Joseph Taecker-Wyss: Research Methods as an Outsider

B&W map of Long Island

For my Dean’s Award for Summer Research project, I am researching the economic mobility of the Salvadoran community in Long Island. In true Gallatin fashion, I am combining ethnographic and literary methodological approaches. For most of the summer thus far my research partner, Raven Quesenberry, and I have focused on performing our literature review. Doing literary research feels safe. I have been reading books and articles as a Gallatin student for the past three years, but this research is also highly disconnected from the community we are researching.

Brentwood is a hamlet in the town of Islip in Suffolk County. 

I do not have this comfort as an ethnographer. Going into the field, it is very apparent how my position as an outsider plays a role in the research. Due to a series of delays in our IRB process, we have not been able to perform most of our personal interviews. Instead, we have talked to experts, such as local politicians and nonprofit leaders to better understand the community. These have been exceptionally helpful as they are acutely aware of the rapidly changing situation within the community—particularly as Trump has announced that the temporary protected status granted to many Salvadoran immigrants, will be revoked in a year, making many community members to be undocumented. These experts are accustomed to speaking with outsiders about the circumstances of the community.

Raven eating pupusas in Brentwood. Our waiters spoke only Spanish.

We are also spending time in the hamlet of Brentwood, where our research is centered, to get a better sense of the community. This has felt less organic. Just our presence can be felt. The community is largely immigrants. Brentwood is over a third Salvadoran and two-thirds Latino according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Additionally, 70% of the community speaks a language other than English at home. As someone, who is visibly white and is not a native Spanish speaker, this makes me stand out significantly. It also makes me worry about ways in which it will bias our research. Research participants must speak some English biasing our sample and my identity may impact the responses of our research subjects. It is important to be cognizant of these biases. However, there is little I can do to change my own identity. Ultimately, in our research, we aim to elevate the voices of community members not imposed our own perspective on the community. As I have explored Brentwood and as I prepare to interview research subjects, I want to focus on spending more time on community spaces with Brentwood and listening more to others to try to understand their experience.