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Notes from the field: Studying my own municipality’s solid waste and wastewater systems

I’ve been studying wastewater in Mexico for the better part of the last 20 years of my life. I have designed and built bench-scale effluent biological secondary and tertiary treatment systems and I have undertaken institutional ethnographic analyses of river basin organizations. I also have compared structures for sanitation governance across five states within the same river basin in central Mexico. In the past 5 years, I have branched out again to exploring the politics of solid waste and hazardous/toxic waste policy again.

MX074S11 World Bank

Mexican landfill. Photo credit: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank. Used with permission as per CC-license

Strangely enough, it’s only been until 2012 when I moved to Aguascalientes and started trying to understand its solid waste and wastewater governance systems that I paused to think about the implications of analyzing and studying my own municipality/region. Aguascalientes wasn’t my city (Vancouver, Canada was), but it is now. Beyond the fact that I am Mexican and that I had been based in a foreign country for the better part of the last 15 years studying Mexican environmental policy, I rarely gave it any thought. One of said foreign countries (I lived in Spain, England, France and the US too) soon became my own (Canada), and I also undertook comparative studies at the national and sub-national levels. And I’ve done comparative public policy for the better part of the past 15 years. But very rarely did I think about whether I was studying “my own backyard”. To me, living in a foreign country (Canada) while doing research on a country I knew very well (Mexico) seemed quite ok. But then again, in my comparative work I did analyze Canadian environmental policy too. The scale was what made me comfortable: I was analyzing entire countries rather than municipalities or provinces.

Doing interdisciplinary work means that often times I need to sit down and reflect on the methodological approach and theoretical stance I am taking in my analysis (as a mixed methods scholar, when I do qualitative research I always think of the importance of reflexivity as a research strategy). I’ve often criticized “parachuting” foreign scholars who argue they know Mexico and Mexican politics better than, say, Mexican scholars. But now I wonder whether I’m doing a bit of “parachuting” myself and how much fieldwork in the city of Aguascalientes (e.g. how extensive, how in-depth) should I undertake before I consider that I am specialized enough and that I understand the city and its political and policy structures well enough.

I read someone’s CV recently where the scholar in question indicated a list of countries where he/she had undertaken fieldwork. The list included more than 30 countries, which for the age of said scholar, made me question how long had his/her fieldwork been. I’ve done fieldwork in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Spain and Mexico, and to this day, the only countries where I feel I’m most comfortable mentioning/doing empirical work are the North American ones (Canada, US, Mexico).

I guess I am just wary of now being judged as a “parachuting” scholar who landed in Aguascalientes and is now studying its wastewater and solid waste management systems rather than an academic who is just beginning fieldwork in this specific region (as I have been fully immersed in the city for less than a year). I’d appreciate feedback from all scholars, but particularly those of you who do fieldwork and who do empirical work (interviews, participant observation, etc.) on the qualitative side of things. I think anthropologists, sociologists and geographers especially may have input to provide.

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4 Responses

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  1. Ed Carr says

    The hardest work is in your own backyard. I did my first real research (as an undergraduate) on the town meeting, and the changing culture, in my hometown. My father was the town attorney. I grew up knowing the folks in the town government. It was hard to figure out what the real story was because I grew up with a particular narrative of my town – my narrative – that I had to try to shelve if I was going to figure out what was going on.

    My big advantage is that I was doing data collection in my hometown, but data analysis and writeup in Virginia, which gave me time and space to think about what I saw in the data itself…and to eventually build a unique (and I still think accurate) interpretation of what had happened in my town that cause the town meeting form of government to come apart when it did. So maybe I am advocating that you do a pile of fieldwork in your own backyard, they head someplace distant and comfortable for the writeup…surely your department won’t mind 🙂

  2. Lenore Newman says

    Those are good questions to ask. It seems to me, though, that if you’re asking them, you’re probably already heading in the right direction. There’s nothing wrong with new scholars and non-experts (with regard to a particular region) studying a region, and they often have a great deal to add to the debate. It is, however, important to think about where and how you’re situated with regard to a particular case study, and you’re clearly doing that. Given the level of self-reflection you’re engaged in, whatever conclusion you come to about your position, you’ll be representing yourself fairly accurately.

  3. Katherine Burnett says

    I am sure you wouldn’t dissuade a non-expert or a new scholar from doing fieldwork in your backyard, particularly since that is the only way they can get the experience they need to ever have the chance to become experts in the field. However, it sounds as though your objection is not to non-expert researchers, but only to those who present themselves as experts when they parachute in from afar. Perhaps your answer is in your question – do the research, become an expert, and only call yourself an expert once you feel you’re comfortable claiming that title. Besides, the best answers often come from the people who don’t feel they have all the answers.

  4. sam says

    You can be a professional stranger; it is possible to do fieldwork in places you don’t know very well. As Ed says, its often harder to do at home. The key IMHO is refelxivitu (which you mention) and a conception of culture, that is, norms, beliefs and behaviors.

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