tim Plowman told Wade Davis “(it) is many things, but pleasant isn’t one of them.” However, for me, after the initial uneasiness passed I found the experiences not only enjoyable, but blissful. I experienced profound altered states of consciousness and gained novel insights concerning my life goals and existence. Each ceremony was unique- my mind focusing on different domains of my life each time.

From my journal following the first ceremony:

 I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio began singing an icaro. Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness. Soon my sense of self began to dissolve and all I could do was breathe and listen to the icaros- which they alternately sang, accompanied by various shakers and rattles- at one point Antonio played the guitar. I could see and feel the music. I had the sense that other people were there with us, as the sounds seemed to be coming from all around me. Sometimes I felt people standing over me- all with positive and healing intent.

The ceremony lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Some of the few thoughts I remember are “wonder” and “wonderment” and later “gratitude.” When I came down from the high I felt a little melancholy (if that is the right word- it was more like the Japanese term “mono no aware”) and I still feel a little like that today- but at peace. Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was. He said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.”

gb-3Research suggests ceremonial use of ayahuasca can provide mental health benefits. Da Silveria and colleagues conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. They measured frequencies of substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems. Harris and Gurel surveyed individuals who had used ayahuasca at least once in North America. They found similar spiritual experiences amongst the ayahuasca users and a comparison group of worshipers who had attended a Catholic spiritual retreat. They also found that the ayahuasca users had made life changes after their experience with ayahuasca- they had reduced their alcohol intake, ate healthier diets, gb-4experienced greater self-acceptance and improved mood as well as reporting an increase in the experience of love and compassion in their relationships. They also stated that they received ongoing guidance and support from the spirit of the ayahuasca.

There are, however, problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing it who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and/or inept shamans. In the past few years alone, a young woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her and two people died while staying at ayahuasca lodges. Stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses.


Antonio and Carmela

As anthropologists know, the set and setting of healing rituals involving altered states of consciousness are of vital importance. My experience took place in an aesthetically pleasing location with shamans who were attentive and nurturing. To protect people who seek out this ancient medicine as a healing modality, regulation may be necessary. Anthropological, psychological, and botanical research can aid in defining how best to regulate the booming ayahuasca business, creating a safe option for those desiring alternative mental health treatment.

Greg Batchelder studied counseling psychology at Colorado Mesa University, psychological anthropology at Colorado State University, and is currently conducting doctoral research among the indigenous Bribrí in the Costa Rican rain forest of Talamanca.





Fieldwork then and now: from graduate student to professor


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.


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.

Family Matters: We Talk the Talk, but Do We Walk the Walk?

Diversity is Our Business1: We Talk the Talk, but do we Walk the Walk?,2

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren't they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY's AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren’t they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY’s AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

As academic anthropologists, my colleagues and I talk diversity all the time, but it refers to more than heritage, socioeconomic status, or gender. Jo Weaver and I have convened a session at the upcoming AAA conference about “Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Research” (see Jo’s summary in last month’s AN column), but our session is really as much about diversity as it is bringing non-research design-related issues to the fore. What other biases influence who can become an anthropologist? What if I am reliant on medication to stabilize my mood and that medication is poorly understood and my dose-response is sensitive to environmental change? Do I risk going abroad away from my support system to do fieldwork? Do I even bring this issue up with my advisers when I am applying for or in graduate school? Or do I just avoid field-based anthropology or drop out of my program? In another scenario, what if my own experiences of trauma are triggered by the culture shock of going abroad or trauma I witness in the field and I shut down emotionally? Do I fess up to my adviser that I’m in psychological turmoil?3 These may seem like clear-cut examples of issues fairly likely to occur among students of anthropology4, but when are they ever brought up and directly addressed in classes or advisement?

Similarly though perhaps more banal, when is a student ever given to permission to say ‘I love anthropology and I want to go to ___, but I have children and I could not emotionally handle being away from them’? This was an issue I faced. My children are triplets. They’re 12 years old now, but they were 1 when I started graduate school. Balancing children and a career is not easy for anyone, but what if your chosen vocation traditionally involves traveling great distances away for long periods of time? This is a stereotype in anthropology, but I have been surprised by the students and professionals whose expectations reflect this notion.5

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Let me be clear—no one in my graduate program told me I needed to leave my family behind to become a real anthropologist. I did my fieldwork in, essentially, my own backyard (which comes with difficulties I wrote about for AN in 2008); and I received NSF funding to do it. But my wife and I made ends meet by the skin of our teeth.6 We lived 1 hours 40 minutes away from campus for the first few years so we’d be near family who could help take care of our children while I fulfilled my obligations as a graduate teaching assistant, took classes, and cloistered myself to get work done.7 I recall asking NSF Cultural Anthropology Program Director Deb Winslow and my advisers if could I use my grant money to pay living expenses? The financial and moral support I got for research was great, but my major expense was the cost of buying salivary cortisol kits and sending them out to be assayed. To save money and build up my skill set, I learned to assay them myself from Jason Paris in Cheryl Frye’s Biopsychology Lab at UAlbany instead of paying to send them out, saving around $9,000. Meanwhile, I had three toddlers at home, and taking care of them was a full time job, which left nothing for rent.8 As you can imagine, a graduate teaching assistantship stipend does not really cover expenses for a family of 5.  Answer: We sympathize but, no, NSF funds can’t be used to cover rent unless it is for living somewhere else, where one doesn’t usually live, to do fieldwork at a distance from the usual home. And federal funding can only cover that expense for the researcher.

Not much has changed since I’ve become a tenured professor. I will admit that, although I love anthropology, one of my motivations in pursuing biological anthropology was a mistaken notion that biological know-how would get me paid better.9 But I also looked around at professors with kids and saw the wonderful experience and perspective this life provides to children of anthropologists. One of my advisors, Walter Little, would often take his daughter to Guatemala with him when he conducted fieldwork. I thought, ‘that is the life I want for my children.’ They’ll learn to speak Spanish early enough that it’s not a chore and have an invaluable worldliness (like our President—ahem, raised in a unique family situation by an anthropologist mother). But what I’ve learned is that there is little money out there to support a family while doing fieldwork. We must pay their fares out of pocket if we take them with us. So here my kids are, 12 years old, and they’ve still never left the country. Heck, I think even I had been to Canada by the time I was their age.

What We Know about Family-Career Balances of Anthropologists

I was loathe to talk to my professors about the stresses of supporting my family while going to graduate school. They didn’t have to hear that from other students, I imagined. But I had to. My very first semester, one of my sons was hospitalized for dehydration because of persistent diarrhea caused by an intestinal bug. Not a month later, during finals week, another bug hit the household and took everyone down. Because I saw it coming, I had outlined my answers to our take-home final. When the virus finally got me, everyone else in my house was down for the count and could not so much as get me a glass of water. But I still had one essay to write that was due the next day. I faded in and out of consciousness through the night transforming each outline fragment into a sentence and adding a few qualifiers. It’s probably the worst essay I’ve ever written and it got me a dreaded B (like a D in grad school), but, under the circumstances, it was good enough. As I recovered slightly, I tried to go back to work only to get a call from my wife that one of the kids was vomiting again. Because there was a bug in the house, neither the mother’s helpers we’d hired nor my wife’s family wanted to come in and help out for fear of catching it. But taking care of three sick toddlers was too much for any one person to handle. It pained me, but I explained my situation to my adviser, Larry Schell, and his response has always stayed with me. He said, “No one ever says on their deathbed that they wish they’d spent more time with at work. It’s always that they wish they’d spent more time with their family.”

Family is hard to manage. School is hard to manage. Work is hard to manage. This is life. No one wants to tell their professor or adviser or boss that work or school is putting a strain on their marriage, but we know that many marriages break up over issues like these (the literature on this is huge—this is in no way unique to anthropologists or people who do fieldwork for a living). Stress, as Gary Evans pointed out in a guest lecture at UAlbany when I was in grad school, is not necessarily about having a life full of stressors—it’s often about not having a buffer when there are stressors one is not expecting or has not planned for. I always refer to a poem by Charles Bukowski called “The Shoelace,” which refers simply to the last straw, when you’re dealing with “…roaches or flies or a broken hook on a screen, or out of gas or too much gas, the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk, the president doesn’t care and the governor’s crazy. light switch broken mattress like a porcupine; $105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at sears roebuck; and the phone bill’s up and the market’s down and the toilet chain is broken, and the light has burned out – the hall light, the front light, the back light, the inner light; it’s darker than hell and twice as expensive…”10

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

So the culture of academia (not just anthropology) makes balancing parenthood and fieldwork difficult, but how is that biocultural? As Jason DeCaro points out in previous posts for our blog (here and here), biological theory is implicit in studies of family and human development. But let me spell it out in a different way, one I alluded to above. There are certain notions about maternal investment in children that give moms a (justifiable) pass when it comes to saying, ‘I can’t do that because I have to think about my kids.’ And we applaud fathers who do the same (e.g., Joe Biden [maybe], sports athletes). But while there are few institutional accommodations for things like maternity leave, there are even fewer for paternity. I am not crying foul. I’m saying, ‘I love my children so much that it hurts me to leave them behind while I do fieldwork, and it is emotionally hard to handle.’ As you can imagine, I’m a big fan of Peter Gray and Kermyt Anderson‘s Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Patterns and work by Lee Gettler and others on the hormonal physiology of fatherhood. There is a real physiological change when we become fathers. I want us to think about this diversity more, talk about it more, and support diverse family models and needs more.

Study: Family and the Field

To wrap up and tease you for our November talk and future conferences and papers, these experiences inspired a study I started with my friend and UNCW assistant anthropology professor Michaela Howells this past summer called “Family and the Field.” I was primarily interested in the experiences of fathers and wondered if attitudes, experiences, and paternal investment by anthropologists has changed over the years. However, Michaela pointed out that the whole paradigm of parenting and family is interesting and understudied among anthropologists (but not by anthropologists). We don’t know the answers to questions like, if you want to have a bunch of kids and don’t want to leave them behind to do fieldwork, do you just choose another discipline? Or, do you forego having children for a period of time to complete graduate work and any major field studies? There’s not a lot of data on this within our discipline that we’ve been able to find (but encourage readers to send us sources if we’re wrong).

Our study is preliminary, using an internet paradigm, and hope to follow up in the near future by being able to conduct more intensive interviews. (Perhaps we will be cornering you, dear reader, at next year’s AAA!) So far, as Table 1 shows, we’ve collected data from over 350 anthropologists, nearly 85 of whom are males, and 31 of whom are fathers (mean age = 43.3, SD = 9.33). Of these fathers, 18 self-report their life-work balance as poor or acceptable, while 13 report it as good or excellent. Average perceived stress among these fathers is 33.6 (SD = 1.38), which is consistent with the full sample (33.1, SD = 2.51) (This study is still recruiting professionals and graduate students trained in anthropology, so please consider participating).

In sum, do we structurally bias our training system to undermine some types of diversity in our field? And, what do we really know about diversity, if indeed it is our business. Join us in Denver for “Hidden motivations and glossed justifications” Problems and priorities in biocultural field research” on Thursday, November 19, 4-5:45 PM to explore these questions.


1. Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (2010) writes convincingly about the identity problem anthropology has, that we need PR help in cultivating what is essentially “brand identity,” and that identity should be diversity—“diversity is our business.” See Greg Downey’s Neuroanthropology piece for further discussion of this (and where I learned about Hannerz’ article). Incidentally, another piece by Hannerz that addresses the identity we as individual anthropologists create for ourselves also appeals to me. “Confessions of a Hoosier Anthropologist” (2014) outlines how Hannerz works, though he is Swedish and has spent his career at Stockholm University, was marked by the year he spent as a Master’s student at Indiana University. Folks from Indiana and who go to IU are known as “Hoosiers.” Just among the Biocultural Medical faculty here at UA, Jo Weaver and I are both Hoosiers by birth and upbringing, and Keith Jacobi and I are Hoosiers by education. Funny. Ha ha.

2. “You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?” is a quote by Animal Mother from the classic 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket.

3. These will be among the topics to some extent addressedat our November 2015 AAA session by, respectively, Eileen Anderson-Fye, Rebecca Lester, and others.

4. In 2011, the CDC reported that 1 in 10 people in the U.S. age 12 and over (11%) surveyed from 2005-08 were taking antidepressant medication. The youngest among those are college-age now. I don’t have a citation handy, but we have estimated that as many as half of our undergraduates in anthropology at any given moment are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication.

5. The criteria that render one a ‘Real Anthropologist’ would be a great blog topic, but I will save that for another time.

6. Actually, it was the skin of creditors’ teeth, and we have massive student loan debt as a consequence.

7. I rose at 5 AM most days to make the drive and would be so sleepy, I’d lay down in the shower to get a few minutes more rest and ensure I didn’t fall back to sleep. I was such a regular at the New Baltimore rest stop Starbuck’s on NYS I-87 that they began giving me the “Trucker Discount,” which later became free coffee. I’d hear employees whisper, “he gets a free coffee” as I walked up, so that by the time I finished grad school, the manager who had started this gratuitous gesture was gone and current staff had no idea who I was, just that I merited free coffee for some reason.

8. Either my wife or I needed to stay home or whatever money she earned working covered the cost of childcare [barely] and that’s it.

9. I am the first generation in my family to finish college, let alone go to grad school, let alone become a college professor. So what did I know? Nothing. That’s what I knew. Similarly, another mistaken notion was that my kids would get free tuition wherever I worked.

10. One of my sons was taking lots of photos during one of these periods for me and caught me in a moment when I was working as a GTA at Albany, teaching a course as instructor of record at Marist College, finishing data collection for my dissertation, writing my dissertation, and interviewing for jobs all at the same time. It seems like a lot, right? It was, but that was OK because I accepted those stressors knowingly. It was after getting t-boned in my Prius by a tractor-trailer that I broke down. I wasn’t injured, the truck driver took full responsibility, and my car was fully fixed by insurance; but that extra thing was more than I could handle at that moment.

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.”