Duke professor urges sharing of stories over statistics with border research


The Appalachian Online

Sarah Cho

Charlie Thompson, Duke University professor, author and documentarian, spoke to ASU anthropology students on his recent research and accompanying book “Border Odyssey” on Tuesday evening in Belk Library.

Thompson, a former farmer, is an expert on farmworkers, immigration, and agriculture. Recently, he has concerned himself with the complexities and implications of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“’Border Odyssey’ is a continuation of a number of projects,” Thompson said.

The book is written as a series of vignettes, and the online guide to the project includes short films and outside resources on groups of people he has met while conducting research like “Faces of Time,” a bilingual profile on the braceros.

According to Thompson, he has traveled the entire 1,969 mile expanse of the divide and directed several documentaries on his findings after years of field work.

Despite the extent of his research on the topic, Thompson said he continues to find himself focusing on the individual and looking for the singular compelling stories that allow his audience to connect to his data.

“People usually set [conversations about] the [U.S.-Mexico] border around strokes of fear, hate, drugs and war,” Thompson said. “Instead, I found individual stories.”

Individual stories such as the legacy of Mexican braceros laborers and several parents of the 43 abducted Mexican students. Thompson called them his heroes.

Thompson said that humans best understand conflict through narrative and face-to-face interactions, saying that humans are all basically the same.

Early in his presentation, he drew parallels between a friend of his and scores of Mexican workers, all of whom lost jobs to outsourcing and that much of the human experience is universal.

During the talk, Thompson expressed his support for individualizing and humanizing the effects of globalization, powerfully imploring around 100 students to rely on a “more nuanced” approach to anthropology, which prioritizes sharing of stories over statistics.

“Mass analysis can be dry,” Thompson said. “[It’s] too easy for stories to be lost [or] drowned out.”

Reflecting on his presentation, Thompson discloses that he is always grateful for an audience and the opportunity to share stories, and that these kind of stories have the potential to spark discussion on solving conflicts caused by globalization.

Thompson asked that we analyze how our own lives intertwine with others, and to what extent other people’s plights are our responsibility.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some beginnings,” Thompson said.

Story by: Sarah Cho, Intern News Reporter