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  • Attending to Researcher Positionality in Geographic Fieldwork on Health in Latin America: Lessons from La Costa Ecuatoriana
  • Ben W. Brisbois and Patricia Polo Almeida


Geographers have comprehensively argued that the process of generating knowledge through fieldwork is inevitably affected by the social location of the researcher in question: his or her gender, age, ability, discipline, profession, class, race, and national identity (Faria and Mollett 2016; Hunter 2009; Jackson and Neely 2015; Sundberg 2005). As Sundberg (2003) demonstrates using the example of her fieldwork in Guatemala, scholarship that ignores its own situated nature perpetuates “masculinist” epistemologies that obscure imperialist power relations allowing the generation of knowledge about Latin America. In this commentary we draw on our experiences carrying out fieldwork in Ecuador’s coastal region (la Costa) to extend such arguments to the context of geographic research on health in Latin America.

Such an extension is timely for multiple reasons. As health geography attempts to engage with the field of global health (Herrick 2016), geographers will be increasingly drawn into global health projects in Latin America. Geographers in global health projects will likely experience the field’s sense of urgency to forego inconvenient critical reflection and simply ‘do something’ about pressing global health issues (cf. Pigg 2013). This dismissal of critical scholarship is consistent with imaginative geographies of global health – a field defined and largely controlled by the global North – that elide histories of colonialism and present Latin America and other global South regions as inexplicably or constitutionally disadvantaged (Brisbois 2014; Sparke 2009). Furthermore, in addition to such North-South concerns, geographical fieldwork on health in rural Latin America frequently involves researchers and theories originating in Latin American metropolitan centres, suggesting a need to examine how those researchers and theories are themselves situated. Indeed, analyses of Eurocentric and North American footprints in Latin American scholarship, and of the relationships between knowledge production and regional inequities, make such reflexivity particularly pressing (Castro-Gómez 2003; De la Cadena 2007; Lander 2000; Porto-Gonçalves 2006).

We are two early-career researchers – one Ecuadorian, one Canadian – who have carried out qualitative fieldwork on health implications of banana production in Ecuador. We have in common critical geographic approaches and a desire for engaged scholarship. [End Page 194] We begin by describing our fieldwork experiences, using first-person voice to characterize our respective social locations, which we interpret as including our different institutional and theoretical homes. We then discuss these experiences in light of scholarship on imaginative geographies and their relationship to political economic inequities, and reflect on implications for geographical fieldwork on health in Latin America.

Fieldwork experiences

El Oro: A gringo “doctor” in the banana capital of the world

My (Ben Brisbois) doctoral research examined narratives of pesticide risk among banana farmers and workers in the coastal Ecuadorian province of El Oro, whose capital Machala is the self-described ‘banana capital of the world’ (Brisbois 2016). I worked within a global health research program at a Canadian university, using social scientific theories – especially human geographic work on scale and political ecology – to challenge global health’s apolitical, biomedical framing of problems such as agricultural pesticide exposure (cf. Brisbois 2014). I employed an ethnographic approach to investigate how Orenses (residents of El Oro) understand the causes and health effects of pesticide exposure in banana production. I was especially interested in their preferred solutions to this challenge, and harboured ambitions of engaged scholarship.

I am white, male, university-educated, and Canadian (a gringo, in Ecuador). In the field, these factors affected my reception and therefore the data I collected. Responding to my home in a school of public health, for example, both a physician and a high school teacher in the provincial capital of Machala facilitated my access to rural communities where they thought I should “educate” banana farm workers in pesticide safety and nutrition. When speaking with the farm workers in question, I was mistakenly identified as a physician – I am not – and was subsequently asked to help provide healthcare to the community. Both my sampling strategy and responses to my interview questions were therefore conditioned by my perceived profession. In addition, my presence in El Oro evoked geographic imaginaries involving the global...


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