The Discipline of Fieldwork: some of the finer points

These creative little memes are currently circling the interweb, and I finally stumbled on the one for anthropologist…

…which got me to thinking about some of the idiosyncrasies of this work, specifically, some of the things I wish I knew before I went to the field that I know now.  I hope, as I always do with this blog, that this post will attract some conversation from anthropologists who have been to the field, are there, and are going so we can continue to share with one another what we’re learning.

And for those of you who tend to think of anthropology primarily as Indiana Jones, international intrigue, or fossils, evolution, and dusty deserts, I hope you won’t stop reading…or at the very least scroll down for some fun photos of my last couple years as a Ph.D. student!

But for now, on the discipline of fieldwork, and some of the finer points:

1.  Take notes everyday–no matter what.

I mentioned in a previous post about the anxieties and insecurities of fieldwork about the ways self-doubt can derail really meaningful tacit learning.  Well, something I wish I had done ever since I arrived was to put a pen to paper everyday—as a discipline–no matter what.

The point is that when you’re in the thick of things it’s pretty hard to tell what’s significant from what’s not, and it will be hard to bring yourself to write about the monotonous times just as feverishly you write about the lightbulb moments.

But it’s worth doing, because it’s the only way to see your own biases on the page and look beyond them to a new understanding of the culture in which you live.  I said to my husband last night that it’s such an out-of-body feeling to have lived here in Southwest China for nearly a year and a half and feel so close to Chinese friends and families, and yet so far away.  We still come from such completely different cultures, completely different worlds, and even that sense of ‘otherness’ is essential material for fieldnotes, powerful and palpable, and important to capturing the everyday on the page.

So, buy yourself the prettiest notebook and the best pens imaginable, invest in an awesome computer program, an ipad, whatever, and set aside at least fifteen minutes everyday with your favorite coffee or tea, and your jams, to journal anything and everything.

And then watch and wait and have faith that your discipline WILL pay off.

2.  Reflect (often) on the tension in being a participant AND an observer AND the damn instrument of your own research.

This is something that I never really considered in depth before coming to the field:

How does one know when to play the part of observer and when to err on the side of participation?  And to wax poetic, how can one really ever do both faithfully?  

The point is there will be times in your fieldwork where you are more observatory than participatory and vice versa, and only by reflecting on your role, you as the instrument, can you discern which side of the role to err on.  This has been particularly tricky and insightful for me here in China where no one ever gives you a flat-out, direct no, nor do people often give you and emphatic yes, and so we Americans are especially navigating in the dark through the curious conditions of guanxi that make everything here possible.

Journal about these points faithfully, write about what you’re doing in the field (not just what your informants are doing), and talk with friends and professors who you trust as sounding boards for your next step, and toward forming a really conscious plan for attacking the fieldwork.

3.  Set up a weekly email check-in and a monthly call with your advisor.

It’s one of the blessings and the curses of twenty-first century fieldwork that we anthropologists are now rarely out of the reach of technology, one another, and the world when we’re doing our fieldwork. So take advantage of technology and commit to checking in weekly with your advisor and connecting with he or she on a monthly phone call.

There have been many times where I felt completely lost in my fieldwork, and also felt as if I had nothing insightful to say to my advisor.  But without fail, talking to her on the phone made me realize how deeply my head was buried in the sand and how productive (duh) conversation can be with someone who has been there, is wicked smart, knows the discipline, and is rooting for me.  

Fieldwork is an emotional, solitary experience no matter what, so cut yourself some slack and keep in touch with those people who are investing in you.  Trust me, they want to talk to you, and you won’t ever regret talking with them, no matter how humble and messy you’re feeling about what you’re accomplishing or not accomplishing a world away.

4.  Embrace the lack of rhythm.

So if it isn’t apparent to you, I’m one of those Type A personalities, one of those planners who likes things to be on schedule, likes to check things off lists, and likes routine.  A professor of mine looked at me before I left for the field, and told me fieldwork would be very difficult for me for this very reason, because it’s not a regular routine.  There are some weeks where I feel as if I’m doing nothing, and then there are other weeks where I’m so busy and stretched for time I get backed up almost months in writing fieldnotes.

The other thing that I never considered before going to the field was the fact that IRB applications, grant applications, and departmental requirements wouldn’t be put on hold in my absence.  I conceived of fieldwork as this authentic, out-of-academia experience, and it’s not.  Advisors and colleagues will send you journal articles and books to read while you’re doing your fieldwork, you’ll need to meet with professors in your field in the field, you’ll be required to meet deadlines for grants, IRB, and department requirements, and if you’re like me, you’ll lament and feel like you’re having to put aside your face time with people in the field for the monotony of applications with due dates in some alternate universe.

But try not to think of it that way.

Because gradually you’ll see how helpful it is to have to do that conceptual work on your project while you are in the field, how interacting with a few books or journal articles can draw your attention to what you’re seeing around you in a whole new way, and how, well, it’s kind of impossible to complete your project without doing the leg work for visas, IRB clearance, and departmental requirements.  

So, embrace the experience of living in these incongruous worlds and recognize that it’s going to make you a better scholar, even if it does drive you nuts at time.  Set self-imposed due dates and reading and writing projects for the lulls in the action, give yourself grace and embrace the breaks that you have, because you know the storm will come.  And resolve to be a good correspondent and do your best on meeting those deadlines- you won’t regret it later, and you probably won’t miss out on what fieldwork is offering you either.

5.  Don’t feel guilty about living your life.

The thing is, life will also go on in the midst of fieldwork, and that’s also out of your control.  You’ll learn to love your informants despite your fears of going native, things will go on at home and around the world with your friends that you have to choose whether or not to be a part of, and you’ll still be an American no matter how fiercely you’re living as part of any other culture (and here I’m speaking from my own ethnocentrism, so you can plug in wherever you come from and wherever you are!).

But don’t be afraid to love people and be who you are wherever you are.  That’s part of being an authentic instrument, you know, being an authentic human being.  I mentioned in another post that it’s good and okay to take frequent breaks, even get out of the field to think about your project if you can.

And finally, it may be the most obvious thing in the world to state, but you’re still going to be required to be a husband, a wife, a child, a brother, a sister, a mother, or a father regardless of where you’re living, who’s with you, etc.  So do that first and foremost and do it well.  Years later you will never be able to remember your fieldwork fondly if you sacrificed your life relationships to it.  Believe it or not, that’s not the point!

But that’s just my two cents.

So what does an anthropologist really do, you ask?

Well, it’s a little Indiana Jones…

A little bit of danger…

A lot of conversation…

And a little caring.

Photo by Leslie Santee.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “The Discipline of Fieldwork: some of the finer points

    1. Haha, thanks Evan. Well a lot of the insight has come from conversations with you, so I’ll have to give you some credits. Maybe something to tackle AFTER the dissertation, though!

  1. Erin, how come it came to read your notes here so late! What you had written were what exactly relevant to my comprehensive exam!

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