The Challenges of Conducting Fieldwork in a Place You Call Home

The Challenges of Conducting Fieldwork in a Place You Call Home

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Saira Mehmood. She will be a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Spelman College in the 2019-2020 academic year. You can follow her on Twitter @SairaAMehmood.

The Challenges of Conducting Fieldwork in a Place You Call Home

Saira A. Mehmood

I conducted my dissertation fieldwork in my hometown of New Orleans. As a woman of color, I have noticed many other anthropologists of color also conducting fieldwork in places they call home. This is not surprising to me, given many of us want to find solutions to the problems we see in our hometowns and seek to use anthropology to do so. This type of fieldwork also brings its own set of challenges, and I did not realize how some of the trauma I experienced actually impacted me during the time. In this post, I will highlight some of the challenges I faced while conducting fieldwork and writing. I will also discuss the strategies I used to overcome some challenges. Lastly, I offer some advice to mentors who have students of color, first-generation, or non-traditional students.

Challenges

The challenges I faced while conducting fieldwork were numerous: trials related to my research, experiences related to everyday violence from living in New Orleans, and encounters related to being a visible Muslim woman of color.

My research focused on how individuals diagnosed with chronic mental illnesses navigated the mental healthcare system in New Orleans. Most of my fieldwork was at a psychosocial rehabilitation day program for individuals with a chronic mental illness. Because most of my interlocutors had limited income from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Supplemental Security Disability Income (SSDI), they were poor and had a multitude of physical health problems in addition to their mental illness. They knew the mortality gap for people with chronic mental illness is lower than the general population; my interlocutors often brought this up themselves. We were reminded of it when a member of the day program where I conducted fieldwork suddenly passed away. Working with a population that is so disenfranchised was challenging; they shared stories of trauma during life history interviews that sometimes triggered my own previous trauma.

Some of my challenges to conducting fieldwork were not necessarily related to my research but related to the everyday violence that exists in New Orleans. Many of my Black interlocutors were victims of gun violence, but as a local, this violence extended to my life as well. For instance, for savings’ sake I rented desk space in New Orleans to write my dissertation while living at home instead of returning to my university after fieldwork. Not long after I moved into the space, I heard gunshots. I had just entered the elevator when I heard the gunshots and was naively hoping they were fireworks. With the pattern of the sounds, though, deep down I knew they weren’t. By the time I got to my desk and saw my colleagues staring out the window with several on the phone calling 911, I knew something terrible had occurred. As the minutes passed by, I watched New Orleans EMS try to revive the gunshot victim in what was a drive-by shooting. By the time I went home and checked the local news, I learned he had died. “Why?” was all I could wonder. Someone who knew the victim thought the same thing, as the word was spray-painted on the corners of where the shooting occurred not long after.

This incident recalled for me something that had happened the previous summer, during Ramadan, when a friend of mine, Razan, asked me if I could pick her and her son up on the way to the mosque for iftar. When I arrived at the parking lot for her apartment complex, Razan’s neighbors, a husband and wife couple, were screaming at both her and her son. I could hear what the neighbors were yelling without even opening my car door or windows. They were blaming Razan’s 10-year-old son for scratching their new car and had already called Jefferson Parish police. I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of more: the white couple screaming at my friends for a scratch on a car I could barely see, or the police, since I wasn’t sure if whomever would show up would actually deescalate the situation. Luckily, the officer who arrived took her time to figure out and assess the situation.

The officer talked to the neighbors who were yelling at Razan. The officer then talked to Razan and her son. Razan, a Palestinian immigrant, doesn’t speak English as her first language, so she wanted me to speak to the officer. The police officer talked to me, and I could only explain what I saw from the moment I had arrived. The officer asked if Razan would like her to patrol the area just to keep an eye on things. Razan said yes, so I reiterated this to the police officer. As we finally left to go to the mosque for iftar, which we were considerably late for by then, I couldn’t help but wonder if the police officer patrolling the area would actually help or not. I also asked Razan if she had any similar previous encounters with her neighbors. She wasn’t fazed by the encounter, but I couldn’t help but worry about her safety. In New Orleans, I don’t worry about anti-Muslim bigotry as much given the open-mindedness of residents living there, but next-door Jefferson Parish, where I grew up, is a completely different environment. You can think of Orleans Parish, which has the same boundaries as the city of New Orleans, politically as a blue dot in a sea of red. Jefferson Parish, on the other hand, had the highest number of Trump voters in the state of Louisiana. I was left with a sense of extreme apprehension about my friend’s safety and my own, since the incident triggered memories of other events.

Strategies

For my fieldwork, losing people I had come to know well wasn’t easy. One way I addressed this was by attending the funeral services of those who had passed away. This provided some closure and is what my interlocutors did as well. For medical anthropologists, I strongly suggest that students budget for therapy in the grant proposal writing process. This can be justified in grant proposals, especially for medical anthropologists dealing with stressful research topics. I never found a therapist in New Orleans who accepted the health insurance I had; in hindsight, I should have paid for this out of my own pocket. I would have realized that the gunshots I heard and witnessing my friend Razan and her son being harassed had affected me more than I realized at the time, and I may have figured this out sooner.

For the stresses related to where I was living, having a good support system and network was essential. At one point during my time in New Orleans, my mom was in the ICU. My mom eventually got better, but I did not realize how much being a caregiver had taken a toll on my own health. I was lucky to be in a program where other students help each other out. One of my former classmates realized I needed time to decompress and invited me to stay with her in El Paso. Anthropologists who do fieldwork in other countries usually leave their field site when they complete fieldwork. For those of us who do research at home, this is not always an option. I was lucky to have a network of family members, classmates, and friends to confide in and a place where I could decompress.

I wish I could have done the same with my professors. That would have made a world of difference.

Advice for Mentors

I have noticed in academia that many professors come from a place of privilege. Some have parents who are professors themselves. Other professors have been out of graduate school for a while and have forgotten the tribulations we go through as graduate students. My advice for mentors here is not just based on my own experiences but also on the experiences other students of color have shared with me when I served as the student seat on the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board.

First, realize that when you tell your students to “guard your time,” this may have a different meaning for students of color, first generation college students, or those from a working-class background. Professors may say this phrase in a well-meaning way: don’t take up extra work you don’t need to do or volunteer for things if you don’t have to, especially when you’re trying to finish your dissertation. But for those of us who need income to do our research and to write, what exactly are we supposed to guard our time from? I have become quite good at saying no to people for things I know I don’t have the time for, but I also wonder how much unnecessary labor white professors realize they put on people of color themselves. For instance, I was asked to serve on a hiring committee. Since the search process would take several months and required a substantial amount of time, another graduate student of color and I served on the committee together and shared the workload. University guidelines required a faculty member of color to serve on the committee, but when a department does not have a faculty member of color, this task falls to a graduate student. The other graduate student and I served on the hiring committee, and we asked for some reimbursement to attend the AAA annual meeting in return. We thought this was a fair exchange given the time commitment and work required for our service, since were interviewing candidates at the AAA meeting, but the department initially only wanted to reimburse one of us. Eventually, after some negotiating, we both received some form of reimbursement to attend the AAA meeting, but the process shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. While our input counted in the final decision of who was hired, I also felt like the “token minority” at times while serving on this committee. Was my input actually valued? Would there be fallout if I disagreed with another member on the committee? As a graduate student, I was in a different position than the professors on the committee. In this instance and during other times at anthropology conferences, I have felt “diversity” is overused and not thought out carefully. Without actual inclusion or a goal towards social justice, diversity can easily become a code word for universities to say they are addressing the lack of professors of color and other diversity issues when they really are not. Without actual inclusion and a mission towards social justice, the systemic issues of racism do not get addressed. As a discipline, we discuss race and racism, but I actually wonder if anthropologists can see how they perpetuate systemic racism themselves.

Second, recognize that you, as mentors, need to create the conditions of communication.   As an undergraduate student, I initially had no idea what office hours were for and figured it out along the way. As a graduate student, I found similar challenges of not knowing things about the PhD process that other students seemed to take for granted. I did not confide in my professors most of the challenges I went through that I discuss in this post. Communication with them was already difficult to do given the distance from my program; I went through my program with several professors leaving the department during my time as a student, and two of my professors passed away. Thus, talking about such issues was not the norm for me because I did not know who to reach out to and never really established a consistent mode of communication with my professors. I should have communicated more with my professors, but as a visible Muslim woman of color, trying to explain things to your professors, all of whom are white, is easier said than done. They may be less likely to fully understand the impact of witnessing the neighbors calling the police on my friend’s son. To some, it may seem like it was an isolated incident. But for a person of color, that scenario indexes much broader and more complex issues about race and privilege in our country that implicated me personally, even though I was not directly involved in the dispute. I’m reminded of the privileges others have each time I go to the airport and other public places where I face additional scrutiny. We’re often taught during our methods classes that we need to learn to be adaptable during fieldwork. It’s part of anthropology. But there’s a huge difference between having trouble with our research plan vs. witnessing someone die. Thus, my suggestion for mentors is, when you’re occasionally asking us about updates about our research and writing (which you should be doing), it wouldn’t hurt to also ask us how we’re doing ourselves. A little compassion can go a long way.

Lastly, mentors just suggesting “self-care” is not enough. One professor once recommended I take a vacation. I could have probably used one, but a vacation wouldn’t have solved all my problems. I completed fieldwork and got through graduate school through “community care.” I was lucky to be in a department where my classmates checked in on me continuously and provided various forms of support. However, universities can create the obstacles that make it harder for graduate students to thrive. A colleague of mine at another university is a non-traditional student. She lives almost an hour away from her university and recently disclosed to me that one of her white professors chastised her for not attending all of the department’s colloquiums and other events with guest speakers. While she attended every class, she couldn’t attend every event sponsored by her department given the distance from her home, expenses for gas, her obligations as a mother, and other obstacles. However, her department could easily address this by making the talks accessible virtually, which is easier to do now given various platforms for streaming videos. We shouldn’t be penalized for being non-traditional or first-generation students, and professors should try to understand our situations. Self-care doesn’t mean much when departments don’t provide health insurance or a stipend we can survive on without taking on student loans. Those with power at universities can help us by addressing the systemic conditions that make it difficult to finish our graduate programs. Anthropologists can do much better by learning the difference between self-care and community care and incorporating more community care in our practices.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.