Considering Perspective

I have to admit that between the craziness of semester’s end and my dedication to being wholly present for my family at the holidays, I’ve scarcely had a moment to contemplate our upcoming trip. I sat for a few minutes today and thought about what I needed to do in order to be prepared. I pulled my backpack out of the closet, looked over my packing list, and jotted some notes for the field supplies I would need for myself and the undergraduate students who will assist me in participant observation activities this season. This, of course, is the easy part. For me, preparing myself to be the outsider working within a community is the harder part. The awkward position of insider-outsider is, for me, more daunting than considering how to pack or anticipating what the trip will entail.
Cultural anthropologists are fairly practiced at following the lead of the community members with whom they work. So, the idea of not knowing exactly where we’ll be or exactly what we’ll do is for me familiar terrain. While I know this season I’ll spend time at the cemetery, with the South Texas Human Rights Center, and at the Sacred Heart respite center, much of the trip is to be determined. The thought of this type of improvisation can be more or less exciting to consider of course, but it’s fairly commonplace in the work of a participant observer who is still new to a community and unable to veer far from key participants. What’s harder to prepare for, from my perspective, are the subtle disconnections between my particular expert knowledge base, analytical perspective, and positionality with the team and those of team members.
For example, I don’t share the same scientific expertise or the same situated knowledge of migrant identification as this group of humanitarian scientists. While I believe we all share a common commitment to raising awareness of the crisis, I don’t necessarily share the same sense of the meanings and realities of this facet of the work. For me, everything I do, experience, and observe in South Texas is filtered through the lenses of cultural anthropology and my objectives as a participant observer interested in teasing out social and political complexities of this work. So, before I leave for Texas, I take some time to remind myself of my research goals and questions. Within that, I take some time to remind myself that those awkward moments when the appropriate feelings or responses to a set of circumstances aren’t readily apparent to me can be profoundly illuminating. And, I take some time to consider how the two students who will join me as insider-outsiders in this work might experience the awkward tension of participant observation.