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….