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Case 7: Robbers, Rogues, or Revolutionaries: Handling Armed Intimidation

Daniel Peters was beginning his fourth month of fieldwork in an isolated Central American community. His research on family health care practices required the close cooperation of several households, and friendly relations had been painstakingly developed.

One morning shortly after dawn, as he was preparing for another day of work, Daniel teamed that five armed men in civilian attire had been seen near town asking about foreigners and referring to him by his first name. Hastening to the plaza, he found that the municipal authorities had not yet arrived. Before he could consider what to do next, he realized that the five strangers were heading up the road into town. From the heavy arms they shouldered in plastic sacks and from the way they spread themselves out upon reaching the plaza, he knew they were not ordinary thieves.

The next few minutes pressed Daniel's role management skills to the limit. Two of the men greeted him and claimed to be there to help a foreigner by his name who had suffered a misfortune in a nearby town. After proceeding to inquire about his finances (minimal), his transportation (no vehicle), and his visits to other communities (infrequent), they admitted to not having a surname to go on and left as suddenly as they had appeared. Some boys reported that they later left the area in a government vehicle. By nightfall, many rumors were circulating and inquiries by municipal authorities to state officials remained unanswered.

Peters's Dilemma: (1) Suspecting an affiliation more serious than the robbers that most people believed the strangers to be, should he disclose his belief to others? (2) Should he attempt to find out why he had been sought out? (3) Should he attempt to dissuade frightened individuals from withdrawing from his study? (4) Should he take any action to prevent rumored, and potentially real, recrimination against his cooperating families? (5) Finally, should he terminate his research?

Peters's Decision

Daniel decided to find out what he could locally without going to state officials. When told confidentially that the men were not robbers or soldiers intent on bribery, but a mission under government auspices, he did not pursue the matter. He felt that disclosing such information publicly could invite further harassment, perhaps directed at people other than himself who might be offended by the act. He assured those helping him that he was not in trouble and asked them to continue to participate, but let one family withdraw quietly. He also removed all names from materials he kept with him.

He has come to realize that in volatile situations, individuals who cooperate with an anthropologist may be targets of future oppression, especially where the existence of factions and informers may be encouraged secretly by outside forces. Choice of field assistants and samples takes on a potential life or death significance, and entails such responsibility that he continues to wonder whether research interests warrant the risk to local people. Nevertheless, his knowledge of the local situation compels him to work through networks of scholars and solidarity groups to increase public awareness of the repression being experienced by poor civilians in that country.