Fieldwork Tip #2 – Allow yourself some creature comforts

Fieldwork is an incredibly enriching experience. It can also be incredibly stressful.

Whether you are conducting field research in a foreign country or your local community, the trials and tribulations inherent in collecting original data will inevitably start to wear you down. A few well-chosen creature comforts can help you feel better and be more productive.

That said, most of us are inclined to pack light when we embark on fieldwork. Whether you’re going to be away for a week or a year, you don’t want to arrive at your destination weighed down by excessive luggage. My own experience and the stories I’ve heard from other researchers suggest, however, that this compulsion to pack light can lead to false economies. Don’t just think about what you are taking and why –  consider what you’re leaving behind.

Two brief anecdotes help illustrate my point.

On a recent trip to Washington DC I met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years. Once we had exchanged greetings, one of the first things that she did was look at my feet. I love high heels, and sure enough I was still wearing them. I have also learned from experience that high heels and unpaved roads don’t mix. So, when I was packing for fieldwork in Madagascar practical shoes (a.k.a ugly shoes) went in my bag along with a pair of flip-flops; the shoes that I love stayed at home. In the end, the ‘practical’ shoes turned out to be an impractical waste of space because I hardly ever wore them. (They did, however, come in handy for squishing bugs.)

Another researcher I know decided not to take any make-up with her when she went into the field. At first it wasn’t so bad. Then she met a guy. Not packing a few essential cosmetic products turned out to be a false economy when she totalled up how much she had spent on expensive imports.

At the end of the day, you have to make choices. I don’t regret not taking high heels to Madagascar. I do regret not taking a pair of shoes that I felt like myself wearing. Different fieldwork circumstances will present different challenges. Some of you will feel more awkward, out of place and alone when out in the field than others. All of us feel awkward, out of place or alone at one point or another, though. Creature comforts can help you make it through the day by giving you confidence, providing an escape or just helping you feel more like yourself.

Three creature comforts worth considering:

  • Favourite snacks – Eating well is an important part of keeping your health, energy and morale up. This is especially true when you are grappling with the difficult and stressful circumstances that crop up during fieldwork both at home and abroad. Keeping some favourite snacks on hand – tucked away in either your luggage or your messenger bag – can give you a much needed boost if a gruelling interview schedule prevents you from taking a break at normal meal times or if you fall ill in a foreign location.
  • Books/dvds – As important as it is to commit yourself to your research, sometimes we all need to turn our brains off, at least for a little while. Allowing yourself the freedom to think about something else for a few hours will enable you to come back to you research with new energy and focus. If you are conducting your fieldwork abroad, being able to escape into the plot of a favourite book or film can also lend an air of normalcy to otherwise unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Good quality bath products – One of the best presents that I have ever received was the bottle of good quality shower gel that my husband gave me for my birthday when he came to Madagascar for a short visit. The roads were dusty, the heat was blistering, and the water that came out of my bathroom taps was often a brownish hue; I never felt clean, but the new shower gel did help me feel refreshed (and just a little bit pampered).
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