Fieldwork, Insecurity, and Tacit Learning

To conduct fieldwork is a process of initiations, where the fieldworker gradually crosses boundaries that separate insiders (those who have been there) from outsiders.  This is a process that is saturated with insecurity, and fieldwork is thus about learning while coping with multiple sources of insecurity.  –Elin Saether, in Doing Fieldwork in China, p. 42

The author doing fieldwork with foster families in Southwest China.

For the last few months, I’ve been pouring over a book a friend brought to me entitled Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen (2004).  When I first stumbled upon the title on the internet and began browsing its pages on googlebooks, I scratched my head and lamented that I hadn’t encountered this book prior to going to the field.  However, in some ways reading through the book while in the field and entering my last phase of fieldwork has provided comfort, peace, and insight into the ultimately open-ended process of tacit learning we call fieldwork.

There was one essay in particular in the book, a self-reflective look by a Ph.D. student at her own dissertation research in which she recounts her moments of self-doubt, fear, and insecurity that she reminds the reader are central to the process, but rarely disclosed.  Elin Saether‘s essay in the volume, “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning,” is a must-read for students preparing to do fieldwork or in the process of fieldwork, whether in China or any other country.

In this post, I track some of Saether’s poignant points and my own reflection, which I hope will be helpful to other Ph.D. students preparing for and conducting fieldwork today.

BE PREPARED FOR MULTIPLE SOURCES OF INSECURITY:  Drawing from Saether’s quote above and her essay, one must realize that fieldwork is a constant process of boundary-crossing that makes all ground subject to shifting, and that’s been really difficult for a type A personality like myself.

I wish I’d reflected more on these sources of insecurity (among them language-learning, visa negotiating, living in a foreign country, finding informants, and establishing rapport) with friends and professors before entering the field.  I’d suggest to future fieldworkers that you prepare for this life of insecurity not only by doing the necessary academic and foreign-living preparations, but by meditating on struggles you’ve had in life, and how you overcame them, so that you can draw on these for sources of inspiration when you’re running low on energy and stamina while in the field.

BE WARY OF GATEKEEPERS: Saether talks about the subject position for the Ph.D. student as a humble one.  She’s not only the outsider in the new culture, the odd one out doing research, but she’s also new to the research field, and is relying on other scholars who have been there before to give her an accurate picture of what fieldwork looks like.  While professors can often mean well by stressing the importance of language skills and familiarity with the country or the field site, I think it’s important for young scholars to recognize when we’re looking for information versus validation.  If you have fears, talk to people who you trust (in academia or outside of it) about them, and be aware that many professors are far-removed from that first fieldwork experience so they’re not going to bring it up.

I had a particularly discouraging conversation with a professor about my research early on before I had done significant language-learning in which she dismissed my passion for my topic, arguing that it would be impossible for me to do the project based on my (at that time) lack of language skills.  Instead, I took my mom’s advice and immediately enrolled in Chinese, and have never looked back!

Although language-learning has been difficult, I’ve tried to take a more encouraging stance with others who contact me looking for advice about doing research in China.  If you’re willing to put in the time to study the language (and that’s just one facet of doing good research) that’s important, but your commitment to your dissertation topic and its feasibility is equally important.

GRACE AND GETTING STARTED:  Saether talks about how after she’d settled into her life in China, one of the  most daunting parts of her project was the first in the process of initiations relevant to fieldwork, as mentioned above.  How does one get started?  After hesitating to pick up the phone to do cold calls and getting little response, ridiculing herself and feeling disappointed, she decided to make list of everyone she’d met, and realized that if only one connection to her research came out of general conversations, they would certainly be worthwhile.

In yet another section, she discusses all the tacit learning that goes on in fieldwork, and the connections that come out of seemingly profitless interviews or conversations on the street.  Being open and hopeful about possibility and potential in every encounter in fieldwork is a worthwhile attitude to cultivate, but it’s not without difficulties.  It’s important, then, to offer yourself some grace when it comes to the fears that get the best of you or the doubts that you have.  Look at them and try to see them for what they are, and then make the choice to try again.

WASTED DAYS, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONTACT OUTSIDE THE FIELD:  In other sections of the essay, Saether discusses failures (of geographic location, missed connections, lack of cultural and linguistic expertise) as parts of learning, and even mentions “days wasted watching American DVDs, reading spy novels or in other profitless ways.  I cannot claim that these days contributed much to my understanding of the critical press in China [her dissertation topic],” she continues.

Still, they were there, in between the days when things were happening, as days where the feeling of insecurity and failure crushed the ability to cope with that insecurity and move on.  Those days are difficult, as much because they are so very much out of place in fieldwork discourse, which emphasizes the active approach taken by the fieldworker.  The empty days made me doubt the entire project, or at least question my ability to get something done later that could contribute to academic discourse. (p. 54-55)

It may sound as though Saether regrets these unproductive, “wasted” days, but in fact, I think she’s bravely mentioning that they will be there for all of us, so the challenge is not to omit or avoid them, but live through them, and use them to refuel rather than ridicule oneself.

I mentioned in an earlier post about twenty-first century fieldwork that the terms of fieldwork are fundamentally different today than in the past, with internet access, and the ready possibilities of global contact and communication from just about anywhere in the world.  However, I genuinely think that if twenty-first experiences of cultural connection propel one toward healthy psychological well-being and in this way and others (access to scholarly articles, advisors, grant information, emotional, physical, and spiritual support) mostly contribute to doing good fieldwork, we should embrace them.  In any event, It’s impossible to ignore them and decidely unprofitable to quibble that they make the fieldwork experience today less genuine, so the challenge then is to consider how to use global social networking to enhance rather than detract from one’s experience in the field.

I’d be interested to hear others’ examples of this.  

Personally, I’ve found that the more contact I have with my advisors, the better.  I often get stuck in my own patterns of analyzing, asking questions, and doubting the worth of what I’m discovering.  However, the more I talk with trusted people in my field, yet outside “the field,” I find the motivation, affirmation, and insight to keep going, yet adjust my data gathering techniques toward maximum effectiveness.

STEPPING OUT OF THE FIELD:  Many grants and fellowships will stipulate that one cannot leave the country of fieldwork for the grant-funded period of research, but I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to one professional conference after a year and a half in the field, and take a few brief trips to areas with greater internet and library access to refuel.  To me these were invaluable opportunities to step away from my life in China, my informants, and my project and take this freedom to reconceptualize the trajectory of the project, check up on resources and find new inspiration.  In all cases, I returned to the field refreshed, even though I seriously doubted at the time whether leaving would be unproductive or distracting.  Even if you can just take a weekend trip to somewhere relaxing, where you can review your notes and ponder them away from all the intensity of the actual data collection, I imagine this exercise will serve you well.

Likewise, these opportunities allow you to assess where you’ve been, how far you’ve come, and be grateful for the work that you’ve done, rather than only focus on what’s left to do and your fears and inabilities.  This confidence is central to good fieldwork, and yet we rarely talk about the emotional and psychological well-being of the fieldworker.

I’d love to hear what challenges other Ph.D. students have encountered in their fieldwork and how they’ve dealt with them.  How do your experiences compare, and how can we work through a more honest dialogue about insecurity, failure, and tacit learning in the field?


4 thoughts on “Fieldwork, Insecurity, and Tacit Learning

  1. My fieldwork hasn’t involved the differences you’ve encountered, especially linguistic ones, and I only did a pilot part of my fieldwork. However, I feel a lot of the same way this essay author and you did about insecurities and difficulties in the beginning. Although my pilot study was ultimately pretty fruitful, I had a few dad at the beginning where I didn’t meet many people, got maybe one interview the whole day, and walked away feeling like I was wasting time and money doing this. But I did things like practice interviewing people I knew, thought up different introductions for myself, and held on to the small victories at the beginning.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I like your productive use of time, working on intros and practicing interviews. I think when things are slow, it’s easy to start thinking we’re wasting time, when later on there will rarely be time for much-needed practice on these sorts of things, so time is rarely wasted. Would love to learn more about you and your research. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Reading this brings back memories for me too. I know we aren’t in the same line of work but I also know that Jason and I can personally identify with the author’s feelings as far as almost every point goes. I remember stumbling upon a little booklet put out by some company in Kunming about a year after we were in China — How to Live and Thrive in China — and thinking ‘oh my God. If only I’d read this before we’d moved to China.’ Only probably, I wouldn’t have read it so thoroughly or I might have just brushed off a lot of things. I’ve given it to a couple of people since when they’ve first arrived and seen them do just that. It’s in our apartment somewhere…it’s nothing you don’t know though! Miss you guys. I know you’re a hard worker, Erin. I know your research will come together and be really useful. I’m very interested to read it myself!

    1. Hi Rachel, Actually I think our work has more in common than not, and I appreciate your comments and your support. Things are going really well as of late, but I’d been meaning to reflect on some of these things for awhile. Again, hoping that my experience can helps someone else out down the road. Miss you guys, too.

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