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Profiles in Teaching: Constanza Ocampo-Raeder

October 26, 2015 at 11:33 am
By Thomas Rozwadowski

When Constanza Ocampo-Raeder gets the research bug, it’s all hands on deck.

The anthropology professor brought her entire family — parents, husband, and two children, ages three and one-and-a-half — to the Piura region of Peru this summer to live in a rented home. Within shouting distance through an open window, two of her Carleton students, Luisa Rodriguez ’16 and Victoria Rachmaninoff ’16, bunked together in a small surf hostel.

Ocampo-Raeder has made five trips to the same South American field site to study traditional fishing communities. The location is the nexus of the El Niño ocean weather pattern. Half the year, Peruvian villagers fish for cold water species; the other half, for warm water. It’s a drastic environmental shift that puts their economic livelihood at risk, which caused Ocampo-Raeder to ponder bigger questions about social identity and capital.

“You’re looking at a group of people who are pretty poor. They are marginalized politically. They don’t have a lot of resources. So how do you make a living in this changing environment?” Ocampo-Raeder says.

“You would have thought they’d leave fishing because it isn’t profitable, but no, they’re continuing with it. Why? That’s the question.”

This summer was the first trip Ocampo-Raeder made with Carleton students. Her eager sociology-anthropology protégés focused on a few key areas for their senior comps research.

Rodriguez (San Antonio, Texas) spent her six-and-a-half weeks in Peru evaluating government poverty assessments (Who qualifies and why?) and exploring identity (What does it mean to fish for a living? Who are the women who support fishermen? How does that symbiotic relationship play out?).

Rachmaninoff (Winnetka, Ill.) mapped neighborhoods and talked to villagers about neighborhood bonds, focusing primarily on what she called “relationships of reciprocity”—a credit-based loyalty system between local merchants and customers. Because they know and trust each other, owing money isn’t an issue during times of economic hardship. Rachmaninoff marveled at her local research assistant who was able to recall 160 houses and the families that lived there, in order, from memory.

“A lot of the people run household stores with rice, soap, and other daily necessities. It really goes against market logic that they could survive when so many are selling the same thing and it could be found cheaper elsewhere,” she says. “But it shows their resilience, and is a real testament to the trust they put in community bonds.”

Rachmaninoff and Rodriguez each conducted about 40 interviews during the visit. A typical research excursion might yield ten.

The high degree of productivity confirmed everything Ocampo-Raeder thought upon leaving a larger university to teach in Northfield.

“One of the reasons I came to teach at Carleton is that I wanted to take students into the field. That’s where the work happens,” Ocampo-Raeder says. “Those kinds of opportunities only happen at Top 20 small liberal arts schools. The time to get research grants, the time off from teaching—it’s what makes these special collaborations possible. Carleton believes in it.”

While each side is quick to credit the other, Rodriguez and Rachmaninoff said that Ocampo-Raeder’s ability to “give power to their ideas” allowed them to push forward independently in Peru. Rachmaninoff admitted that some of her early interviews were duds because she was far too nervous. On cue, Ocampo-Raeder guided them toward a more confident approach without imposing her own vision of how the research should proceed.

Together, the trio would break down strategies and devise questions for the next day’s interviews over lunch or dinner with Ocampo-Raeder’s family. It was a unique bonding experience that marked an important shift in the evolution of their teacher-student dynamic, Rodriguez says.

“The way our collaboration manifested was really funny. We’d be playing with the kids while discussing whether or not the government assessment is accurately capturing poverty in the village. Or we’d be talking about whether they deserve aid, and meanwhile, her babies are running around. It was so awesome to have our lives intertwined beyond the academic side we already got to know at Carleton,” she says.

“These students came to me fully formed,” Ocampo-Raeder adds humbly. “They spoke the language. They understood what it meant to be in a rural place, the ethics of how to behave. I was lucky. They are the product of exactly what Carleton is building toward.”


Constanza Ocampo-Raeder, assistant professor of anthropology

  • At Carleton since 2013
  • Education: Grinnell College, Stanford University
  • Sample courses taught: Anthropology of Food, Environmental Anthropology, Ethnography of Latin America
  • Teaching and research interests: How people manage local resources and how those activities impact different environments; cultural rules and behaviors that govern resource management practices; the impact of global conservation and development policies; Latin America
  • Hometown: Cuernavaca in Morelos, Mexico