Faculty Research Spotlight: Douglas Sharon

A few days ago we featured Marisa Alvarez, MA/MPH candidate, and her research project in Peru led by Dr. Douglas Sharon. We asked Dr. Sharon a few questions about his 40+ year career working and researching in Latin America. We hope you enjoy!

Douglas Sharon is an anthropologist (Ph.D., UCLA) and retired museum director (University of California Berkeley’s P.A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, San Diego Museum of Man). He has conducted field work on shamanism in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Currently he co-directs an ethnobotanical field school in Trujillo, Peru on a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is also a research associate at the Missouri Botanical Garden and an adjunct professor at San Diego State University (Center for Latin American Studies) and the University at Buffalo-SUNY. His ethnographic film “Eduardo the Healer” won awards at the American, Modern Language, and John Muir film festivals.

Dr. Sharon in Peru, photo by Marisa Alvarez

How did you get involved in research projects in Peru?

In my mid-teens, I dropped out of high school in Canada to join an archaeological explorers’ group in Peru working with the Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of the National University of Trujillo. Little did I suspect then that this would become a lifetime relationship, interrupted for brief periods by field work in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Initially, I was interested in archaeological field work, especially in sites off the beaten path on the eastern flanks of the Andes. Of 12 expeditions, two in particular attracted attention by professional archaeologists, i.e., Vilcabamba, capital of the neo-Inca rebel state in the Cuzco hinterland and Pajaten, an enigmatic extention of  the Chachapoyas culture of the northeastern Andes. However, over time, working with indigenous communities in the field, I began to gravitate toward the ethnography of grassroots customs and beliefs. This shift first occurred when we hired a local shamanic folk healer (curandero) to guarantee our success on the Vilcabamba expeditions, especially when I observed first-hand the curandero’s impact on our workers. Eventually I was motivated to go back to school and pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA.

What have been your biggest challenges over the years as a researcher and how have you overcome them?

The biggest challenge over the years has been how to effectively deal with a deep-seated prejudice against curanderos originally rooted in the Spanish Inquisition and perpetuated, beginning in the late 1700’s, by Western medicine. When I began my research in what has become known as Traditional Medicine, I assumed a very low profile, especially since curanderos were regularly persecuted by the authorities. However, early on I learned a very important lesson from the first curandero that I worked with, Eduardo Calderón Palomino. Unruffled by the prejudice he saw visited upon his colleagues, he was a charismatic extrovert with a great sense of humor who took great pride in the services he provided to his community. And many of the authorities were among his clientele! I soon learned to follow his positive example.

The first example of this change in my approach came with the second article I published on my work with Eduardo, a cover story in Natural History (November 1972) beautifully illustrated with the fabulous imagery of National Geographic photographer, David Brill. The article featured Eduardo, front and center, and identified him by name–at his insistence. (I had used a pseudonym in my first article.) As a result–much to my surprise–I began discovering a deeper, less-biased level of appreciation for curanderos at grassroots than what I had originally perceived.

Another example of my personal paradigm shift came in the late 1970s when, for two consecutive years, I taught a course on Traditional Medicine at the University of Trujillo’s School of  Medicine . The class was intended to prepare graduating med students for their year of obligatory social service in underserved communities, a rationale accepted by the school’s administration since at that time there was no training or preparation for these students.

Over the years, I am pleased to report that I have observed a reduction in prejudice regarding the services that curanderos are rendering to the people of Peru. The latest example of this change in attitude occurred recently when the Ministry of Culture obtained approval of legislation declaring the curanderismo of the north-coastal region of Peru, the major center for this tradition, as “cultural patrimony of the nation.”

What advice would you give to students looking to do international research?

As far as advice for students looking to do international research is concerned, my advice is simple. Keep an open mind. Be receptive to ways of life and values that may not resonate with the world view (including the academic version) into which you have been enculturated. In my opinion, this is the best antidote for culture shock. Cultural context is important; cultures are different. It is this difference that distinguishes our species.



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