Mexican Exposures and NESTSMX

I joined Liz Roberts’ Mexican Exposures project as a postdoctoral researcher in August 2017.

As part of the NESTSMX team, I develop models to understand and theorize interdisciplinary and transnational collaborations between anthropology, public/environmental health, and civil/environmental engineering. Additionally, I bring my material culture and STS background to our collective theorization of water as a (material) object of trust and suspicion.

On a day-to-day level, I project manage the two major collaborations, MEXPOS and NESTSMX, and I manage and co-teach the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab.

Mexican Exposures

Mexican Exposures (MEXPOS) is a collaborative project that brings together medical anthropologists and environmental health scientists to create a bioethnographic research platform. MEXPOS combines data gathered through both ethnographic and bioscience methods to arrive at a better understanding of the larger histories, life circumstances, and environments that shape health, disease, and inequality.

Tomatillos and peppers on the stove in Mexico City, 2015. (Photo: Liz Roberts)

In the fall of 2012, Mexican Exposures P.I. Elizabeth Roberts (Liz) began working with ELEMENT researchers at the University of Michigan and project participants and staff in Mexico City. ELEMENT is a longitudinal birth-cohort studying the effects of chemical exposures, particularly lead, on fetal and childhood growth and neurological development. In 2014–2015 Liz began an intensive ethnographic study of six ELEMENT participant families living in two working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City.

An important innovation within MEXPOS is its experiment with collective ethnography. The field notes written by Liz and her field assistant in 2014-15 are being collectively analyzed and interpreted — as part of an undergraduate lab, and when other ethnographers use the notes. Additionally, since 2015 the team has expanded to include multiple anthropologists and other social researchers (notably David Palma, Camilo Sanz, and myself) who continue to contribute field notes to the project.

My own research within MEXPOS draws on this archive and my own interviews with ELEMENT staff/researchers. Continuing my research into technicians and scientific-labor in transnational field sciences, I am exploring the concept of ‘missing data’ and the role of field and administrative staff in ELEMENT’s long history.

Water Trust in Mexico City: NESTSMX

Neighborhood Environments as Socio-Techno-bio Systems: Water Quality, Public Trust, and Health in Mexico City (NESTSMX) is an NSF-funded four-year interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together experts in environmental engineering, anthropology, and environmental health from the University of Michigan in the U.S. and the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública in Mexico. The PI is Elizabeth Roberts (anthropology), and the co-PIs are Brisa N. Sánchez (biostatistics), Martha M Téllez-Rojo (public health), Branko Kerkez (environmental engineering), and Krista Rule Wigginton (civil and environmental engineering).

Some of the NESTSMX team, Mexico City retreat/field trip March 2018. (photo Ana Benito)

NESTSMX works with ELEMENT families living in Mexico City. Our overarching goal is to understand neighborhoods as “socio-techno-bio systems” that shape people’s trust in (or distrust of) their water.

Our initial field work, conducted between January – September 2019, involves ethnography and environmental engineering fieldwork with these families, which we plan to combine with new biological samples taken at the same time as the fieldwork and historical bio-marker data from the ELEMENT bio-bank.

Thus we are following the infrastructures and social structures that move water in and out of neighborhoods, households, and bodies.

As part of the NESTSMX team, I am attuned to the interdisciplinary and transnational collaborations involved. Additionally, I bring my material culture and STS background to our collective theorization of water as a (material) object of trust and suspicion.

Ethnographic Analysis Lab

The Roberts Ethnographic Analysis Lab is an experimental part of the Mexican Exposures project (MEXPOS). Run as an undergraduate course, approximately ten students a year are trained to use Atlas.ti software to read, code, and analyze ethnographic data. MEXPOS benefits from the work students do to analyze the primary material. In their day-to-day work and through weekly lab meetings students are encouraged to look for and develop their own lines of interpretation based on their own and each other’s coding.

The Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab, Dec 2017. (Photo: Liz Roberts)

This process has highlighted some intriguing methodological issues that I am exploring in parallel with my prior research on archaeological practice and epistemology. Ethnographic field data typically serve as a mimetic device, reminding the ethnographer of knowledge gained through first-hand embodied experience in the field. Notes are usually highly personal and never intended to be read in their raw form by other people, much less made available for others to pore over, critique, and use. However, having a group rather than an individual work with the research material opens up possibilities for ethnography as a collective enterprise, even as it remains an embodied and experiential form of knowledge making.

Students have found patterns or interpretations in the text that were not apparent to the initial ethnographers. Students have also brought to the data their own life experiences—as young women, for instance, or as students of color—and their diverse academic training in biology, public policy, and international studies, to name a few examples. They are required to interpret the thoughts of not only the subjects of the project, but also the ethnographer who produced the written or photographic record. This brings to the fore the nature of ethnographic data, produced as it is through the records, recollections, and analytic capabilities of the ethnographer and, in this context, a group of student interpreters and coders in a lab.