Ethnographic Lessons for Well-Being

Gloria Gonazález-López discusses intellectual vulnerability in the study of sexual violence in Mexico
By Clare Callahan

Supervivientes is a concept some people with histories of sexual violence living in Monterrey, Mexico have used to identify their life experiences. As an alternative to the linked concepts of victim and survivor, the word conveys the idea that people with stories of sexual trauma “might not be survivors or victims but rather human beings with a special capacity to successfully embrace life in spite of excruciating life circumstances.”

The concept of supervivientes counts among the intellectual insights that Dr. Gloria González-López (Professor, Sociology) has had while collecting data on sexual violence and incest in Mexico; specifically in Mexico City, Ciudad Juárez, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. In HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on “Health, Well-Being, Healing,”, Dr. González-López offered an example of supervivientes: a young, joyful woman she interviewed who, in spite of having been violently raped by her father, claimed that she did not feel traumatized by the event because her mother had believed her story and defended her against her father by forcing him to leave the house. Dr. González-López concluded based on this story and her encounters with informants reporting similar life experiences that when a source of love and support learns about an incident of sexual violence and takes action, he or she becomes a force that protects the assaulted individual from potential trauma. She described this kind of intervention as a form of family justice; promoting family justice and family democracy, based on feminist ethics that in turn promote gender equality in the home, she argues, is necessary to prevent sexual violence.

But Dr. González-López’s research on sexual violence raises another question: how can the researcher confront the experience of emotional exhaustion that arises from doing this work? In recent years, the amount of research being conducted on sexual violence has surged—but with this surge, are researchers developing the tools they need to manage their exposure to this violence? This inquiry turns ethical questions around, from how research practices impact the lives of subjects to how the researcher’s relationship to self-care affects her practice and therefore the lives of participants.

In her essay “Ethnographic Lessons: Researching Incest in Mexican Families,” Dr. González-López writes about the emotional exhaustion that required her to develop “specific ways to take care of [herself] professionally and personally,” such as daily spiritual practices like meditation, and compelled her to confront “the fictitious boundaries that presumably separate [researchers’] personal and professional lives and responses in the field.” Her work on sexual violence, however, also enabled her “to experience intellectual vulnerability. This vulnerability,” she writes, in turn “allows her to acknowledge the emotional insights that are a basis for intellectual insight and transformation.”

Dr. González-López’s current project is to provide a professional guide for researchers on how to better prepare themselves to conduct qualitative research on emotionally challenging and dangerous topics, including but not limited to research on violence. HI Director Pauline Strong suggested, however, that another project designed to provide a resource to the communities like that of Ciudad Juárez could address the role of family justice and democracy in preventing sexual violence, as seen in the example of superviventes.

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