Perhaps some anthropologists have forgotten about their life before anthropology. I myself can’t really remember when I truly “became” an anthropologist. But it seems that illegality has always permeated both my personal and professional life. As I settled on the path of anthropology, my personal life on the margins of legality intertwined with my professional study of drug trafficking as a legal anthropologist. Did studying illicit activities make me illegal? Nope, actually I was illegal long before I even knew what anthropology was. But transitioning into the role of il/legal anthropologist came with newfound difficulties and complications, complications that were both alleviated and exacerbated by my legally ambivalent positionality in the borderlands of the academy and the nation.
Illegal Borderlander or Legal Anthropologist?
I grew up in a working poor, transnational community of mostly Mexican/Mexican Americans along the South Texas-Mexico border. My own personal history, as well as my family’s history, has been shaped by both the escalation of drug trafficking and the related practices of border policing and border militarization. In the 1980s, as the drug war escalated, I witnessed older members of my family became active participants in the drug trade. Great uncles, uncles and aunts became mafiosos. Some became successful drug entrepreneurs, while others became local dealers or lowly drug mules. Others became active drug users and struggled with drug dependence. But, the licit and illicit worlds overlapped in this borderlands community as drug traffickers and policing agents stood side by side as siblings and/or friends. Later, when I was a teenager, my cousins and friends became our generation’s mafiosos. Escaping the illegal life it seemed was unlikely. It appeared that I would forever be an unwilling co-conspirator, an accessory, to these illicit activities. The illegal life became apart of my everyday life, of the only existence I ever new. The overlapping worlds of the legal and illegal, the borderlands of the law, became completely normalized.
In the process of becoming an anthropologist, I came to recognize the ethnographic value of my community’s stories. Growing up as a borderlander within kinship networks of both drug traffickers and drug-policing agents has provided me with insight into the nuances of both social worlds. It has also shown me where the lines of distinction between these two worlds blurs to form a borderlands of legality and illegality, of good guys and bad guys, of us and them, that has proven difficult for others to interpret and decipher. The personal experience of growing up within this social, cultural and legal borderlands existence has proved profound in shaping my professional practice as an anthropologist. However, my personal illegality did not result in a fluid transition to professional legality (or il/legality). It became very clear that experiencing illegality and documenting illegality were not synonymous acts, and that transitioning from the former to the latter would be a difficult undertaking.
The Professional Difficulties of Il/legal Anthropology: IRB’s and Other Obstacles
Completing any ethnographic research project is without a doubt difficult, arduous and time-consuming. Establishing rapport is a critical part of the ethnographic process. However, building rapport amongst native informants becomes even more difficult when researching clandestine, and especially illicit, activities. Ethnographic research on illicit activities creates added obstacles for “illicit” legal (or il/legal) anthropologists. In the case of research on drug trafficking, having to ask around town about what drug traffickers to talk to, or even questions about who is a drug trafficker, could pose a risk to the safety of the anthropologist. As a native anthropologist, conducting research on drug trafficking and policing in my own community, I have relied on life-long relationships as key resources for conducting my research. For myself, the ability to speak to informants about taboo subjects, and the ability to quickly identify important informants helped me to make the most of my fieldwork.
My research, however, has also posed significant dilemmas for me both personally and professionally. Having embraced auto/ethnography and intimate ethnography, my research has occasionally been subject to criticisms of objectivity and bias. Moreover, I am cognizant of the fact that conducting research in my hometown and within my own kinship networks poses possible risks for my research informants. I constantly struggle with new research efforts and writing strategies to protect the identities of my research informants. Coincidently, the ethical dilemmas that I have faced throughout this research process have proven beneficial in shaping new refined methodological practices. For most current and future researchers, myself included, engaged study of border policing, border militarization, drug trafficking, undocumented migration, and criminal enterprise requires a sustained reflexivity that will continue to shape and refine research methods and ethics in our current and future research projects. But, growing up in this community proved to be the best ethnographic methods class in il/legal anthropology, as I learned from fellow illegal borderlanders how to maneuver through the restrictions of legality, of knowing when to listen, when to talk, and when to keep quiet.
The most difficult undertaking in transitioning from illegal borderlander to il/legal anthropologist, however, was clearing the hurdle of IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval. Before I could actually conduct my research, I had to receive approval from my IRB. I made every effort to follow human subjects protection. The IRB review process lasted approximately 7 months, with interspersed consulting with my assigned IRB representative. In the end, the concerns that arose were focused on safeguarding the institution rather than protecting the research informants or the researcher. The ultimate irony, for me, was that the IRB’s concerns showed a minimal understanding of the complexities of doing illegal anthropology. In my case, I wasn’t able to cut off communications with my informants, since they were my family and friends. I wasn’t able to stay clear of the research site, since it was my home. Although I never ceased being an illegal borderlander, it was clear that my position as an il/legal anthropologist would be put on hold until I received a proper revision and the appropriate clearance.
Alex Chavez (U Illinois at Chicago) and Santiago Guerra (Colorado C) are contributing editors ALLA’s AN column.