Historically, anthropology had led other social sciences in (among many other things) demonstrating the tremendous value of longitudinal data. As I argue in relation to sociology (in my PoLAR (36:2) article “The Trouble with Ethics”), our commitment to the people with whom we work differentiates us from disciplines whose commitment is merely to the data that the people provide. To anthropologists—and despite a current trend that minimizes methodological rigor in favor of quick-and-easy projects that satisfy a current vogue—long-term relationships are part and parcel of our methodology.
Among the many area specialists within the AAA, Latin Americanists are especially fortunate in this regard. Geographic convenience allows us to make more frequent trips to our field sites (as compared to, say, East Asianists). Thus, we are able to return more frequently to update data, open new lines of inquiry, and nurture relationships more than would otherwise be possible. And the ability to follow a single set of informants as they respond to changes over time is invaluable for us. Finally, a long-term ethnographic presence reduces the temptation to arrive in the field with a conclusion already in mind, and then look for data to support it. Short-term, ideologically driven projects tend to produce more journalistic conclusions that do not meet the higher standards of the anthropological traditional.
I recently had an experience that illustrates the value of tight methodology and long-term ethnographic relationships. Earlier this year I was in Cuba for a month to deliver several guest lectures at a Havana research institute. I stayed in the same apartment I have used for the past thirteen years, in the territory of the street youth I have followed (pingueros and jineteras). One weekday evening I ran into one of the men who had granted me interviews ten years prior. The next night, yet another of my 2003 participants sought me out. Since both men had been transient street youth with unstable whereabouts, to run into them exactly ten years later was an extraordinary coincidence and opportunity. Such longitudinal continuity helps to ensure that my data and analyses are not products of my own ideological agenda, nor that they serve merely to satisfy the fickle appetites of the academy.
Both men are now in their late twenties. Like the nebulous group of young men who might at some time call themselves pingueros (erotic laboring street hustlers), Giovanni and Roldy represent diverse locations in the phenotypical/ethnic spectrum. Both were now registered residents of Havana, so they are spared the police harassment that plagues those from other provinces (see my forthcoming article in JLACA). Both have been in prison for hustling tourists and arguing (or fighting) with cops, but since their respective releases, they have chosen different paths. To avoid future incarceration, Giovi has a legitimate job and lives with his wife and father-in-law; he had returned to pinguero territory only to find me. Roldy, however, is rather fond of the hard currency that he acquires from tourists (and the fashionable clothing that it purchases), so despite risk of re-arrest, he continues—at the late age of 28, at which most have retired from the street—hustling and conning tourists.
The data I collected from these and many other pingueros would be far thinner if I had not made a long-term commitment to the neighborhood, and it would be of little value if I had not maintained a rigorous methodology. Yet in the early years of the research (1999-2002), I confess to having sought the data that I needed in order to illustrate a point that I wanted to make. Eventually I began to understand that the legitimacy of anthropological knowledge depends upon our groundedness in actual lived reality. Now, I chose not to try to impress conference participants with theoretical sophistication, play-up sexy topics that the data does not support, claim generalizability based only a few targeted interviews, and ask leading questions to get the answers I want. Instead, starting in 2003, I collected dozens of life stories until certain narratives began to repeat. With no prompting on my part, and when events were embedded in larger narrative structures, informants told me about what mattered to them and not what mattered to me. I have allowed the data to drive my analyses.
I describe my mistakes and successes both as an aide to young anthropologists, and as a small intervention in what I perceive to be an insidious loss of methodological rigor in the cultural subfield. Increasingly (though not universally, of course), anecdotal stories and the personal feelings of ethnographers are offered as “data,” and this trend has not been adequately challenged by the discipline’s gatekeepers (dissertation committees, editors and publishers, conference organizers). If the topic is in vogue and the theoretical gymnastics are impressive, then actual data seems to matter less than it once did.
My point here is hardly to claim that only longitudinal data is of value, that new projects or new anthropologists cannot produce solid ethnography. Nor do I wish to imply that research projects that are intellectually inspired by postmodernism or by the humanities are not of value. Rather, all anthropological investigations, of whatever length and whether more akin to science or to the humanities, need to adhere to basic standards of methodological integrity. I have experimented much with methods, and I applaud others who also do so. But there is a danger to methodological creativity, particularly with the increasing tendency of anthropologists to study those with whom they have a personal, emotional connection.
If indeed, as I claim, there has been a decline in methodological integrity, this could lead to a gradual deterioration of our legitimacy as social scientists. Ethical practice requires not only obedience to the minimal deontological duties demanded by IRBs; it also requires a commitment to the well being of the field. The credibility of anthropology will suffer if we do not demand higher standards in methods.
G Derrick Hodge is an economic anthropologist who works on gender, economy, religion, violence, and research ethics. He is a guest lecturer at the Instituto Superior Ecuménico de Ciencias de la Religión in Havana, and Affiliated Research Faculty in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Kansas.
Please send any comments, suggestions, or ideas for future column to SLACA AN Contributing Editor Ronda Brulotte at firstname.lastname@example.org.