Reflections on Research in Puerto Rico

The white British outsider: Reflections on doing qualitative research in Puerto Rico

In this piece Chris Ellis, a Geography teacher at Eton College, discusses his experiences of completing PhD fieldwork about Puerto Rico’s political status issue.  He lived in Puerto Rico for sixteen months, between 2010 and 2011. 

The ‘failure of the century’? 

In Puerto Rico, politicians and political parties do not define themselves in terms of left and right. Instead, they organise around positions on the island’s unresolved ‘status question’: should it become an independent republic, integrate with the United States as its 51st state, or continue as a semi-autonomous US Commonwealth?  Formal domestic politics in Puerto Rico is therefore structured around three party political desires for an uncertain postcolonial future, and not around any set of distinctive ideological positions for engaging with political issues in the present.  So, an unresolved question of nationalism and state-building becomes the structural filter through which all domestic politics must necessarily pass.

However, Puerto Rico is stuck. In spite of six countrywide plebiscites in 1967, 1993, 1998, and more recently in 2012, 2017 and 2020, Puerto Ricans have been unable to reach a clear consensus at the ballot box about which direction to take. On each occasion the traditional status preferences of statehood, Commonwealth and independence, as advocated by the respective political parties, were presented to the voting public. Yet the electorate has repeatedly divided itself almost fifty-fifty between the Commonwealth and statehood options, with the Commonwealth status quo prevailing in 1967, 1993 and 1998, statehood taking heavily disputed wins in 2012, 2017 and 2020, and independence never garnering more than four percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, persistent lobbying by Puerto Rican politicians of all colours in the United States Congress – the institution that maintains Puerto Rico in a colonial relationship and thus holds the power to change it – have been totally fruitless. Faced with a lose-lose situation of plebiscite deadlock on the island and repeated shows of indifference by the powers that be on the mainland (Figure 1), Puerto Rican status politics has arrived at a tranque – the Puerto Rican slang word for ‘dead-end’ (Rivera Ortiz, 2001: 27). Indeed, the status issue was derided in the millennial issue of Puerto Rico’s leading broadsheet as the “failure of the century” (Fernández, 2000: 100).

Figure 1.1: ¡Yo no comprende español! Newspaper cartoon depicting a PNP leader’s insistence that Obama resolve the status issue, but the president claims not to understand. (Source: El Vocero, 2010) 

In my thesis, I was interested to search for the possible ways for Puerto Ricans to move beyond the tranque.  While status dominates the island’s political structure, how – if at all – is it manifested in domestic political practice?  Would I discover ways to make status more relevant – to disrupt the stalemate and move the issue forward?  Or, would I gather evidence to suggest the need to reimagine Puerto Rican politics beyond status entirely?  Below I discuss my experiences of doing research to answer these questions.  Specifically, I explore how my ‘positionality’ as a researcher – white, British, and an unfamiliar outsider – had practical and intellectual effects in Puerto Rico.  Positionality focuses the researcher on their individual relationship to the field in terms of personal characteristics such as nationality, ethnicity, social status, language, political stance, gender and sexuality (England, 1994).  

The epistemological challenge

Social researchers of Puerto Rico face the epistemological issue that existing research is so often framed, directly or indirectly, by Puerto Rico’s status and the debate around it.  As Jackson (1987: 320) puts it, “every aspect of political and academic discourse about Puerto Rico bears the imprint of this fundamentally unequal relationship”.  This situation is manifested in much twentieth century work on Puerto Rico, written from both North American and Puerto Rican perspectives.  The former perspective reflected and justified the interests of the United States to maintain Puerto Rico in a colonial relationship (Lewis, 1963: 250).  For example, Mintz’s (1966) contribution to an academic volume prepared for a US Congressional status commission recommended no revisions to the status quo based on the “extremely dependent” nature of Puerto Ricans (1966: 396). Further, social scientific studies such as Oscar Lewis’ (1964) hugely influential La Vida constructed Puerto Rican migrant communities in the United States as the “Puerto Rican problem” – a group “with inherent moral deficiencies that lacked the necessary… work ethic to improve their social, political and economic condition” (López, 2007: 65).

The latter perspective – writings on Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans – also demonstrate a form of colonial bias in their obsession with the hegemonic binaries of colonialism/nationalism, domination/resistance, and coloniser/colonised.  The traditional, colonial framing of the status debate sees decolonisation within the limited framework of options and solutions that are supposed to be feasible and acceptable to the colonial power – the United States (Rivera Ortiz, 2001).  Ultimately, however, this framework has not only failed to disrupt the dead-end in which Puerto Rico currently finds itself, but has actively created and reinforced it.  I needed to approach status from a different perspective – one that was neither limited to the prescriptive framework of traditional status alternatives, nor confined to the vocabulary that was traditionally mobilised to understand the issue.

Being an ‘outsider’

Given my aim to understand Puerto Rican status politics in a different way, my position as an unfamiliar outsider – neither Puerto Rican nor from the United States – represented an intellectual advantage.  Doing research in another culture, Robson and Willis (1997: 4) note, has the potential to “counter tendencies towards ethnocentric or universalist views”.  Such views characterise much of the existing scholarship on Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.  On the one hand, US-authored social research has often been ethnocentric, colonially motivated, unsympathetic and underpinned by prejudice.  On the other, as outlined above, a great deal of work on the Puerto Rican status issue by Puerto Rican scholars is characterised by universalist views and the unchallenged hegemony of discourses on colonialism and nationalism.  Given that the vast majority of social research on Puerto Rico has been written from either a North American or Puerto Rican perspective, the literature therefore tends to position authors within a coloniser/colonised dichotomy.  

My positionality as a British researcher enabled me, in part, to avoid this identity trap.  While I was obviously unable to examine the Puerto Rican status issue in a way that was value-free, neutral or ‘objective’, I was, on an individual level, able to sidestep the polarisation that has often characterised the debate and even reduced it to caricature (Pérez, 2004).  As I am not from the United States, I escaped easy identification as an agent of, or apologist for, the institutions of US empire.  Moreover, as I am not Puerto Rican (or more specifically, not a Puerto Rican intellectual or politician), I did not attempt to claim epistemological high ground as an optimally positioned insider with an in-depth understanding of the Puerto Rican “reality” or “truth” (for example, see Romero-Barceló, 1978: 70).  Puerto Ricans who write about island politics – journalists and self-styled media analysts as well as politicians and intellectuals – are known to overstate their knowledge and insights in order to argue for the imperative of their favoured status option.  The fundamental problem in this situation, however, is that these authors are products of the very political culture they write about – one in which the status question is hegemonic.  As a result, status gets privileged in accounts that are insufficiently empirical and too often rhetorical (Cámara-Fuertes, 2010: 5).

By comparison, I was able to approach status with an advantageous sense of detachment from it.  Herod (1999: 325) notes that the “outsider” is “constantly questioning and taking things less for granted, often precisely because one does not understand certain things in the way that an “insider” does”.  In this sense, my outsider mindset influenced the development of my particular line of enquiry.  My epistemological starting point was to not take the dominance of the status question for granted.  I did not believe uncritically in the imperative of its immediate resolution, favoured no one status option, and approached with caution the default elite view that status was the most important political issue on the island.  Outsiders have a track record of providing fresh perspectives on Puerto Rican affairs.  For example, the British scholar Raymond Carr was commissioned to write Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment (1984) “precisely because he was new to the subject” (Cabranes, 1986: 452).  Indeed, his selection, Rossant (1984; in Carr, 1984: x) notes, was influenced by the “difficulty of finding a scholar, whether Puerto Rican or American, who had not already made up his mind about what the relationship ought to be”.

Being a geographer

However, my positionality as a Western geographical researcher did have implications in Puerto Rico.  As Bermán-Santana (1996) highlights, the discipline of Geography was implicated in the process of maintaining Puerto Rico in a colonial relationship.  Geographers were involved in the discursive construction of what she calls the ‘doctrine of nonviability’: that Puerto Rico “was not viable as an independent state and had no alternative but political and economic dependence upon the United States because it was too small, geographically too strategic, too poor in natural resources, and too overpopulated” (1996: 459).  More generally Geography has been well critiqued as a project with inseparable links to past colonial endeavours (Sidaway, 2000: 606).  Therefore, as a Western geographical researcher of Puerto Rico, I had to avoid creating an unequal power relationship with my field analogous to the unequal relationship of political power that has existed between Puerto Rico and the United States for over 100 years.  In other words, I needed to avoid the practice of academic neo-colonialism and “incorporate the voices of ‘others’ without colonising them in a manner that reinforces patterns of domination” (England, 1994: 81).

In an attempt to counter the colonial mindset that has characterised the discipline of Geography and its past engagements with Puerto Rico, I decided to undergo a period of extensive pilot fieldwork and cultural immersion.  Pilot work helps to circumvent the common practice of academic neocolonialism where the Western ‘expert’ has fixed their research parameters in a top-down manner before even entering the field.  Indeed, in Orientalism Said (1978) ruminated on “the methodological question” of project origins, highlighting the importance of field experience in the formulation of a topic:

“A major thing I learned and tried to present was that there is no such thing as a merely given, or simply available, starting point: beginnings have to be made for each project in such a way as to enable what follows from them.”

(1978: 15-16)

In my thesis, I was interested in the relationship between the structural dominance of status and everyday politics in Puerto Rico.  Given all Puerto Rican politicians define themselves first and foremost by their status preference for the island, how – if at all – does this influence their everyday political work at the domestic scale?  Far from an arbitrary researcher’s imposition, this focus emerged through an extended period of cultural immersion in my field.  I drafted, discarded, and rewrote my research questions countless times during my time in Puerto Rico, because my understanding of its political culture was constantly being refreshed as I consulted the local literature, conversed with academics at the University of Puerto Rico, networked with political elites at conferences and events, and reflected on my pilot interviews with political elites.  This is how I arrived at an original enquiry (Said’s “beginnings”) that I hoped would offer some new ideas to an otherwise stagnant debate on Puerto Rico’s status.

Being white and British

It is also likely that my whiteness and Britishness influenced the development and progress of my research.  A number of research participants – the central political elites in particular – were white descendants of powerful European families that had settled in Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonial era.  I noticed that many people who were instrumental to my research had felt some connection to the ‘Old World’.  As Walcott (1987) writes, these connections are a significant element of the Caribbean mindset, and illustrate the consequences of colonialism for the forging of contemporary Caribbean identities.  He argues that Caribbean peoples are intimately aware of the relationships between their selves and larger social realities and historical processes.  I believe this mindset made me interesting to participants – the top elites in particular – as it was easy for them to establish an affinity with me based on historical or even ethnic common ground.  One participant, for example, proudly mentioned that his great grandfather was British.

My British identity may also have been advantageous in that it connected with Puerto Rican understandings of prestige, fostering feelings of respect and admiration that could be rooted in a colonial imagination.  Lamming (2002) notes that a colonial ‘consciousness’ has resulted from the systematic attempts of metropolitan rulers to inculcate metropolitan values, images and histories in the Caribbean region – particularly through education.  “England”, he writes, “was the name of a responsibility whose origin may have coincided with the beginning of time” (2002: 1).  Similarly, during the first half of the 20th Century Puerto Rico was subjected to the “civilizing mission” of Americanisation, which established English as the language of school instruction and strongly encouraged the population to look towards the United States (Rodríguez Domínguez, 2005: 93).  While these policies ultimately failed, to this day prestige is conferred to Puerto Ricans who are fluent in English (Lazú and Negrón, 2000).  

These realities may have enhanced my own prestige and eased my integration into the field.  First, it is possible that I was seen as an ‘Old World’ native speaker of English, and therefore something of a novelty on the island.  In this respect, the people of Puerto Rico were very interested in me.  They appeared to be flattered that I had travelled so far to study their island without having any prior connection to it, and respected my efforts to learn Spanish, even though English is one of Puerto Rico’s official languages.  Puerto Ricans were extraordinarily helpful and kind, offering me lifts all over the island to complete my research.  Second, a number of research participants were educated in prestigious metropolitan universities in the United States, and in one case, the United Kingdom.  This increased their affinity with me and boosted my imagined importance.  In a revealing slip of the tongue at a book release, one senator introduced me to his fellow party members as an Oxford scholar (I was not!). 


In this article I have explored how I believe my status as an ‘outsider’ to Puerto Rico had important, and advantageous, effects while I completed my PhD fieldwork.  Politically and intellectually, I was positioned beyond the island’s affiliations and divisions, which have deep roots in Puerto Rican culture and society (Cámara-Fuertes, 2004).  Practically, my whiteness and Britishness eased my access to the island’s political elites.  In social research, positionality matters.  The purpose of discussing positionality is not to overcome it in a search for objectivity or detachment – what Haraway (1989: 584) calls an impossible ‘God trick’ – but to write it into the research.  As Griffiths (1998: 133) explains: “bias comes not from having ethical and political positions – this is inevitable – but from not acknowledging them”.  

I am convinced that my unique identity as a white, British, university-educated student of Geography in Puerto Rico helped to shape my enquiry about its political culture, and enabled me to research it.  Ultimately, I found that much politics gets done in ways that that leave the status question behind, despite the external filter of status on politics in Puerto Rico.  Indeed, at the domestic scale, politicians exercise their power to create a series of effects that only a status resolution is supposed to make possible, according to dominant political discourses in Puerto Rico.  These effects include elevated standards of living, city-state sovereignty, and cultural forms of decolonisation.  Ironically, therefore, a political system that is so profoundly shaped by discourses of nationalism and state building is disrupted in practice by some of the very actors who help to give the system this shape.

Chris received his PhD in Human Geography from Edinburgh University in 2015.


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