Back from hiatus, pondering the ethics of thesis research in Tucson

Hey everyone. The blog has sort of been on temporary hiatus since this summer, both due to general busy-ness and the fact that a lot of my writing energy has been channeled into other (better-paid) places. So I apologize for the long dry spell. But, I’m back in Tucson, Arizona now to finish up the field research portion of my thesis. Since it’s likely I’ll be writing while I’m down here, I thought this would be a good time to write something explaining my thesis in a way which (hopefully) makes sense to non-politics majors.

Basically, and super-broadly, my thesis involves interviewing people who consider themselves “environmentalists” who have also engaged with migrant aid work on the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrant aid means something like putting water out in the desert, often with an established group like No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths, the Samaritans or Fronteras Compasivas/Humane Borders.

I don’t want to explain my research goals in too much detail right now, just because some potential research subjects might see this and I don’t want perceptions of goals to influence what people tell me. But I’m hoping to get an idea of how people who’ve engaged with migrant issues talk about nature and the desert. The thesis itself is going to be a fun theoretical mix of critical race scholarship and American wilderness and environmental history.

Partially, I arrived at this topic as part of my personal journey over the last year or so. I’ve gone from being an ardent, save-the-polar-bears-and-rainforests environmentalist to focusing much more on human issues–social justice, environmental justice, and the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration policy in particular. While these two types of issues aren’t always opposed with each other (and often seem like they should be well-linked), there’s less crossover between humanitarian/social justice issues and environmental issues than it seems like there could or should be. I’ve found over the past year or so that a lot of that has to do with the environmental movement’s long, and often bloody, history of racial exclusion, from the removal, massacre and genocide of indigenous and non-white people which paved the way for “untouched” American wilderness, to the forced relocation and/or criminalization of traditional foresters and hunters in areas designated as critical habitat by American NGOs in the Global South. Looking at this history, it’s been hard for me to retain faith in the mainstream environmental movement, which remains overwhelmingly composed of middle and upper class white people, at least in the U.S., and remains willfully blind to much of its own history. And my doubts are especially strong when the issues in question relate to wilderness or other forms of land preservation.

So this thesis, as much as anything else, is an attempt for me to see how other people who care about the same issues I do view their place in the world, and in the two often contradictory movements they’re part of. It’s also an attempt for me to write about a subject I’m really interested in, and do work on the border, without contributing to the academicization (not a word, I know) of people’s lives and struggles. (I say attempt because it’s completely not up to me to decide if I’m successful in this endeavor.)

There’s a tendency in academia to research marginalized groups of people (undocumented migrants, for instance, or homeless queer youth) and publish things about their lives. The resulting papers get treated as insightful, and people read them and say, “Oh look, we didn’t know anything about these people, and now we do!” Often when this happens, the same group of people have been writing about their own lives and experiences for a while, and fighting for rights, recognition, etc., just not in a way which was visible, intelligible or meant for the consumption of academics. So then academics who aren’t part of said group get credit for studying them, and most likely, essentializing or inaccurately portraying or simplifying their lived experience. And those academics become noted and get to talk over the people they claim to be representing.

I’m not saying there can’t be benefits to this type of research: some researchers focus on advocacy or solidarity/reciprocity work as part of their research, and awareness, as well as tangible benefits, do come through this. (Whitman’s State of the State for Washington Latinos project strikes me as an example of this type of project done well, with ongoing connections to established groups, research needs dictated by community groups and half of the class time dedicated to advocacy/publicity). But tons and tons of white college students and white professors (and some non-white folks as well) have studied the border and immigration and undocumented migrants ad nauseum, and the benefits back to those groups and populations are often small if not zero when a college senior comes and visits for a few weeks to do a project and then leaves again with no further contact. I hope, that by studying individuals, rather than advocacy groups specifically, and by focusing on how a largely white population talks about environmental and immigration issues, I can at least do a thesis where I’m not trying to summarize the lived experiences of marginalized people. And I’m going to keep this issue in mind in my future career as a journalist, where I think those lines get even stickier and easier to cross in ways that can end up hurting people.

While I’m terrified about the prospect of getting all the legwork done in the next week and a half, I’m looking forward to chatting with some cool people while I’m in town. I’ve managed to drag Spencer (my boyfriend) down here with me, and he’s graciously agreed to hang out with me and drive me around town while I do interviews.

Stay tuned for more research updates, and also fun things that sound more exciting than “research updates.”