The slow crawl of entering the field

I always intend for careful preparation to make my life in the field as a researcher a whole lot easier. When I was planning my return to my field site to begin research, I knew I was in a unique and advantageous position because I had already spent eleven months learning my field language in the same city where I would collect data. At the end of my language study I began making appointments to meet with people and groups with whom I would conduct observations and interviews. My thoughts were that careful planning and a head-start to networking would ensure a quick re-entry to the field and a swift start to my participant observation periods. I took care of prerequisites to beginning research, such as IRB requirements, and made sure all consent forms were submitted to the institutions. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have days of sitting around waiting to begin research. This, to me, was one of the worst things I could imagine- all that wasted time! Of course, despite my careful preparations, there was still a slow entry period from which I’ve been able to learn a lot from.

My primary goal of beginning to make connections before leaving my field for two months was to extend my network of interlocutors. First, I asked people I had met during my initial time in my field site to introduce me to others – also known as “snowball” sampling. Since they were doing me a favor, I needed to make my schedule according to when they were available to help me. When I met with folks before leaving, I told them exactly when I would be back and asked to plan our next meetings at that time. Most people requested that I get in touch with them after I returned and not before. So instead of having meetings set up when I returned, I ended up needing to start the entire process over again. I was surprised that my interlocutors, all well versed in technology and avid texters, actually needed me to be in the same physical location as them as a precondition to arranging meetings and interviews. Added to that was my dismay upon realizing incorrectly that I could not actually recuperate from jetlag in a matter of days. With a slight shock and the need to recalibrate my careful plans, I realized that commencing my research was going to take much longer than anticipated. Therefore, I put together a few ways to deal with my slow (re)entry and any other slow periods that I’m sure will pop up again in my research.

Time away from the field

I still believe that making myself known to many of my interlocutors and affiliated organizations before I left my field for two months was advantageous, though I now see drawbacks to this approach. When I initially began making contact to lay a foundation and make myself familiar, it was much easier to follow up and “snowball” contacts. With the gap in time, although I met with people before I left the field, I lost the advantage of following up immediately with the other individuals whom they mentioned I should connect with or who they would connect me with. If I had waited to initiate some of these meetings and had begun to build a network only when I was consistently present, the whole process may have been faster. Now, six weeks into my fieldwork, I am still trying to gain back access to some of the contacts who were made available to me before I left.

This slow entry is good and has helped to build stronger and more meaningful connections, but I think it should be coupled with smaller goals to make the initial contact periods useful as well. When I first visited my site in the summers of 2013 and 2014, I was also eager to make contacts who I could return to when I began my year of fieldwork but for those trips I had smaller goals like to learn as much as I could about the education system or more micro-analysis of classroom discourse- goals that wouldn’t deter or delay my broader project but still useful in their own right.

Downtime and getting into a routine

Another important lesson I inadvertently taught myself is that downtime and seemingly unproductive periods of time are important, useful, and necessary. It is impossible to be “on” all the time.  Moreover, it is detrimental to my research to be constantly trying to milk my activities and the people surrounding me for useable data. Not only would I become an annoying companion if I turned every social gathering into an interview or observation opportunity on the topic of my research, but I have found that I also get saturated. At times when I stop absorbing information, I don’t always notice unexpected pieces of data if I’m specifically looking for something or spending too much time focusing on one narrow aspect. For example, since I do the bulk of my research in schools, if I spend too long in a school or classroom, I stop paying attention to the interactions that I am there to observe and my mind begins to wander. I’ve found that it is better for me to do shorter, more intense periods of observation than long and drawn out ones. I think of it as fishing with a rod rather than a net- both good methods to catch fish depending on what you are looking to catch and the time and patience you have.

I’m learning that I need to take time and step back to think about the broader goals of each interaction, interview, observation, and the larger picture rather than barreling into research head first. Sometimes what I saw as unproductive time was being productive at something else (see the next section for examples of this), and I didn’t need to fill my time in an effort to do as much as possible. While recognizing that collecting ethnographic data is far from a structured 9 to 5 job, it has become necessary for me to approach my work and data collection as a similarly structured routine. This routine is separated into hours for data processing (me sitting and re-reading notes and thinking) and analysis (coding, taking notes in my notes, grouping those notes into different patterns, etc).

Side tasks

In the days leading up to my re-entry to the field, I had a list of side tasks that I needed to complete. I began sifting through them as a means to learn more about my field site. These tasks included such seemingly mundane activities like going to a bank and submitting residency forms.  I also felt that in having the time to do side tasks, I hadn’t actually started my research yet. If I had been collecting data at the schools as I had intended at the time, I would have viewed these other errands as inconvenient distractions from my main task at hand- researching language, education, and social class identity. However, since I wasn’t focusing on what I saw to be my main research topic, I began to see and interpret differently some useful pieces of data in the side tasks.

Upon reflection, I was again humbled to learn that my research had of course already begun. This may sound contradictory to my last point but by having unstructured downtime but I began to see these tasks and errands as useful. I was also able to focus on other non-time sensitive research related tasks that I told myself I would get around to doing eventually. With so much unstructured downtime, I decided to still try and do something directly related to my research every day. It could be anything from translating newspaper articles to re-reading notes from the past year. These ended up being tasks I needed to complete that did not seem directly related to my research but could still shed light on some of the broader themes and areas that my research delves into.

Now that I see a structure to my data collection becoming clear, I’m learning how valuable it was to have that slow entry, despite being anxious and eager to begin what I saw as my “real work.” I am also learning that I need to constantly reevaluate my goals and perspective on the work that I’m doing and the data I’m collecting. That way, I can avoid running on autopilot and ending up under a pile of data thinking, “What do I do now? How do I make sense of this?” Being flexible and constantly reevaluating my approach to my fieldwork and the goals of that fieldwork is a great deal of mental exercise and a lot more exhausting than I anticipated, but because I have autonomous control over many areas of my research I end each day (after writing up fieldnotes, of course!) feeling overwhelmingly fulfilled and grateful to be able to do this work.


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