Through the eyes of the researched

Cooperation between researchers and their subjects isn’t always a given, as Julia Paley learned during her 1990s ethnographic studies of Santiago, Chile. She found town inhabitants, who were just emerging from a period of great social and economic instability, unreceptive to the usual study methods. In a recent discussion, Paley joined members of a Chilean grassroots health group to discuss how these tensions were overcome.

The following are excerpts of remarks from Paley, assistant professor of anthropology, and Valeria García, a Santiago, Chile, health promoter:


It was very difficult to accept Julia into our lives and our work and to insert her into that reality because our neighborhoods had been traumatized.

We already had experiences with researchers, and they were not very good. They would take a lot of information out of our town [which] never came back to us.

What we understood was that the information that was leaving our neighborhood kind of became a caricature. There were generalizations made, and we were stigmatized. Our reality was portrayed in a way that wasn’t accurate.

[Investigators thought that] it was really easy to do research in the shantytown. For example, all one [had] to do [was] go and look for the old lady who knows everybody, buy her chicken, and you’ll know everything about life in the neighborhood.

We asked ourselves as an organization, who can benefit from this kind of research? Is her resume going to benefit? Perhaps the subject can also benefit.

We rejected a lot of other researchers and investigators because they came in with the idea that we needed them to come in and do research on our neighborhood.


When I arrived in Chile, I arrived in a context in which investigations were seen as outsiders coming to take information [and] taking it away from the community to make representations of people who lived there that were in general degraded.

At a practical level, this presented a certain problem. I wasn’t going to do any research if I didn’t have a certain level of acceptance. At an ethical and moral level, it was very important for me to think about how I might make a contribution to the place I was working and not be seen as a drain on it.

It was the year after the end of the [Pinochet] military dictatorship in which social organization and people in general were living in a situation of fear and distrust, [and] secretive ways of operating. …

What I ended up thinking was that it was really important to do intellectual work with people. ...I found that the social organizations [in the shantytown] were so strong that they immediately transformed the kind of social work that I would do into their own kind of methodology.

For example, I was interested in focus groups, and I wanted to hear what people thought about the idea of democracy and the history of their neighborhood. And immediately these focus groups were turned into workshops. People taught me how to create them by stating the objectives through the workshop, beginning with a dynamic icebreaker, but more importantly [by] doing a kind of collective analysis in the group that would immediately be put into action.

I felt that in creating the history workshop, in having people decide where to have meetings, in getting financial support, understanding the political dynamics, and trying to organize, I was getting insight into the dynamic of strategies of social movements in post-dictatorship Chile and what kinds of problems they might confront.

My hope is that this is the beginning of a kind of reevaluation and creative thinking about research ethnology and the relationship between investigators and subjects of study in a way that engages them in the production of knowledge.

Paley’s book is “Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile.”

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Originally published on September 27, 2001