In one of my favorite ethnographies, Sara Dickey’s Living Class in Urban India, Dickey speaks openly to readers at the beginning of her introduction chapter about how she lost ten integral interviews— the cassette tapes were never transcribed and returned to her as promised. Starting her book and immediately reading this sent my heart racing. Thoughts sped through my mind to make sure such a horrible event would never happen to me. I thought of all the ways my data could go missing, from cross-country flights, notebooks scattered across two states surviving various office and apartment moves, or the long international flights that seem to send me into a packing panic planning for what to leave behind and what to carry around the world with me. I’ve backed up all my typed notes on my laptop and onto an external hard drive, but the thought of all the other things that could go wrong racked my brain.
And then it finally happened. When I left my field site for an extended period of time to go to my university, I had always intended to return as soon as I could. With my good intentions to return to my field, I left an embarrassing amount of clothes and books with my kind and patient friends with the promise of gifts in exchange for using them as storage facilities. Unexpectedly, almost immediately after I got back to my university, I received a message from a friend who had promised to keep a large amount of my various clothes, notebooks, and house items. “Hey, I have that yellow notebook too” was all the message said. “Oh no! I hadn’t meant to leave that! Please keep it safe for me!” was my frantic and immediate response. I even checked in as one would do with a family pet left with a sitter, “How is my notebook doing? Can’t wait to be reunited!” my messages verged on frantic, barely holding back from asking for a Skype date with my notebook.
As you can imagine by now, when I returned to my field five months later, the notebook could not be located. I looked everywhere. I checked with everyone I could think of. I even asked if I could go through my friend’s cabinets thinking, no rather knowing, that I would do a more thorough job searching than he certainly had. I wasn’t in touch with a few of the people who had originally drawn me the precious maps in that yellow notebook. One of my interlocutors had disappeared into marriage and moved to another state. Another had escaped to South East Asia to start a new profession. Another interlocutor was already a distant connection who had barely agreed to help me the first time around. So I quickly had to accept that this important collection of data was gone forever.
I decided that since I had collected those maps as data at the beginning of my research, when I barely knew what I would eventually write about, I could now go back and collect the data again and do a more thorough job this time around. I put out of my mind the doubts that this new batch of data wouldn’t be as raw or authentic as my first iteration. And I focused instead on how I was grateful and lucky enough to have the opportunity to collect the data again, which is much more than Sara Dickey and many other researchers who find themselves in similar tragic situations can do.
This led me to reflect on all the data that has been lost that never made it into the manuscripts it was intended for. It also led me to reflect on how my data saving tactics became relaxed in the field. I followed what I had laid out in my research proposals and IRB applications, which was that my data would remain in a safe and locked place, but what about keeping my data safe from myself? Safe from me moving continents or changing apartments? I’m more than grateful that my story has a happy ending and I was able to more than make up for the lost data in my return trip to my field. But it gives me pause to think about backing up, copying, and securing data in the future and how common of a story it may be for us to lose pieces of our data in the process of losing ourselves in our work.
Dickey, Sara. 2016. Living Class in Urban India. Rutgers University Press.