Sunday, May 30, 2010

Anthropologist or social worker?

This is a continuation of an entry I wrote on April 30, called “Friends or Informants?” These themes about my relationship as an anthropologist with my informants are, without a doubt, my greatest challenges in the field. I wrestle with these issues all day, every day. Do these women see me as their friend or as a social scientist? Are these roles mutually exclusive? Do I view them as friends or informants? How does my increased intimacy with these women affect my supposedly “objective” scientific data? In what moments can I put my anthropologist cap aside and share their company as friends—after all, I spend more time with this group of sex workers than with many other people in Quito.

As these relationships have deepened over time new challenges have arisen. On the one hand, as I already pointed out on 4/30/10, with our increased intimacy, I receive “better” information for my research because they confide in me—they now share the most intimate details of their life with me, allowing me to (hopefully) write an incredibly rich ethnographic account of sex workers’ lives in Quito one day. However, it becomes difficult to negotiate the boundaries of our relationships as I increasingly find myself in the role of therapist or social worker for these women. Although they do not ask me for money, most of the women on the street view me as a potential ally who can help solve their personal problems. Most of the time I simply lend my ear, give advice when asked, and offer sympathetic words--they seem to value this emotional support and I’m very happy to give it.

Recently more and more of the women approach me with much bigger problems to solve. They don’t just want emotional support, but also my help as a gringa who might be able to wield a lot of power for them. For instance, one woman confided in me that her son had just discovered he was HIV positive. She wanted to know what she should do—what kind of care could he receive, which hospital should he go to, etc. etc. She asked if I could find him free treatment somewhere. I’m not sure why she thought I would be able to navigate the health care system better than herself as a native Ecuadorian but in this case, I happened to have information to help her—I had attended a conference on HIV in Ecuador a few months ago and had been in touch with several NGOs dedicated to helping people living with HIV and AIDS. I was able to give her the phone numbers of several NGOs and health hotlines she could call to look for further care.

Another woman recently asked if I could help her find an NGO that would fund an operation to fix her “dead arm,” as she calls it, resulting from a beating when she was about 16. She had been living on the streets and two men robbed, raped, and beat her, leaving her to die. Miraculously, she survived, after spending many months in the hospital, but due to her economic circumstances she never had the proper operations she needed to fully recuperate. Now 15 years later, her arm still hangs limply by her side. She keeps it tucked behind her purse so people won’t notice it. As she asked me for this help, she had started to tear up and I felt so badly. I did not know any NGOs, international or otherwise, who might be able to help her. I lamely told her, “yes, I’ll see what I can do,” but I knew that chances were slim that I’d be able to assist her.

As the women ask be for advice, or for direct requests I try to keep in mind my boundaries. As an anthropologist I am not here to save anyone, despite the temptation. I keep reminding myself that I’m not a social worker or a therapist. I’m simply an observer. It’s extremely difficult not to get emotionally entangled in my informants’ personal lives. I find myself about to offer advice, but then I catch myself and hold back. I try not to give my opinion about their problems unless they are adamant on receiving it. If they are insistent, I offer my viewpoint but I always feel uncomfortable when I “play therapist” because I want to avoid the role of “white savior.” How do I deal with this? I’ve had to learn how to say no. It’s terrifying to tell an informant that I can’t help her, but I’m forced to take the chance that she’ll never talk to me again (or hate me forever). I’ve only tried it out a few times (saying No) so far, but I know I’m at a critical point where I need to become comfortable with the practice.

Recently, when I’ve worked up the nerve to say no to requests, (I always make up a very diplomatic answer), I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results. It turns out that my informants don’t seem to hate me forever when I’m not able to come through for them—they seem to understand that I have my limitations as a person too. That perhaps I have a difficult life as well or don’t have the necessary resources (despite the fact that I’m gringa) to help them with certain things, as they once thought. Indeed I believe that it makes our relationship more “equal” (although I recognize that it will never be equal) or at least more “authentic.” I want them to see me as a person with flaws and problems, just like anyone else. I don’t want them to depend on me for help in critical moments. I’m happy to offer my sympathetic words, but I have to be vigilant to remain an anthropologist, and not a therapist or social worker, despite the close relationships I’ve formed with these women(and despite their insistence that I play these roles for them).

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