Listen to last week’s New York Academy of Sciences anthropology section lecture featuring Stuart J. Fiedel, Senior Archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group and author of Prehistory of the Americas to discuss the challenges recent genetic, archaeological, and paleological evidence present to attempts to unambiguously document human occupations in the Americas prior to 13,500 BP and “break the Clovis Barrier” followed by comments by discussant Peter Siegel of Montclair State University.
Andrew Tarter is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, and PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Florida. Tarter’s research in Haiti has been supported by NSF, The Wenner Gren Foundation, the Fulbright Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We continue with his four-part guest blogging series (previous installments) outlining his experience collaborating with students from the Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology) at L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti).
6. Research collaboratively
Regrettably, the crystallization of the research plan—often formalized during multiple rewrites for granting agencies—may lead a researcher to believe they must dogmatically adhere, word-by-word, to what they originally proposed. This is a mistake. Viewing potential research collaborators simply as “research assistants” along to strictly adhere to the dirty work of data collection often compounds this mistake, and prevents the researcher from benefiting from valuable emic insights. Instead, collaborators should be involved in as many steps of the research process as possible.
Early in our research schedule our team visited a series of different rakbwa (managed woodlots)—the unit-of-analysis of the research design. Visits were followed by long conversations about what constitutes a rakbwa. These exercises ultimately led to the operationalization of the rakbwa concept for our research purposes. I also introduced the students to the concept of the ‘domestication of energy’ (Murray 1987, 1991)—an important theoretical construct of the research. They immediately grasped it at its analogs from theories related to the domestication of plants and animals, and provided valuable feedback about the usefulness of the construct from within the Haitian context.
The students also were intimately involved in the creation of open-ended interview questions, as well as the questions on the survey, which formed the backbone of the research design. Since the research seeks to identify patterns in land-use and land-changes based on sociocultural, ecological, economic and spatial variables, the research team had to generate a wide range of questions that would accurately and reliably measure these multiple variables. Questions that would never have occurred to me were raised by students multiple times and found their way into the final survey. For example, one of the students suggested that rather than simply asking if an individual has a motorcycle (one indicator in our ‘wealth’ index), we should follow up by asking if the individual makes money using the motorcycle as a taxi to transport goods or people. Rather than simply asking if an individual owns animals, we should ask which kinds of animals, and whether they own them outright or if they are involved in gadinaj (a Haitian system of outsourcing the caretaking of an animal—animal fosterage). Thanks to input from the students, several such questions were further plumbed for additional data by follow-up questions I had never thought to ask. Collaborating in such a manner is an effective way of making sure you don’t miss out in the collection of important data that may inform your research question(s).
7. Check in with collaborators
Humans can be politely mum, for any number of reasons. This fact can result in the build up of resentment over unsettled or unaddressed issues, making it important to frequently check-in with collaborators to assess their well-being and the progress of the research and issues related to its execution. An easy way to address this is through weekly meetings, but these can become trite if there is nothing new to address. The right balance will depend on the nature of the research. The three student research collaborators from UEH used meetings on more than one occasion to address difficulties in the work plan we had devised. One difficulty involved the walking distance to plots of land we needed to visit. ‘As the crow flies’ all of the plots were no farther than 3 kilometers one-way. However, the up-and-down mountainous terrain of Haiti and the fact that many land plots lay far from established paths meant that often times the students were walking much, much farther than the originally estimated maximum of six round-trip kilometers a day. After a check-in meeting where they expressed this concern, we made an adjustment to the number of plots we expected to visit each day, and readjusted the weekly work schedule to account for the ‘exhaustion factor’ of so much walking in the sun. During another instance we failed to communicate and I was confused about how long of a break students intended to take for the week of Easter, putting the research behind by a couple of days. These quick examples—a successful communication and adjustment, and a communication failure—highlight the importance of establishing a check-in schedule that addresses the needs of the PI and the research collaborators.
8. Make yourself available
Being flexible and making yourself available outside of the context of the research schedule is an important part of collaboration and building lasting relationships with collaborators. My students were interested in learning English, and offering a time to practice with them was important. I ended up teaching a short-course in English at the local community center, which the students attended, as well as speaking in English with the students during shared mealtimes. I also implored the students to immediately correct my Kreyòl whenever I made a mistake, in order to help me improve not only my pronunciation, but also grammar and the contextual appropriateness of certain common Haitian expressions.
Two of the three students requested my assistance with the memoirs they were writing for their degrees. Due to my Fulbright placement the year prior—specifically my position on the taskforce convened to overhaul NGO registration, monitoring and regulation—I was able to provide one student who studies NGOs in Haiti with important documents that he otherwise didn’t have access to. In the case of another student who studies the contradictions between rural and urban life in Haiti, I was asked to participate in an interview of my impressions, having just spent one year in the city followed by a second year in the countryside. I was also able to connect this same student with a senior anthropologist for an additional interview, and provide him with a newly published summative anthropological research document of which he wasn’t yet aware.
Toward the end of our time, I became aware of a higher education fellowship program to study in France, and encouraged the students to apply. I was able to help two of the students craft their applications to the program, and provide solid letters of recommendation that detailed our collaborative efforts and presumably strengthened their applications. Another student asked me to produce a certificate—an important component of the Haitian CV—that specified the research he helped collaborate on. These examples are but a few of the ways in which we were able to mutually cooperate outside the immediate parameters of the research.
9. De-brief and meet afterword
Debriefing is important from both a personal and research standpoint. I conducted exit interviews with each student, to try to glean any final insights they had gained from nine months in the field. Debriefing also gave students a chance to offer constructive criticism of the overall experience and to suggest ways I might improve the process of collaboration in the future.
Meeting in a new context after the research is completed is important as well. Doing so demonstrates that the PI is interested in the students beyond what they helped the PI achieve. I’ve met several times with students once they returned to the capital, both at their homes and at local restaurants. It’s a nice way to bring closure to the entire process in a less formal way.
Murray, Gerald F. 1987. The domestication of wood in Haiti: A case study in applied evolution. In Anthropological Praxis. R. Wulff and S. Fiske, eds. Pp. 223-240. Boulder: Westview Press.
Murray, Gerald F. 1991. The Tree Gardens of Haiti: From Extraction to Domestication. In Social forestry: Communal and private management strategies compared. D. Challinor and M. Hardt Frondorf, eds. Pp. 35-44. Washington, D.C.: School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.
Our popular lecture series rolls on! Join us Monday, October 27, at 7:00 PM as we welcome Stuart J. Fiedel, Senior Archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group and author of Prehistory of the Americas to discuss the challenges recent genetic, archaeological, and paleological evidence present to attempts to unambiguously document human occupations in the Americas prior to 13,500 BP and “break the Clovis Barrier”.
Since the antiquity of the Monte Verde site in southern Chile was certified in 1997, most archaeologists have accepted that peopling of the Americas began more than 14,500 years ago. A few sites in North America also contain artifacts that seem to be older than Clovis fluted points (which date from ca. 13,500 to 12,800 cal yr BP). The Paisley Caves in Oregon have yielded 14,300-year-old coprolites from which human DNA of Native American types has been extracted. These ostensibly early sites have been linked to a model positing multiple early migrations down the Pacific coast. It has even been proposed that Clovis developed from the Solutrean culture of France and Spain (despite the intervening ocean and a temporal gap of 6,000 years). However, all of these pre-Clovis claims remain dubious. The most recent genetic, archaeological, and paleontological evidence shows that: 1) Native North, Central, and South Americans are all descended from a single founding population derived from northern Eurasia; 2) a child of that population was buried with Clovis tools at the Anzick Site in Montana 13,000 years ago; 3) interior Clovis-linked sites are older than any coastal sites; 4) a Clovis-derived population rapidly occupied South America 13,000 years ago; and 5) rapid human expansion caused an ecosystem catastrophe that entailed the extinction of some 80 genera of megafauna.
Fiedel’s talk will be followed by comments by discussant Peter Siegel of Montclair State University.
A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.
Part Three of our introductions of 2014′s class of Wadsworth International Fellows – Nasrin Khandoker of Bangladesh, an anthropologist working on questions of gender, colonialism, and inequality. Khandoker will complete her doctoral studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Being an anthropologist of Bangladesh, my interest area is the interdisciplinary connections between gender and colonialism. I am working as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh and I just completed my MA in Gender Studies from Central European University, Hungary. Before that, I completed my Master’s from the Department of Anthropology in Jahangirnagar University where I am teaching now. Besides that, I am also a founder editorial member of a Bengali journal named ‘Public Nribiggan’ (Public Anthropology) in Bangladesh.
I did my master’s research in Anthropology in a quest to understand marital inequality and the resistance to it. My recently completed Master’s thesis is about the historical construction of the ideal images of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Bengali’ woman. All of my previous research experiences have been related to gender, sexuality and the subversion of identity. Likewise, it is from here that my PhD interest emerges as well.
My PhD research will focus on the codification of marriage in the context of colonial trasformation. In my research I will problematise the colonial narrative of ‘progress’ of woman through the emergence of modern ideas of ‘love’ and will deconstruct the ‘victim’ images of colonised women. For that, I will enalyze the other forms of sexual/passionate relations articulated in some folk songs which have been marginalized by institutionalization of marriage.
I have been working as a teacher for more than ten years in the Dept. of Anthropology and having a PhD will help me for further advancement of my professional goals. During my teaching years I have offered a varied range of courses in undergraduate and postgraduate level in a variety of Anthropological areas like Biological, Linguistic, Economic, Educational, Urban, Philosophical and Gender Anthropology. I have chosen to go to the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, for my doctoral training since it has a vibrant Anthropology Department in another postcolonial country with a strong interdisciplinary tradition in the study of the British Empire. I will be working with Dr. Chandana Mathur, an engaged anthropologist who has directed several other doctoral projects focused on gender and South Asian themes.
two gorgeous locales for these two WGF-sponsored events in November!
4th Southern Deserts Conference – “Quaternary Evolution of Deserts Landscapes and Peoples”
November 10-14, 2014
Uspallata City, Mendoza, Argentina
The central aim of the workshop is to foster and systematize a comparative approach to the archaeology of deserts from the southern hemisphere and provide the opportunity for discussing large-scale patterns of historical stability and change, and how it relates to landscape evolution. We will focus on an exploration of the dynamics and mechanisms implied in socio-demographic processes in time and space: a) Regional archaeological gaps and their meaning (bottlenecks, extinctions, relocalizations); b) Interaction of different societies: migrations, replacements, and assimilations; c) Role of information in desert societies: group boundary formation and territoriality. By pursuing a comparative archaeological perspective across continents, the workshop will provide the basis for developing long-term archaeological projects connecting disciplines and countries.
November 10-13, 2014
Queenstown, New Zealand
This combined conference of the New Zealand and the Australian anthropological societies explores and extends the critical study of cosmopolitan anthropologies by debating the theoretical value and practical applicability of an array of grounded Antipodean cosmopolitan anthropologies and by engaging systematically with the literature on cosmopolitan anthropologies from the perspective of medical anthropology. The aim is thus to further internationalize anthropological thinking and practice in New Zealand and Australia and to create a formal contribution to anthropological scholarship through the publication of two peer reviewed, edited collections drawn from the keynote addresses and plenaries and one special issue of the New Zealand-based journal Sites featuring the best quality (peer reviewed) conference papers on the theme of cosmopolitan anthropologies of the Pacific. Two prestigious keynote speakers will address the delegates, Professor Nigel Rapport ( St Andrews University, Scotland) and Prof Sharon Kaufman (University of California).
Schooling, Urgency, and Hope For Movement Ahead of The Ebola Crisis in Liberia: Perspectives from Recent Fieldwork
[Eva Harman is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University and received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2011 to aid research "Desire for Education and 'Ties that Lift': Schooling, Movement, and Social Regeneration in Post-War Liberia," supervised by Dr. Carol Greenhouse. This post originally appeared in "Ebola In Perspective", a Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots series.]
In this essay, I discuss the importance of schooling, in light of the Ebola outbreak. The Liberian President’s order to suspend schooling in August had significant impact even though regular classes were not yet in session. “Vacation schooling,” or summer school, is attended by many young people in Liberia. Parents send children to vacation school for various and often-interconnected reasons: They are invested in their children’s education and an extended break from school could be an interruption to their children’s progress. Violence is a concern that many parents address through the act of sending their children to school, both in the summer and during the regular school year. Parents are concerned that their children could become victims of violence or that they could be drawn into violent practices. They hope to bring up a person who will enable them to die feeling proud of the accomplishments they achieved as a person and a member of society.
Summer classes and sessions make education more flexible. Many students I worked with dropped schooling, or came and went from schooling, in order to make money through entrepreneurial activities, to help family, to have and nurse children, to care for ill or aging relatives, or to respond to other sharp needs. A difference between a colloquial American and a colloquial Liberian expression is suggestive: In the United States, “dropping out of school” carries with it an assumption that the person will not return. When narrating their education histories, young Liberians mentioned “dropping” school while also often expressing their intention to continue.
Summer or vacation schooling can make it possible to advance more quickly. In part due to the war, and in part due to accumulations of periods when schooling is interrupted, ages range fairly widely in Liberian classrooms, from kindergarten to university. It is not uncommon for young adults to attend primary school with children. Some young people who had fought in the war or had travelled along with those fighting emphasized their desire for continuing educational and professional advancement within civilian life.
A journalist spoke with a grandmother who pulled her grandson out of vacation school shortly before the state of emergency was declared in Liberia. The grandmother said, “He cried, but no child will control me. It will be better for him to live and attend many more vacation schools than get sick from Ebola.” In the news report, the grandmother is communicating her response to images on a highly graphic Ebola campaign poster that inspires fear. Agency is also expressed; she will not allow a grandson to control her. She conveys the grandson’s distress at having to interrupt his schooling and her hope that he can return to school later. Schooling allows people to say something beyond “I am complying with global public health orders.” They can also express the interruptions that Ebola and global public health orders are causing in their lives and insist upon a better future. They can also directly, or more subtly, signal disagreement or their will to continue living.
A friend of mine, who gives informal instruction in reading and writing, wrote that she is continuing to meet with a few women students. They still want to learn! They are also discussing “Ebola in town,” she added. Official educational institutions remained closed in Liberia, though some people are continuing schooling in private settings. The children of a Liberian, who works at an NGO, set up a classroom on the family’s front porch. The administrators of the play school asked pupils to pay a tuition fee—a reminder of the tight connection between schooling and money in Liberia. Money is required for attending both public and private school. Public primary schooling is tuition-free, but resources to repair, expand, or improve educational infrastructure are often demanded from students, parents, and teachers. Through schooling, people may be able to put something in between themselves and a crisis.
Schooling is also a location for conversation and engagement on different levels. The National Teachers’ Association in Liberia is calling for schools to be re-opened. An editorial in the Liberian press examines issues impeding the re-opening of schools that extend beyond logistics and health. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is preparing radio broadcasts that will include not only Ebola awareness but also limited academic subject content. The Liberian Minister of Education has objected to the use of schools as Ebola holding centers or facilities on the grounds that this may “create fear among students when classes shall officially resume in the not too long distance future.”
It matters tremendously that medicine and treatment should be made available to those who are sick right now with this deadly disease. An emergency medical-humanitarian intervention is necessary; yet, it is important to keep in mind that perspectives on health care can become vehicles for people to express their discontent with economic or political matters, including global inequality. Although the formal educational infrastructure in Liberia is weak, Liberians I worked with had confidence in the power of schooling to materialize their engagement in building a better life for themselves and the next generation. The United States government and global corporations with direct or indirect ties to Liberia have made commitments to the fight against Ebola, but they should also increase their investment in the existing national educational infrastructure. Scholarships for Liberian students to pursue advanced degrees and specialized training, particularly in the under-resourced fields of medicine and education, are greatly needed. My recent fieldwork convinces me that moving ahead of the Ebola crisis in Liberia will happen with less violence, terror, and mistrust when people feel supported in their aspirations for the future.
Listen to last Monday’s New York Academy of Sciences meeting lecture, featuring Nina Glick Schiller of the University of Manchester, the Max Planck Institute, and Oxford University.
In the previous installment of this 4-Part series on research collaboration in rural Haiti, Florida’s Andrew Tarter discussed the benefits to social scientists of collaborating with research counterparts at Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology) at L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti). Here he continues with a list of steps that provide a blueprint toward successful collaboration.
3. Connect with a wide range of potential collaborators.
Connecting with students and having discussions with faculty members from Faculté d’Ethnologie provides several advantages, even if you don’t have expendable funding to employ students (see ‘Why Collaborate?’ in the previous post). Just be certain to be explicit that you’re conducting interviews to acquire data or for purposes of collaboration, and not for a paid position. Connecting with multiple people follows classical sampling logic: you increase variability, and by extension increase potential fields of collaboration.
I conducted my interviews entirely in Kreyòl (Haitian Creole), though many of the students demonstrated strong command of both French and English during the interview process. While some students had clearly read the research synopsis I had circulated, many had not; a substantial portion of the interviewing period was spent explaining the research. Be prepared to give multiple explanations of your proposed research.
The simple fact that the paid research collaborator positions I was recruiting for were to last 9 months was a major deterrent for some students. To top it off, the research was in a remote part of the southern peninsula, far from capital city. The extreme physical challenges of the research—walking many miles into remote woodlots under an unrelenting Haitian sun—was another deterrent for other students. One student declined during the interview, stating that these woodlots were home to any number of wild animals, including dangerous snakes. More than one student mentioned that the daily stipend was well below what they might expect to receive as a per diem from USAID, or any number of NGOs conducting research in the country. I agreed. But I also explained that researchers would have their room-and-board covered, and with very little to spend money on in the countryside they would have an opportunity to reliably save the lion’s share of their stipend. Furthermore, each research collaborator would receive a field laptop, chosen for its 12-hour battery capacity—a major advantage in a country with sporadic and unreliable electricity. The laptop would be theirs to keep at the end of the research period.
By and by the 20 CVs were narrowed down to approximately five candidates, three of which accepted positions. All three students were memoran—the equivalent to undergraduates who have completed their coursework, had their memoir (thesis) topic approved, but have not yet written nor defended their memoir.
4. Establish a research contract
After the three students successfully relocated to the research site, we got to work. One of the first items of order we tackled as a team was the creation of research contracts. I submitted a blueprint contract that reflected my concerns, objectives, priorities and stipulations as the principal investigator; the students in turn added stipulations of their own and some wording corrections to make the contract clearer. In the end we co-created a concise 1-page contract that outlined the perimeters and parameters of the research to be conducted and the expectations of all parties involved. I highly recommend that researchers entering into collaborative endeavors with other scholars conduct this exercise. It ensures a clear understanding of the research to all parties involved, provides a template of expectations, and can serve as a roadmap in the event of future miscommunication or conflict. In hindsight, the exercise of establishing a contract should have been completed prior to the students relocating from Pòtoprens. Luckily it went off with a hitch, but future researchers should consider collaboratively drafting contracts before arriving to their respective field sites.
5. Start slow
Pòtoprens’ notorious traffic isn’t the only thing that moves sluggishly in Haiti; things seem to move even slower andeyo (the Haitian countryside). Intense afternoon heat with no fans to sit in front of and no air-conditioned rooms to escape to in ensures that many tasks come to a grinding halt during the middle hours of the day. No electricity also means that things get pretty quiet after the sun goes down. Meetings must often be rescheduled if rain falls as farmers must tend to gardens. A cautionary si Dye vle (God willing) is frequently added at the end of verbal commitments, indicative of the tentative nature of many temporal arrangements in Haiti. Researchers should recognize and adapt to this reality.
Many people seem to be romantically enamored of andeyo—at least for the first couple of weeks. It’s everything their first experience of Haiti’s capital city isn’t: clean, quiet(er), green, and less densely populated. While perhaps a cliché rural-urban dichotomy, the people of the countryside seem gentler and more engaging than urbanites. The countryside offers a sense of security absent in the capital; everyone knows or recognizes most everyone else they encounter, adding a degree of accountability to everyone’s actions. As one village leader told me: Nou pa gen vòlè isit, nou pa gen dezòd isit (We don’t have thieves here, we don’t have unrest here). For me, this reassurance was a breath of fresh air; the year prior in Pòtoprens I had an attempted break-in at my apartment, I was robbed at gunpoint in front of my house while nearby armed guards silently watched, and in another instance I outran a group of four men on motorcycles that tried to mug me in the street. While Pòtoprens is less dangerous than many major US cities, what anthropologist Mark Schuller has titled “[T]he incredible whiteness of being (an anthropologist)” sometimes results in a degree of unwelcomed negative attention (Schuller 2010). The countryside seems to nullify some aspects of this reality: In five years of visiting my research site I have never once been threatened, stolen from, or felt any risk for my life.
Andeyo can also seem a bit boring, especially if you’re more accustomed to the fast pace of a city. For the most part, the students adapted marvelously well to their new surroundings. While two of the students had been raised in the countryside, one had never been out of Pòtoprens for more than 10 days in his entire life—a reflection of the increasing urbanization of Haiti, a country with a traditional 2/3rds rural majority. The other students gently teased him about his lack of experience andeyo, though he later confided that he now prefers the country to the city.
Some members of the community were particularly open to the students, who were initially strangers in their presence. Other members took time to warm up to the students. Again, patience was the key, and allowing time for students to integrate into the community was important. We allotted ample time to meet and explain our research to community members, attending church, soccer games, the two weekly markets, and going for long walks in the area. I also met and explained the research to the local minister of environment from the nearest city. At the urging of the students, we also made a point of meeting with the area kazèk—the local magistrate. After visiting this community for over five years, I had no idea this position even existed. My students mildly rebuked me for not meeting with the kazèk a long time ago. Unbeknownst to me this is the standard operation of order in rural research in Haiti, and provides a fitting anecdote to advocate for the benefits of research collaboration with in-country scholars.
In addition to allowing time for adequate community integration, starting slowly allowed the necessary time to properly train the students in use of GPS technologies. A major component of the research rested on my insistence on a random sampling strategy that would increase external validity and allow me to extrapolate research findings beyond our sample. This insistence required the research team to physically locate hundreds of randomly selected plots of land using GPS units. This was a difficult task, as many of the plots fell far from established roads and paths. It took us all a while to get the hang of things and become confident in orienting ourselves with the GPS units. Starting slow in the short-term ended up saving time in the long-term by reducing serious errors we might have otherwise made.
Starting slowly also allowed us to develop, test, refine, and finalize the survey instrument and open-ended questions in an iterative fashion, rather than rushing out with a predetermined question list. Starting slowly will present a different set of challenges for researchers working in urban or peri-urban areas—working in partnership with the right collaborators will ensure these challenges can be properly addressed.
The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In this second post on the 2014 class, we meet Mariel Garcia of Peru.
My scholarly work has been mostly engaged with two fields of interest: (1) the relationship between media and politics through how events and actors are represented by Peruvian media outlets and, (2) extractive industries and the conflicting relationship between different forms of appropriating nature around mining sites.
My current research emerges at the intersection of these two academic interests; it explores the relation between extractive industries and media practices and technologies of representation. I am studying how Peruvian media produces representations of ‘development’ through ‘mining’, which has become a widespread neoliberal ‘truth’ in my country. I want to learn about how and with what tools, human and non-human interactions become ‘information’ that travels to the press rooms (or media laboratories); how ‘information’ is gathered to constitute ‘facts’ of ‘development’; and how they acquire the form through which they are disseminated.
I am convinced that in order to do this I need the close inquiry that ethnographic approaches offer, both conceptually and methodologically. This was my main reason to study Anthropology. I chose the University of California at Davis (UCD) because it offers me the combination I need: a strong emphasis in Latin American Anthropology and in Science and Technology Studies.
Before starting the PhD Program in Anthropology at UC Davis, I obtained my BA in Communication Studies from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) and from 2008 to 2011 I studied the MA in Cultural Studies at the same university. I am a researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, as well as a lecturer at PUCP and at the Universidad de Ciencias Aplicadas.
I am deeply rooted in Peru; after the completion of my degree, I expect to return and work towards the opening of new fields of study for sociocultural anthropology, and also to strengthen interdisciplinary studies. More specifically, I want to connect anthropology with media studies, and with science and technology studies.
Amy Moran-Thomas is Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Brown University, specializing in the areas of global health, medical technology, and environmental change. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘An Anthropological Study of the Experience of Parasitic Infection and Diabetes in Belize,’ supervised by Dr. Joao Biehl. This year, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite in the Central American country of Belize to publically share and discuss her research findings about metabolic disorders, focusing in particular on people’s negotiations of causality and care within the emerging global diabetes epidemic.
Three and a half years is a long time to be gone, and it was somewhat disorienting when I first arrived back in Dangriga in July 2014. Some of the people I had known best in Belize were now missing—absences that loomed large when passing homes where friends formerly resided, or locations where we had once talked. In an epidemiological sense, I realize that these deaths are painfully unsurprising (though each one always surprises and shakes me anyway). Yet at least on statistical scales, these losses remain not only predictable, but numerically probable: diabetes, the primary condition that I focused on investigating during my fieldwork about experiences of chronic disease in Belize, has now become the leading cause of death nationwide.
My research in 2009-2010 examined this fast-growing issue, by charting people’s experiences of metabolic disorders in the southern Stann Creek District of Belize. Over time, I came to see these realities also as an ethnographic lens on the larger diabetes epidemic emerging in much of the world today, providing insight into some of its deep challenges and human costs: the complications of negotiating care amid overlaid chronic and infectious conditions; the global political ecologies now contributing to these rising rates of disease, alongside the social fabrics of care that patients turn to in addressing them; and people’s actual treatment experiences amid systems where medical technologies often moved in and out of reach.
This Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to return to Belize in the summer of 2014 for the first time since my dissertation fieldwork concluded in 2010, to share and discuss my research findings with Belizean experts and communities who contributed to the project—including local patient groups, government doctors and policy makers, variously positioned caregivers, national intellectuals, and individual patients and families who had worked with me. I began the return trip by revisiting these actors in Dangriga, and also reaching out to several community leaders and local organizations that I was coming into dialogue with for the first time. I additionally visited government offices in the capital of Belmopan, and found myself engaged in very generative discussions about my findings with officials from the Belize Ministry of Health as well as from the Institute for Social and Cultural Research. These collaborative meetings helped lead up to the key event of my trip: a public workshop that I organized in Dangriga, planned in collaboration with Southern Regional Hospital, the Belize Ministry of Health, the National Institute of Culture and History, and Help Age Dangriga.
The workshop took place in the newly refinished ground-floor conference room of Dangriga’s Ecumenical College on August 4, 2014. By a stroke of luck, it turned out that the Dangriga branch of the Belize Diabetes Association (which was not active during the time of my fieldwork) had rebounded since then, and my stay coincided with one of their Saturday gatherings. Several members kindly invited me to make an in-person announcement about my upcoming workshop during their meeting the previous week, which helped build a great crossover audience. I was surprised and honored to see a more sizable group than I had anticipated the afternoon of our workshop. Among the participants were diabetes caregivers; community leaders and prominent cultural advocates; and people actually living with the chronic conditions under discussion.
To kick off our conversation, I gave a brief presentation about my fieldwork and main research findings. I was concerned that examining chronic disease treatment in Belize as such a complicated picture might be disconcerting for people living with these conditions—but interestingly, unlike some pushback I’ve gotten from U.S. academic crowds when discussing these ambiguities, the audience in Dangriga seemed unsurprised on this front, for example offering lively additions to fill out my list of the expensive market prices of vegetables (after all, they knew these difficulties better than anyone, after living with them for years). The distinguished physician who had mentored my fieldwork offered some generous commentary to help open things up, and we launched into what turned out to be an hour-long group brainstorming session that peeled back many layers of interfacing domains of care: pills, herbs, vegetables, farming, cooking, ritual, policy.
Many insights and questions that the group generated deftly linked granular exchanges (such as sharing notes on diabetes-friendly cassava recipes) with macro-realities (such as the astute comment that our Ministry of Health report wouldn’t be able to go very far in changing these constrained nutritional realities unless their office also dialogues with the Ministry of Agriculture, to explore national policies that might sustain more robust vegetable production). Another terrific suggestion included the idea of creating a national recipe contest, as a way of sparking interest in the “Belizean Cooking with Diabetes” project we discussed together. We wondered, could this effort snowball into something that might eventually be assembled and disseminated more widely—perhaps an open-source recipe website or even a collaborative publication—so that people with diabetes didn’t feel faced with a choice between the foods that would keep them healthy, and the foods that many felt most connect them to a sense of family and identity? And more broadly, how might we conceive of tinkering not just with care and education, but also with actual economies of available foods and medicines? Is there some way it might be possible to treat not only patients, but also the political ecologies and unhealthy agricultural systems that make people’s work of survival unnecessarily difficult?
Overall, this collective workshop felt less like the final stage of a completed project, and more like a provocation toward continuing engagements ahead. I am deeply grateful to all of the people who gathered to talk and think with me during this return trip, and for the Engaged Anthropology Grant that made this sustained conversation possible. It is equal parts unsettling and exciting to realize that I am not just observing how new collectives are taking shape around these chronic health issues in Belize, but also becoming a collaborator with perhaps some part still to play in this unfolding story.