Crossing over: Insights from fieldwork in Ecuador

I have crossed over, and there is no coming back from that. I have crossed oceans and national borders, going from Ecuador to the UK and back. But I have also navigated through cultures and subcultures, guided by the idea that human wellbeing (what my formal training taught me to call “mental health”) cannot be separated from social context. Months ago, I returned to London after doing one year of fieldwork in my hometown of Guayaquil, in the coastal region of Ecuador. There, I spent most of my time-sharing the daily lives of psychology students, both undergraduate and graduate. I also witnessed how they diagnose and intervene locally, dealing with pervasive experiences of violence, particularly in urban neighborhoods labeled as “marginal”, “vulnerable” and “dangerous”.

My main concern was to understand how culture shapes the training of local psychologists and vice versa, unpacking the moral values implicit in such process. To understand this, ethnographic inquiry was the most convenient approach. Not only because it suited my research questions; but because of its pragmatic epistemology and critical possibilities. In this sense, I also crossed disciplinary conventions: mainstream (a.k.a. positivistic) psychology alone would not have provided the right lenses to address this subject, neither theoretically, nor practically. Tests, surveys or experiments would have failed to grasp meanings and real-life practices.

Ecuador is an amazing country. Of course, being Ecuadorian, it is understandable that I feel that way. Beautiful mountains in the Andes, tropical beaches in the coast, and exotic landscapes in the Amazonia. Not to mention the world famous Galapagos Islands. Local people are welcoming and friendly. In fact, media have reported that Ecuador tops the list of the world´s most empathetic nations (although, as it is common, not reporting limitations around the cultural validity of the study that led to such conclusion). But mine is also a country of great inequality, constructed after centuries of power asymmetries around class, race and gender. Guayaquil, for example, deals with problems such as poverty, crime and substance abuse. Most women are excluded, intimidated, beaten or raped by male victimizers. Teen pregnancy is an alarming problem in many marginalized neighborhoods. Racism is pervasive. Unsurprisingly, many people are in pain, physical and emotional. Local psychologists are required to diagnose and treat this pain. How are they learning to do so? What it means for them to be a psychologist in such complex cultural landscape? What are their declarative and embodied moral values? Is there a gap between what they say they do, and what they actually do? I am still trying to make sense of these, and other questions, and to find the right answers.

“an Iguana visiting the outdoor cafeteria, at the            psychology training institution”

During my fieldwork I did plenty of crossing over. First of all, being a psychologist myself, I had to cross over from the “professional” to the “popular” realm, in order to properly understand local experiences of wellbeing and suffering. Considering I am a middle-class, mestizo (mix- raced), male psychologist, this task had its challenges. Being an ethnographic study, participant observation was my main technical resource. I “hung out” with both psychologists and non-psychologists within and outside the university campus, including population living in so called “marginal” neighborhoods. I lived in one such place myself for more than three months, while the rest of the time my accommodation was on a “popular”, mainly low-middle income area, where many students live. There were boundaries of class, race and gender to be crossed. I also stepped into the cultural realm of young students, a space that I had not occupied for more than 10 years, when I was still one. I attended classes regularly with them; however, some of my most interesting data comes from our informal interactions. What I found was a heterogeneous group, with diverse ideas, moralities and backgrounds. The generosity and trust of all of my informants/participants allowed me to understand more of their worlds, and how these are shaped by both local and global cultural forces, sometimes without them being aware of it. To access this type of knowledge, one simply has to be bold enough to cross over. There is no way around it

When I fly over the Atlantic again to return to Ecuador, I hope to bring new ideas with me. New ways of seeing ourselves and others. Ideas that enhance our knowledge in ways that lead to awareness, and not to the perpetuation of inequalities, exploitation, discrimination and cultural alienation. In a world that is certainly changing in rather unpredictable ways, to unpack how the psy-sciences respond to local suffering is a modest aspiration. But a necessary one, if we are serious about the commonly used rhetoric of transdisciplinary agendas, “glocal” perspectives and worldwide sustainable development. If we want to build new, better societies, we need to start somewhere. And we, definitely, need to do much more crossing over, both in terms of space, culture and identity, as in our academic theorisations and practices. It is not only an intellectual, but an ethical call for all of us. Are we brave enough to, really, cross over?

A few resources:

Cruza-Guet, M., Spokane, A. R., Leon-Andrade, C., & Borja, T. (2009). Diversity, hegemony, poverty, and the emergence of counseling psychology in Ecuador. In L. H. Gerstein (Ed.), International handbook of cross-cultural counseling: Cultural assumptions and practices worldwide (pp. 393–401). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage.

Roitman, K. (2009). Race, ethnicity, and power in Ecuador: The manipulation of mestizaje. Boulder, CO, and London: First Forum Press

Wacquant, L. (2016). Revisiting territories of relegation: Class, ethnicity and State in the making of advanced marginality. Urban Studies, 53(6), 1077–1088.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *