By Sophia D’Angelo, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
This year marks a decade of my travelling to and from the Dominican Republic, conducting research, taking classes, teaching, training teachers. ‘Tienes más tigueraje que yo,’ my Dominican friends tell me, insinuating that I have learned to acculturate and take care of myself in this country that is foreign to me. But at times I forget its foreignness. My foreignness. Since first travelling to the DR as a twenty-year-old college student I immediately felt connected to the Caribbean culture. My mom is from Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans refer to each other as ‘dos alas del mismo pájaro,’ two wings of the same bird.
This Hispanophone Caribbean bond has allowed me to easily forge meaningful relationships with Dominicans of all ages and backgrounds, a strength I brought with me as I conducted fieldwork abroad. During interviews, I employed what Delamont (2016, p. 113) describes as a ‘combination of careful research techniques and ordinary conversational politeness in that culture.’ This meant allowing participants to cut me off and go on tangents or touch my hands or knees without feeling offended. Dominicans, as many Latin Americans, come from an affective culture, and when we engage in a conversation it is nearly impossible to resist touching or interrupting the other interlocuter. This type of conversation seemed natural to me though, as did the rapport which was founded upon it. Students opened up to me about the struggles they faced at home, and teachers shared intimate details about their personal lives, deeply held beliefs about religion and politics, or frank commentaries portraying their attitudes towards students and other actors within the system. As trust was built, I became aware that I was now an insider… or at least an ‘insider-outsider’ or ‘inbetweener’ (Milligan, 2016). Maybe simply a ‘trusted outsider’ (Bucerius, 2013). I could negotiate my position on the line between foreigner and friend.
Yet despite the commonalities I share with my Dominican research participants, our habit of greeting everyone we pass by on the street, our love for salsa and bachata music, our desire to eat rice and plátanos at almost every meal, and our inability to not interrupt people when we get excited about a conversation, I could not help but be reminded that I am indeed a foreigner. Srivistava (2006) reminds us that part of researcher reflexivity requires a critical analysis of the various elements of our identity—race, gender, sexuality, age, religion—and how these elements are interpreted differently across contexts. Members of the Dominican school community that were not directly involved in my study treated me differently and reminded me of my otherness. My style of dressing and my curly, at times seemingly unkept hair, defied Dominican notions of beauty. “So, you’re not Christian?” students would ask, upon seeing the earring in my cartilage. The fact that I was a single, 28-year old woman, caused scepticism in a culture where females my age are expected to settle down, marry and have children. Moreover, my whiteness, in a town frequently visited by European and North American tourists, was inextricably linked to wealth and power.
This juxtaposition of feeling accepted and appreciated in a setting, yet at the same time appearing to come from a place of privilege, helped me to understand that the work I am doing comes with great responsibility. The trust with which I was instilled, implies duties that I must fulfil as a researcher. How can I do justice to the people who shared their intimate stories with me? What will I do with this information now that I know it? Where, in the large scheme of this study on teaching and learning, do the voices of teachers and students take precedence? I continue to grapple with these questions and I still think often of the students and teachers with whom I worked. Most of them I have connected with on Facebook and Whatsapp, so we maintain communication. But I especially wonder about those with whom I do not speak regularly. Where are they today? Who is there to hear their stories?
As I continue to navigate this space of in-betweenness, I remain in limbo between the places that I come from and that have shaped who I am today, with the country in which I conduct research and with which I continue to forge stronger and stronger bonds. I force myself to reflect on those preconceptions that come with my identity: how my understandings of race, religion, friendship, and conflict differ from those of my research participants. Every day I learn something new about the Dominican Republic, its people, its history, its culture. Every day I learn something new about myself.
Bucerius, S. M. (2013). Becoming a “Trusted Outsider”: Gender, Ethnicity, and Inequality in Ethnographic Research. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(6), 690–721. https://doi.org/10/f5fb6t.
Delamont, S. (2016). Fieldwork in educational settings: Methods, pitfalls and perspectives (Third edition). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Milligan, L. (2016). Insider-outsider-inbetweener? Researcher positioning, participative methods and cross-cultural educational research. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 46(2), 235–250. https://doi.org/10/ggkkwc.
Srivastava, P. (2006). Reconciling Multiple Researcher Positionalities and Languages in International Research. Research in Comparative and International Education, 1(3), 210–222. https://doi.org/10/bb9wks.
Sophia D’Angelo is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education’s Research in Equitable Access & Learning (REAL) Centre, where she also completed an MPhil in Education, Globalisation, and International Development in 2017. As a former teacher and teacher trainer, Sophia is interested in classroom and school processes and the ways in which sociocultural, material, and political environments play a role in shaping teaching and learning and teachers’ and students’ understandings of effectiveness. Sophia has worked as a consultant for educational non-profits across Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic and Haiti. She has also created original teacher professional development curricula for Save the Children U.K.’s country offices in Sub-Saharan Africa and has consulted remotely for projects on secondary education in Africa through the Overseas Development Institute, Mastercard Foundation, and other multi-national organisations. In her spare time, Sophia is an avid football player, world wanderer, and Dominican street dog rescuer.