When building our lives in the field, there are many aspects to take into consideration apart from the logistics surrounding research and data collection. I recently found myself in a scramble for accommodation while returning to my field site for follow-up research in the summer months between my two years writing my dissertation. Plans changed, something fell through, and I needed to quickly find a low-cost place to stay where I could write. I’d be staying for less than two months and I knew I was very picky about where I wanted to stay based on knowing what I needed to be productive. It was important to me to have a workspace at home, knowing I’d be writing for extensive periods of time. I also needed to be able to cook, exercise, and be walking distance from groceries since I do not have a car or bike while in my field. With so many moving parts to bring together, I started asking other fieldworkers what they found they needed to stay sane and productive in their fields.
When I started to ask other researchers what creature comforts are necessary for them or how they create spaces of comfort while in the field, I learned that it was important to carve out time for ourselves outside of our roles as researchers in our daily lives while in the field. Hobbies or activities are important outside of data collection, reading, and writing. For me one comfort I required has always been to live in a place where I have some privacy and would be able to cook. For me, cooking was a welcome release from the strains of language studies and research. It was something that I could have control over in my personal space when so much was out of my control in my research.
This is a topic that is rarely addressed and verges on the taboo as it assumes we, as full-time researchers, are taking time away from work by doing other activities. But it is important to maintain a balanced life while researching and making sure our accommodations suit our needs and finding activities to do outside of research are good ways to maintain balance while researching. Perhaps these aspects should be considered and discussed as “para-research” activities since keeping good mental and physical health and knowing one’s limits aides in the research process. I asked two other researchers questions about how they made their work spaces and research locations comfortable for themselves and what activities they engage in to keep their sanity while working in a home away from home.
Shweta, a PhD candidate in anthropology, found that some specific decisions she made about her living space while conducting ethnographic fieldwork were attributed to her gender. More than for her own personal comfort, she did not want pressure to be on her hosts to constantly treat her specially and worry about her safety as both a guest and as a woman in the small village in northeast India where she conducts her research. Men, she said, could share a room and hosts would not worry so much over their safety and security. But as a woman in this village, she wanted to have her own room and a kitchen to have a space away from the gaze of her interlocutors and so that hosts would not feel pressured to worry about her knowing she would know how to fend for herself if she had her own, personal space. In previous visits to her field she found that as a guest, she was often given the best pieces of food or fed delicacies and fussed over constantly. Shweta knew that for a longer period of time in her field site she would need a space to “turn off” from ethnographic work and also have her personal space, and a level of comfort and freedom that she was used to having to be productive. Having her own space, she hoped, would also help to incorporate herself into the daily fabric of the village to be treated more closely to a local than as a special guest staying with a host.
Amanda, a PhD candidate in history also working in India, mentioned that it was always important to her to incorporate physical activity into her routine. Wherever she lived in India, she made sure to be able to commute by bicycle and find a gym or take part in other forms of exercise that would keep her active and offset the long hours she spent sitting and working in archives. As she stayed in a relatively conservative provincial capital in India for her research, she mentioned that it became important to her to make time to travel and visit friends in other cities to have respite from the isolation she felt working in her city.
Food and access to amenities also came up in my conversations with Amanda. She found that while working in the archives in a conservative area in her city that there were no suitable options for her to find meals. The archives were connected only to an all-male madrasa where she was not allowed to enter and eat. She structured her day so that she would eat before working in the archives but then plan to wrap up work only when she said she, “Couldn’t take the hunger any longer,” and would have to venture off, in the intense heat of summer by bicycle, to find a late lunch. What often happened was that she would lose energy to return again to the archives, which also closed relatively early. In the afternoons she would complete other work, relax, and try to exercise. Amanda perfectly justified her routine, though she said most people in her field spend whole days in archives and when she mentions her routine she felt that she was not working as much as her colleagues. She was never prepared in her classes for this kind of archival work and realized her days would look radically different if she worked in a larger archive in India or in archives based in the UK or the US where researchers have access to all kinds of amenities and the archives are kept open for long hours. However, spending more time in the archives where she was working was untenable for her due to her gender and location.
The topic of extracurricular activities and hobbies as well as needs for maintaining comfort, productivity, and even sanity during research should to be brought further into conversation to better prepare new researchers for the field. It should be made known that it is good to have hobbies and to engage in activities outside of data collection and research to make sure that one does not get burnt out from overworking. These topics should also be discussed further among well-seasoned researchers because it helps us to better understand how others manage working for an extended period of time away from our usual comforts and how to make a home away from home.