Agony in Ecstasy: Loneliness and Isolation in Ethnographic Fieldwork

I recently read Rebecca Schuman’s article, “The Not-So-Splendid Isolation of Doctoral Study,” published on’s Don’t Look Back in Anger series dedicated to exploring topics related to the grad-school experience. In the article, Schuman explains that while pursuing her PhD she ignored her physical and mental health, subsuming to and prioritizing intellectual work over all other physical and emotional needs which resulted in isolating herself to an unhealthy degree in her work. The article resonated with me and was able to put words to many of the creeping feelings I had been trying to ignore while engaging in my own fieldwork- mainly those of isolation and loneliness. Although my experiences on the way to getting my PhD are vastly different from Schuman’s, her article spoke more broadly about a period of isolation, both physical and intellectual, that occurs while pursuing higher degrees in specialized topics that require periods of independent data collection, often far from home. In this post I want to share my own experiences with isolation and loneliness to open a dialogue about how although we generally work independently as anthropologists, we should never feel as though we are alone. This blog post does not address a specific methodological approach, but I think it is equally important to discuss how we should keep ourselves sane and healthy while engaging in ethnographic fieldwork.

I’ve found that my anthropological fieldwork is both incredibly rewarding and frustrating. On good days, I am engaged in a meaningful task or bouncing from one meeting to another where I go from being absorbed in one observation to an equally enlightening interview to a fascinating cultural event. When this happens I can’t wait to take down notes and begin to theorize and analyze what I’ve experienced. On these days I feel confident, uplifted, and motivated. I independently plan and coordinate my schedule and it’s wonderful when I feel like I’m able to pull off piecing together what seems like a daunting, scattered puzzle of plans and appointments. When this goes well I’m convinced that I’m right where I should be and even the minute details I’ve diligently recorded will help yield significant contributions not only in my field but also in society in general.

Then there are days when I feel like I do nothing or my careful planning falls through and a long-awaited interview turns out to be five minutes and useless or worse, two-hours and useless. Even harder is constantly trying to explain my work which sometimes feels as though I’m justifying my personal self and my choices to research contacts, family members, and friends. I’m working on a narrow topic and sometimes I find myself so deep in tunnel-vision of my work that I forget not everyone inherently knows what I know. On one hand, this work I am fully engaged in is a professional side of my life and in efforts of having some semblance of work-life balance, I try to carve out times where I’m not working. On the other hand, I’ve uprooted and focused my life around doing this work I’ve carefully planned and looked forward to doing. I can’t keep the personal from creeping into the professional, or vice-versa, when I live full-time in my field and topic- language use in urban settings where every opportunity of communication is an opportunity for data collection.

This highly independent and self-driven project, coupled with the fact that I live alone, leads to a certain level of isolation that I shouldn’t ignore. Working independently on a project means that I don’t have a team or co-workers with whom I work with, or bounce ideas off of in the moment, or fall back on in moments of uncertainty. It is important to note advice from my department is just an email away and I’ve also met some amazing interlocutors, some who I now call friends, who have greatly helped me advance my data collection. However, while seeing a project that is fully my own come to fruition has boosted my confidence, it slowly dawned on me that I am also willingly isolating myself with this work. It took me a while to realize this because on the days I’m successfully collecting data, I spend the whole day among people. But being among others doesn’t mean that I’m not isolated. And this particular isolation is also not a question of language barriers. I find that although I can speak the local language to a certain degree, and most people I work with speak fluent English, I still find it difficult to connect with people. This perhaps comes from difficulties identifying personally with the life experiences of others. Being an anthropologist, I love learning about people and learning about their experiences from their own points of view but I’m an anomaly here as an American of half-Indian descent. I rarely find others who, while they may be interested in hearing about them, deeply share many of my experiences in life and me theirs. It is also very odd from an Indian societal point of view for me to have decided to pursue this path of study, and on top of that, I am a female happily living alone without household help. Embracing my strange position is both extremely liberating and anxiety-inducing.

I surround myself with relatives I’m lucky to have in my field and friends I’ve made in various ways and I keep a busy work and social calendar. It is difficult knowing that for now the end of my fieldwork seems to be too far in the future to see but there will come a time when the end point is within my view. When that time finally comes I’ll have to disconnect myself from the network of social connections I’ve made here and in some ways it will be as if I were never here at all. Sometimes knowing that makes it difficult to get out of bed, forge new connections, and make attempts at deep relationships. I’m no stranger to picking up and moving and keeping in touch with friends all over the world, but as I get older the adventure of it diminishes and the sadness in leaving another newly made life weighs heavier. As I move through these transitions, I’ve taken various measures to deal with my isolation in my work and the feelings of loneliness that come along with it. I’ve sought out help through therapy, made trips back to the US for R&R with family and friends and face-to-face appointments with those at my university invested in my career, and I try to stay connected in all the ways long-distance communication is possible these days through Skype, Email, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Despite the difficulty I have with transitions, culture shock, an inevitable feeling of isolation while pursuing a narrow independent project, and the loneliness that comes with living alone and working independently on a project, I feel that I’ve gotten to know myself much more profoundly by doing this work in the way I continue to do it. I first have to justify to myself what I am doing and why I want to do it before I can explain it to others. I’ve found my way in this project through trial and error and have learned where to turn and what resources to call upon when the failures seem to outnumber the successes. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to learn about myself and my research topic, because the work I get to do is creative work and it still energizes and excites me. However, I had no idea there would be so many positive and negative byproducts of the one product I am diligently pursuing- my dissertation. The emotional stresses of conducting independent ethnographic research should be more openly shared in our circles along with our compelling analyses, findings, and contributions.


One thought on “Agony in Ecstasy: Loneliness and Isolation in Ethnographic Fieldwork

  1. Pingback: “Professor I want to know…”: Reflections on working with a local supervisor for conducting fieldwork in Rwanda – FERSA University of Cambridge Blog

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