Negotiating a field identity

Posted on November 2, 2010


Rapport (or ‘getting on well with people’) is an important part of ethnographic research (and I think any research with human beings), because how well you relate to your study subjects is going to influence what kind of data you’re going to get.  In general, if you’re a good listener, you show genuine interest in what people are saying, and you’re non-judgmental about what you hear you will get along pretty well with anyone.  But another part of rapport comes from how you are perceived by others, your public identity if you will, and there are aspects of your public identity that you can’t change (i.e. skin colour, sex, age, country of birth).

In Russ Bernard’s Research Methods In Anthropology he calls “gaining rapport” a euphemism for impression management.  We need to spend a lot of time worrying about how we are presenting ourselves to others.  I have two particular challenges when I’m introducing myself in the field:

#1.  What is my profession?

“I’m a PhD candidate in Global Health.”  If I give this response I’m only going to get blank stares (no matter where I am in the world).  Being a ‘PhD candidate’ rather than just a ‘PhD student’ gives me a special status in academic circles, but the average person doesn’t know the difference.  (FYI: PhD candidate means I have completed all of my exams and coursework and the only thing I have left to do in my PhD is my dissertation research.)

And what exactly is Global Health?  I have wondered about what I should be calling myself after I graduate: ‘global health scientist’ or maybe, ‘global health specialist’?  There are a lot of Global Health degrees around these days and they are variously MPHs, MDs, RNs, or interdisciplinary programs with an international focus.  Mine is the latter, an interdisciplinary program based out of an anthropological perspective.  Is there a difference between Global Health and just plain Health research?  Explaining this is just too much work.  People don’t really want to hear about academic politics, they want a label they are familiar with.

If I explain my existence solely by the project I am about to undertake – “I study infectious diseases, like tuberculosis” – I usually get “Oh!  So you’re a doctor/nurse!”  Then when I explain that I am not either, I feel like I am somehow disappointing them.  I know a lot about health and illness, but I don’t have the power to declare a diagnosis or prescribe drugs.  I am not an immediate relief to their health problems; I work on a different more invisible level.  My most tangible presence in the community is health education and bringing in partner organizations who can do the diagnosing or prescribing.

When I went to the communities I got to hear lots of stories about other foreigners who came for a visit.  Almost all the stories were positive, and gave me a good idea of what ‘a good visitor’ would do.  I only heard two negative stories.  One was about a person who acted as if they were above indigenous peoples.  The other was a general comment that anthropologists tend to come through do their study and leave without sharing the results of the study with the community.  (Bad anthropologists!)

I’ve taken to identifying myself as both an anthropologist and a biologist.  This covers the interdisciplinary nature of my work (talking to people and studying pathogens at the same time), and hopefully prevents me from being lumped in with the aforementioned punk anthropologists.  I have also made it very clear that I will be sharing the preliminary results of the study with the communities before I leave Paraguay.

So, I’m an anthropologist and biologist who studies tuberculosis.

#2.  Where are you from?

“I’m from Canada.”  Easy enough, but since many of the Mennonites in Paraguay migrated from Canada, Canadians are usually confused with Mennonites in Paraguay.  Mennonites sometimes confuse me for a Mennonite.  (I was joking with people last weekend that for Hallowe’en I was dressing up as a Mennonite.)

Being confused with a Mennonite is not necessarily a bad thing; all the Mennonites I’ve met are wonderful people.  Paraguayans respect the Mennonites as hard-working people who have brought prosperity to the Chaco (a major feat considering the climate).  But some people think the Mennonites look down on other Paraguayans and indigenous peoples.

A few times when I’ve told a Nivacle person that I’m Canadian I get the response, “Ah Canadians.  They’re really rich!”  And then they’ll tell me about all the rich Canadian Mennonites they used to know of or work for.  I always feel uncomfortable during these conversations.  Particularly since I’m poor by North American standards, but still wealthier than they are.

In any case, I’m not a Mennonite, although it make take a few tries to explain the difference!

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Posted in: Fieldwork