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Uncharted Terrains

New Directions in Border Research Methodology, Ethics, and Practice

Edited by Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Colin M. Deeds, and Scott Whiteford

Publication Year: 2013

“We must secure our borders” has become an increasingly common refrain in the United States since 2001. Most of the “securing” has focused on the US-Mexico border. In the process, immigrants have become stigmatized, if not criminalized. This has had significant implications for social scientists who study the lives and needs of immigrants, as well as the effectiveness of programs and policies designed to help them. In this groundbreaking book, researchers describe their experiences in conducting field research along the southern US border and draw larger conclusions about the challenges of contemporary border research.
Each chapter raises methodological and ethical questions relevant to conducting research in transnational contexts, which can frequently be unpredictable or even volatile. The volume addresses the central question of  how can scholars work with vulnerable migrant populations along the perilous US–Mexico border and maintain ethical and methodological standards, while also providing useful knowledge to stakeholders? Not only may immigrants be afraid to provide information that could be incriminating, but researchers may also be reluctant to allow their findings to become the basis of harsher law enforcement, unjustly penalize the subjects of their research, and inhibit the formulation of humane and effective immigration policy based on scholarly research.

All of these concerns, which are perfectly legitimate from the social scientists’ point of view, can put researchers into conflict with legal authorities. Contributors acknowledge their quandaries and explain how they have dealt with them. They use specific topics—reproductive health issues and sexually transmitted diseases among immigrant women, a study of undocumented business owners, and the administration of the Mexican Household Survey in Phoenix, among others—to outline research methodology that will be useful for generations of border researchers.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xvi

This volume is a collective effort to grapple with some of the methodological and ethical dilemmas that have emerged from conducting border research. In 2009–2010, the Border Research Ethics and Methodologies (BREM) Project helped bring together interdisciplinary groups of scholars to address the complications emerging from the gathering, use, and...

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pp. 1-22

With rapidly changing patterns of migration, violence, and boundary enforcement, border regions are quickly becoming transformed. In the process, a range of actors are also transformed, among them researchers who then contribute to the reformulation of ideas and practices. This dynamic process reveals new prospects, missed opportunities, and new methodological...

Part One: The Big Picture

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Chapter One. Vulnerable Immigrant "Subjects" : Definitions, Disparate Power, Dilemmas, and Desired Benefits

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pp. 25-52

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in and concern with unauthorized immigration as a topic of research in several disciplines, including but not limited to sociology, political science, economics, psychology, anthropology, history, law, Mexican American studies, and women’s studies. As political, cultural, and economic interests continue ...

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Chapter Two. The Good, the Bad, and the ugly: Border Research Collaboration

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pp. 53-68

“The ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desires of the society in which one lives. This mind conceptualizes how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all. The ethical mind then acts on the basis of these analyses” (Gardiner 2006: 3)....

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Chapter Three. Dilemmas in Immigration Policy Research

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pp. 69-80

This chapter concerns itself with a specific dilemma in research about the structure of and approach to U.S. immigration policy. This dilemma has to do with how immigration debates get framed, the attendant assumptions about what constitutes a legitimate basis for setting immigration policy, and how this framing shapes research agendas....

Part Two: The Border as an Unstable Place

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Chapter Four. On Shifting Ground: The Conundrums of Participant Observation and Multi-Actor Ethnography in Contemporary Border Research

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pp. 83-100

That the United States–Mexico border is portrayed as a site of recurrent crises and ongoing lawlessness that requires ever increasing, if slightly changing, intervention, policing, and analysis is of little novelty. Still, many would agree that those very conditions that enable this field to be continuously perceived as broken anew themselves merit analysis. Paradoxically,...

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Chapter Five. Methodological Challenges and Ethical Concerns of Researching Marginalized and Vulerable Populations: Evidence from Firsthand Experiences of Working with Unauthorized Migrants

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pp. 101-120

Being located in the most active U.S. border patrol enforcement sector (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services 2010) has led to a substantial focus on the study of unauthorized migration among a group of scholars at the University of Arizona. The authors of this article were involved in two different projects that helped them gain a better understanding of unauthorized...

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Chapter Six. Entre Los Mafiosos y La Chota: Ethnography, Drug Trafficking, and Policing in the South Texas-Mexico Borderlands

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pp. 121-139

Anthropologists have relied on ethnography as the foundational methodology for learning about other cultural worlds. But what of anthropologists who study and write about their own communities? How does the ethnographic enterprise function for these so-called native anthropologists? In this chapter, I provide an analysis and description of the methodological...

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Chapter Seven. Shaping Public Opinion on Migration in Mexico: The Challenges of Gathering and Proving Information for the National News Media

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pp. 140-164

Mexicans learn about the perils and opportunities of the trip north to the United States, crossing the border, and migrant life from return migrants, songs, government announcements, and the media, especially newspapers, radio, and television. Despite the importance of the media, few studies have systematically examined the context in which journalists and ...

Part Three: Fieldwork among Entrapped Communities

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Chapter Eight. Researching Women's Vulnerability and Agency with Regard to Sexually Transmitted Diseases during Migration through Altar, Sonora: Methodological and Etchical Reflections

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pp. 167-183

In January 2005, I began doctoral studies as a foreign (American) student and Fulbright recipient at El Colegio de Sonora in Mexico. I embarked on this academic adventure after having earned my bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I had continued to work in border public health at the university, county, and state health ...

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Chapter Nine. Reflections on Methodological Challenges in a Study of Immigrant Women and Reproductive Health in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region

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pp. 184-205

In this chapter, we reflect on the methodological challenges arising from research conducted in the U.S.–Mexico border region in 2008–2009.1 In particular, these emerge from the increased vulnerability of both migrant and immigrant women whose limited access to health care in transit and settlement communities subject them to numerous risks. Such trends ...

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Chapter Ten. Women, Migrants, Undocumented Business Owners: Methodological Strategies in Fieldwork with Vulnerable Populations

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pp. 206-221

In the last decade, Arizona has seen an increase in the number of immigrants moving into the state. Many of these have been undocumented immigrants from Mexico. In response, the state of Arizona has proposed a series of anti-immigration policies and laws that create barriers to economic, political, and social integration (O’Leary 2009). Mexican ...

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Chapter Eleven. Research on Oppressed Communities

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pp. 222-230

In this essay, I will discuss the ethical issues I encountered in relation to two research projects on Mexican migration and border issues. In the first, I was the co-principal investigator of a project that surveyed a gathering of people that was known in advance to include many unauthorized migrants from Mexico now residing in the United States. This discussion describes ...

Part Four: A Fence on Its Side Is a Bridge

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Chapter Twelve. Methodological and Ethical Implications in the Design and Application of the Mexican Household Survey in Phoenix Arizona (EHMPA 2007)

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pp. 233-248

Recent literature has argued the emergence of a “new profile” of the migratory phenomenon from Mexico to the United States. This post-IRCA and post-NAFTA migration has been characterized by a diversification of origins and destinations, a unidirectional movement that departs from previous patterns of circular migration, the urban characteristic of the origins, ...

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Chapter Thirteen. Lessons for Border Research: The Border Contraceptive Access Study

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pp. 249-264

The U.S.–Mexico border has become increasingly a focus of and site for research. Interdependent economies, cultures, and natural environments on which a political border is overlaid contain both challenges and stimuli for inhabitants and investigators alike. Many of the topics and methods of our investigations require special sensitivity to the conduct of any project,...

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Chapter Fourteen. Social Research and Reflective Practice in Binational Contexts: Learning from Cross-Cultural Collaboration

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pp. 265-274

Many of the questions raised in the BREM discussions in effect conceive of the research process as a researcher or researchers acting in relation to subjects and populations. We assess vulnerability (of the population). We consider data access and ownership (vis-à- vis the population). We are concerned about ethical issues (in relation to the population). As we ...

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pp. 275-284

The intent of this concluding chapter is not to summarize but to explore emerging border ethics issues, methodological directions, and policy challenges raised by the chapters of this book. Rapid political and socioeconomic change underlines the importance of how research and ethics are intimately interwoven regardless of discipline or research goals, especially ...


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pp. 285-286


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pp. 287-292


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pp. 293-301

E-ISBN-13: 9780816599165
E-ISBN-10: 0816599165
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816530557
Print-ISBN-10: 0816530556

Page Count: 317
Illustrations: 4 illust, 6 tables
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Emigration and immigration
  • Emigration and immigration -- Government policy -- United States.
  • Border security -- United States -- Research.
  • United States -- Boundaries -- Mexico -- Research.
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