Bario Professors: Tales of Naturalistic Research

By SCRA Web Admin – November 21, 2010
OfflineSCRA Web Admin

Edited and written by David Glenwick, Fordham University

Rogler, L. H. (2008). Bario Professors: Tales of Naturalistic Research, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 

For community psychologists, 1965 and the Swampscott Conference of that year represent our Declaration of Independence of 1776 and Magna Carta of 1215. However, many of the questions that remain compelling to us today were being asked even before the beginning, and by researchers and practitioners in a variety of fields (e.g., sociology and anthropology, as well as psychology). How does culture influence the interpretation of those behaviors that we classify as mental illness? How do unempowered populations cope with the daily stressors that they face? What forces give rise to community-based organizations, and what factors influence their longevity and effectiveness? What are the most valid methods of studying communities and their members? It was such questions that intrigued Lloyd Rogler, a young sociologist conducting research in Hispanic communities in Puerto Rico and New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1950s and '60s. In Barrio Professors, Rogler, the son of a White father from Kansas and a Latina mother from Puerto Rico, employs autobiographical fiction--memory melded with fiction--to reconstruct his grappling with those and similar issues during that period of a half century ago.

The author, who achieved subsequent distinction as one of the pioneers of cultural psychiatry, divides the volume into three parts. The first involves his research collaboration with August Hollingshead, the well-known sociologist, in San Juan from 1957-60, on Puerto Rican culture's influence on the onset and manifestation of what psychiatry labels "schizophrenia", as well as on families' ways of coping with the disorder. The second focuses on his investigation of Puerto Rican community organizations in New Haven between 1960 and 1968. The heart of these two sections are vividly drawn vignettes depicting members of these two communities who play a role in his transformation from experimental sociologist to naturalistic researcher. It is these persons--typically from the lower social strata of society--who serve as his barrio professors. The third and shortest section is an epilogue in which Rogler poignantly connects his San Juan and New Haven experiences with his relationship with his father, who in 1940 had carried out the first sociological study ever in Puerto Rico and who was himself a proponent of studying behavior within historical and cultural contexts.

For this reader, the work operates simultaneously on three levels--that of the individual researcher, the community, and community psychology as a discipline. On the level of the individual researcher, Barrio Professors describes the author's journey toward naturalistic research. Trained in experimental sociology in graduate school, Rogler comes to discover the limitations of quantitative and experimental methodology, no matter how psychometrically sound one's measures may appear to be. Gradually, he arrives at an appreciation of participant observation as an alternative approach to uncovering truths. This awakening is not without its missteps and dilemmas, and Rogler, to his credit, is not above presenting himself self-deprecatingly as quite fallible in this regard. For example, he inquires of Vicente de Serrano, New Haven's most powerful Puerto Rican political boss, "Vic, have you experienced role conflict?", only to realize from his respondent's bewildered reply that this is the type of clumsy, jargon-based query that only an academic would ask. Through such trial-and-error encounters, Rogler learns that questions need to be specific and concrete, while reflecting "an attitude of acceptance, sympathy, and good will," if one is to establish trusting relationships with community members.

Similarly, while observing meetings of the Hispanic Confederation of New Haven, Rogler finds that his passivity (grounded in his desire not to influence the group's behavior) causes him to be viewed as "marginal and...enigmatic,... as a stranger in a cultural context that was devoid of strangers." With this dawning awareness, he is able to give himself permission "to act or react with spontaneity and interest" and thereby become more accepted as a group member and more effective as a participant observer.

Yet another challenging situation arises for Rogler when he is, in effect, ordered by Doña Maria, an impoverished part-time cook in New Haven, to be godfather to her grandson and to assume the responsibilities that come with this honor. These include, unexpectedly, finding a crib that would be both functional and symbolically appropriate, that is, without vertical slats, which to Doña Maria represent the bars of the prisons in which all- too-many Puerto Rican males in the United States are confined. Through incidents like these three, we come to appreciate that participant observation, far from requiring one to blend into the background, confronts the researcher with quandaries and choices requiring constant calibration of the nature and degree of one's involvement.

On the community level, Barrio Professors demonstrates how cultural context, including both time and place, influences the behavior of communities and the individuals comprising them. For instance, what to a U.S.-trained psychiatrist is a clear-cut case of schizophrenia, marked by the disorder's characteristic delusions and hallucinations, is to Doña Juana, the "patient," and to the fellow members of the spiritualist congregation to which she belongs, evidence of "facultades," gifts, that if she can pass spiritual tests ("pruebas"--what psychiatry regards as schizophrenic symptoms) will enable her to communicate on a regular basis with the spirits. For Doña Juana, Doña Ina- -her spiritualist medium--is a far more trustworthy guide than is the psychiatrist whom she is forced to see by her husband. Rogler cogently delineates the differences between the medical and spiritual models and their implications, noting that"coping with madness depended on which interpretation controlled the person's life."

Finally, on the level of community psychology as a discipline, the book provides graphic illustration of a number of salient concepts and constructs. Among these are stressors (including poverty, urbanization, and immigration), cultural diversity (e.g., in San Juan, spiritualism vs. Western psychiatry; in New Haven, Puerto Ricans as one of several competing ethnic and racial groups), social support (such as Doña Ina's spiritualist congregation), coping (including a reversal of marital roles in San Juan couples in which, when the husband experiences mental illness, his wife becomes the breadwinner and he secretly does the housework), and empowerment (via community action groups in New Haven). For this reason, Barrio Professors would fit nicely as a supplementary text and springboard to class discussion in both undergraduate and graduate courses.

A brisk and engaging read, Barrio Professors gives three-dimensional life to important issues in a nonacademic literary format. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, San Juan in the 1950s and New Haven in the 1960s may seem quite remote. However, the questions with which Rogler wrestled then, and upon which he reflects in this volume, are hardy perennials meriting our continuing consideration. For both seasoned researchers and newcomers to the field, there is much to value and savor here.


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Post Date:
November 21, 2010
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SCRA Web Admin

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