Collaborative Fieldwork in Anthropology
At the 115th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association this year, I was recruiting a graduate student whose former adviser had told the student that she should leave academia because she would never get hired or tenure at an R1 institution because of structural obstacles to women in the academy. There are numerous things wrong with this, but my pitch in gaining her interest in our program was that I refuse to send students into the field alone unless they essentially demand it, have already set up the field site, and have a proven track record of mature and independent work. Fieldworkers learn more from each other as part of a team, conduct better science, and collect more thorough data. This provides them the support they need to succeed and get those jobs, as attested by our program’s 100% post-doctorate employment rate so far.
In the most recent issue of Annals of Anthropological Practice, my research group outlines several advantages of this collaborative approach (Stein et al. 2016). We draw on Philip Salzman‘s (1989, 1994) critiques of the implicit anthropological myth of the anthropologist as “lone stranger,” doing fieldwork alone in a remote location. As Salzman points out, we tend to be relatively uncritical of this model, which owes more to the heritage of our discipline and the predecessors we look up to than any value added to research. Similarly, Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg (2009) clearly articulate how the elicitation of “deep meaning” during data collection and analyses is improved through anthropological collaboration.
As we were preparing the AAP article, I was invited by Michaela Howells (University of North Carolina Wilmington) to tag along as research assistant for a trip to American Samoa to assess the influence of the Zika outbreak there on prenatal care access and utilization. Michaela and I have collaborated for several years on our Family and the Field Study, but we had never worked together in the field. This trip to American Samoa gave us an opportunity to test out this collaborative model firsthand. I was recruited because, as a male with relatively high status in the U.S. (as a tenured associate professor), I would be able to interview males in this traditional, hierarchical culture, where it is inappropriate for females to interview males, especially high status males, and vice versa.
American Samoa is a small group of islands in the South Pacific and the southernmost territory of the US, characterized as the most traditional of the Pacific cultures, with village-based authority dominated by mostly male chiefs (Shore 1982). Women have been the primary resources for studies of prenatal care utilization, but in the American Samoan cultural system, resources are redistributed in the villages, with preferences given to elite members or relatives of chiefs (Howells 2013). Michaela and I spent several weeks making arrangements to interview males in a local village. However, the arrangements ultimately fell through; we collected survey data from 172 participants in the Department of Health clinics but failed to conduct any interviews. This situation could have been frustrating, given the resources Michaela used to get me to American Samoa. Instead, it was the best, most productive field season I have experienced because we developed our team and learned much from each other.
To figure out how to talk with people in Samoa, for instance, I watched Michaela and quickly intuited how to show deference and reinforce what she was saying. But she also pointed out things I wouldn’t have noticed, such as that I am a resonant talker and tend to dominate a room. Ordinarily, and as a teacher, this works to my benefit; but in working with Samoans, I needed to speak quieter and literally lower my body so my head would be below that of the person I was speaking with. This behavior shows respect in a status-conscious, traditional society. This type of context is also where the non-verbal communication teams develop came into play. I deferred to Michaela’s ethnographic expertise in American Samoa but was attuned to explicitly give her credit where due because others might assume that, as a male, I was in charge and that she was my student.
Team research is better research, whether for scientific or humanistic data collection and interpretation. As I said, Michaela and I planned to interview men and get their perspectives. However, our trip coincided with the planning and celebration of the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial, which took place over the last several days we were there and dominated everyone’s time and attention. Since there were two of us, Michaela focused on refining our social networks to develop leads for later, while I collected survey data from visitors to the Department of Health clinics. In that short time, we made two significant observations. The first is that public health initiatives need medical anthropologists on their teams from design through implementation. This is not a novel finding but the first articulation with regard to the Zika outbreak and addressed recently in an NBC News piece about our work on Zika and the role of culture in American Samoa. Second, according to our data, there is a general consensus among Samoans that prenatal care is more urgent for married than for unmarried mothers, despite their belief that all pregnant women should get prenatal care and be screened for Zika. Such attitudes place additional burden on lower status women and their babies, reinforce social inequities, and play a role in the “biosocial inheritance” (Hoke and McDade 2014) of health disparities.
My goal going forward is to purposefully create such experiences for my students by being concrete about how to design research, where to conduct it, how to get support, and how it can feel while doing it.
Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.