Scott Freeman (PhD ’14) on working for NGOs, developing relationships during fieldwork, and the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology

Scott Freeman is a Professorial Lecturer at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. His research interests focus on the intersection of anthropology of the environment, critical development studies, and the anthropology of labor with an area focus on Haiti and the Dominican Republic. His current research concerns the ways bureaucratic and financial procedures in international aid projects undermine conservation efforts.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how like you came to anthropology and then also how you ended up at TC.

It was a series of chance encounters.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I was introduced to an anthropologist who was a graduate of the of the Program who put me in touch with Professor Comitas who passed away a couple of years ago. I was telling him about some of my interests, questions and curiosities about the way that international development worked or didn’t work and he said, “You know the questions that you have sound like questions that might best be answered by anthropological methods”, and so I did some reading and thought “ Oh, actually, I think this is a great way for me to address those questions and think through them. So, he put the program on my radar and said this is the place for you to think through those questions, and this is the program to do it in. And that’s sort of how I made my way to TC.

And most of your research is in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Is that where you were a Peace Corps volunteer?

I was the Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

Was your background in international development before your service?

I was a family and youth volunteer and I had a major in psychology. I didn’t go into Peace Corps thinking I would study International Development… I was actually more interested in literature at the time but as I became aware of the issues that I was surrounded by, that’s when I very quickly found myself so passionately curious about the industry, about the issues.  I was seeing the contradictions where perhaps landowners were supported, but the day laborers on their land were not aided by projects.

Related to those contradictions that you mentioned, Peace Corps has received some criticism in recent years from various avenues and I’m wondering how or if your education in anthropology may have helped you reflect on the experience or changed your perspective on the program.

Oh, totally. In fact, I regularly teach and reflect on the ideas of short-term service. Some of the good things that anthropology provides us with are the tools to understand ourselves and our position in the world better. I wouldn’t be fully thinking through that as a logical lens if I didn’t think critically about my own role as a Peace Corps volunteer. So I challenge my students to think through that [critical anthropology] lens about their aspirations as well.

I think that anthropology gives us the tools to do that sort of critical reflection and it’s been really, really useful for me to think about the experiences that I’ve had and also give me direction for the types of relationships and research collaborations I want to have; deep research collaborations that give me that map for moving forward as well.

Speaking of research collaboration, when I was looking over your resume I noticed that you’ve done a lot of work with universities in Haiti and you seem to be very invested in having the community play a significant role in your research.

Yes, I’ve tried to do that as best I can throughout. I’ve worked with The State University of Haiti, I also have this collaborative relationship with activists working on issues of the pineapple industry in iCosta Rica through a really fortuitous research and teaching grant that I’m a part of and so that’s meant that I work directly with activists who are on the ground and working with students to do research projects that contribute to their efforts. And my most recent research is a collaborative research venture working with families that were displaced by a development project in Haiti. I’m working with them on issues of displacement and compensation for displacement. I think that critical reflection we discussed previously moves me towards the imperative that research cannot be driven just by my personal interests, but that it actually needs to be collaborative. As I move throughout my career, I find that those collaborative research ventures have to be based on trust and I think it takes a time to really cultivate them.  I think I’m in a position now to have the trust of colleagues in the US and in Haiti, to be able to really have research ventures that are deeply collaborative and driven by the interests of the folks that are in Haiti; who have issues that are affecting them and [I can] leverage whatever position and research possibilities that I have towards the ends that they’re really interested in.

In reference to that focus on collaboration you were just talking about, I saw on your website that you made a documentary about coffee production in the Dominican Republic. I think a lot of anthropologists my generation are thinking of how to do ethnography creatively and how to best lift up the voices of our interlocutors, and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what inspired this audiovisual project and what that process was like.

I was working on behalf of an NGO who wanted to understand some of the issues that they were facing in their collaborations with coffee farmers, and so I went and lived in the region that they were working in for a summer to better understand what was going on and I realized that while my product for the NGO was going to be a report, the people that I was really living with and working with were the farmers. Those are two distinct groups and while I think report that I wrote benefited the types of projects that the NGO did with the farmers, I wanted to ensure was that there was a direct output in my research that was really directed towards and for the farmers. So, I came up with the idea that I would produce this documentary so that they would have something that everyone could share in and see that featured their lives and highlighted the struggles that they had; something that everyone could see and understand, that wasn’t a written document. It really came out of a desire to think about who benefits from the products of research and how those products can be more accessible and available to the people who actually participate in the research.

Yeah! I think it’s so important that we spend time making sure that our interlocutors can access our research, and I think it’s something that probably not enough anthropologists think about when they write long books with very difficult language.

Totally. And it can a while to realize that one of the results on the project I’m doing has to be something for the people that I’m working with.

You had mentioned that you were working with an NGO when you made the documentary and I was wondering if you could speak a little more on that. Working with NGOs was something that we talked about a lot in our applied anthropology class this last semester, specifically the ethical issues that we might face when we work with an NGO or the decisions that we have to make as researchers about how we’re going to report what we find, especially if what we find is not what the NGO wants.

Yeah. I had a very unique situation in which the NGO had already bought into the idea of really holistic ethnographic research and really wanted me to tell them what was going on.

I worked for another organization that that said, “We’re looking for this type of results and recommendations and not this type.” They already had in mind the types of recommendations they wanted to see. So, I have felt before that sometimes in working with organizations you might be writing a report that is put to the side if it doesn’t align with the politics or the policies that that that that institution already has in mind. It’s really variable and it depends on the organization, it also depends at the individual person that you’re working for.

Yeah. I had a very unique situation in which the NGO had already bought into the idea of really holistic ethnographic research and really wanted me to tell them what was going on.

Pivoting a little bit from research to career path, I was wondering what it’s like being an anthropologist in a department that’s not anthropology, since you’re in the Department of International Service.

I love being in a space that’s not just anthropologists. I find it really enriching; I am constantly curious and interested about the research that my other colleagues do, particularly in the Environmental Program. We’ve got political scientists, geographers, and international relations scholars who all have slightly different angles on research and it’s really illuminating to be a part of those collaborations and conversations. I love it… I really think it’s great, and I feel that, intellectually, it’s really enjoyable. Teaching is also really enjoyable because, in a sense, you’re not preaching to the choir. I’m teaching to folks who have an interdisciplinary approach through the nature of the program that they’re in and who might not be hearing the anthropological perspective other than in my class. So, I really enjoy having that heterogeneous set of student interests that is not aligned with anthropology and the opportunity to present anthropological ways of thinking. I think it’s super exciting and it’s a great challenge.

The other part of this question is that, of course, one of the most harrowing experiences of a PhD student is even thinking about trying to get a faculty position. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your job search and how you ended up where you ended up and if you had any advice for people who are you know about to enter the workforce…I know that’s a tall order.

You know the job market is a very different market than it was for folks like me who have had a job for a number of years. It was very challenging when I was out there, but it’s a very different market… I started by adjuncting for a full year in DC because this was where my family commitments were. Ultimately, a teaching position opened up as I was adjuncting, and so I was able to apply having taught at that university for a year already.

I think that being open to teaching in departments and disciplines outside of anthropology can really be a great benefit. Especially coming from a place where you might be taking a variety of courses and you might find yourself able to teach in a number of domains. It might be education, international development and international relations, it might be in environmental studies. Thinking about all those intersections and the places that you might fit in really opens up possibilities. I was jumping in Latin American studies programs, as well as international relations schools, as well as anthropology departments, and I was open to all of those.

But, you know, it’s a really challenging job market, and so I don’t want to imagine that I have the magical equation to get a job but I had the privilege of being able to be in the right place at the right time.

But ultimately, I think anthropology has such an important role to play in disciplines and areas outside of anthropology.  To imagine that you only fit in an anthropology department is to cut short the places where you voice can make a difference.  In the room with other disciplines, my anthropological perspective has a lot of value.

Scott’s walk to work during his fieldwork.

Yeah, I think it’s an impossible question in some respects, but also, I do think that every experience we hear about is helpful because we know that somebody else did it. There might not be a lot of opportunity out there, but at least somebody else did it.

So, going back in time a little bit, I wanted to ask you a couple questions about your experience at TC. First, what was your field work experience like when you were working on your dissertation? What the most difficult thing about your field work and what was the best or most rewarding?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve been writing recently. One of the things that’s really challenging and surprising about ethnography is that it’s really about finding a series of answers for questions that have yet to be asked.  And what I mean is that you come in with this assumption about the [research] questions you’ve written grants and dissertation proposals about and then you go in and things inevitably have changed. They’re not exactly the way that you might have anticipated them, or at least that’s my experience. So, being on the ground and being willing to be surprised and follow the interesting things about your fieldwork is really important, but it’s also really challenging. For example, I had planned to be in a certain town and I think I was there for a few nights and then I realized “This actually is not a good place [for my research], so I’m going to switch to a different town.” Also, I quickly found that my research question needed to be far more specific. I was quickly adapting to what I was finding and what I was hearing and changing as I went along. I think that’s the exciting part, but I still think that’s the challenging part too; to know which thread is worth following and knowing when it’s time to start finding other things.

What I ended up studying, which was soil conservation, was totally not on my radar at first but came on my radar by listening to the conversations that I was having and what I was observing.  That’s both the challenge and the excitement; that some of these questions you’ve not really thought to ask yet until you’re in the field end up being your focus.

I think we talk a lot about the academic parts of field work and not enough about the actual lived experience of field work, so I was wondering if you could touch on that a little bit.

Well, I had this idea that I wanted to look at larger understandings of what the environment was and how that was influenced by international development, which in the end, I think I ended up investigating, but I was going out and chatting with farmers and walking through the hills each day, filling my time by going and having these conversations and not entirely sure exactly what my  focus was. I came back every day and talked to my wife about soil conservation, because I kept walking over these soil conservation measures [in the ground]. It was these conversations and reflections that I was having with her that I realized “Oh, actually, this is what I should be studying.” It was totally unplanned… I mean I don’t know what theory accounts for the surprise of tripping over things, but that’s how I found what was interesting to me.

On a more personal level, I’m wondering about the experience going to a place for a short period of time, being a part of people’s lives, and then leaving. More specifically what did it feel like to be a researcher entering a space that you might not have necessarily belonged in?  How did you balance your research relationships with the personal relationships that you developed with your interlocutors?

So, part of this is about also maintaining relationships. I’m still in touch with the folks that I [worked with]; we’re on WhatsApp all the time, and I think that it is really important to maintain the relationships. But I also think that it’s important to recognize that

you’ve got these relationships that are cultivated by research but become relationships that you’re invested in, and I think those are so important to maintain because they hold us accountable because we are continually in touch with them.

So, maintaining those relationships, for me, has been really important. Then there’s also this reality of being on the ground and talking with people who are extremely aware of the whole process of research.  Let me give you a little vignette to illustrate this… Towards the end of my research, I was doing brief interviews to verify some of the things that I had been seeing and there was a woman who I hadn’t seen before, and so I approached her and asked if she’d be willing to chat for a little bit. And she said, “You know what? I’m not willing to chat and let me tell you why. Because I’m sure you drove up in some sort of white SUV, and this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to write down my name, you’re going to ask me some questions, you’re going to jot down that information, you’re going to put it away and drive away in your nice SUV and you’re never going to come back and talk to me ever again or do anything to positively affect my life.” And I think that was really instructive for me. Because, of course, she imagined that I was an NGO worker which I wasn’t. I told her I wasn’t an NGO worker and said “Well actually could we talk about that? Could you tell me about your experience of research?” We ended up having a conversation and that was really an important conversation to me about how people already perceive researchers. [The people I was working with] had experienced research and it’s important to recognize that those relationships might already be extractive, which means that we need to be really thoughtful about how we establish relationships and maintain them.

I think serendipitous encounters and feedback from people who say “I have no time for this” are really, really, important to listen to and not dismiss because someone saying “No, I don’t want to talk to you” is itself really important information. You need to think about what that indicates about the social context you’re in and what does it mean about what your research ought to be like.

I’m very close with the folks in the in the valley that I’ve been doing research in and we still keep in touch over WhatsApp even though I’ve not been able to go down for a couple of years now and I think it’s not only important for me to do that as a researcher, but as a person… these are important relationships in my life. And that’s a wonderful thing that anthropology allows us to do.

Speaking of not being able to visit for a while, obviously your ability to do research has probably been hindered in the last couple of years because of COVID. I’m wondering what you’ve been up to and how you’ve handled not being about to do field work.

Well, one of the things about having cultivated relationships continually in Haiti is that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue to cultivate more relationships with folks who are organizers and practitioners and activists [during the pandemic]. Because of that, I can accompany the work that they’re already doing on the ground. Things like WhatsApp or phone-based interviews and surveys have ended up being research strategies. So, I don’t see my research slowing down. Because of those relationships, we were able to strategize about how I can support people who are on the ground, doing research about land, about dispossession, about environmental issues like water quality and whatnot and figure out how I can collaborate with those people who are already there. And that becomes much more tenable by having those collaborative, deep relationships based on trust.

This is kind of fluffy questions um what was your favorite or most helpful class that you took while at TC?

Good question. I think that the research methods class that, at the time, Charles Harrington taught made us think really intensely about research methods, and I think that was really useful. It was super valuable in giving me the space to think about how to conduct research methods. And Leslie Bartlett also taught a research seminar where she broke down the different paradigms of research, and that was remarkably useful. I remember really thinking “Oh what research paradigm am I using? Is this critical?” and having to really think about how ontology, epistemology, and methodology.

But I also think that the relationships that I had with my cohort were so helpful because that’s where I learned to read collaboratively and where I learned what I was interested in which led me to start side reading groups. Being in this space with all these students getting together outside of class and discussing these things and having those debates was also really great part of my scholarly formation.

If there was one thing you wish you knew as a first year PhD student what would it be? Or, if it helps you to reframe it, what’s one piece of advice that you would give a first year PhD student?

I think that reaching out and finding courses that you are interested in that may not be under the topic of anthropology can be so useful and so important to your formation. For example, some of the classes that I took on Caribbean history and Caribbean literature, really formed the way that I think academically. You should be aware of how interdisciplinary anthropology can be and be open to the types of academic and intellectual connections that you can make across disciplines. Anthropology affords us a very comparative and holistic study which means you can enjoy classes from the humanities, social sciences, and I imagine for some students the sciences; so I think being open to that is great.

Interview conducted by: Emily Bailey

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