2017 AAA Annual Meeting Roundtable on Methods

It’s almost that time of year again! The American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting is coming up in a few short weeks in Washington, DC and I wanted to get out the news about a methods roundtable discussion taking place at the AAAs on Friday, December 1st. The roundtable will address topics similar to what we write about here in this blog and a few contributors to this blog will be participating answering questions about fieldwork, ethnography, and methods in anthropology.

Send your questions our way here or find us at the roundtable in DC later this month! More comprehensive information is below.

Session Title: Fieldwork and Beyond: Students share experiences and answer questions about work in and after the field

Friday, December 1, 2017, 4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
Session Abstract: Margaret Mead once said, “The way to do fieldwork is never to come up for air until it is all over” (source unknown). Fieldwork is an integral part of anthropology and due to the nature of our discipline, data collection, analysis, and writing are highly individual tasks and can be confusing at times for students. The purpose of this roundtable is to assist students in preparing for ethnographic fieldwork before diving into the field, while in the field, and after returning, therefore creating a space for ethnographers to discuss topics related to ethnography and fieldwork logistics openly from student perspectives. This roundtable discussion will be held to specifically address questions Anthropology students of all levels may have about fieldwork methods and post-fieldwork stages of analysis and writing. PhD and MA students who have completed fieldwork and/or write-up stages will facilitate the discussion addressing topics not limited to: Different methods for writing field notes and conducting observations and interviews, politics of fieldwork, structuring fieldwork/analysis/writing, IRB hurdles, ways to deal with unexpected obstacles, how to tailor data collection methods to suit each of our unique projects, creative analysis methods, and other tips that may not have been shared in our pre-fieldwork methods and theory classes. While this roundtable will be held largely to share fieldwork experiences and to answer questions about fieldwork, analysis, and write-up phases, students of all levels are encouraged to bring their own questions and experiences to the group to share and learn from one another.

Describing Your Work in the Field

I was recently inspired by Carole McGranahan’s conversation with fellow anthropologist Pasang Yanjee Sherpa, published online at Anthrodendum. In their conversation both anthropologists address how they communicate their projects to interlocutors, reflect on how people in their fields perceive anthropologists, and how the discipline is perceived in their respective fields. This got me thinking about my own experiences of communicating my project, goals, and who I am in my field and the challenges and growth I’ve encountered through these experiences.

After I defended my dissertation proposal I could easily recite my research questions, the theory in which I was going to ground my study, my methods, and the broader implications of my research. When I arrived to my field, I began to list these key points from my research proposal to people I hoped would be future interlocutors. As a response, my spiel was more often than not returned with confused looks or glazed over eyes. Most disheartening was that many people told me that this work was not important but that I should instead study x,y,z. Suddenly my grand entrance to the field studying something big and important about globalization, the middle class, language, and education did not seem as feasible or clear cut as in my proposal and IRB documents. How could I begin to collect data if I could not communicate well what I was researching? Would I have to change my project?

How to communicate to people not in your field what you’re doing?

I learned that I needed to approach future interlocutors in a way that more clearly communicated narrow goals of my research and I also needed to consider these moments of confusion also as important moments of ethnography. I felt like I was coming out from being under water— gasping and sputtering. This was the first time in three years where I was spending an extended amount of time away from my colleagues and professors. Except for my shorter pilot studies where I was still honing my questions, I had not spent so much time around people coming from backgrounds so different from my own. I realized I had developed a new language with which I spoke about anthropology and my project with my professors and colleagues, especially coming out of the intense experience that was my dissertation proposal, defense, and comprehensive exams. Suddenly I had to learn how to communicate differently.

Was my topic one that people had a lot to say about or was it something they kept quiet about or had no opinions on? Where was the silence and confusion coming from? However, it was my fault that people could not understand what I was doing. For my research I was speaking with academics, language theorists, activists but I was not only describing my work using my academic anthropological language– I was also starting from the end point rather than from my basic questions that began my exploration of my topic. I started to ask more questions and begin my description broadly to focus more on the research questions rather than the implications and most of the time I left theory completely out of it.

I also tailored my questions to the people I was speaking to, rather than giving my IRB statement to everyone word for word. With NGOs, I talked about how I was interested in their work with language. With artists, I would ask the same thing but ask them to focus specifically on how they viewed language in the arts. It wouldn’t have been as useful to ask everyone, students, activists, teachers, and NGO workers, about their opinions on language in all these fields if I had limited time. Often I did ask people in one field about their perceptions of the other areas I was also collecting data on. But it helped to start from a narrower scope, otherwise I found it overwhelming or I received more generalized answers which were not as helpful as the answers full of details as the question pertained to that person and their specific experiences in their particular area of my research. This was not contrary to what I said I would do in my IRB and I was not willfully deceiving my interlocutors to believe I was researching something I wasn’t. I had to let my end goal fall away and stop trying to fit answers into a hypothesis or find a solution to a problem— which may also be one area where the IRB process is ill-fitted to anthropology and the methods we use for do the work we do. As I have written about, I started with more open-ended questions and explanations about my identity and experiences.

Communicating and practicing ethnography

Carole and Pasang discuss how ethnography is a method with two components— living in a community and also talking with people about what they think about things, from mundane unrelated topics to research goals. While I honed my shorter “elevator pitch” about my project to include more of my questions, I made sure to do more listening than talking. I was specific about my project and consent mechanisms but I also tried to make sure to ask them what they thought about my topics, what they found to be important in this field, and how they would go about getting answers to my questions. I made sure to listen with an open mind and not search for affirmation of my topic, goals, or project.

To the last point, I think I initially felt defensive and hurt if my interlocutors did not immediately understand my topic or questions because I was still insecure in my project as I started out. Yes, it made sense to my committee and while I was at my university, but I had to make sure my questions would hold up in this long stretch of research in my field. I did a lot of searching in the first part of my time in my field, which was devoted to language studies, to gain confidence in myself and that translated to greater confidence in my project and knowledge about my topic. This isn’t to say that I discredited the person who would sometimes tell me I was on the wrong path or that I should be looking in different places for answers or asking different questions altogether! It moreover meant that was better equipped to treat these moments as ethnographic moments and try to understand the subjectivity of the speaker and where their opinions were coming from, while taking their feedback just as seriously as I had before just without the defensiveness and self-doubt. This way I learned the different stakes my interlocutors had in my research topic and how they addressed them, often deepening my understanding and helping me to either change course when I needed to or better defend my directions.

Bringing back the big questions

The point when I realized I was getting saturated and had collected a large body of data was when I felt ready to wrap up my fieldwork and circle back to my larger theoretical questions. They had not fallen away completely, I only needed them to take a back seat while I collected data. I started seeing broader themes and connections in my data and began to read more theory as a means to broaden my understanding of what I was reading in my notes and to explain these patterns. I realized I had a lot of data and could begin to write. What I started writing was at first focused on short moments in my data collection but soon grew to reflect back on the broader implications and theoretical grounding that I couldn’t fit or communicate in the beginning of data collection which had now found its place.

To this end, ethnography is both method and goal of our work. I found I was often so exhausted after just a few hours of data collection because I was trying to soak in everything— not just listen to the answers people gave my questions but to record and document how they gave those answers, their own questions, and all surrounding details of the interactions. This is part of what accounts for ethnography; thick description and context. It should also be noted that flexibility is a large part of this process as well. I would say it is not uncommon to change the course of study or how you communicate and describe your study even after you spend multiple years building up a project and proposal. Our instincts may be to write off those who are quick to dismiss us or not understand what we are doing, but these moments of confusion are important for helping us better direct our work and are all part of the whole experience.

Writing in Circles

“I feel like I’m trying to put a square peg into a round hole!” was how I recently described writing my dissertation to a colleague. To commemorate my anniversary of two years in the field (one for language studies and one for research), I decided to write this post about moving into the analysis and writing stage while continuing to live in my field. These two years have passed as a blur but suddenly time seems to have slowed down as I move into another phase of my PhD while still calling my fieldsite home. In this post I want to explain the beginning of my writing process to hopefully start a conversation about ways to proceed onto the next steps of creating a dissertation or thesis once the data has been collected and the unique challenges that exist when trying to do all this from the field.

To begin, I had attempted to sketch out a few different versions of chapters after dividing up my data (mostly fieldnotes but some recording and interview transcripts) into categories based on their topics. I created word documents compiled of all my notes in chronological order then coded them by highlighting and grouping together common themes. In my research I looked at different ways mother tongues are used in an urban Indian city. So each of these ways presented themselves almost as separate fields in my study. I thought, “Great! Each field is a chapter.” I smugly patted myself on the back and went about writing a conference paper about one of the categories. This took about two weeks and then I assumed I’d move on and write each chapter as a conference paper to neatly sketch out arguments and if I worked as quickly as I had for that first paper. At this rate, I thought, I’d be done with a draft of my entire dissertation before the summer was over!

And yet, while delivering that conference paper, I found myself hating what I had written and feeling embarrassed about the arguments I was trying to make which sounded whiny and condescending. I got kind and valuable feedback from audience members but it struck me that the feedback sounded like I was being told that I’d gone about looking at the topic the wrong way or had ignored large parts of the issue I was trying to explore. Along with the misgivings I already had, the feedback signaled that I needed to re-work a majority of that paper and I began to wonder if I even had enough data to talk about what I was trying to say. Was I just picking and choosing data that I saw fit to prove an idea I had before even doing fieldwork? Was I ignoring other things my data was trying to say?

The categories that I had assumed would be chapters were not so clear anymore because I began to see cross-sections among them and different arguments emerging when I combined data from different categories. In a moment of exceptional pessimism I found myself completely negating the argument I made in my initial research proposal. I created a new outline of chapters and then new outlines for those chapters. I started to build and build on my outlines and categories but then suddenly I was stuck again. To get unstuck, I felt it best to start over and repeat this all over again. All the while, I also felt the need to try and dislocate myself from my field while I was still living in it. I felt that I needed some distance so I stopped reaching out to interlocutors and stopped trying to talk about my research topic with everyone I came across. I found myself missing my home institution’s library and searching for texts online cursing that it would be much easier to access everything I needed that would unlock my writers block back at my university. Though since I was still living in my field with no intentions to go back to my university soon, I felt extremely guilty for not continuing to reach out to interlocutors making it seem as if I’d dropped off the face of the earth. “I thought you had left!” or “Oh you’re still here?” were common phrases I heard from people when I occasionally resurfaced. Yet even in trying to distance myself from my field while living in my field, I still couldn’t seem to move forward with my writing. Was it my data? Was my access to resources too limited? 

This was about when I realized I needed a new approach to analyzing my data and I needed a new perspective on this whole thing that I’m deeply invested in. One way to continue working was to circle back to tasks I had completed at the beginning, like reading new theory and re-reading old, familiar texts too. Now that I knew what a lot of my data show I needed to find theory that could help me understand new ways of interpreting it. Rather than, as I said, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or trying to find pieces of data and fit them into explaining theories I already had in my back pocket, I needed to let the data guide the theoretical interventions. What this looks like in practice is a lot of tacking back and forth between work I did previous to coming to the field, like reading and note taking for comprehensive exam preparation, dissertation research grant proposal writing, etc., and piecing together data I now have that has a lot more to say about a topic I’ve now spent over a year looking at on the ground. I realized I was trying to fit what I was seeing into theoretical interventions I had read previously or had proposed to make prior to my fieldwork. But I was ignoring new themes and topics coming out of my data that I hadn’t anticipated. Reciprocity suddenly became a theme I saw over and over, but it was something I ignored for a long time because it wasn’t a theme I had studied in relation to my topic prior to my fieldwork. So I looked at these new themes and went searching for bodies of theory that addressed them— a somewhat opposite approach of how we come into the field.

When speaking with my colleague, I joked that I felt like I was moving backwards. Wasn’t I supposed to already have done all my reading? Now I have to go back and keep finding new things to read? But she assured me, “We all run in circles,” by which she meant that the process of research and writing is circular and our processes repeat themselves but always building upon what we already know and what data we have gathered. What is often considered good ethnography challenges pre-formed ideas about the field and the anticipated data to be collected. So it was okay to be circling back to what I was doing exactly at this time last year before beginning my data collection because it showed that my pre-formed notions were being challenged and expanded.

I hope writing about this experience shows that writing up the dissertation is not a linear process. The data we collect will and should reveal new insights to us rather than solely confirm what we proposed before beginning of our fieldwork. I am still learning to embrace and contextualize my data in the bodies of theory and the constantly changing world around me rather than feeling that I’ve committed an oversight with unanticipated outcomes.

Asking for the Interview

In ethnographic research, one of the most important sources of information is the interview. Every researcher’s dream is an ideal interview, where the interlocutor is engaging, revealing a world view that not only changes and augments the scope of your research, but also of the field. And despite the daunting task of transcription afterwards, that interview is worth it. But, hold up, this project changing phenomenon can only occur if you get that interview in the first place…which is easier said than done. 

Over the last three years, I have been involved in several research projects, two of my own and one for a professor. For each project, the experience of rustling up participants, nailing down a date for an interview or meeting, and everything actually going as planned (hardly ever), are odds even George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven wouldn’t test. Despite this slightly over dramatized version of my past experiences, I have found two tried and true methods to put to use. One speaks to connecting with people to interview and creating a network of interlocutors. The second method focuses on how to ask interlocutors in your network for an interview. 

First, you’ll never get the interview unless “you try”. It sounds so very obvious. If you don’t ask interviewees for their time and information, you will be interviewee-less…but let’s unpack. During the second semester of my master’s degree studies, I was enrolled in a qualitative methods course. The assignments consisted of five different qualitative methodologies, three of which were interview based. The ideal scenario would be that all the five assignments would be on the same topic. My research ended up being about three: a yoga studio’s community involvement, study abroad experiences, and neighborhood foot traffic. Perhaps not the best set up for a comprehensive interlocutor network. Moreover, I was not allowed to interview friends or my host family, in an effort to expand my research and research skills. With those rules in mind, I started speaking to the people I knew, asking friends and coworkers for advice on who to reach out to for interviews. When that yielded only a few people, I talked to the instructors at my yoga studio to reach out to the yoga community for me. I felt as if I had cheated, by hiding behind a listserv to make my interview requests for me. In my mind, I thought I should follow a linear logic often taught to undergrads regarding how to find interlocutors. If you are researching a yoga studio’s community involvement, then, you should go to the yoga studio to find and directly ask and speak to interlocutors, then maybe also visit the gym or local recreation center. But linear logic does not account for the context of where research is being held and the networks a researcher may already have. In my case, yoga is a huge phenomenon in DC (where I live), and I am sure I could have found participants all over the place. Instead, I scraped by with a bare set of interlocutors, and, as already discussed in Jessica’s interview post, learned the valuable lesson of semi-structured interview styles. 

I tried, but my fear of being rejected or, ironically, not getting enough interviews, made me freeze. In the end, while my research could have been interesting if I had pursued contacts and perused networks with confidence, I curtailed my own research’s potential by not trying outside of the familiar. You never know where and when potential interlocutors will be. In my most recent research project with a professor, I have reached out across all my networks, relying on “snowballing” – or being introduced to new people in my network’s networks. The joke in DC is that everyone is only 2 degrees separated from each other. While that may not necessarily be true, understanding the depth and breadth of a network is very important to finding interviewees and building connections. In reaching across networks to find interlocutors, I found how much these networks merge and, more importantly, reach out far beyond what I thought I had access to. And that, trying outside of the familiar, is not only the core of anthropological thought, but also nests perfectly with the second method: “do you”. 

In much of academic and professional life, we are asked by teachers, mentors, parents, and ourselves to identify and define our strengths and weaknesses. We are told, in order to be a good applicant, student, human being, etc., we should know ourselves and mold our skills to fit the best and (especially) the worst of our capabilities. Colloquially, do you. Again, it sounds easy to try and excel at being yourself or being what you excel at. However, this advice often gets tossed aside by a rigidity in education regarding standard research methodologies and the need to follow a predetermined set of methods according to a certain disciplinary form. We all know the templates. In order to get a job, you need a certain type of resume with the right buzz words. Or, in this case, in order to get an interview you need to script an informative but persuasive email, elevator pitch or Facebook post, which will catch the interest of peers and other persons to participate in your research.

One of the most rigid forms to follow is the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and their standards for ethical research. The importance of conducting ethical research is worth the often perceived burden of the IRB, but only if the respect for the need for ethics is balanced with the knowledge it takes to work with the requisites of the IRB. The hard part is the order of operations, mainly, a pre-determined plan of research, project hypothesis and expectations. Anyone in the social sciences will expectedly cringe at the thought of knowing before you conduct research the expectations of the project. Similarly, researchers shudder at the thought of pre-determining who – in terms of demographics and level of vulnerability to the research – you will approach for the interview. It is also daunting to go up to a person and detail each specific field of the grant before allowing a conversation about your research to go forward.  

While conducting my research on traditional music in Guatemala, I had written my IRB grant that I would speak with musicians. But upon arrival, finding interlocutors who were musicians in traditional instruments was not so straightforward. I was lucky to have a host family who connected me to 85% of the interlocutors I interviewed for my project. In some cases, a family member would literally walk me to a house in order to ensure I spoke to the right person. But for the additional 15%, I tried everything I could think of to connect with strangers. I realized very quickly that it was hard to identify musicians on sight. I awkwardly approached people at events and I volunteered with a group of youth to woo them into participating. During my attempts to get to know people, I was unsure how to proceed, should I walk up to someone and ask them point blank “are you of X profession? May I interview you?” or should I draw them into conversation first, and include a synopsis of my project along with a general spiel about myself, hoping that they will happen to be a good resource? After all that, I was exhausted and not nearly as successful at securing interviews as I wanted. I learned that there was a difference between only speaking to a determined demographic to ensure my project avoided risks, and participating in behaviors which were cognizant of risk and vulnerability when speaking with people. 

Moreover, I found that the least painful way to advocate for a project I cared about was not to follow form, but to play to my strengths. And strengths are not necessarily tied to one’s academic or disciplinary training. You don’t need to take fifteen qualitative courses in order to conduct a good interview. Expertise is not a certificate or a degree but, I argue, tapping into yourself as your biggest resource as you learn and grow in whatever you are doing. In my case, I have worked with kids for most of my life, I was on the speech and debate team, worked in an office throughout college and bartended between graduation and my master’s program. In sum, I know how to and enjoy talking to people. In retrospect, I should have used my talking skills in an informal and conversational manner to meet and enlist interlocutors, instead of bending to modes of communication which make me uncomfortable. That big lesson really didn’t hit home until working on my current project with a professor. Often in conversation and by email, I speak or write about what I’m doing, hoping interested people will ask me questions, prompting a contact or a connection to a contact. And I also try to make parallel connections, caring and showing my enthusiasm for what it is I am working on, so people will want to speak with me and be a participant in my research.

All this being said, that doesn’t mean conversation is the only way to meet and engage interviewees. If the standardized set of methods which includes approaching people with an informational form and/or introducing your research via pitch is your cup of tea, then by all means, use the method that best suits you and how you best communicate in spaces that augment that. By asking for interviews in a medium you’re comfortable with and a method that you like, it can help soothe away any fears that there is a particular way to go about it and when you come across as comfortable, people are more likely to engage with you. Moreover, knowing yourself will give you an edge in situations where you need to ask for interviews when you may feel less comfortable. So while the odds may not always be in my favor, I am more confident asking for the interview in the ways I like best. 

In Defense of Unstructured Interviews: What we can gain from doing away with interview guides and “going with the flow”

“What can you tell me about your experiences using different languages in your classroom?” I stated as my opening question for the professor I was interviewing. Based on my experiences observing another professor’s lectures, I had prepared about eight questions all leading off this one question for all university professors included in my study. However, her response had me scrambling. “I only use English,” she replied, staring at me like I was an idiot, “We are an English language university, so I exclusively teach in English.” “Oh, of course, of course…” I quickly responded and added something to save face about how a previous experience led me to believe otherwise.

What I was really thinking as I stammered some excuse for my assumption was what my next question should be since I could not then follow my intended list based on this unexpected answer. I panicked at first trying to grapple with the sense that we needed to stick to my script and how dare she derail my careful planning! After what felt like a difficult recovery, my common sense kicked in and I set aside my list of interview questions and sighed— releasing the expectations I had for my interview questions and the anticipated answers. Then I asked follow up questions based on her first response, as I do when organically meeting someone and just by coincidence discussing the topic of my dissertation. We ended up having a very fruitful conversation. This was in contrast to what always felt to me like an awkward question and answer session when I tried to unwaveringly sticking to my list of interview questions. In the end I learned more from this professor than I would have if I had followed my structured interview list because I allowed room for the conversation to grow and take directions different from the one(s) my interview guide had allowed for.

Making the switch from structured to unstructured interviews

I fully advocate for the unstructured interview as a main mode of interviewing interlocutors in ethnographic fieldwork. In training for my field research, the unstructured interview was often glossed over as the third interview style and lazy cousin to the structured and semi-structured interview models. But in my fieldwork it has proven time and again as the most effective interview style. In my opinion, for the unstructured interview to work well, one needs to be good at thinking on their feet, and generally friendly, confident, and open. Overall, it helps to be an experienced conversationalist to begin with, which is something I struggled with as I gained my footing in my field site and with the field language. But after ample practice, unstructured interviewing is now my go-to method and feels the most comfortable for discussing my research for the first time with new interviewees.

Based on classes, research proposals, and preparing documents for my university’s IRB review, I had my structured and semi-structured interview questions neatly laid out with a clear vision of how to use them in my research. However, as I have learned over and over again, actual fieldwork is not as neat and tidy as the proposal or classroom methods exercises. After my experience feeling blindsided by the professor, I stopped rigidly planning my interview questions most of the time. I had a guide for questions based on previous interviews or an idea of where I wanted the interview to go, but I made sure to leave room for answers that would change my route or expectations for the interview. But most of the time, I did away with using my interview guides though I always brought them along with me more as a safety blanket. I also still make sure to always begin with the general statement about confidentiality and safety and what my research is and what it will be used for.

Introduce yourself as a talking point

Contrary to what feels like good ethnographic research methods, I begin my interviews now by talking about myself. I had initially intended to do as little talking as possible to be a good listener but I found that this confused my interviewees who often had more questions about me and my work than what I started our interview with. I also found that it was helpful to give rather extensive background information to spark more fruitful conversation and to avoid having the interviewee explain something I already knew. Sometimes my introduction includes more personal details like my background and family but most of the time I first just explain my general topic and interests within the topic and answer their questions first. Sometimes, without divulging specific details, I include in these introductions what I’ve already learned from speaking to other people in the same field. Often just these initial details about myself are enough to spark conversation and generate a fruitful discussion with my interviewee.

Structuring unstructured interviews

These interviews are still structured or scaffolded in certain ways. Unstructured interviewing does not mean going into an interview blindly or without any preparation. For each person I interview, before our scheduled meeting, I most likely make first contact with them through email or in person in a previous meeting or introduction. So they know a little in brief about my dissertation topic and interests in meeting with them. I also make sure to google them or search for them and their background in some way so I don’t ask questions to which answers could be easily found by other means. This was one of my mistakes in that first interview that shifted my default interview style from structured to unstructured— if I had prepared more by looking into the school and professor rather than expecting to get all my answers from the person I was interviewing, I would have known that that school policies dictate that professors are to instruct in English, for example.

Conclusions and caveats

The first time I tried heading into an interview in an unstructured manner, I felt a sense of dread similar to the one I would get when I was about to take a test that I had not studied enough for. I felt as though I was being lazy, so in the cab I sketched out specific questions to ask. At some points during my research, last moment questions have come in handy. For example, some of my interlocutors have not been very loquacious and expect and wait for me to drive the conversation. Having questions written down not only guides and structures our interaction but it gives me time to collect my thoughts while I scan my notebook. In one interview in particular I went into a producer’s office with what I thought was a clear understanding of that person’s role was within the industry, but ended up being mistaken or having incorrect information before meeting. When this happened, I was pretty much at a loss and wished I had prepared a much more structured but open ended interview guide. I scrambled again to think up questions that would make our meeting worthwhile which I’m sure resulted in me looking quite unprofessional and fumbling.

Another caveat is that arriving for an interview without any planned questions is counter productive if it is not the first time you are meeting with that person. When I have had follow-up interviews with individuals, they have expected a much more formal question and answer session based on our first encounter. The first meeting generates specific questions for the second meeting. So, if it is a subsequent interview with the same individual, I definitely bring specific questions as we would have already covered all the general, open-ended topics. Though, I still make sure to not be so rigid in sticking to those questions and to still allow for new topics and directions to blossom out of the interview guide if needed.

Generally, after listening more intensely to my interlocutors (because I have stopped ticking off questions or trying to direct the conversation in ways that my next question does not feel so unexpected or off topic), I have found that my interviews tend to be longer and more rich with details branching into new and exciting areas of my research that I have not previously thought to consider. Some of the branches need trimming and I have to sometimes bring the conversation back to a central theme or sometimes there are topics I have in mind that I need to ask pointed questions about that I make sure to have jotted down. Overall, doing away with an interview guide and opening interviews by speaking about my own background and research has liberated my style of interviewing to produce very good results and has helped me to make meaningful connections with my interlocutors. 

On Safety While Researching in Areas of Political Conflict

In the summer of 2013, I conducted a research project on collective memory in the Southern Yemen independence movement (al-Hirak). To this day, I still reflect on some of the challenges I faced and I want to share some of my experiences if, for nothing else, to help others begin to think about potential obstacles they may come across while doing ethnographic research in unstable environments. For those used to doing research in conflict zones, much of this information will not be new, but for those considering any type of field research in politically unstable countries, I want to not only emphasize the difficulties such research can bring but also show that many of these obstacles can be overcome.

Protecting Your Interlocutors

Al-Hirak was seen by some as an illegal anti-state movement seen as a threat to the nation by the central government. Therefore, most of my interlocutors were de facto criminals. To even be speaking with me was a huge risk for many of them, and I will always be grateful for the network of people that agreed to work with me in order to have their stories told. At the same time, I had a deep moral responsibility to protect them from harm that would arise from my presence in the field, a responsibility I took very seriously.

Many of the people with whom I spoke insisted that I use their real names. They were known rebels and in hiding anyways, and they thought having their identities published in “Western media” would be a source of pride. I had to insist, however, that I would be changing all names upon the strong advice of my advisors and an insistence by the IRB. The logic was that publishing their names would incriminate them and me, and ultimately I would not be comfortable putting them in that situation and had to balance their desires with research ethics. Keeping my sources anonymous was crucial, as I did not want to further incriminate anyone in publications of my research.

Furthermore, protecting the identities of my interlocutors was important as they frequently discussed illegal activities, from as mundane as alcohol smuggling to plotting armed activity. No matter how open they were on having their names known, I felt that I had a moral responsibility to keep that information secure to avoid any negatives consequences for them from my research.

Protecting Your Research

My research was full of incriminating activity, both for myself and for my interlocutors. The last thing I wanted was to have my information stolen or discovered. Therefore, while I took my notes by old fashioned pen and paper (small enough to be concealed), each night I took the time to digitally transcribe my notes and upload them (encrypted of course), then removed all the information from my hard drive.

Whenever I had to travel through a security checkpoint, I wiped my entire hard drive clean. That way, even if my hardware was confiscated, there would be no physical evidence of anything on my person. I would never get on a plane with such politically sensitive data. I also never recorded interviews, as I felt that was simply too risky. This method of backup also had the added benefit of making sure I never lost any data.

Protecting Yourself

This is perhaps the biggest grey zone, and the most important advice I can give is to know what you are getting into. Don’t go to a country for the first time with no language ability and try to negotiate this kind of research alone without any local contacts. Also, never be afraid to ask for help from those around you. Lastly, when in doubt about the safety of a certain activity, it is better to refrain from engaging in that activity. No type of data is critical enough to take unnecessary risks, and sometimes taking a step back from fieldwork and a phone call to an advisor can help to reflect on that. A number of challenges can arise in situations like these and I am going to touch on a few.

Arrest

I was (technically) not allowed to be in South Yemen for my research, nor was I (technically) allowed to be doing research at all. Because of this, I frequently had to lie to authorities to mask my intentions and whereabouts. While I would never recommend traveling illegally inside a country (one must have permits to even leave the capital Sana’a), sometimes this is necessary. Understand the seriousness of the risk this involves and ask yourself, is your research worth being deported over? Arrested? This is where protecting my data was hugely important. In the case of arrest or detention, I NEVER had valuable data that could be used against me or my subjects, especially when traveling in a country with frequent checkpoints.

Also important was constantly staying on the move. Every night I moved to a new location, either a hotel or a friends house. I would not recommend staying in one place too long, as even citizens in the area may grow suspicious. I tended to vary my walking route by both path and time, refraining from developing any type of schedule. Lastly, staying under the radar meant I could likely not depend on the police/government in case of emergency, as this would have put me at risk. Therefore it is important to know where your nearest hospital is and have contact numbers of your embassy on hand in case of an emergency.

Harm

I spent years working on my relationships with my interlocutors, learning valuable information about them to determine if I could trust them or not. Trust was perhaps most important and what kept me the most safe. My network of friends, colleagues, and interlocutors was my safety net, and if any part of that net collapsed, there could have been serious consequences. Research in conflict zones makes the old anthropological tradition of building rapport dramatically crucial.

One major concern was getting caught up in violent clashes. Al-Hirak’s main modus operandi was large marches and protests against the government. While these almost always remained peaceful and were ethnographically rich performative events, protesters often came into contact with snipers, tanks, or even military aircraft depending on the location. Yet these were also the central sites of my research as I studied language and motifs that were used to energize the independence campaign.

It is hard to give specific advice for these situations, except to err on the side of caution. In my case, it was usually apparent when things were getting tense, and I quickly learned which types of rallies (led by which types of figures) were the most likely to turn violent. If I thought things were even slightly tense, I left. There would always be more, and it was not worth the risk.

I also had to frequently arrange meetings to interview an assortment of people. Much of the negotiation was done on my behalf, but there were still some precautions I had to take myself. As much as it may sound like a glamorous Hollywood plot, I used a burner phone. Cell phone activity is tracked by the government, and even the SIM card gets registered in your name with your passport information in many countries. Have a second unregistered phone (can be done in most shops if you pay extra) and use this for communication with high-risk contacts. I would also recommend not traveling internally, home, or internationally with the phone. I specifically used mine in the field and discarded it as soon as it was no longer necessary in my field.

Lastly, in addition to trying to use the most secure communication devices, try not to go anywhere alone, especially when meeting in private residences or outside of the city. Often meetings could not take place in public, and again this is where my trust in my interlocutors was critical. Do not get into a car with people you do not know if going to an undisclosed location unless you are sure about who those people are and how they are connected to people you trust.

As we are taught in our Anthropology courses, be reflexive. Always be aware of your positionality in the field; how your movement, your speech, your activity affects the well-being of others. This final point is not just about you and your research, it is about the safety of those in your host community, and most importantly those who are taking serious risks to help you with your research. I was fortunate that in the aftermath of my research and the selection of publications that referenced my data, I never encountered anything to suggest that my research had any damaging consequences. However, I am only certain of this three years after my data collection. At the same time, many of the people with whom I came to know have been arrested, disappeared, or killed in these past three years in relation to their work on the topics I was researching. These events have been blunt reminders of the sensitivity of certain kinds of research but also validate the importance of research in difficult situations, which makes overcoming challenges rewarding and valuable for both scholarship and knowledge production in and on your host community.

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 chroniclevitae.com’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.

Call for blog submissions: Fieldworking.net

Share your fieldwork experience with other students and researchers by submitting a blog post to www.fieldworking.net!

About fieldworking.net: Fieldwork is key to anthropology. However, as much as anthropologists prepare for the field, it is often messy, frustrating, and full of unexpected challenges. At the same time it also when we open our minds, change directions, and become energized by the work we get to do. This blog provides a space for anthropologists and other scientists engaging in ethnographic fieldwork to share methodological experiences. Anthropological and ethnographic methods courses are great starting points to outline what one can and should do in the field. But it is often in the field that what is learned in classrooms and books begins to take shape. This blog is a forum for researchers to share what worked or didn’t work for them, logistical questions, and how we learn to make the necessary adjustments while in the field.

We accept posts from students of any level in anthropology or a discipline that uses ethnographic methods. Please contact jessu1006@gwmail.gwu.edu to submit a draft or to ask any questions about submitting drafts.

Blog posts should be between 600-1500 words on ethnographic methods topics not limited to:

  • Gaining access to a field/interlocutors
  • Interviews
  • Fieldnotes
  • Working in archives
  • Hardships/Insurmountable challenges
  • Daily life as a researcher
  • Theory and praxis in the field
  • Pre-research preparations
  • Reciprocity

And any other topic related to fieldwork experiences and ethnographic field methods that you think readers will benefit from in their own research.

Please include a brief (150 word) bio and profile picture with your submission.

Drafts will be accepted on a rolling submission basis. Please email drafts and questions to: jessu1006@gwmail.gwu.edu

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.

Learning a Field Language as a Research Method

Next month I will complete 13 months of studying my field language. While I’ve been in the field studying this language, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about why I would choose to learn this language and what actual purpose it holds, since English is commonly and widely spoken in my fieldsite. For many anthropologists learning another language or at least using another language in addition to English in field work is commonplace. In this post I’ll expand on some of my experiences learning my field language- Marathi, in Pune, India and explain why language learning is also a method of research.

First of all, I’m very grateful for my opportunity to study Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra, thanks to a year-long grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. I am the only student this term and I study with two highly qualified Marathi teachers in Pune. I’ve highlighted the fact that for my research I will need this language to conduct interviews, understand Marathi lessons in schools, and to generally interact with a public, and they’ve tailored my course to meet these needs. In my research with school teachers and middle class families, I’ve found that I can usually converse with others to a comfortable degree in English, which, while I was at the beginning of my lessons, allowed me to speak more fluently and get more out of interviews than my Marathi did at the time. As a result, many of these individuals asked why I was learning Marathi.

In a city where a large number of individuals are trilingual, learning Marathi has had many advantages for my research. Because I am studying with teachers who are native Marathi speakers from Pune, I’ve been able to learn about society and how the language is used in an urban setting along with the intricacies of the language and grammar through my courses.

Studying a language with local teachers means getting to know nuances of the language and how it is used in real life. Just today one of my course readings mentioned at least four different words for the concept “to cut” and two different meanings for the word “cut” or kapne in Marathi. For example, kapne can be used to describe a tremble in hands or voice or to say “cut in large pieces.” But if you’re going to talk about cutting vegetables, you need to use the world chirne.  In addition to learning new vocabulary, the teacher guiding my reading lesson expressed to me the author’s sense of losing a rich Marathi vocabulary and how certain words and phrases are changing in the daily spoken language.

Similarly, as I’m learning a new language I want to use it as much as I can. But I learned quickly that the Marathi used in an urban setting includes a large amount of English and by trying to use Marathi as much as I could, I was actually hindering my communication because I was remaining unintelligible due to my vocabulary choices. My teachers later explained to me which words I had learned in a classroom setting should remain in the classroom. For example, the word building (imarat), glass (pela), and practice (sarao) are words I frequently used but was getting laughed at for using. I’ve since learned how to try and incorporate English into my Marathi as locals do.   

Additionally, through my course I’ve been put in contact with people who are helpful for my research. Our program does a great deal to cater our lessons to our research interests. I’ve had lectures and meetings facilitated through my classes with people who work on topics similar to mine who I have remained in contact with. Also through spending a long time studying this language in one program I’ve grown very fond of my teachers and have been able to spend time with them outside of the classroom to not only learn about their lives and families but also their views on my research topics. 

Learning my field language also grants me access to social circles. I am able to gain access to groups of people in different ways than how I would have interacted with these groups and individuals if I had not been learning their mother tongue. I’ve had some very pleasant rickshaw rides with talkative and friendly drivers, I am able to have friendly conversations with the fruit and vegetable vendors and shopkeepers, and I’m able to go fearlessly into largely Marathi speaking spaces and neighborhoods knowing that I can communicate and relate to those sharing the space with me. I’ve been invited to hang out and spend time in places where people will fluidly mix English and Marathi and my hosts know that I will not feel left out or confused, which puts all of us at ease and lets them off the hook for constantly translating for me. When some people I’ve met learn that I speak Marathi, I’ve seen a smile spread across faces and in that moment I know I’ve begun to forge a connection based on the fact that I’m making efforts to learn their language. Many people are happy but also confused that I’m working so hard to learn Marathi though I’m a guest in their country, especially when many in their country work hard to learn and use my native language which is seen as a language of power and access. Overall the people I meet are very friendly, interested, and often offer their help to me in my efforts at learning Marathi which is a great way to begin conversations and make connections and friends, especially when my research deals with language- a topic on which everyone has something to say.

On a more practical note, since my research will largely take place in social spaces where Marathi is spoken, I need to understand it for when I will do observations in my research. Since it’s something people in my field use, I therefore should also use it- even if many people insist that I could speak and interact in Pune just fine without it. Learning Marathi has completely changed how I interact in Pune in ways that deepen and enrich connections to my host community and my research. My research isn’t about only asking questions and getting answers; it’s about understanding and being able to analyze the interactions of others around me.