It seems like quite a lot of us end up heading out to ‘the field’ in the spring and summer. So, I thought that now might be a good time to reflect on my fieldwork experience and pass on some tips that I wish I’d known before I set off.
While I conducted my fieldwork in Madagascar, I suspect that the general themes discussed in the following series of blogs will also apply to researchers doing fieldwork in so-called ‘developed’ countries as well as those of you doing research in your own country as opposed to some exotic, foreign locale.
Tip #1 – Be Patient
Acutely aware of the return plane ticket locked away in my luggage, my initial instinct when I arrived in Madagascar was to hit the ground running. Make first contact with potential research participants. Scout out interview venues. Finalise the interview schedule. Having originally decided on Madagascar as my case study country because all of the available signs suggested that it was a budding democracy, I (naively) expected the streets to be teaming with fledgling democrats clambering to share their experiences with me. Where were they?
In the months that followed, I would encounter many would-be democrats eager to have their voices heard. Before they would reveal themselves, however, I had to earn their trust.
My task was further complicated soon after I arrived at my research site when it quickly became apparent how fearful people were of speaking openly about anything remotely related to politics or democracy. The mixed bag of qualitative methods I had settled on in back in the UK proved incompatible with this new and unexpected setting. The situation looked incredibly bleak.
Frustrated and insecure, I decided to go through the thin stack of photocopies I’d brought with me. Tucked in among the articles about research methods was a copy of Chapter 2 from Doing Fieldwork by Rosalie H. Wax, appropriately titled ‘The First and Most Uncomfortable Stage of Fieldwork’. In six short pages, Wax brilliantly summed up all of my disappointment and frustration, convinced me that I was not alone in feeling completely out of my depth, and assured me that I would, eventually, find my feet again.
I would highly recommend that you read this chapter before setting off on fieldwork. Or, better yet, that you take a photocopy along with you for moral support. For those of you who can’t find it, the most instructive passages read:
Usually a beginner arrives in the field ready and eager to begin ‘gathering data.’ Then, for weeks, and sometimes for months, he gropes and wanders about…He tries to make the acquaintance of as many people as possible, and he tries to tell them who he is and what he hopes to do. He may also try to obtain permission to attend meetings or ceremonies, or he may tag along, as a quasi participant, with various groups…All this time, of course, he is trying hardest of all to find some person or persons who will advise, assist, and teach him…
A few pages later she continues:
During the first stage of fieldwork, the fieldworker lives in a kind of limbo, trying to behave as if he ‘belonged’ and as if he knew what he was doing. He may give the superficial appearance of working very hard.
To be completely honest, my first few weeks in Madagascar I did my best to convince myself and the people around me that I was, as Wax says, working very hard indeed. In actual fact, I felt completely useless as day after day I sat in a coffee shop frequented primarily by expats, watching scores of potential research participants go about their daily business.
A bit of patience – both with yourself and your situation – goes a long way at this stage of fieldwork. In time, you will begin to meet people and build some of the most rewarding relationships of your PhD. You will also collect useful data, even if it isn’t the data you had originally thought you were there to find. In the mean time, try to keep your spirits up and your eyes open to what’s going on all around you.
It is hardly surprising that when we talk and write about our fieldwork we discuss how we actually went about gathering our data (what Wax refers to as Stage Two), conveniently skimming over the trials and tribulations encountered on landing in a new place for the first time. One consequence of this, however, is that new researchers remain blissfully unaware of the amount of patience and tenacity successful fieldwork requires until they find themselves in the thick of it.