By: Leila Rodriguez
Early on in our training as anthropologists, we learn that ethnographic fieldwork is the pillar of anthropological inquiry. To best understand a community from their own perspective, we immerse ourselves in their lives, and use a host of research methods including participant observation and interviewing to learn about their worldview.
Penetrating a social group to which you do not belong is not easy, and we are taught the value of gatekeepers and key informants.
Gatekeepers are those individuals who formally or informally have the ability to allow us access to their community. In a tribe, a formal gatekeeper could be a chief. In a high-crime neighborhood, an informal gatekeeper could be a gang leader. I have encountered both in my own research, and without their consent I could not have conducted research in their communities.
Key informants facilitate research too. They are experts in their own culture and help us to interpret what we observe, and navigate the social landscape in their communities.
Partnering with Su Casa, a local migrant-serving organization
My current research examines the local integration of unaccompanied, underage Central American migrants who left their poverty and violence-stricken home communities. Rather than simply relying on gatekeepers and key informants for this project, I decided to do something very different: to partner with Su Casa, a local migrant-serving organization that is involved in all stages of my research.
- craft my research questions
- give input into the specific research instruments I employ
- provide logistical support
- interpret the research results
Although my project is still in the earliest stages, I have already noticed how transitioning from the reliance on gatekeepers and key informants to a community-based, participatory research project is improving the quality of my work.
My current project involves the most vulnerable population with which I have ever been involved. While there are multiple ethical concerns and challenges in working with such a population, I believe that precisely because they are so vulnerable they cannot be excluded from our research. Our collective understanding of the integration of immigrants, and forms and processes of social inequality will be incomplete without consideration of the experiences of these minors.
My partnership with Su Casa has given my project additional legitimacy in the eyes of the community, as the organization is well-known and trusted. If gatekeepers open the doors to a community, my community partnership has blasted them open. It has expedited communication and cooperation with schools and other community institutions that care about the welfare of these minors, which adds a layer of protection for them. It has refocused my project so that it not only addresses scholarly questions, but so it will provide practical data for local organizations that provide services to, and advocate in favor of, these young migrants.
As my project advances, I anticipate that the benefits of partnering with a community organization will continue to reveal themselves.