The unexpected micro-politics of fieldwork

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.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

7 thoughts on “The unexpected micro-politics of fieldwork

  1. “Of course, there is probably no way to find a place that is completely apolitical or neutral in ANY community.”

    This post definitely resonates with me. Before I arrived in the Colombian town where I did fieldwork, a university professor gave me two contacts with the proviso: “Talk to them both, but talk to them separately.” As I tried to track the political factions, I eventually became aware that many people considered an attempted neutrality to be itself quite suspect.

    I’m also reminded of the tales from Return to Laughter. It’s an instructive book on how one can never enter the field from a neutral position.

  2. I enjoy your post very much, Ryan. The political, social and therefore anthropological implications of a simple choice to stay, it was very well explicated by you.
    And we as anthropologists know that as an outsider, although we try to look the “other” “from a neutral position”, as Jason said, we are not apart of the community.

    But, great post. Love it

  3. @Jason:

    That’s interesting to put it like that–even an attempt to be “neutral” can seem suspect! Talk about a no win situation.


    Thanks for your comment. Ya, it’s amazing how such small, simple choices can end up creating so many problems. Who would have ever thought that a few baseball games would have exposed community politics? And you’re right–no matter how hard we try, we are always a part of the community in one way or another. Perhaps one of the hard parts is figuring out that that role is.

  4. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for the reply. Although awkward at the time, as fodder for analysis it wasn’t quite so “no-win,” as it revealed how the assumption of a neutral or apolitical place is often linked to modern state power. Some groups–correctly–discern that this assumption of neutrality is also a position which has political implications. Similarly, it reveals how much anthropology is also often bound to state-like assumptions of neutrality.

    All this has me thinking in a couple directions, first about how science more generally has at times attempted this state-like neutrality, but also about “Whatever happened to the anthropology of the state?” I could be wrong and just unacquainted with the material, but it seems after a brief consideration of the state in the early 1990s, much of that dissolved in the wake of all the “globalization” studies. Maybe?

    Thanks again,

  5. Hey Jason,

    That’s a good point of looking at things–that there is a lot to learn analytically from these kinds of situations. That was definitely the case in the situation that I described above…all of that Foucault talk about the “micro-physics of power” starts to make a lot more sense when politics show up in small, everyday situations like this. That’s why some really important things can be learned just by “being there” (and paying attention), right?

    I hear you about the whole anthro of the state question, and the shift toward globalization. A lot of my undergrad and MA training was focused on that lit, and not so much on questions about the state…but the cool thing about the program at U of K is that there is a strong contingent of profs who really get into the anthro of the state, and that is some great literature. One of the most interesting books that we read was “Anthropology in the Margins of the State,” which has some great chapters. Good stuff.

  6. As a doctor who worked in both Africa and the US IHS (Native American medical system) I found that it takes at least 6 months to start getting trusted, and in some areas it might take a year or two for the traditional folks and the elderly to trust you and your advice.

    And it might take a year or two to recognize who is related to whom, and who is feuding with whom, etc.Local staff often helped with this, and is one reason the IHS is allowed to discriminate in hiring.

    So short term projects are useful, but I wonder if you can get to the truth in a summer.

    I am reminded of one nurse who advised me not to read anthropology about the Navajo because when summer interns came to study the culture, they often lied to them so what was often published was not accurate. (This nurse told me to read Tony Hillerman instead).

  7. Great points, Ryan, and something I ran into this past summer in my own fieldwork. My problems were compounded by the fact that there was a sort of family/political/monetary disagreement going on between my host family and the main informants of my thesis advisor (who was not on this trip with me). So on top of the normal stuff, I also had to worry that I would offend my advisor’s informants and cause trouble for her on subsequent trips! The whole ordeal was pretty much exhausting, but I think I managed to make everyone at least satisfactorily happy. In all honest, I think nothing prepared me more for dealing with village politics than growing up around Southern church politics! 🙂

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