Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Carolina Ladino (2002) ''You Make Yourself Sound So Important' Fieldwork Experiences, Identity Construction, and Non- Western Researchers Abroad'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <>

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Received: 9/8/2002      Accepted: 21/11/2002      Published: 30/11/2002


The article explores processes of identity construction. It specifically looks into respondents' images of the visiting researcher. Using my own experience as a Colombian researcher in the shanty towns of northern Mexico, the paper looks into respondents' responses to non- white, non-western researchers while doing fieldwork. My own fieldwork experiences revealed that local images of Colombians as 'southerners' conflicted with local expectations about researchers. This situation forced me to adopt the identity respondents felt best suited me locally. Besides stating that not all researchers in the developing world are white, western and in a powerful position, the paper highlights that the construction of identities takes place 'through' and not outside difference. This process allowed me to understand the contradictory processes that lead to successful feminist alliances being formed with the 'other' in a research context.

Feminism; Fieldwork; Identity; Latin America.; Non-western; Respondents


All too often research remains silent about the relationships that develop between the researcher and respondents while in the field. It is only through the recognition of the personal and emotional dimensions of fieldwork that we can critically reflect upon the balance of self-analysis and academic discussion in the presentation of data conclusions (Coffey, 1999:140; Jones et al., 1997; Lofland & Lofland, 1995). It is the personal dimension of my research which will be the focus of attention here. This article is based on feminist research conducted in the shanty towns of the US-Mexico border. It has enriched from the material written by feminists and non-feminists scholars alike. Whilst definitions of what constitutes feminist research abound, I will subscribe to the belief that feminist research is concerned with the underlying causes of persistent gender inequalities. Feminist research seeks to disentangle the ways in which inequalities are constructed and sustained between the sexes in various arenas of human life. Whilst feminist and non-feminist scholars have looked at gender divisions in society, it is the researcher's personal commitment to reducing gender imbalances and inequality between the sexes within and outside the research process what makes feminist research different from other research. As a result feminists have felt the need to uncover some considerations around the way in which the researcher's identity is constructed in the field, in particular if the research is conducted in the developing world (Abu-Lughod, 1988; Nast, 1998). Feminist geographers, in particular, have implicitly recognised the centrality of reflexivity, gender and identity in fieldwork experiences as the basis from which to address power imbalances (Asher, 2001; Dyck, 2000; Moss, 2002). Informed by post-colonial feminist theories, scholars have explored the interrelationships between researcher / respondents during fieldwork and how those touch upon issues of identity and power (see e.g. Gibson-Graham, 1994; Valentine, 2002). In order to uncover the power dimensions between researchers and respondents, it has been recognised the importance of exploring the interrelationships that develop between the visiting researcher and the host population, their identity, their perceptions of self and other. In the words of feminist Pamela Moss (2002:6): 'identity, subjectivity and self ….. have been important in understanding the relationships researchers have with themselves, research participants [and] research topics'. Indeed, fieldwork research starts with images of 'self' (usually the fieldworker) in relation to the 'other' (usually the respondents) (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995:87). In doing so, details about the complex and dynamic processes that take place at the level of perceptions of each other's identity (both in the mind of the visiting researcher and in the minds of the host population) are regarded as revealing of social phenomena (Coffey, 1999). The process is far from static as our identities as researchers, Rose (1997:315) maintains 'are made and remade through the research process'.

When conducting feminist research about women in the developing world[1], feminist literature has problematised even further the emerging relationships between local women and the visiting researcher (England, 1994: 85; Peake & Trotz, 1999; Radcliffe, 1994). In wanting to acknowledge the power/vulnerability dichotomy, writings have explored the potential exploitative nature of research in contexts where colonisation has been a predominant historical, social, cultural and economic feature. In so doing, some writers have allocated a fixed power category to the researcher, namely referring to white, western, feminist researchers conducting research in the developing world. Power, and its opposite, vulnerability, which are central constructs in discussions of feminist research production, fieldwork and respondents, have been the focus of much debate recently (Esim, 1997; Rose, 1997). White feminists in the Eighties were shaken when black feminists such as Bell Hooks responded emphatically that the sisterhood bond across races, that their white colleagues were so keen to defend, was marred with inequality, colonial imperialism and racism (Hooks, 1990). In researching Black women / women in the developing world, white 'knowing analysts', the argument holds, were above their respondents in a long- standing traditional racial hierarchy of power (see also Rose, 1997). From then on discussions on researcher / respondents relationships have tended to revolve around issues of identity, inequality and difference. Having said that, as Peake & Trotz (1999:19 in citing Lather, 1996: 360) put it: there is still 'a fine line between the subversive strategies of feminism and its inscription in western…. imperialist practices'. The overall assumption that emerged from such writings was that all researchers doing fieldwork in the developing world were white and western. Thus, a dichotomy of researcher / western / power versus respondent / vulnerability / Third World, tended to permeate studies of the kind. My own research revealed that such fixed categories are misleading, imperialist and above all detrimental to the cause of women in general. Clearly differences among women in the western and non-western world have opened up avenues for research in the areas of feminist methodologies and method. Nonetheless, an examination that blindly ignores the fluid nature of power and identity in personal interrelationships among women is not only dated but inaccurate.

My research in Juarez clearly demonstrated the fluidity of power in the relations that emerge between a non-western researcher and the host population. The research I undertook sought to explore the effects of industrial employment within the context of global structural changes, from a feminist perspective. Focussing on a sample of 82 households located in 25 different settlements spread across the northern, central and southern parts of low-income Juárez, northern Mexico, and using quantitative and qualitative data collection techniques, I consider how low-income women's access to industrial work, or 'maquilas' as called locally, has transformed their lives and how they have responded to these changes. Main findings suggest that an increase in female labour force participation in factories brought into sharp focus the interconnection between the private sphere of the household, conventionally regarded as the main site of women's subordination, and public spheres, namely the factories. Capitalist forms of industrial production penetrated the gender dynamics at the household level giving way to emerging forms of patriarchal control and domination (see Ladino, 1999).

Concerning the fieldwork, main focus of attention here, my position as a Colombian researcher did not resemble the experiences of many researchers, white, western, visitors invested with 'the power' to exploit vulnerable respondents. My experiences in Juarez revealed the fluidity of power in personal relationships and the dynamic nature of perceptions of self and other when conducting research.

In this paper I want to challenge various premises: first, that all feminist researchers conducting research in developing countries are white and western and therefore hold power over the respondents; second, the generalisation that female respondents in the developing world are passive, submissive and doomed to everlasting vulnerability in an interview context. By challenging these two premises the paper concludes with a common theme in feminist research, that of global sisterhood. Concerning sisterhood, the paper challenges the assumption that the unitary category 'woman' is sufficient to establish rapport during the fieldwork or indeed constitutes the basis to build feminist alliances (see also Radcliffe, 1994). Using my own experiences as a Colombian woman doing research on Mexican women, this paper specifically brings to life issues of difference, power and identity between respondents and researchers. It encapsulates the evolving relationships that developed between a Colombian feminist researcher and the respondents in the shanty towns of the northern Mexico border. Through an understanding of the respondents' perceptions of the visiting fieldworker, the paper also touches upon questions around shifting identities while conducting fieldwork. Uncovering these highlights the complex nature of researcher/respondent interactions that develop during the data collection and the vital role these play in understanding feminist alliances cross-culturally.

Reflexivity and Positionality: Self, Power and Identities during Fieldwork

Feminist considerations of the issue of fieldwork experiences have highlighted the importance of reflectively documenting the positionality of researchers while doing fieldwork (Bell, 1993a:29). Indeed, in order to unpack the female researcher / female respondent polarisation, through positionality and the power dynamics within feminist fieldwork, reflexivity constitutes a helpful tool. Reflexivity, or 'reflectivity' is an exercise that goes beyond a mere description of the researchers' thoughts and processes (Falconar, Al-Hindi & Kawabata, 2002:104). It is 'a perpetual source of questioning and self-revelation' (Marshall, 2002:176) which includes 'giving as full and honest an account of the research process as possible' (Reay, 1996b:443). In the process of reflecting on one's experiences in the field, positionality is a crucial concept. Positionality, Reay (1996b:443) holds, refers to the 'position of the researcher in relation to the research'. Evolving aspects of the visiting fieldworker's positionality (as a researcher, a feminist, a friend, etc.) invariably affect the researcher's participation in daily activities during fieldwork, his/her responses to community norms and ultimately his/her access to the data. Within the area of positionality, issues that have aroused interest include self- explorations into why research is conducted, and also how it is done (Wolf, 1996:xi). In the process of reflecting on the experiences of fieldwork, feminist geographers have identified 'the relevance of others' (referring to the host population of respondents) constructions of us (the visiting researcher) --as Nast (1998:94) has put it-- pointing towards an understanding of difference in the research process (WGSG, 1997). Indeed, respondents' images of the visiting researcher constitute a factor that first-time field workers may give little consideration. Whilst much effort has been put into de-constructions of the notion of the 'field' (Caputo, 2000; Gupta & Ferguson, 1997), little has been done about Third World respondents' images of visiting fieldworkers (e.g. Abu-Lughod, 1988; Mullins, 1999; Nast, 1998). In that respect, reflexivity constitutes a crucial exercise in uncovering the subjective nature of research not only from the viewpoint of academia, but also from the respondents' perspective. Of late, research has more clearly emphazised the active role of respondents in building images about researchers as it clearly determines the fieldworker's access to valuable data. Resulting data analysis will relate how the researcher felt about the people interviewed, the data s/he gathered, as well as how respondents felt about his/her presence in the field (Amit, 2000). In the words of Pink (2000: 102): ' 'Othering' is a practice not exclusive to the feminist researcher, but that is also practised by informants. It is part of the process of self- representation.'

For the feminist researcher who conducts research with women, an understanding of the 'other' woman when referring to respondents in the Third World brings to light inequality and a power dimension that goes beyond the constant query regarding patriarchal forms of domination. It involves leaving aside a narrowly focussed understanding of 'women' and poses questions about power and difference among women worldwide. Indeed, power has long been recognised as central to dilemmas surrounding feminist fieldwork in the Third World (Holland & Ramanazanoglu, 1994:146; Maynard & Purvis, 1994; McKay, 2002). It is striking, however, that many feminist writings on fieldwork and relations of power between researchers and respondents in the Third World presuppose: first, that all visiting researchers are white and western and as a result are in a powerful position, when in fact some researchers are not white or western (Mohammed, 1998; Thapar-Bjorkert, 1999). Writers such as Bulbeck (1999:55) highlight first, the fixed powerful status attributed to visiting researchers while in the field, because, in her words, 'the researcher has chosen the interaction, not the researched; if white she probably comes with more resources like education and money than the researched'; and second, that respondents in the Third World are voiceless, defenceless and vulnerable in the face of the exploitative nature of the research. For instance, Scheyvens & Leslie (2000:120) state that female respondents in the Third World 'may be reluctant to express themselves in front of an outsider due to low-self esteem.' However, some of these writings fail to acknowledge power as a constantly changing category (Foucault, 1980).

The changing nature of the relationships that develop between researchers and respondents during fieldwork are clearly demonstrated by writings which have pointed out how host populations' expectations about visiting researchers have shaped the course of various studies, so much so that the roles visiting researchers have adopted in the field have not necessarily been chosen by themselves (Blackwood, 1995; Caplan, 1993:21). Some researchers, while in the field, have reported having conformed to local gender roles and behaviour which included housework activities and particular types of clothing that have particular connotations for data gathering and data analysis (see Berik, 1996; Dube, 1975 cited in Bell, 1993b: 9; Kumar, 1992; Nast, 1998).

Moreover, feminist literature has revealed instances where researchers have confronted difficulties in accessing information as a result of their either not being white or of not being locals. In the paper 'Who is Calling Whom Subaltern?,' Daphne Patai (1988) described her false beliefs of a shared commonality with her research subjects in Brazil prior to embarking on field research with low-income women. In fact, it appeared that racial differences obstructed her bonding with the host population. Alissa Trotz on the other hand could draw upon her gendered and racialised identity as a black Guyanese woman to build rapport and trust with her respondents in her home country, something her white, western colleague could not do (Peake & Trotz, 1999). These events can be seen as part of a larger process whereby the locals engage in assessing the visiting researcher's identity through their own identity and against their expectations of the other. In the words of feminist researcher Heidi Nast (1998:109) when referring to her fieldwork experiences in West Africa: 'Feeling their [i.e. the local host population's] surveillance and listening to their sexualised comments helped me recognise them as much as they helped me recognise myself in terms other than my own'. From then on, respondents engage in a process of understanding the visiting 'other', building some idea of who the researcher is and how they will relate to this new person they, more often than not, know little about. Crucial in this exercise is the host population's understanding of difference, or of the 'other' (Pink, 2000:102). Lila Abu-Lughod (1988) for instance, described feeling embarrassed before a Bedouin elder, who looked at her with contempt during her fieldwork, as she was caught by him unveiled. In his culture, not in hers, a female with her head uncovered was equivalent to being naked. Embedded definitions of the self, and other, help to contextually determine the identity of the other as identities are constructed 'through not outside difference' (Hall, 1996: 4-5). Once we categorise the other as different, we may come to impose our own categories on the other. Not surprisingly, many fieldworkers have reported that their fieldwork has allowed them to bring out numerous selves constructed by respondents while in the field (Rabinow, 1977: 5). Such categorisations are crucial as the visiting researcher has to build up rapport with the host population in order to elicit fruitful interviews (Pink, 2000:102). Fordam (1996) reports how engaged she was in the community in which she conducted her fieldwork and how her ethnographic analysis and interactions with respondents recreated her own multiple changing identities and subjectivities. The process is dynamic as the creation and recreation of identities for both the host population and fieldworkers is not a static phenomenon as relationships change over time. For example, feminist writer Phoenix (1994:55) maintains that the nature of the relationships that developed with her interviewees shifted constantly over the course of the study. Her experiences were not rare at all as literature on relationships between researchers and host populations during the fieldwork has highlighted the changing aspects of social interactions (Blackwood, 1995; Coffey, 1999: 27; Rabinow, 1977; Wade, 1993: 213). It should be noted though that the fact that identities are constructed through difference does not conflict with the fact that identities change constantly. Indeed, these relationships are fluid and changing, but are always jointly constructed (Collins, 1998:3.1).

The feminist fieldworker needs to be prepared to negotiate and recreate her/his own identity with the respondents. As Oakley (1981:41) puts it: 'The goal of finding out about people through interviewing is best achieved when …… the interviewer is prepared to invest his or her own personal identity in the relationship.'

Feminists Alliances: the Task of Bonding with Respondents

Acknowledging respondents' understanding of difference has important consequences for the ways in which feminist research is conducted. Indeed, early feminist scholars erred in assuming a common bonding among women on the grounds of a shared, fixed identity as women. Their claims, grounded on a global sisterhood, assumed that all women shared a particular type of oppression (derived from patriarchal forms of domination). Such assumptions, it was believed, put female researchers in the privileged position of understanding their female respondents' circumstances. As feminist, Carmen Diana Deere recalls: 'Fuelled by the emancipatory discourse of making women's work visible, my generation (1970) often assumed that the common bond of sisterhood was sufficient to allow us to capture and interpret the experience of women in heterogeneous cultural settings' (Deere, 1996:vii, stress as in original). Women's standpoint and the plausibility of a single feminist method emerged as a result of the vast range of literature that has documented the various different experiences of women worldwide (Lugones & Spelman, 1983; Reay, 1996a). An encompassing approach which could explain the experiences of all women was thus regarded, at best, as unconvincing and, at worst, as simplistic and ethnocentric (Anthias and Yuval- Davis, 1984). As Moore pointed out: 'there is the danger of assuming that there is a unitary woman's perspective or point of view which can be seen to be held by an identifiable sociological category woman' (stress as in original, Moore, 1988:188). Of late, literature has recognised that as we move into an era of 'feminisms' that goes beyond power as a fixed entity, it has been recognised not only that women interviewing women is potentially activist because of the inherent role in consciousness-raising (Marshall, 2002), but also that feminist research has to go 'beyond gender as the central construct in defining any feminism' (Moss, 2002:4; see also Hekman, 1999; Oakley, 2000). Having said that, my experiences in Juarez revealed me the salience of gender in the building of feminist alliances. Whilst other categories became quite visible (class, race and age), it was the commitment to gender equality what lead to successful feminist alliances. This interpretation by no means is considered more or less valid than other accounts, but different and complementary to a growing body of research in the area of feminist research and method. My experience revealed me that searching for a common goal may help establish a successful identification between respondents and the visiting researcher. It is therefore the very process of searching for similarities that constitutes the basis for constructing feminist mutuality and understanding (Macintyre 1993:46).

It is my intention here to both illustrate and further develop some of these issues. As this article will demonstrate, my fieldwork experiences and relationship with respondents proved to be anything but static or mono-dimensional. Moreover, my positionality was decided by my informants, and interactions in the context of a feminist struggle developed successfully only when I took into account the identity which my respondents considered best suited me.

The Fieldwork

The fieldwork for this study was carried out between 1995 and 1996, after a year of preparing the literature review and methodological tools. I left London in November 1995 for Mexico City where I was to stay for a week collecting written material on the topic. Later, I set off up north for Juarez, a city located on the northern Mexico border and placed in the middle of an arid desert, next to El Paso in Texas. The research project, a study to assess the impact of factory employment on the lives of low-income female shopfloor factory workers, involved interviews with factory and non-factory workers from various 'industrial' generations in 23 low-income settlements of Juárez. The initial idea was to conduct a study which would allow me to understand women in their own 'customary' contexts (Lawless, 1991). Being Colombian, I left for northern Mexico expecting to gain from my position both as an outsider and as an insider (Lett, 1990:139). As an outsider I considered that not being Mexican would put me in the position of being able to take a fresh look at the unknown, 'to see and feel what other [local] people do not see and feel' (Tong, 1994:235). Likewise, as a Latin American, I expected to be an insider. In fact, that was the case on countless occasions as I felt I shared many of the same values and the same language. Moreover, looking Latin American made me feel at times I was simply another local woman in the city. The aspect missing from this analysis was locals' expectations about researchers.

Personal Account

My first impression when I got to Mexico City was a great sense of familiarity. This was not only because Mexicans also speak Spanish, but because their behaviour and manners resemble those of Colombians. Once I completed the collection of relevant written material in Mexico City I left for northern Mexico.

In Juarez, as I did not know anybody, I decided to rent a room in a settlement located on the outskirts of the shanty towns. That was how I gained the opportunity to live in a house with a 70-year-old low-income woman, Carmelita, and her 10- year old adopted daughter. Carmelita's main activity was commerce, working as a door-to-door jewellery vendor. She herself was a migrant who had arrived in Juarez from a rural rancho (hut) in the northern Mexican state of Sonora back in 1985.

'Immersion in the setting' I found a useful strategy 'to attempt to view the culture from within' (Wolf, 1996:10). Indeed, living in a low-income settlement certainly proved illuminating and also paved the way for conducting a small household survey, semi-structured interviews and later life histories.

Whilst I initially felt fully engaged in discovering the city of Juarez, a place which for a long time had been in my mind, locals' perceptions about me and my presence in Juarez increasingly became an issue of great concern.

Even though I paid rent weekly, Carmelita asked and expected me to clean the place daily. Moreover, this concern extended to her ideas about my personal cleanliness. She would refer to people from 'there' (the south) (esa gente de po'allá) as 'dirty' and was quite surprised that I washed daily. These attitudes turned out to be indicative of local people's perceptions of Colombians. To my surprise, Mexicans in Juárez often despised and rarely associated with 'southerners', a word encompassing people from southern Mexico, Central Americans and, as the paper will reveal, Colombians too. As I became interested in border Mexicans' views about people from 'the south', I started to explore the nature of this phenomenon. On one of my visits to the University of Texas in El Paso, I came across a thesis published by border Argentinian scholar, Pablo Vila (1994a). Vila confirmed the notion of a 'northern Mexican border identity' distinctive with respect to the rest of central and southern Mexico. He revealed that his interviewees had a derogatory perception of people from the south. In his words: 'Juarenses believe all southerners are bad people [mala gente] and that is the reason some Juarenses discriminate against them' (Vila, 2000:39). In another publication, he and his collaborators add (Vila 1994b: 53): 'when our interviewees talk about people from the south, they ... depict them in a very stereotypical way as being backward, without any fighting spirit and being more prone to leisure than work.' He continues (2000:39): 'the southerner is usually depicted as someone to be avoided, someone who is constantly trying to take advantage of the Juarense, while the Juarense is usually described as someone with a big heart who is always exposed to the malevolence of others.' To my surprise, the women in Juarez classified me as a 'southerner' and as a result they distrusted me so much that it seriously interfered with my interviews. Not trusting my status as a researcher and upon hearing my accent and discovering I was not a local, some women made excuses and declined to be interviewed. Some even felt they had to interview me first on the street before allowing me into their houses. Their questions would range from whether I had finished primary school to whether I was engaged in any illicit activities locally. Being both Colombian -or a woman from the 'south'- and a researcher, in their mind posed serious difficulties. For one thing, locals expected foreign researchers to be and to look western –which was certainly not so my case. Thus, the category 'Colombian researcher' (or rather a 'southern researcher') seemed somewhat contradictory. As one of my interviewees put it, as I tried to explain the purpose of my visit: 'Carolina, you make yourself sound so important, like one of those researchers from abroad!'

Moreover, relying on definitions of self through the other and of definitions of other through definitions of self undeniably brings to light the processes through which identity is constructed. The process, as Vila (2000:231) maintains, 'is totally embedded in the power struggle over meaning.' Differences on the grounds of race, age, class, and ethnicity can enter feminist research and methodologies and impede the notion of similarity between women (Caplan, 1993:21; Kohler Riessman, 1987). As Phoenix (1994: 50) states: 'simply being women discussing women's issues in the context of a research [project] is not sufficient for the establishment of rapport and the seamless flow of an interview' (stress as in original).

Bonding with Respondents

The task that followed was how to move from the position of detached to engaged, from being a naive stranger to informed 'knower'. Although it is true that transgressing the local codes 'may not [necessarily] lead to acceptance by subjects' (Caplan, 1993:22), in some cases the uneven relationship between informants and researcher can lead to positive social interactions. My efforts to bond with locals whilst not encouraging at first, turned into a successful identification with subjects and later friendships.

As my fieldwork developed I realised that a point of identification with local women settlers was the status I gained locally as a 'southerner'. Some local low-income women's overly manifested concern for me as a Colombian in Juárez brought me closer to their lives and families. I realised that some low-income women in the settlements, on learning I was Colombian, felt extremely overprotective of me. Two women in particular, Chela and Lupita, felt I was in a very vulnerable position. Convinced that I could be a target for police harassment locally –as there are many undocumented cases of Central Americans, mostly from Guatemala and Salvador, suffering such treatment in this part of the world- Lupita decided to correct my Spanish so that I would not sound foreign and Chela worked very hard on my appearance so I would not look foreign. The first thing Chela did was to rub sand on my shoes so that I would look like any other woman who lived in the poor settlements. Furthermore, she decided to take me to some second-hand clothes markets and chose my clothes herself. She said she had done so for many other southern people, mostly from Guatemala. Despite my insistence, Chela paid for my clothes as she repeated many times 'you must be so poor!'. These women shared many stories and anxieties which I found of enormous value to the research.

Central American refugees (including Guatemalans, and Salvadorians) in Mexico numbered 50.000 in 1987 and they are believed to use the border as a pathway to the United States. Ferris (1987:162) describes Guatemalans and Salvadorians in the border region as 'the least problematical because they make the fewest demands for services.' This said, the Mexican police work in cooperation with US immigration officials in deporting the refugees back to Central America. In Juarez, the foreign population increased dramatically during the Eighties and Nineties (Salazar Anaya, 1996). Available records show that during the Eighties nearly 46,000 Guatemalans arrived in the Mexican towns of Madero and Juarez (CMAR, 2000:54). Concerning Colombians, there is evidence that a few Colombians arrived in Juarez in 1910, with a subsequent steady flow which reached its peak during the Seventies and Eighties (Salazar Anaya, 1996). An interesting point here is whether people from 'the south' living albeit temporarily in Juarez, consider themselves part of a unified group. In her study of Putlecan migrants, Kimberley Grimes (1998) notes that southern Mexican migrants to the US have a particular liking of Salvadoreans, Colombians, Peruvians and Guatemalans. This said, they do not consider themselves part of a group. In her words: 'Putlecan women and men identify other Latin American people… but this recognition seldom serves to create a feeling of unity or oneness' (Ibid:83).

Bonding with locals was initially the result of an understated denial of my status as a 'privileged' researcher. Instead, I decided to accept – though reluctantly at times-- respondents' understanding of my 'otherness' which seemed to be the same one allocated to Guatemalans and Salvadorians locally. Shared vulnerability was thus the point at which I felt I gained acceptance in the eyes of my respondents. Had I not done so I believe my fieldwork would not have got to the point of completion, or at least not in the time I had financially secured for that purpose. This, however, was not the only point of contact with locals. An unprecedented situation of urban violence, which affected the lives of many low-income settlers, in particular women, brought me closer to many women in Juárez. Fear of walking alone in the settlements, a commonly-felt anxiety for women (including me), led to brief encounters with them. In seeking companionship when walking to bus stops, especially at night, I came to meet local women settlers, many of whom later became respondents. As the issue of urban violence against women in the settlements reached disproportionate levels[2], the idea of the women organising a march to protest against the municipality's indifference to their plight, strengthened alliances. As I agreed to actively participate in their plea for justice in a public demonstration against violence against women, commonalities became enhanced and friendships later emerged. It is through common interests, as stated by writers such as Mohanty (1997), Liebowitz (2001) and many others, that feminist organisation can be rebuilt (see also Hooks, 1990:27). It should be based on 'the mutuality of interests which emerge under common contexts' (Liebowitz, 2001:173). The task for the feminist researcher is to identify those facets of self that allow him/her to bond with the respondents (Narayan, 1993).

As my Spanish and my wardrobe changed, I observed a radical shift in the ways in which new respondents related to me. Some women did not see me as a threat and talked openly for hours around a kitchen table or in a café in central Juarez. Indeed, eighty-two responses were derived from the 120 households that were approached in low-income settlements. This survey was complemented by a series of in-depth semi-structured interviews in the settlements (25 settlements). All women in the sample (82) were asked whether they would collaborate with life and work histories, and 33 women agreed to construct their life histories with me (see Tiano & Ladino, 1999). Key informants, among the factory workers, were also very welcoming and invited me to go out dancing with them to dancehalls and to spend weekends in their households, together with their families. Also, sex workers, in particular street walkers, a group which I had expected would refuse to be interviewed, also spoke frankly about their experiences as women, wives, mothers and workers. Carmelita, my landlady, was no exception as over time she revealed to me her private religious affiliation and practices.[3] In fact, as time went on she began to introduce me to her friends as her visiting 'niece'.

The crafting and re-crafting of field roles, of selves, is not just about presenting an acceptable self to the naive respondent. 'It can actually be about becoming a different self over the course of and beyond the fieldwork' (Coffey, 1999:28).


How identities are constructed, reproduced, established, mediated, changed or challenged over the fieldwork process deserves further analytical discussion than the space I have allocated here. Its relevance in the feminist research process should no longer be ignored as doing so may obstruct the researcher in gaining access to valuable sources of information. It is down to the researcher's skill to read his/her multiple identities created by respondents for him/her while in the field. These selves are manifested throughout the process of engagement and submersion into the field and are neither coherent nor mutually exclusive. The fact that I am not a white, western researcher allowed for a particular exploration into how host populations construct the identity of the visiting researcher while in the field. In my case, respondents' expectations about researchers and the fulfilment of such expectations proved crucial in granting me access to the information I sought. The process was not static as my own identity was crafted and re-crafted throughout my stay in Juarez. Respondents' active reinforcing of particular identities onto the other (in this case me), revealed their own understanding of themselves, and of 'others' locally. The researcher's identity is not a unitary affair since it is through mutuality and understanding that different participants and different social contexts demand the discovery of different 'selves' (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995:87). As a feminist, my experiences in Juarez revealed to me that issues of 'otherness' and 'selves', are highly contextual and relevant to the building of feminist alliances cross-culturally; the boundaries which define difference are in constant flux, they are dynamic and contradictory. Pink (2000:105) holds that learning to speak another language or adopting local ways of speaking the language, and adopting some cultural mannerisms, 'seals our contact with one another through our constructions of sameness'. The task of rebuilding new feminisms prompt us to discover new ways of and reasons for bonding with women, new ways of connecting with other feminists and non-feminists and new ways of knowing our multiple selves.


1The terms 'developing world' and 'Third World', will be used interchangeably to mean the countries in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia.

2The incidents started in January 1996, when the dismembered corpses of two low-income women had been found in the settlements; by April 1996, 35 young women had disappeared and 17 had been massacred (Diario de Juárez, 17 April, 1996 p7b). As figures on savaged bodies multiplied, authorities from El Paso, put pressure on the Juarense judiciary system. The figure on the number of women disappeared in Juárez had reached 300 a year later (The Independent Magazine, 10 May 1997, p 29). Urban violence however is not particular to Juárez. Research has reported increasing incidences of urban violence in many sites in low-income urban Latin America and the Caribbean (see McIlwaine, 1997 in Costa Rica).

3Carmelita took me to the prayer room and told me that she was the representative of a local religious leader who she referred to as 'The Master'. Carmelita and her friends had long been members of a local Hindu-type religious movement, called the Sai-Baba Movement


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