Ethical Guidelines For Interviewing Abroad

Beginning this Friday, October 16th, I begin the start of my Fall 2015 travels to Mexico City, where I will be until November 3rd. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the Americas, and within the past decade has seen an explosive LGBTQ social, political and cultural explosion that many of the most conservative parts of the country have not in such a visible way.

Though the conditions of living in the higher wage, cosmopolitan city differ from many other areas in the country, the expansion of HIV/AIDS service organizations here, along with the large, easily accessible queer male sexual culture, makes this a rich ground for autoethnographic writing and direct interviewing. These writings and interviews will allow me to expand the reach of Our Viral Lives, while staking a claim that HIV/AIDS is something that young queer people experience globally, every single day.

With traveling abroad, as a cultural outsider, there are a number of considerations to take into account regarding ethics and motivations for collecting this information. These considerations help ensure that the project is designed to maximize the participation of local participations while avoiding the pitfalls of earlier anthropological or story-driven research. In doing so, I hope to help enhance the visibility of these community-driven efforts in a way that neither exploits or presumes a proper course of action.

The following guidelines will help to shape this research over the next few weeks in Mexico City.

Carefully consider my own cultural backgrounds and assumptions throughout the course of my autoethnographic research.

As a researcher, this principle seems obvious, but it’s often not built into the research process. The way that sexually is constructed through language is fundamentally different in Mexico versus the United States. Though the same “top” and “bottom” distinctions exist as “activo” and “pasivo,” these terms are entrenched in a different system of masculinity that colors how sex roles are perceived. This has created a unique history of queer sexuality and perception of risk for HIV that differs from what we experience in the US.

In another sense, coming as a white outsider, I should expect my sexual interactions to be different on the basis of this outsider status. Because I do not belong to these cultures, in navigating apps, bars, and other in-person spaces I should assume my own experiences are atypical. This is not a limitation of the research, but important to qualify in the process of my analysis, specifically the question of: how does my understanding of being outside this culture shape the way I understand the HIV/AIDS crisis?

Research isn’t one way. It should be participant driven.

This might seem like another obvious point, but when you dive into interview research methodology, it’s clear that the focus is often one-sided in the interview process. The researcher is the point of authority and directs questions at a subject, who then answers them, and afterward the researcher interprets their answers in an analysis.

What if a different model of interview research can be employed where the participants have significant agency in this process? This different model could be particularly useful in navigating English-Spanish language differences, as I am not a native Spanish speaker. The process that I propose is as follows:

  1. The participant is first asked to present a written statement on the following question: “Has HIV impacted your day-to-day life? If yes, in what ways? (e.g. Are you HIV-positive? Do you work in an HIV/AIDS service organization?) If no, why don’t you think HIV has a significant impact on your life?” (This can be written in Spanish, if they are uncomfortable writing in English.)
  2. At the interview, ask the person to consider their written statement. See if there is anything they to add, and structure the beginning of the interview on questions that might have arisen from this. This helps to make them more comfortable initially. Slowly add in other questions, stressing that they should only answer what they feel comfortable with.
  3. After the interview has been translated (and possibly edited for length), give a draft to the participant. Ask for their feedback. Is there any addendum or footnote they’d like to add? Did something get lost in translation (literally or figuratively) in the course of the interview?
  4. Before publishing, ask if there’s any other ways that their interview would benefit their community. Would it make sense to translate the entire thing into Spanish? Would people benefit if there was a collaboration with a local Mexican publication? Is there a Facebook group or Twitter handle that would be wise to share this with?
  5. Follow up 6–12 months after to see how they still feel about the interview, if they would like to continue talking. Possibly add another addendum or writing component to show an evolution of desire and sexuality.

Open a door into the culture by taking local artifacts and scanning or photographing them for easy online access.

The biggest insight into a culture is often printed materials or website content that already exists. While I fully intend to write more analysis on these pieces in the context of my own final product, I also want ephemeral materials to be made available to those who don’t have the means or time to visit these particular locations. I also want to present them without added commentary to allow others to browse them without preconceptions, much like you would be able to in a more fixed archival setting.

What do they ephemeral materials include? Safer sex pamphlets at a clinic like AHF in Zona Rosa or Clinica Especializada Condesa; published guides of LGBTQ life in the city, including depictions of HIV or AIDS in the context of these materials; condom packaging or safer sex kits if they’re available; website resource lists that showcase prominent service organizations, art venues that support queer experimentation, or social media websites that are important parts of the conversation.

These materials also don’t infringe upon or expose identities in unethical ways. These materials are already made public, and are designed for public consumption, so the ethical risks of presentation are less fraught compared to direct conversations or the autoethnographic material I will present that could include conversations on hookup or dating apps, or my own personal profile information.

Have fun in the process, including with other men I’m interacting with.

The entire trip is not meant to be “pure research” (if such a thing could even exist). A big part about trying to belong to communities and to support communities is sharing in fun and pleasure that are mixed with the work I’m doing. Pleasure here doesn’t mean sexual pleasure exclusively; rather, it refers to the capacity to enjoy each other’s company without hierarchical structures or imposed agendas. It’s about using spontaneity in the process of research to develop a symbiosis.

The discussions around sexuality and HIV/AIDS are so dominated in popular culture by fear, shame and stigma that escapism is a great form of regeneration and healing that get lost in the process. Whether it’s grabbing a mezcal at a local bar, going to Museum Dolores Olmedo, grabbing tacos huitlacoche in Condesa, or attending the annual Halloween party run by Anal Magazine, I should never assume that only direct research questions and settings will help contribute to the overall archives of Our Viral Lives, particularly in a city as large as Mexico City.

There are other questions and considerations that can only emerge when I’m in the city. But the above guide is a great start to understanding what it means to research ethically when abroad. My hope is that Our Viral Lives respects and supports local histories in a way that helps build a global network of LGBTQ individuals under 35 committed to preserving HIV/AIDS histories and telling their stories of life in 2015.