Wednesday, October 14, 2009


My first day of field work: 12:30 pm. I walk into the office of ASPRODEMU (Quito’s sex worker collective), where I plan to conduct my dissertation research over the upcoming year. I stuffed everything I thought I might need into my canvas bag: 2 notebooks (of different sizes), a digital voice recorder (with its instruction manual), a folder, pens galore, my day calendar, a copy of Ecuador’s new constitution (you never know), tissues (you never know…), umbrella, map of Quito’s historic center, lots of little receipts, that I need to sort through later…oh and a pack of gum…that’s about it. I knock timidly. A woman comes to the door and motions for me to sit down in an empty chair against the wall. The room is packed. The women are in the middle of a lively meeting. My entrance causes everyone to pause. Once I sit down everyone begins talking again, as loudly as possible, each struggling to be heard over voices. Before I can get my bearings and settle into the discussion, a glass topped with frothy beer is thrust into my hands. “Toma” (“Drink”) M., sitting next to me says. I smile and shake my head, a polite “no gracias.” M. insists. I politely shake my head once more. Then the worst-case scenario unfolds: M. shouts out to the others—“Hey, Anita La Gringa won’t drink our beer!” All the women look at me. I hear someone say, “We’re not diseased, don’t worry you won’t catch anything” Another woman glares at me and says: “You can’t expect to work with us and not drink with us.” I hear another yell: “You don’t want to drink with us because ‘somos putas’ (“we’re whores”)!”

Oh dear. What’s an anthropologist to do? Clearly countless anthropologists have been in this situation. Anyone who has conducted fieldwork has had to negotiate moments like these, when you’re asked to do something that you simply don’t want to do. Drinking a beer with my new “informants” hardly sounds like a burden (even though I happen to be a non-drinker—I haven’t had a drink in 5 years), in fact, it could be a great way to break the ice, right? Or, right? I sit there weighing the pros and cons of the situation. I am not as concerned with the activity itself, after all, it’s only a beer (although after noting the many empty bottles around the room, I realized that it probably wouldn’t be just *a* beer). I was more worried about the implications of my actions. If I drank with them today would that set a precedent for similar situations? Would it be better to insist on a firm “no,” from Day One of fieldwork to set that as a precedent? What are the lines that need to be drawn between research and informant? The big message we get in anthropology is that you’re not supposed to sleep with your informants, although as far as I can tell this happens over and over again. In our graduate seminars we do not sit and mull over our ethical issues—of what may arise in the field and what would the range of appropriate responses be in a given situation. In fact, in my graduate program at NYU, we don’t even have a methodology course as one of our core classes! (I know, it completely baffles me, and many other students in my program) Basically, I’ve gleaned most of what I know about fieldwork from the ethnographies we read in which different anthropologists begin by describing their methodology... (I digress…)

I ended up drinking with the women. It was much easier to drink a few glasses of beer, than keep insisting on “no, I don’t drink” “no, I don’t want to get drunk in the middle of the day” “No, I am the researcher, and you are my informants—that wouldn’t be appropriate.” To them it seemed appropriate and quite frankly, an anthropologist should being able to understand other people’s perspectives (uh..hello? isn’t that why we’re here?) To be honest, the women went back to talking and they slowly forgot about me and my beer consumption. They spent the afternoon talking, complaining about the police, laughing, telling stories and drinking, without noticing me. I was able to hand my beers to my neighbor, who happily drank them in my place. No one cared, no one noticed. It was that first beer “performance” that mattered to them. I needed to chug down that first beer with them, and then they forgot. I blended into the background, took out my notebook and began writing furiously. I left later that afternoon with a slight buzz, and as I left everyone patted my back, smiled, wished me a safe trip back to my house, and wanted to know when I would return, etc. Lots of good feelings all around. I had passed some sort of test—a rite of passage, if you will. Drinking a few beers with my informants was definitely the right decision.

But without a doubt, these are tricky situations. There are no hard and fast rules about fieldwork because each situation is so unique. It is up to the anthropologist to make up her/his mind in the moment, according to what feels right. Obviously, there’s a range of activities one might be asked to participate in (drinking beer in the afternoon will probably be the most wholesome thing I will witness during fieldwork). By researching the sex industry, I spend most of my time in Quito’s red-light district where all sorts of things are happening…..things that make sipping beer in the afternoon look like a tea party. We’ll see how it unfolds….

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

That awkward fieldwork moment

Little did Italia Vaca know that my entire project rested on her shoulders as I walked into ASOPRODEMU’s (Asociaci√≥n Pro Defensa de la Mujer, the local sex worker collective) headquarters this morning, located in Quito’s historic center. I needed Italia, president of ASOPRODEMU, to give me the green light—to tell me that I could work with the members of her organization over the upcoming year. Although I had worked with ASOPRODEMU during two summer visits in 2006 and 2007, I wasn’t able to reach them before I came this time. Perhaps not the best way to go about fieldwork, especially since they are the most prominent players in my research proposal, but I figured that since everything had worked out before, I’d take my chances and just show up at their door.

There I was. 11:15am. I had battled my way into the over-crowded Eco-Via—the “trolley” (actually a bus with its own lane)—until its final stop, La Marin, which dropped us off smack in the middle of the colonial center. Instead of taking in the gorgeous colonial facades and cobble stone streets, I marched along, looking down, determined to blend into the bustling sidewalk scene. I passed a couple electronic stores, an internet caf√©, two modest restaurants that advertized $1.25 lunches, and a store selling the jerseys of Ecuador’s soccer team. The crowds thinned out once I took a left onto Montafur, a steep narrow street, lined with smaller businesses--a flower shop, bakery, another teeny tiny lunch place that could accommodate ten patrons, at the most. As I walked up the street I noticed several women talking together, laughing and tossing their hair—they didn’t notice me as I passed, but I took them in. I knew they were working, despite their modest clothes. As I got closer to the ASOPRODEMU office, I passed more working women, some in pairs, others standing alone. Two women were standing in front of the office and I greeted them warmly—with a huge anthropology smile—and asked politely “si puedo pasar?” (if I could enter). They seemed curious to know who I was, and what I was doing there, so they followed me into the dark, windowless office.

And there she was. Italia Vaca was sitting in her chair behind the desk. I tried to seem casual and breezy as I explained my project. I handed her a description of my project and she promptly read it out loud to the group of women in the room. All eyes were on me. I wasn’t sure where to look so I just put on my anthropology smile again and stared at Italia. A long pause. All eyes on me again. Italia nodded and looked me up and down. I was quietly nibbling on my lip. Oh my god I started thinking—what if she tells me I can’t work here??? What if all my plans fall through-just-like-that! Oh dear. Full on panic. I kept smiling wider and brighter. See how nice and friendly I am. Please—oh please. Oh my god, I am so screwed. There goes my dissertation. My entire academic career. Everything.

“Hmmm…well, okay then.” Italia looked over me as I hung on every word. “Hmm, so that’s okay then?” I repeated. “Um hum” she said, still looking me up and down. In fact, I felt like all the women in the room were staring at me. “So, I can work here then?” I asked timidly—still not sure whether or not she had actually said yes. Italia nodded and brushed me away, saying, “I have work to do.” I was ready to jump up and down and hoot. I want to yell—she said YEEEEEES! YIPPEE. I smile once again at everyone, especially Italia and ask if I can come by again tomorrow. One of the women seated next to me said “of course.” Not looking up, Italia said “We’re here from 10:30am.” As I turn to leave, ready to push through their security gate, Italia calls out, “You know you’ll have to compensate them for their time—sitting down for an interview will cut into their working hours, right?”—I turn around and nod my head. “I know, that’s okay” I call back as I pass through the door. I am practically skipping down Monatfur Street back to the trolley station. Ohmigod. What a relief. My fieldwork is on.