Ethnographic Entanglements: How having multiple roles enriched my research in Nicaragua

Chelsey Hauge

Chelsey Hauge

Editor’s Note: the final guest author for this month’s Ethnography in Education theme, Chelsey Hauge (@chelseyhauge), is finishing her PhD this coming year at the Department of Language and Literacy at the University of British Columbia. Originally from California, Chelsey has spent the last decade cultivating her love of youth and media, from New York to Oakland, Vancouver to Nicaragua. She provides a perspective on ethnography in education outside of the United States with a fascinating account of doing ethnographic research on a youth radio organization in Nicaragua – while also running the program. She shows us that her deep entanglements with the program were an asset, not a liability, and invites us to reflect on the entanglements that any ethnographic research necessarily creates.


An experienced education researcher recently admitted to me that they did not allow their students to conduct dissertation research in spaces where the student was not only a researcher, but also a facilitator, teacher, leader, or producer. It was an admission of curiosity: I have conducted my own dissertation research on a program I am intimately involved with – I led this program’s inception, designed its goals, formed the partnerships necessary to carry out the program, trained its staff, and mentored its youth. In fact, I grew up within the broader auspices of the Amigos de las Americas (www.amigoslink.org) program, and only through years of involvement was I given the opportunity to craft and direct the media program in Nicaragua. I could have never conducted my ethnographic research on how youth come to tell particular social justice stories without these most intimate connections.

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The recognition that this entire project would have been located outside this researcher’s “rules” urged me to consider the possibilities and limitations of such close research and programming work. Certainly, ethnography is always a research practice built upon and muddled by complex relationships between researcher and research subjects. As researchers interested in the personal, the everyday, the experiences of folks, and the way events come together and shift, ethnographers enter into relationships where roles of “researcher” and “subject” are often unclear, where friendship and research grow from each other and even depend on each other.

As a researcher drawing on feminist ethnography, this gets even more complex as I am invested in a research practice that critically engages with the power dynamics in relationships, friendships, communities, between researchers and researched. The experienced researcher’s stance, then, serves to make their student’s lives less complicated, their research just a bit less tangled up with the researcher’s multiple commitments. Yet, the tangles I have encountered as I research civic engagement and youth media in Nicaragua are visible to me only because I inhabit both roles, and those tangles are productive, fascinating, and generative. I have been privileged to engage with a richness that would have been impossible without ebb and flow between both roles.

How I came to AMIGOS as a site – and to ethnography as a research method

I came to my research with youth media producers in rural Nicaragua before I ever called it “research.”

In 2009, I had the opportunity to collaborate with youth from Boaco, Nicaragua, on the development of a program to address civic engagement and youth leadership in rural communities. AMIGOS (www.amigoslink.org) works with young people and communities from across the Americas, and youth from other countries (mostly the United States but increasingly Latin America) partner with rural communities in Latin America for extended periods of time to carry out small-scale, youth-led community programming.

Together with the youth in Boaco, Nicaragua, I crafted a program in which youth leaders identified social issues relevant to their lives, produced short media projects about those issues, and then identified, planned, and carried out small scale community development projects. With an eye towards using the media projects as an entry point for civic engagement, this program ran for three consecutive summers in twelve small communities. Youth from the United States, elsewhere in Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic participated for periods of seven weeks alongside the teenage participants in Boaco, and together they made hundreds of media projects about a wide range of issues, including the environment, health, gender, entertainment, and children’s rights, to name a few.

I was interested in how the video projects came to be – in the messy event of media production in which young people struggled over meaning and storyline. I was fascinated by the way youth worked together, negotiating disagreements and balancing power relations that seemed to arise from the entrenched relationship of colonialism and racism that plague the Americas and the development industry itself. For years, this was a relationship I struggled with, especially as a young white woman invested in an organization working on “development” in small, rural, Latin American communities. It was participatory development, progressive development, sure – but at its roots, this organization shares, along with every other development organization, a history that owes itself to colonization. I questioned whether or not the move to “participation” and participatory decisions, programs, projects, meetings, plans, evaluations and everything else really addressed the structural inequality and the uneven and ugly history everyone wanted so badly to move beyond.

And yet, I drew on these same discourses to shape the youth media program, and did so in partnership with youth participants. As they began to produce what I called ‘social just media,’ I wondered at the repetitive production of particular narratives and the absence of others. I noticed the ways in which pedagogy – my own, the program’s, my staff’s- shaped participants’ stories and experiences, and considered the role of the institution in the production of their (media) stories.

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Questions arose about civic engagement, about social justice, about how our programs come to be, and, significantly, about the ever-shifting relationship and the frequently large gap between the stories we tell about social justice, youth, and media programming and the lived experiences of youth participants in these programs. These questions formed in my mind as a programmer and as a theorist, and as a researcher I turned to ethnographic methods. Ethnography allows me to delve into the politics of media production in the development context, and made for a flexible structure to work within as I played multiple roles and asked the youth involved for their input. I collected stories, interviews, videos, journals, and field notes of youth as they went about their experiences in this program.

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Ethnographic entanglements: an example

One early morning, we hosted a workshop for sixty youth – Nicaraguan, North American, and Dominican – working on media projects, with the intention of spending time learning video-editing software and working through social justice storytelling techniques. I was excited to record the workshop and to think about our pedagogy and how the youth participated in my own research. Just as we settled in after breakfast for some video editing, the electricity went out. Leaving my recorder in the hands of a teenager who was very involved, I sprinted through the streets to a restaurant I knew had a generator we could use to power to the projector and computers. These sorts of issues requiring immediate attention interrupted my research often, and yet, my involvement in the urgency of this “just in time” pedagogy also informed my understanding of the embodied reality of youth media programming in Latin America in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. That crisis resolved, the group divided in half to work on technology and to consider social justice issues in their own lives.

As I recorded the social justice conversations, I was called away from the group because two Nicaraguan girls were in tears, struggling to connect with their American counterparts. Supporting them, and eventually including their American peers, we negotiated cultural misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Often the typical challenges teenagers face when working in racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups, these kinds of conversations were the backbone of my understanding of their experiences. The girls involved in this conversation produced a video about the history of the community, and I knew it grew out of an attempt for the Nicaraguan girls to explain their lives to the American girls and vice versa – an attempt to move beyond the misunderstandings and an instance in which they tried to listen, to understand, and to contextualize their experiences with each other. Without claiming they did so successfully, or that their lives were transformed through this experience, I had an opportunity to consider the complexities of youth media production at the international level through the complexities and negotiations of this particular group of girls.

That afternoon, young people boarded buses back out to their communities, and I rode a truck out with one group of young people to a community meeting. Together with local development professionals and community leaders, we met with youth and the community to discuss the media equipment in the community. Conflicts over where it should be kept, how and when (and if) it should be rented out, and who had to pay to fix it arose. Some community leaders wanted youth to write a proposal for each video-rental, hoping to encourage civic engagement. Youth wanted to be able to make funny, short videos as well. Others worried about the costs involved with broken equipment, and whether the person renting out the equipment was being fair in their decisions. As a researcher, I recorded the debates, and as the program director, I played a major role in explaining our vision for the media equipment, in mediating some of the more intense feelings, and in trying to make sure youth voices were heard and respected.

Did I shape that community meeting in important ways, highlighting particular voices from my position of power? I certainly did, though had I only been an ethnographer, my presence would have shifted the meeting as well. Instead, I write from an often intimately conflicted position, one where my desire for youth to be able to produce media about social justice issues has driven this entire program. It is a position I must critically engage with and reflect on, and one that also informs my writing in the closest of possible ways.

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Had I been simply an “ethnographer,” I would have never sat down with youth to work out personality conflicts or mediated a community meeting about how to manage media equipment, nor would I have played such a critical role in the design of workshops and ultimately, the shaping of the stories produced by youth involved. And yet, as the program director, I would have never allowed an ethnographer to edge her way into the program, the lives of these teenagers, in the way I did. Those relationships, built over many years, shaped the research I could do in a few short years.

Soep and Chavez refer to these sorts of relationships in youth media research as “thick participation,” a relationship in which “off the page we ‘converse’ with the young people and adults who populate this narrative, not only for the purposes of research.” (Soep & Chavez, 2010, p. 7). Working from within the intersection of producer and mentor, my research becomes dialogic. Situating media production from within cultural and structural relationships, I play multiple and sometimes conflicting roles as researcher, mentor, producer, friend, programmer, and confidant, among others. And I have found that this conflict can be incredibly generative.

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Categories: Editions, Ethnography in Education, Guest posts

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