Edited by Raymond L. Bryant
Chapter 33: The political ecology of colonias on the USA–Mexico border: ethnography for hidden and hard-to-reach communities
It is not surprising that many political ecologists favor ethnography. This reflects the development of a multidisciplinary field notably encompassing anthropology, geography, sociology, politics and environmental studies. These disciplines pride themselves on producing ‘rich thick descriptions’ of a kind possible through ethnography. It also reflects the politically radical nature of the field in which political ecologists share a commitment to promoting socio-ecological change that redresses power relations mediating human–environmental relations in order thereby to favor the weak. Finally, there is perceived professional competency: the need to undertake research that is as accurate about the problem being investigated as possible, based on reflexive thinking by the researcher’s own objectives, responsibilities and social positioning, while being ‘useful’ to less powerful individuals and communities. This chapter explores selected issues in the use of ethnography in political ecology. Those issues derive from my own long-term commitment to addressing the political ecology of colonias on the USA–Mexico border––informal rural settlements along that border populated by poor migrants who work in nearby cities or agriculture. Often hidden or hard to reach, colonias raise such issues as specifying the research site, the building of trust with vulnerable residents, and integrating data on causal forces gained from multiple methods for the co-construction of people’s own identities as well as those of the colonias in which they live. The challenges are real; the need for such research is urgent. If political ecology is about focusing on the most marginal in society, then the situation of communities such as colonias along the USA–Mexico border ought to take analytical pride of place. And ethnography, with its multifaceted techniques, methodological flexibility and emphasis on researcher sensitivity and reflexivity, is ideally placed to lead here.
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