Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

The Politics of Field Research: Lessons from Brazil and Mexico

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

The Politics of Field Research: Lessons from Brazil and Mexico

Article excerpt

Abstract. Comparing two complementary experiences of fieldwork conducted in Brazil and Mexico, the authors examine how their own political sympathies influenced their studies prior to, during, and after their work in the field. Such sympathies and biases are common among students of Latin American social movements. Although this is the case, there is little discussion of the influence our political predispositions have on our study of the organized urban poor in Latin America. Stressing the multiple possible outcomes of political change, this article opens a discussion meant to sensitize students of social movements to the ways our preferences may shape our studies and our findings.

Resume. En comparant deux experiences complementaires de recherche au Bresil et au Mexique, les auteurs montrent comment leurs sympathies politiques ont influence leurs travaux, et ce avant, pendant, et apres leurs recherches sur le terrain. Ces sympathies et biais sont assez repandus chez les etudiant(e)s des mouvements sociaux en Amerique latine. Pourtant, on se questionne peu sur l'influence qu'elles peuvent avoir sur les recherches portant sur les masses urbaines et pauvres d'Amerique latine. En tenant compte des aleas du changement politique, cet article veut sensibiliser les etudiant(e)s des mouvements sociaux sur l'influence que ces preferences politiques ont dans ce genre de recherche.


Since at least as far back as the 1960s, field researchers in Latin America have given up on any pretense of detachment or neutrality in terms of whom or what they study. In fact, the role of field researcher has changed dramatically from that of distant observer to that of enlightened prophet who actively and knowingly intervenes (Touraine, 1981). For many of us, this has been a welcome transition. Leaving our distance behind confirms that it is, in fact, our commitment to political change that drives us to study those who stand up against oppressive and authoritarian political and social institutions despite overwhelming odds. We hope to contribute to these struggles in even small ways, whether by telling the stories of those we observe, by sharing the stories of other struggles with which we are familiar, or even creating a document of reference for both the movements we study and others.

Much has been said already in defense of involvement and commitment in the process of field research (Thorne, 1988). First, the people whom we choose to study often demand high and consistent levels of support. Access to organizations and movements involves establishing one's credentials at the countless, interminable, and often poorly attended marches, conferences, and meetings that test the resolve of even the most committed field worker. Second, intensive involvement is--realistically--the only way in which the field worker can penetrate environments that range from the most public of protests to more exclusive policymaking meetings. This is particularly true of the politically charged and oftentimes confrontational contexts in which field workers find themselves. Third, personal involvement in the ebb and flow of day to day victories and defeats gives field workers a unique and vital perspective on the trajectory and "feel" of a particular movement or organization. This is "real" and intimate knowledge that is unavailable from a distance. And, last but not least, participant intervention may ultimately reveal the political and cultural obstacles that stand in the way of an organization or movement's success.

Far less has been said, however, about the potential costs our commitments pose for our research and, ultimately, for those we study. The assumption has been that as sympathetic and involved field workers we are on the "right" side and that, as a consequence, we have access to the "right" information. In questioning our assumptions, we are not calling for a return to an illusory "value-free" approach to research and knowledge. …

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