Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tricky Business

This anthropology stuff is tricky business. As I shift my fieldwork to focus on the viewpoints of the neighbors where the sex workers work, I’ve had to engage in some very tricky maneuvering. As an anthropologist you want all the different social groups of your study to like you. Only when people like you do they tell pour their hearts out and spill the good stuff. This can get tricky when the social groups involved are at war with one another. Basically, the residents of San Marcos loathe the sex workers in their neighborhood and are fighting to have them permanently removed from the area, while the prostitutes resent the neighbors for obstructing their freedom to work. Again, prostitution in Ecuador is legal and they have the right to be on the street, as long as they keep circulating, in order not to be fined with loitering.

Anyway, I had my nightmare fieldwork scenario happen a couple weeks ago—exactly what anthropologists try to avoid in the field at all costs. It was a terrible realization that as an anthropologist I will not (cannot) be accepted by everyone. A while back I wrote an entry about attending a Neighborhood Association of San Marcos. All the attendees of the meeting, mostly residents of the neighborhood, were all very inviting to me. I introduced myself and explained that I was an anthropologist from New York University conducting a research project on the gentrification of their neighborhood. Some people had more questions and I said that I was interested in the tensions that exist between different groups as San Marcos undergoes this rapid transformation; I explained that I sought the points of view of everyone who has a stake in San Marcos, including the sex workers, business owners, residents, cultural centers, and municipal government. People seemed satisfied and again, I felt everyone was very warm and welcoming. I did notice three policemen at the meeting though, and I was worried that they would tell everyone at the meeting that I was mostly on the “side of the sex workers.”

So here’s the deal: I do feel more aligned with the sex workers more than with any other group, and without a doubt, the police would be correct—that I attempt to defend sex workers’ rights in the streets. Being an anthropologist is tough. One must always be diplomatic and appear as a neutral observer at all moments. But sometimes that’s impossible. In the case of this meeting, my worries were confirmed, because even though I sat silently through the entire thing (obviously, I wasn’t about to state my case on anything), I had a very angry phone conversation with the president of the Neighborhood Association. Apparently, either the police, or now it’s rumored that it was “Rosie,” one of the business owners on the street where the sex workers work, told the president of the association to “watch out for me, that I’m on the side of the prostitutes.” And indeed, that’s what our conversation boiled down to. I had been following up with many of the residents, trying to get interviews with them so I could get some personal anecdotes and opinions about the changes in San Marcos. I called a few people, all of whom remembered me from the meeting, and luckily, agreed to meet up to talk.

When I called the president to arrange an interview, I was taken off guard. He immediately started yelling at me. He said, “I have nothing to say to you.” I was flabbergasted. I had no idea what I had done wrong. He went on, “We have an association and you aren’t part of it.” This was a very different man from the night of the meeting when he had welcomed me with opened arms and had told me I could interview him whenever I wanted. So taken aback, I was barely able to ask, “Why, what did I do? I just want an interview.” He barked, “We all know whose side you’re on—you’re here for the putas (whores)!” Oh dear. Oh my god, I thought to myself. I tried to explain that I wasn’t on anyone’s “side” in particular, that I was trying to collect every group’s point of view….but it was all in vain. The president slammed the phone down without saying good-bye. His last words were, “we know who you’re here to help. I have nothing to say to you.”

Eek. Worst case scenario. So much for trying to remain a neutral party to all sides. Luckily, I’ve had the amazing fortune that this particular president of the neighborhood association has recently stepped down from his position. A new president will be voted in at the next meeting. In the meantime, I’ve found other residents to be agreeable and welcoming when I conduct interviews. I never lie about my alliances with the sex workers but at the same time, I often downplay my relationship with them. So far, one of the residents I’ve interviewed has seen me on the corner with the women and even approached me with a greeting. I was relieved it was him because he has the most liberal point of view towards the sex workers and didn’t seem to mind that I was with them. But at the same time, even though I’ve had a lot of luck with my interviews of residents, I find myself nervous about how to present myself to them. After that one unpleasant phone call I’ve been paranoid that other people will “slam their doors in my face.” Perhaps they will, but at least some of the neighbors have opened up to me and seem to understand that I have forged alliances with all the different social representatives in the neighborhood.


  1. Did you see this? Definitely a different context but I thought you might find it interesting.
    miss you!

  2. Oh fascinating article--thanks for that! I miss you so much too! I wanna talk--get an update