A few years ago my wife Veronica (who is also a cultural anthropology graduate student) was doing her M.A. fieldwork in Yucatan, Mexico. I was there with her. We were staying in a decent sized pueblo, about three thousand people (although it seemed like much less for some reason). We rented a room from a family for the summer–we found out later that two of the kids in the household were actually moved out of that room to make space for the two visiting anthropologists, but that’s another story of micro-politics for another time. Lets just say that these two kids weren’t all that happy with the arrangement, and they made it pretty clear. If only we had known! Anyway, we worked out a deal.
Moving on. While my wife was doing interviews, I ended up playing games and hanging out with a lot of the local kids. Not a bad gig, eh? Well, I was also the free research assistant, and I went along on many of the interviews, too. In addition I did a stint of archaeological survey work for a few weeks–just to let you know that it wasn’t all just homeruns and striking out little kids for me that summer (kidding, of course, I let some of them get hits). But I did play a lot of baseball with the kids when there was downtime. We used to play tons of games in the solar (i.e. yard) of the house where we were staying. These games included about 4-5 kids from the family we were renting from, and a whole slew of kids from around the pueblo. Pretty fun. Whenever I got back to the house all the kids wanted to play. Often, they totally wore me out. It became a pretty regular thing. But then, I noticed something.
The kids who came over to play were only from certain households. Other kids never came by, or were explicitly told to stay away by the kids in the household where we were renting. I didn’t know this was happening at first…but I slowly started figuring things out. Certain kids would approach me and ask about baseball when I wasn’t at our house, and I thought it was strange that they never actually came over…until the whole mystery started to make more sense. I also remember some kids hanging out on the edge of the yard, leaning on the wall watching us play. I’d ask them if they wanted to play, but they would politely refuse every time. Why didn’t they every want to actually play?
Well, it’s because those kids who didn’t come over, or who refused to play, knew more about the surrounding community politics than Veronica and I did at the time. Sure, in some cases, this was a matter in which some kids just don’t like some other kids. But in many other cases, there was more to it–some of the histories and politics of the adults in the community were filtering down through the kids, and this was showing up in something seemingly innocuous like these afternoon baseball games. And these kids knew all about it. In short, some of the kids in the pueblo were persona non grata at this house because of the bad relationships among all their parents. Now, this isn’t really a shocking reality, but in the context of doing anthropological fieldwork, it was an important lesson.
Why? Because we realized that where we were staying had its own small, but definitely important, politics effects. Some members of the community felt comfortable coming by–and others did not. This was a pretty important lesson, and both Veronica and I learned a lot from the whole experience. The first thing we did was move the baseball games from a specific residence to a public place–we started playing in the plaza, next to the old stone church that’s hundreds of years old. This worked out much better, and managed to help put the lid on some of the simmering kid politics (certain kids were less prone to little power plays once we were in public). But what we also learned was that we have to pay close attention to the effects of the place where we actually end up living–and find ways to deal with issue that crop up. Of course, there is probably no way to find a place that is completely apolitical or neutral in ANY community. But it does help to recognize these kinds of things–whether they show up in kids games or elsewhere–and adjust accordingly.