Reflections from an Anthropology Field School: A Crash Course in Cross-disciplinary Communication

Reflections from an Anthropology Field School: A Crash Course in Cross-disciplinary Communication

By Rebecca Irons

I recently participated in a field school run by the NAPA-OT subsection of the AAA in Antigua, Guatemala. The month-long project on which I worked interrogated the lack of effective communication between different providers of maternal healthcare in the country; biomedical practitioners (OBGYNs & doctors), and non-biomedically trained midwives (‘comadronas’). With one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Latin America, overcoming boundaries to effective collaboration and referral networks between all medical providers in Guatemala is a key global health concern.

My doctoral research looks at another Latin American country, Peru, which also has high rates of maternal mortality and discrepancies between ‘preferred’ medical systems from the perspective of the state and the women who will use the service. Whilst I study family planning and not childbirth itself, the landscape of maternal health care in these two countries is not dissimilar; indigenous women whom the state increasingly attempts to bring into hospitals where they can receive biomedical care, resulting in some questions about subjectivity, power relations and agency. Therefore, my motivation for joining this field school was to learn first-hand diverse methodologies for data collection in my subject area from respected academics, and from an inter-disciplinary perspective that had hitherto been missing from my social anthropology-development background. And whilst the methodological component of data collection was indeed a valuable part of the experience, there was another element that I would highlight as even more so.


As we began to undertake our interviews with the different providers, narratives of shared misunderstanding and, at times, underappreciation of ‘the other’ began to repeatedly emerge. These stories made me think back to what the field-school director, Rachel Hall-Clifford, had told me on the first day; anthropologists are often ‘tagged on’ to global-health projects to ‘fill in’ the cultural bit, but not necessarily given the same respect as doctors and those from ‘hard sciences’ (even if we may deserve it). As there are chasms between the Guatemalan biomedical practitioners and local midwives that came about from a lack of understanding and/or respect, could there also be a similar situation occurring between academics from different health-focused disciplines? Working intimately for a month with colleagues from global & public health, medicine and occupational therapy was one very good way to explore this question further. And on this note, I must say that I was lucky to work with such a great team, where all of the students became close and respected each other’s ideas and decisions. However, to scrape off some of the sugar, it was more interesting still when there was a lack of agreement and misunderstandings as how to best approach a task or analyse the data. It was in these moments when I realised that what was obvious to me may not be to someone else, whose focus was on a different, no less important aspect of our study. And of course, vice versa. It goes without saying that increased cross-disciplinary collaboration could lead to more dynamic research, however it is one thing to talk about this from behind the screen of one’s laptop, and another to live it in a fieldwork setting. Returning to my own field site, where I, the anthropologist, will be working with biomedical providers also, I now take this enhanced consideration and empathy with me into the clinic.

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