Fieldworking in Real Time, Part I: Taking a Break, Self-care and Self-indulgence in Fieldwork

This month Fieldworking is happy to introduce the first post in a series which documents and details navigating fieldwork in real time. This post, by contributor Shweta Krishnan, outlines what planning on the cusp of entering the field can look like. In a few months she will update readers with a follow up post on the questions she poses in this piece. Check back for new work on fieldwork and data collection!


So far, I’ve only done three summers of fieldwork. My long-term, 12-month long fieldwork period is just coming up. But as it becomes more and more imminent, I find myself asking if I know how to break my time up while I am in the field so that neither I nor my interlocutors unnecessarily exhaust ourselves. I do not mean that I need to create a timetable which carefully tabulates what I will do every week or month and how each of these will contribute towards my overarching research questions. But I am talking about taking time between these organized and required tasks to breathe, take a break and just be. A plan for self-care! Such breaks, I think are necessary in order to remain healthy and restful during the course of the fieldwork. I also believe they will ultimately strengthen my capacity for being more present in the moment when my interlocutors talk to me, and my ability to listen and be more attentive to what they are saying, indicating and doing. Similarly, these breaks might just give them an opportunity to carry on as if I were not around, and then circle back to me after working on their tasks with focus.

During the past summers, I have been very grateful for the time that my interlocutors have given me. I work with a small agricultural community in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley. My interlocutors are extremely busy people, splitting their time between their fields, their looms, their cattle or pigs, and their family. Some of them also work as tour guides. Additionally, there are always boats to make, roofs to thatch, bamboo furniture to make or repair. So, when they take time to sit down with me and talk to me, or take me around their villages I am aware that they are stealing away from other tasks, some of which are lucrative and others are personally fulfilling. Talking to me falls into the latter category, one of my interlocutors told me one day. It pleases him that he is able to speak about his life, and yet, this means he has to take some time away from his routine and fit me into his schedule.Even if he—and others—try to multitask, they are often slower when I am talking to them than if they were working to the rhythm of the songs they sing while weaving cloth or transplanting crops.

Similarly, while I am very grateful for the time they give me, sometimes I find myself wondering if my time in the field can be paced differently. There are days when I start really early, and while I decide to give myself one task—such as follow one interlocutor around—I find myself being invited into other homes, and almost organically slipping into other tasks—such as doing a spontaneous group interview with curious women who first decided to check me out and then decided to talk to me about my research. While some of this is definitely the result of the novelty of our relationship—though I’ve known then for three years, I see them after long gaps each summer eliciting much excitement—some of it is also because of the excitement that both they and I feel about the topic of my fieldwork. I am documenting their everyday lives, and that is something that is understandably as anxiety-provoking as it is intriguing and stirring for them. As for me, this is my first ethnography, and so I am just as often on edge as I am in control and working smoothly through the situations I find myself in. So, very often I pack my day with tasks to make sure I don’t slip up; I never say no to an invitation for fear that I may offend someone, or for fear that I may never have the opportunity to explore that avenue again, or out of the sheer thrill that I feel when I think this invitation will help me examine my own data in new ways.  So sometimes, I forget to take a break and allow the exhaustion to hit me only after the summer session is done.

As I stare at months and months of upcoming fieldwork, I wonder how I need to manage my time and energy better, and be better aware of their time and efforts as well. Two things strike me as I write: one, of course, at this point, everything is hypothetical. I’ve not been in the field for months on end yet, and maybe things will pan out differently from how they do during my summer visits to the field. Maybe—and I hope not—I will find myself having too much time on my hands and desiring some of the attention that I did get in the early days of fieldwork. Secondly, I wonder if negotiating breaks will bring up and call for a recognition of methods my interlocutors use for pacing their day.I once mentioned to one of my interlocutors that I liked taking long walks by myself. As it happened, so did she. But then she quickly told me that some of her friends thought it was wasteful and somewhat self-indulgent of her to leave her kitchen and her home and go down for a walk by the river. She then tried to get some of them to join her, and while three of her friends began accompanying her as often as they could, they still could not completely shirk the guilt. Taking a break from work and walking by the river without a purpose was seen as an act of self-indulgence, not self-care.

I am not a stranger to these ideas. I too grew up in a home, where I’ve seen men take breaks, but have watched women work—or find something to work on—nonstop. My mother and I have joked about how breaks make her feel useless and guilty. They also make her feel anxious, because she begins to wonder if she has all this time because she has completely forgotten to do something. Again, a break becomes an act and a sign of self-indulgence and not self-care.

So, here is a concern: I know—because I’ve been told at least by six interlocutors—that my labour is appreciated. They can relate to me because of this common sense of purpose—they work; I work. When they take a break from their work to help me with my work, they tell me it makes them feel good and useful, even while they are sitting down and resting. So, if I want to take breaks, and become “self-indulgent” because I’ve unlearned the sense of guilt that runs in my family and have learned to see “self-indulgence” as “self-care,” how will that shape my fieldwork? Alternatively, if my fieldwork actually functions as a break for the women I interview, for them to talk about themselves and reflect about their lives, then how do I tell them I need to take a raincheck without making them feel ignored or without offending them.

Again, it is not a question I can ask myself before I begin fieldwork. It is not something I can negotiate  except when I am already in the field, feeling that need for a break, for some alone-time, when I can do nothing and when I can just be. It is only in those moments that I will know how to take that break—how to be subversive about it, or how to negotiate it. Maybe I can learn from my “self-indulgent” interlocutor. Or maybe with more time in the field, I will learn how one takes a break while doing work? Perhaps there is something to the singing, and learning to move to the rhythm of a love song while bending over vegetables or harvesting rice. Maybe it wraps in mindfulness in ways that I don’t yet understand. Perhaps it allows for conversations on exhaustion that are experienced, embodied and expressed differently from what I would term labor, pause or self-care. These are of course questions that can only get resolved in the field. But if anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear.


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