Tara McGovern, a rising junior in anthropology at UIUC, will be spending this summer in El Salvador conducting her first fieldwork in cultural anthropology, supervised by our own Prof. Ellen Moodie.  Both their fieldwork projects are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation for which Prof. Moodie is co-Principal Investigator (with cultural anthropologist, Leigh Binford).  Tara wrote her first post for us on the eve of her departure for El Salvador.  In this post, she provides a rare look at the rush of thoughts a first-time fieldworker has when about to embark on a new project in a new career.  Later this summer, Tara will update us with the progress of her research.

Musings on the Eve of Fieldwork

31 May 2011

Western Springs, IL, USA

Tara McGovern

In two days I will board a flight to El Salvador, Central America, to conduct an ethnographic research project entitled, “Children of the Revolution–Youth Identity Formation and Intergenerational Communication in Postwar Northern Morazán, El Salvador.”   It´s everything I could ever want–on-the-ground experience in the field I want to devote my life to, conducting IRB-approved research I designed myself, with the excellent and supportive mentorship of Dr. Ellen Moodie, who will continue a related and much larger project with Dr. Leigh Binford.  I will be immersed in Spanish for the first time ever, hopefully connecting with Salvadorans my age, learning what they care about and how they envision themselves and their futures, surrounded by the tropical volcanic beauty of El Salvador.

Frankly, I´m terrified.

After eight years of Spanish classes,  I can’t say a whole sentence without stuttering, and I can barely understand the rapid speech of native speakers.  Aside from the language barrier, I lack confidence in my professional anthropological knowledge.  A year ago, I wouldn´t stray near cultural anthropology–only a few months ago did I decide it would be my career, as I was typing out the project proposal for El Salvador.

I´ve spent my last few days in the U.S. searching for appropriate hello-gifts for my future Salvadoran host family.  I thought I hit gold in Walgreens today, when tucked behind aisles of hairspray and sun lotion I discovered an alcove of T-shirts with various Chicago-themed prints.  Very decently priced, too–three for $12.  I delightedly shuffled through the selection, picking out some nice prints, until I unfolded a soft red and black shirt and looked at the tag.


Everything I´ve read about transnational capitalism, industrial exploitation, and the destitute circumstances of poor Latin Americans in particular tightened into tornado of academic fury and complicit guilt.   Maquilas.  A century of sweatshops, abuse, and sexual harassment and slashed wages for women, on top of four centuries of mercantilist exploitation.  And here I am, pretending like I can do something about it, standing in a squeaky-clean suburban Walgreens, about to buy “gifts” for the same people who may have slaved to make them (or more likely, relatives who slaved to make them).

I swallowed and carefully re-folded the shirts.  Not before I started crying.  All my upper-class-white-guilt-anthropologist-angst oozing out of me.  Right in the middle of Walgreens.

As my flight draws closer and closer, these moments of biting irony undermine my confidence, my faith, in both myself and in anthropology.   I read anthropological literature like Christians read the Bible.  I think it has answers, answers in its ambiguity, answers in its vehemence, answers in its vulnerability.  I like Duneier´s discourse on humility in the researcher — “I hope my own uncertainty rings out loud and clear when appropriate in these pages” (1999-344).  Uncertainty, it seems, is  the grand theme of both project and ethnographer.  Right now I´m pouring through social science literature on El Salvador, trying to absorb knowledge I feel like I should have had five years ago.  I´m only expecting the uncertainty to continue as I plunge into fieldwork.